I am used to the sight of empty grandstand sections in Fontana, California. Unsold tickets in Atlanta exist for every race. However the eye-popping available seats in Bristol, Tennessee caused both eyebrows to rise.
This has been going on for a while. Ten years ago seats were held year to year and tickets to some venues were impossible to get. Renewal forms were sent to customers upon a race’s conclusion, a year in advance of the next event. Tracks were sold out on a regular basis. New grandstands were constructed to keep up with speedway’s waiting lists.
Daytona, Talladega, Martinsville, Dover, and tracks coast to coast barely had to advertise ticket sales. A race was scheduled, phones would ring, and the place was sold out in a matter of time. This was one of the factors that helped propel the sport out of the regional stage and into the national spotlight. Its popularity was tangible. Attendance numbers were shown to people on Madison Avenue and helped sell auto racing in general and NASCAR in particular.
So what happened?
The 2010 Daytona 500 went toe to toe with the winter Olympics. The July 400-mile race no longer even opens the superstretch grandstand. The Fontana area has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation. Atlanta simply doesn’t sell like it used to. Bristol blamed the cold weather.
All of these are legitimate reasons for not selling all available tickets. But when did we start needing all the excuses?
There is no one single factor that has causes attendance to slip. Much like forming a winning race team, it is a lot of details together that make a combined result.
The economy is a big player in this entertainment selling game. Unemployment levels are as high as they have been in generations. Ticket prices have slowly stepped ahead of what a race fan can afford. Hotel gouging has been common practice for decades with jacked up room rates and minimum night stays. Today’s fuel prices make most second-guess any road trip. The actual racing action is worth more at the local level for the dollar value without drivers whining about “He’s racing me too hard this early” radio transmissions. And racers actually letting one another pass does not sell tickets.
I remember twenty years ago race fans complained about the exact same things we all do today. But they didn’t stop going to races. Now they do. Somewhere a line was crossed.
Race fans are examining where their hard-earned dollar is spent like never before. By the absences we see every week I would say less feel going to a Cup race in person is worth the time and money spent to get it done.
Was the show presented worth the ticket price? Was the crowd traffic pattern well planned and well executed? Was the concession stand food worth the line wait and money spent? Were the restrooms clean? Was there reasonable parking? Were there no hidden costs along this trip? Did the local hotel offer a fair deal?
Too many people are answering no to these questions. And they are no longer going to Bristol. They used to go to Bristol.
This once mighty sport needs to walk a few thousand miles in race fans shoes and find out where the throngs of spectators went.
And find out when the excuses stop.
(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR mechanic who contributes to the One and Done auto racing radio talk show Tuesdays at 11am ET. Listen at www.wsicweb.com.)
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