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Minter: Recent Races Produce Empty Feelings

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, April 1 2010

Empty seats in the grandstands at Bristol used to be a very rare site. Not so at this year's spring race. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer

These are some strange, eerie times in the world of NASCAR. Despite all the rules changed in the offseason to jazz up the racing, attendance keeps falling, and in a big way. Even more strangely, no one seems to want to talk – or write – about it.

Not only did Bristol Motor Speedway end its string of some 50 straight sellouts, it didn’t even come close. Depending on whose estimate you believe, there were 30,000 or more empty seats for the Food City 500.

FOX broadcaster Darrell Waltrip tried to put a positive spin on it, saying during the broadcast: “There are still 100,000 people here.”

But the problem is the place seats more than 160,000.

At Martinsville, a track that in the past has had remarkable success getting fans to come back on Monday after a Sunday rain-out, there appeared to be more empty seats than full ones. And there weren’t many in the stands when the race was called on Sunday.

Those two tracks should have benefited more than any from NASCAR telling the boys to “Have at it” and from the Carl Edwards-Brad Keselowski incident at Atlanta.

It also appears that the attendance issues are even more troubling in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series.

The TV ratings are another big question mark, but they’ve suddenly become awfully hard to find after being readily available on the Net for years.

So what’s the problem?

It’s totally unscientific, but here are some possibilities.

NASCAR’s core audience is being hammered by the Great Recession far more than any numbers reveal.

The unemployment numbers, while bad, don’t count the construction worker who’s working a day or two a week where he or she used to get five or six. They don’t show people who have taken lesser paying jobs, with paychecks that don’t have room for race tickets. Hotel and motel prices around race tracks still are unreasonable, and even with discounted tickets at most tracks, it’s still expensive to attend a race.

There’s a disconnect among core fans and the drivers of today. Part of the allure of NASCAR back in the day was the idea that the mechanic and dirt track racer next door could one day become a NASCAR star. But while the boys and girls next door can make it to American Idol, they can’t make it to NASCAR unless they’ve got big bucks behind them and the looks to be the spokesperson for a sponsoring company.

As Jeff Gordon pointed out in a recent interview, a raw, unwashed talent like Dale Earnhardt would have a tough time getting into NASCAR today.  “They’re going to have to win a lot, be really spectacular on the track,” Gordon said. “Sponsors are driving the sport. It’s gotten expensive, and you have to have a sponsor.”

He pointed out that sponsors often prefer marketability over driving talent.

He said some sponsors say: “We’d rather have this guy, even if he doesn’t win as much because we can market him.”

The inevitable late-race caution and up to three tries at a green-white-checkered finish have rendered the rest of a 500-mile or 500-lap race relatively meaningless.

Why spend an afternoon watching racing that becomes old news as soon as the caution waves with 10 to go and a major league race become a Saturday night heat race?

Jimmie Johnson’s dominance is hurting the sport. The only real problem from a fan’s standpoint is there’s really nothing to dislike about him.  What NASCAR needs is a rivalry, but again, as Gordon pointed out, neither he nor the majority of drivers out there today can be Johnson’s rival because to have a rivalry, there has to be a stark difference in the two major players.

“You have to have the black and white,” he said. “One over here and represents something more conservative or younger, whatever it may be. Then this one over there represents the core fan, the good ol’ boys and people who have been following the sport for years.”

For me, the most encouraging sign in recent weeks is that in an interview with Gordon, he seemed to recognize and appreciate the importance to NASCAR of its long-time good ‘ol boy audience.

Who would have ever thought back in the days of the intense rivalry between the Intimidator and Wonder Boy that Wonder Boy would grow up to be the one pointing out the importance of the Intimidator’s old fan base?

– Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, April 1 2010


  • Ed R. in TX says:

    Rick, good analysis but I think you left out one thing: the cars! In my opinion, fans identify with the cars out on the race track. In the past, one could go to a dealership and buy a car that at least resembled a car out on the track. Now, they race a cookie-cutter “car of tomorrow”, which is a Dodge or a Chevy in name only. Lets get back to racing stock cars that at least look like a “stock” car!

  • gail says:

    Nascar has worked so relentlessly for parity among the teams that they have stripped racing of it competitive spirit. The ‘COT’, the no tollerance templates and strict, mandated car requirements leave no gray areas for the teams to find that “spark” that will make the racing more competitive. If teams try to work in uncharttered or restricted fields of play they are publicly labled as cheaters and fined heavily with the loss of points and money. Nascar needs to allow the race teams to look for that fraction of speed, that added horesepower, or that arodynamic advantage through creativity and ingeinuity. Nascar needs to put the racing back into the hands of the race teams without consequences, without fears, without restrictions because the race teams are the experts, not Nascar. The end result will be better racing on the tracks.
    The race fans are reacting to what Nascar has created by not going to races and by not viewing on TV. Nascar if you have not appreciated your fan input, it is time to do so because the race fans are the main “driving force” of the sport. Please do not wait to long to react because the financial health of the sport is dropping at an alarming rate.

  • Richard in N.C. says:

    As with most sports it seems clear now that race tracks overbuilt in the 1980’s and 1990’s – of course you can’t sell a seat unless you have one empty. Almost all the baseball-football combo stadiums are now gone and, except for the Cowboys, almost all the baseball and football stadiums built in the past 10 years have had smaller seating capacity than the ones being replaced.

  • coolheir says:

    Empty feelings for this sport seem to be with so many people I know anymore. Trying to justify those feelings, one could seem to come up with many reasons but I think you’ve mentioned the main ones Rick.
    The biggest problem for me are Nascar’s need to find any reason possible to bunch the field for their little 10 lap or so sprint to the finish. I’ve seen it too many times that a sure win was robbed of another driver because Nascar wanted a SportCenter highlite finish.
    Most fans see this happen and the drivers know it also.T. Stewart, J. Gordon, D. Hamlin, K.Kahne, K.Busch to name a few have all made references to these manipulated finishes.
    I’d rather watch a legitimate boring race any day than see a manipulated finish designed by Brian France for ratings and canned excitement.
    Also, another gripe of contention for me are all the changes over the last few years that seem to be way more about livening up the ‘show’ for certain fans and less about building on what little integrity Nascar has left.
    If you make too many drastic changes too quickly(the COT; the Chase etc.) and they seem to have a negative effect, it causes the fanbase to cry for MORE changes.Change it back, or change it some other way.
    I personally don’t WANT Nascar wavering on their rules to please a ‘more sizzle, less steak fan’. I want a governing body that knows best for the sport long term, puts integrity above dipping ratings and revenue,strives for a level playing field regardless of corporate interference,and doesn’t waver in the wind every time a storm passes.

  • Gina says:

    NASCAR spent a lot of the last 10 years trying to attract the casual fan at the expense of the diehard fan. They got what they wanted, lots of casual fans, who weren’t going to stick around when NASCAR was no longer the next big thing. It was made quite clear that the “old” fans weren’t nearly as important. Plus, the 10 race championship, the ugly car, tracks that all look the same and now the latest foolishness – 3 tries at a green white checker which makes every finish a crapshoot. I used to watch every minute of nascar programming I could find, now if I’m going to be subjected to the terrible nonsense that TV seems to think race fans want to see, I can’t stand it, so I tune in for the first 10-20 laps, go away and come back around the time I think they will possibly show me the last 20 laps in between the gopher, whatever commercials they need to get in and maybe, maybe they might show and call the action on the track. I love racing – I love going to races, but not to be bored out of my mind or find that all the hard work my driver did to work his way through the field goes for nothing with a “shootout” at the end.

    and yes, I think Johnson’s dominance of things has hurt the sport – he’s a good driver, but doesn’t interest me at all, therefore, I watch even less.

  • Joe Benson says:

    Excellent analysis on the economy – everything else is irrelevant (although the green-white-checker/last 10 laps is downright stupid). No one has the disposable cash they did before, especially for entertainment.

  • Bill H says:

    I think you touched on it but didn’t quite nail it. The word is “identification.” The stock car driver of yesterday was a guy the fan could identify with, could connect with, could talk to. He was one of us; a guy with grease on his face and a wrench in his hand who loved to talk about cars and engines.

    I went up to Bill Elliott’s shop one day, didn’t plan on seeing him, didn’t even know he was there. He’d just won the “Winston Million” and I’d been a fan when he had nothing on his car but the number 9, and I just wanted to see his shop. My girlfriend and I were standing outside the fence and he came out of the shop and saw us there. He came through the gate, shook our hands, thanked us for coming to see him, and chatted with us for several minutes before going back to work on his car.

    That’s why I was a fan. Nowadays drivers have bodyguards and wouldn’t know a box wrench if it fell on them.