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Harris: Fans Not Sprinting To Cup

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, September 27 2010

Excitement is up, attendance is down at NASCAR tracks. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer

The Chase race Sunday at Dover was competitive enough to satisfy most people.

There were lead changes, some pit stop drama and plenty of the Chase drivers right in the midst of the action up front.

What there wasn’t much of was an audience. At least not like just a few years ago when seats at Dover  and most of NASCAR’s other tracks were at a premium and full houses were what everyone expected.

One huge portion of the big Dover grandstand was empty, used as little more than a background for a couple of huge advertisements.

More telling, an overhead shot of the entire grandstand showed that the part that was populated had big areas of empty seats.

Granted, there was the possibility of rain in the forecast, which may have kept the walkup clients from coming out. But it wasn’t that long ago when most of the tickets were sold well in advance of the events at Dover.

And I’m not just getting down on the Delaware track, which puts on a great show and does a very good job of catering to the fans. This is fast becoming an epidemic.

And, of course, the TV ratings have been sinking, too – although we don’t know the numbers from Dover as yet.

The Chase for the Sprint Cup championship is NASCAR’s showcase event. It was designed to help the stock car sport compete with the NFL and baseball’s postseason. But it seems that in its seventh year, the NASCAR postseason has lost some of its allure for the general public.

Rabid stock car fans will turn out at the tracks, watch on TV and listen to the radio broadcasts on a regular basis. But, between the moribund economy and what seems to be large numbers of casual fans jumping off the bandwagon that was so robust only a few years ago, times are getting tough.

Remember all those stories about NASCAR moms and dads and all the excitement about how Sprint Cup might be able to give the mighty NFL a scare?

Forget it.

It’s beginning to look like a lot of those estimated 75 million stock car fans that NASCAR has repeatedly alluded to have lost interest.

There is a familiar, if uncomfortable feel, to what’s going on.

When I first began covering NASCAR in 1980, it was considered little more than a regional sport and it was hard to get a story in the newspapers outside of the southeast – unless it was about Richard Petty or a nasty crash.

But RJ Reynolds, with its Winston brand, began putting huge sums of money into the sport, helping tracks modernize facilities and spending millions on promotion. ESPN began to promote stock car racing, NASCAR expanded into new areas of the country, Dale Earnhardt became a huge star and Jeff Gordon came along to challenge him.

It was an upward spiral that resulted in fabulous television contracts, a building boom that increased overall seating by hundreds of thousands and enough of a buzz that people who had never  shown any interest in the sport, suddenly began watching and buying tickets.

Companies lined up to throw money at teams, sponsor races or become official NASCAR sponsors. It was suddenly “The Golden Age’’ of NASCAR.

When Bill France Jr., then chairman of NASCAR, announced the first centralized TV contract in the sport’s history in Dec. 1999 – a $2.4 billion, six-year package covering Winston Cup and what was then the Busch Series – he was asked if NASCAR could keep growing indefinitely.

“I don’t see why not,’’ the late Mr. France said. “This sport has a little bit of something for everybody and we’re just starting to hit our stride.’’

Unfortunately, he had no way of knowing that tough economic times a few years down the road would gut the car companies that are the backbone of the sport, force even mega-companies to rethink their participation in NASCAR and take disposable funds out of the pockets of even the most loyal fans.

Now, despite what may wind up being the best 10-race Chase yet, there appear to be more questions than answers about where the sport is headed.

We can only hope that better times will bring back the buzz that turned the sport into a phenomenon in the late 90s and early 2000s.

In the meantime, NASCAR and the tracks are just going to have to learn to deal with empty seats and flat or sliding TV ratings. And that’s simply a fact of life in 2010.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, September 27 2010
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