Minter: Empty Bristol Seats Signal A Cultural Shift
People in and around NASCAR have spent a good bit of the past few days pondering the stunning number of empty seats at Bristol Motor Speedway.
My first hint about the situation came on the trip into Bristol. In the past, the road was full of campers of all sizes and conditions. Pickup trucks loaded for a fun weekend would pass you by with barbecue grills, firewood and portable generators strapped on the back using good-ol-boy ingenuity.
This trip, race-fan rigs were few and far between on the roadways Thursday afternoon.
The sharp drop-off in attendance still came as a surprise. The official estimate was 120,000 in an arena that seats close to 160,000, but official estimates aren’t always a really good indicator of the true picture.
Why there were so many empty seats is the bigger question.
What has changed in the days since Bristol sold out every race?
Gasoline cost more now, hotels still gouge on race weekends, unemployment and underemployment is a factor. For the most part, any economic recovery hasn’t reached down to the mechanics and carpenters and other working stiffs who like to spend their weekends in a campground at a race track.
There are some who say the racing at Bristol isn’t as exciting since the track was reconfigured in
2007, creating room to race and cutting back on the pushing and shoving that was necessary to pass on the old track.
But there’s something else at play too.
Back in the Bristol sell-out days, I always had a carload of buddies from home that wanted to see a race so badly they’d happily sleep on air mattresses on the floor of the hotel room my newspaper bosses paid for.
Others would catch a free ride to the track then disappear into one of the campgrounds until race time.
The campers in the bunch didn’t seem to mind missing a few showers and listening to loud generators running nearby all night long.
But my buddies don’t go to Bristol, or to any races much any more.
Like Hank Jr. sings: “All my rowdy friends have settled down.”
Maybe a big part of the problem is that NASCAR’s fan base is beginning to age past the point of attending races. That might explain the uptick in viewership this year, especially for races won by the Wood Brothers and Jeff Gordon.
There’s also a clue in the song picked by drivers for their introductions at Bristol on Sunday.
Many of them wouldn’t be recognizable to the average baby boomer.
The choices of music by some of the sport’s young guns isn’t something to criticize, but there does seem to be somewhat of a disconnect with many of the working class folks who have always made up a big chunk of NASCAR’s audience and tend to prefer country music.
For whatever reason, there seems to be a conscious effort to keep any driver from appearing to be a good ‘ol boy.
Maybe it’s sponsor pressure. Maybe it’s pressure from NASCAR. Maybe drivers value their privacy so much they just don’t want people to know what they’re really like, which is a shame.
If the Cup circuit’s only driver who is a college-educated engineer picks the theme from the “Dukes of
Hazzard” for his intro music, there must be plenty about him for traditional NASCAR fans to like. He does like old cars, old tractors and old barns, and he loves to fish.
Kasey Kahne picked “A Country Boy Can Survive” by Hank Williams Jr. It brought to mind an interview some time back when the subject of first cars came up. Kahne said he did most of his early commuting to school in a flatbed hay hauler, the kind with the really slow “granny gear.” That’s not exactly the image most people have of Kahne.
Even some of the hip young guys appear to have a little country boy in them. Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne picked “Back Where I Come From” by Kenny Chesney, and Brad Keselowski picked “Friends in Low Places” by Garth Brooks.
Somewhere along the way over the past several years, NASCAR drivers became like rock stars, everything from the way they travel to and from the track to the places they eat and sleep and even to the way they maneuver through the garage.
It’s a far cry from when drivers stayed in motels, drove to the races and ate in local restaurants. And it’s been a long time since a TV crew spent the day following Dale Earnhardt around as he checked on his chicken houses and fed his cows.
To borrow a line from Ryan Newman’s intro music, most of the race fans I know are “Just good ‘ol boys. Wouldn’t change if they could.”
Hopefully, NASCAR hasn’t changed too much for them.
– Rick Minter can be reached at email@example.com Comments