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Minter: Empty Bristol Seats Signal A Cultural Shift

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, March 22 2011

Empty swaths of seats in the grandstands at Bristol – unheard of just a couple of seasons ago – were in very visible abundance on Sunday. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

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

The green flag dropped to a worrisome number of empty seats at one of NASCAR's great venues on Sunday. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

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

Jeff Gordon takes in the scene from the pit wall at Bristol as his crew prepares his car for practice. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

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 rminter@racintoday.com

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, March 22 2011
6 Comments

6 Comments »

  • mike says:

    Its just not worth spending the money to see that product. It is that simple. Nascar can push it off on the economy however other then a handful of races most are boring. I probably won’t even watch California next weekend. The cookie cutters are a snooze-fest and their are too many of them. they all produce the same boring race. People aren’t as impressed anymore. It used to be always trying to find a way to go faster, now they worry about keeping them from going too fast. Better wake up soon Nascar, its really not the economy.

  • SB says:

    I think Mr. Jackson has a valid point…how many fans went to their first races with their parents or grandparents? They learned to love racing from their friends and family. If the ‘old’ fans aren’t interested in watching races anymore, they aren’t going to pass that along to their kids, and they, in turn, won’t be attending races or watching on TV. If you have a good enough ‘product’, people come and/or watch.

  • Charles Jackson says:

    I competely disagree that Nascars fan base is aging, infact baby boomers are living long that any genration!!!!

    It seems in the 60s and 70s age never came up as a factor, Nascar would be wise to try to get ‘former fans’ back instead of trying to make a market that doesnt exist!

    I started going to Nascar races in 1960s because of “one key factor”, “my father got me involved” and carried me to races the exciting competition between the brands of cars, Ford versus Chevy, Dodge etc!

    Now I have children and I cannot have the positive feel for Nascar my father had, thus my excitement has waned and my message to my children about Nascar is not positive!!

    If Nascar would be wise, and it is looking to get a younger fan base, then one simple fix, if you make the father or mother happy, you can get the younger fan as well!!!!

  • Britboy says:

    As a guy who grew up in the 60s going to NASCAR races, I find that today’s drivers are all too willing to get a top 10 or 20 instead of going for the win (Edwards Sunday @ Bristol). Fireball, Weatherly, Petty and those guys would have gone for the win. NASCAR has become a little too boring and polished for the older fans and the younger ones just don’t seem to care very much. Then the guys like Kyle Busch (who could have made it in the older era) are booed because is is a non-conformist. I think I’ll just watch a soccer match.

  • jerseygirl says:

    Well, not what I expected when I clicked open this article. I don’t think it is music choices that has the fans turned off. More likely it is the kit car, the chase and the cookie cutter tracks. Heck, they managed to make BRISTOL boring! The COT was supposed to fix the aero push problem, but it hasn’t. The chase was supposed to make the title run more exciting, but except for the first year and last year, all it has resulted in is a super team that has learned to “work” the system so that they don’t have to win the full season, just the last 10 races. I give credit to Knaus, more than Johnson, for the strategy and smarts to make this work, but I’ve reached the point of “who cares” with regard to the championship. Like Bristol, it isn’t what it was before they “fixed” it.

    Plus the TV coverage lacks anyone running the cameras who has a clue about how to show the race. In car, bumper cams, single car shots do not make me eager to run right out and buy tickets to a race. If you want to build the fan base, the TV broadcast has to SHOW them the reason why you want to go to the track. it might look great on HD cameras, but sitting at home (even with an HD set)it appears boring.

    The fad fans have left and NASCAR has annoyed the hard core fans so much that they don’t care any more either. It’s a bad business model to disrespect your customers.

  • Russ Edwards says:

    I thought you were going to take a different approach by your title.

    However, just driver intro songs in themselves tells part of the story. Why do the powers that be need feel they are needed? The answer isnt very positive for the sport.

    The approach I thought you were going to take is that America isnt in love with cars anymore. And you dont impress your buddy with the new Fusion/Impala/Charger/Camry anymore. Unless its a hybrid.

    Even the sponsors dont advertise the connection with Nascar. Quaker State highlights the use in cabs, not race cars.

    Times have changed, and Nascar better adapt before its too late.