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Woody: Was Bristol Half Empty Or Half Full?

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 24 2011

Kyle Busch leads Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson around the high banks at Bristol and past empty seats at Bristol. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Larry Woody | Senior Writer

Like everybody else, I was surprised by the vacant seats at Bristol Motor Speedway last Sunday – gaps as glaring as missing front teeth in a smiling beauty-queen contestant.

Some estimates place the attendance at around 130,000 — 30,000 below capacity.

Since then all the talk has been how the empties are the latest evidence of the Rise & Fall of NASCAR.

Well … maybe.

There’s another way to look at it: Bristol out-drew the Super Bowl (80,000).

It had twice as big a crowd as any World Series game.

It beat the combined attendance of a half-dozen NBA games and Stanley Cup playoff games.

So when you look at it that way …

Bristol’s attendance dip is a microcosm of NASCAR’s overall perception problem: it is a victim of its success. When a track that once sold 160,000 tickets suddenly sells only 130,000, there is a natural tendency to dwell on the 30,000 empty seats instead of on the 130,000 full ones.

How many other sports would kill to have a crowd of “only” 130,000? Every one.

There’s no disputing that crowds are down and once red-hot tickets have become luke-warm. But that

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

doesn’t spell doom and disaster. If you’ve been dating five super models and a couple of them dump you, your social life is still in comparatively good shape.

NASCAR’s incredible popularity explosion couldn’t go on forever; it had to crest at some point. That crest seems to have arrived three or four years ago, and since then it has ebbed.

There are a lot of factors at play, and the experts can debate over them: over-saturation of races, high ticket/motel/gasoline prices amid a wobbly economy, boring racing, homogenized drivers …

I think its some of all the above. NASCAR finds itself caught in the middle of the Perfect Storm.

But like all storms, this one will eventually blow over. The economy will perk up. Host cities will stop robbing visiting fans. NASCAR will try to inspire its racers to race. It will eventually dawn on drivers how good they’ve got it.

NASCAR’s Good Old Days, like the Petty-Pearson rivalry and real country music, are gone forever and there’s no use dwelling on them.

Will Bristol ever again pack in 160,000 fans with 20,000 more on a waiting list for tickets? Probably not. But even if draws only half that many it will still surpass most NFL crowds and put every other pro sport’s attendance to shame.

And NASCAR’s TV ratings, while not what they used to be, still hold their own against every sport except the NFL – and it won’t have complete against it if the players and owners are stupid/greedy enough to go on strike.

Trust me – every other sport would be turning cartwheels if it could draw the “skimpy” crowd that Bristol had Sunday.

– Larry Woody can be reached at lwoody@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 24 2011


  • Dave says:

    There was maybe 80,000 people there. Why do you insult our intelligence by saying 130,000. I was all set to drive down from Jersey for Fri. Sat. and Sunday nights. People on Ebay were still trying to get face value and higher for good seats.
    Any hotel I looked at was $250-$325 a night. So unless your camping, the trip would have cost me $1100 not including gas and food.
    I thought NASCAR was making arrangements with area hotels for discounts during race weeks.
    Unless you have a camper or RV, it’s not worth it. I can buy Jets PSL season tickets for what it costs to attend 2 races.

  • Fireball Roberts says:

    It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know there is no way 130K people were in the stands. Just look at the empty seats…70-80,000 tops. Why do Nascar spokesmen insult or intelligence with these inane attendance figures!!!!

  • Ken says:

    Your attendance number is far more than any others I have heard. The true number is far closer to 80,000. When a track refuses to lower prices of tickets (cheapest were around $93) when other tracks sell theirs for about 1/3 as much, what do you expect. Many other tracks have eliminated seats so they can “sell out” or appear fuller. You can’t compare attendance to stick and ball sports. You have dozens of games per week as compared to one race. Add the attendance to all of the stick and ball sports and then compare it to race attendance.

  • Steve Carnes says:

    There is no way that place was more than half full

  • otil says:

    This year for the first time, Bristol required season ticket holders to purchase both spring and fall races in one lump sum. That is my opinion why it was empty. Coming up with the money for one race 2 months in advance is enough of a burden, but to also pay in full for the fall race 8 months out is crazy. The majority of season ticket holders could not come up with that type of money.
    Go Figure!

    • Dab says:

      What are you talking about concerning required season tickets? We have renewed season tickets for YEARS like every other track. You can purchase individual tickets to the events as well. You renew MONTHS in advance everywhere else…you must be new to the system. Also, as a season ticket holder, you saved ALOT $$$ this year by purchasing season tickets, more than ever before at Bristol…have had them since 1999, so I think I know.
      The majority of the “season ticket holders” you refer to that “could not come up with the money?”…well, in our sections, there is the same people year after year coming up with the money and they drive 2 or more states away each race weekend….Gasoline and high prices for CAMPING slowed people down this spring…not the race track tickets….I thought with the economy, gas, and lodging/camping prices, that the attendance was great – some springs it is downright cold…this was a great weather weekend for all!!!

  • On the 1 hand, I do think that Bristol being half full is a problem but on the other hand Bristol being half full is still more people than a lot of tracks being completely full; Phoenix, Martinsville, Darlington, California…..just saying there are two sides to the coin BUT for me it does go back to Bristol being on half full
    We missed the race this spring for the 1st time in about 10 years…and while I am not a fan of wreckfest racing (why I dumped Dega…it’s a crap shoot) I enjoy the bumper cars a few times a year…and Bristol used to be the best…I said USED to

  • Russ Edwards says:

    John got it right. That approach to attendance goes belong lame.
    Let me explain: Nascar tracks hold at most two events a year – there attendance base is not primarily local, but draw from areas hours away. TYPICALLY, the bat and ball sports hold many events a year, (in the case of the NFL for example 8 home games) and rely on the local crowd.
    Can you imagine the crowd if Bristol was holding 8 Sprint Cup races a year? You probably wouldn’t need a very big parking lot.

    Just saying that people need to quit spinning and look at the facts.

    BTW: Wonder can you get a tax credit to add seats, then another one a few years later to take them out?

  • John says:

    Larry, in the NAVY we had a saying for this, it was called “Polishing a T_ _D”.

  • Bill B says:

    So you really think Brisol was 75% full (130,000 / 160,000 = 0.8125 or about 81%)?
    Looked like no more than 60% to me.
    So while the gist of this article is accurate, there is no need to exagerate just to prove the point.

  • Scott says:

    That’s what they get for messing up the track configuration. Bristol has lost its excitement with this progressive banking garbage. Fix it back!

  • Terrell Davis says:

    The simple fact is that track owners, for the most part, have overbuilt seating capacity. Yes, it’s true that at one time some tracks, with Bristol leading the pack, had fans spilling out of the gates. So, they added seats that for many reasons are now empty on race day. Could be NASCAR’s popularity, could be the economy, could be stinky racing, could be a lot of things, but entertainment has always had ups and downs. So how do track owners solve the problem of empty seats (empty seats send a bad message to sponsors and the almighty TV advertisers).
    So, what would happen if Bristol’s powers that be clandestinely took out 30,000 seats and suddenly Bristol was once again a sellout? And, yes, of course someone would recognize the landscape change. But, if the seats remain empty at Bristol and promotions can’t fill them, that’s exactly what will happen. It’s all about perception. And NASCAR and track owners will do whatever it takes to make sure the “beauty-queen contestants” all have their day at the dentist.