Hood: A Sad View From The Grandstands
By Jeff Hood | Senior Writer
TALLADEGA, Ala. – On a sun-splashed 70-degree afternoon, I chose to watch Sunday’s Good Sam 500 at Talladega Superspeedway among the masses in the grandstands instead of from my customary perch inside the comfy pressbox that overlooks the 2.66-mile tri-oval.
OK, perhaps after what I witnessed on Sunday the term “among the masses” is a poor choice of words.
Following a moment of silence for late IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon, I looked up for just a split second prior to the invocation and wondered to myself: “Where is everybody?”
During the 1990s when NASCAR was billed as the “hottest sport” in the nation, seeing the bleachers and infield packed at Talladega was the norm.
But over the past decade, the crowds and seating capacity at “NASCAR’s most competitive track” have been steadily shrinking.
The seating capacity has declined as old seats have been ripped out and replaced with larger ones.
That trend will continue in 2012. Talladega Superspeedway president Grant Lynch announced on MRN Radio Sunday that new, larger seats will be installed at his facility next
Sunday’s estimated attendance was 105,000 at a track that, according to NASCAR’s media guide, has a grandstand seating capacity of 130,169.
If 10,000 fans witnessed the race from the infield on Sunday that means only about 95,000 seats were occupied.
And from where I was sitting, I’d say the announced attendance was a generous figure.
For starters, the Allison Grandstand on the backstretch might have been half-filled.
On the frontstretch, a large section of tower seats coming out of Turn 4 and entering Turn 1 were covered with banners.
There was plenty of blue seen in the coveted tower sections overlooking the tri-oval. That translates into empty seats.
And there appeared to be several thousand empty seats in the lower sections on the outer edges of the massive, frontstretch grandstand.
In fairness, this disturbing trend has been developing at most tracks over the past five seasons.
Charlotte Motor Speedway hosted one of its smallest crowds for a points-paying Sprint Cup race last weekend. And its been just as bad or worse at other facilities.
So what gives?
To slightly alter an old political phrase: “It’s Earnhardt and the economy, stupid.”
It’s no secret that much of Talladega Superspeedway’s fan base is the working-class blue-collar crowd. Aside from their very own Bobby, Davey and Donnie Allison, nobody gets a Talladega crowd on its feet and roaring like a driver whose last name is Earnhardt.
Much like jobs in Alabama, the days of seeing an Earnhardt at the top of the heap has been in short supply.
The majority of those on hand Sunday did become briefly energized when they rose as one with hats in hands on laps 77 and 78 as Dale Earnhardt Jr. was shoved into the lead by five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
But Junior looked more like someone in a witness protection program the remainder of the afternoon as he rode near the back of the field en route to a 25th-place finish.
His lackluster effort seemed to coincide with many fans appearing to be more interested in visiting social network sites on their mobile electronic devices than watching the action on the track.
As a member of the media, it’s important for me to remain impartial when it comes to having a rooting interest in a particular driver run well.
Ask me who my favorite driver is and I’ll quickly let you know that I pull for the underdog. (On Sunday, I let out a cheer when Robby Gordon surged into the lead.)
But for the health and sake of the sport I’ve loved for more than 30 years, I’m actually pulling for the No. 88 Chevrolet to find its way to the winner’s circle this season.
Perhaps it’ll happen in Martinsville, Va. on Sunday. Earnhardt narrowly missed scoring a win there in the spring.
A win by Dale Jr. won’t single-handedly NASCAR’s attendance woes. But it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
– Jeff Hood can be reached at email@example.com Comments