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New Bristol Not Attracting Old NASCAR Fans

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, March 19 2012

Brad Keselowski takes the checkered flag in front of another "small" crowd at Bristol Motor Speedway. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

The Food City 500 Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway checked in at No. 2 in this past weekend’s turnstile competition. The winner, and by a healthy margin, was the Twelve Hours of Sebring sports car race.

Hard to believe but, apparently true. A race with cars which look like they are made by Mattel and drivers whose names are nearly impossible to pronounce, thrashing the ticket booth of a Cup race featuring Dale Earnhardt Jr., a five-time champion and at a place which just a half decade ago was considered sacred.

It all begs the question: What’s up?

The argument making the rounds about Bristol is that since the track was reconfigured and repaved, the racing there sucks.

Guess that depends on how one defines “sucks”. To zero in on a workable definition of suck, a good place to start may be to go back to the times when – if attendance figures are an appropriate barometer of popularity – racing at Bristol didn’t suck.

In those days, 43 cars/drivers took the green flag and then they all made a mad dash to the bottom of the race track. From that point on, the racing wasn’t so much about go around other cars as going through other cars in the quest to take the checkered flag.

Patience wasn’t a virtue in those days, and driver skill had less to do with hand-eye coordination than

Lots of racing lines does not mean lots of fan interest at Bristol. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

anger and testosterone levels. High art for drivers in those days was mastering the rear-bumper-hook manuever. Attention deficit disorder never became a barrier to enjoying the race as all in attendance were assured of cautions by bunch.

And tickets to a race at Bristol – all 160,000 of them – became gold.

Then came 2007. The track was reconfigured to progressive banking. Suddenly, the place had more than one groove. Cars could race side by side. The front bumper became less important, and setup and patience more important.

That form of racing was in evidence Sunday in the Food City 500. All over the track but most demonstrably at the front of the field where Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth went at each other for scores of laps in succession.

The action was more cerebral than physical. Keselowski, when he was behind or along side, attempted to wear down Kenseth’s concentration. Kenseth, when behind or alongside, attempted to force Keselowski down the track so that the tires of the Blue Deuce would take a bigger beating from the sharper turns.

In the cars, the drivers were enjoying. Keselowski, who got the victory, said afterward, “Yeah, I mean, what can I say? I love Bristol and Bristol loves me. It’s a great track that really demands a hundred percent out of a driver and out of a team.

“I don’t see all the hate for new Bristol versus old Bristol. To me I’m biased, I know, but to me this was one of the best Bristol races I’ve ever seen. We ran side-by-side for the lead for 20 laps. There was some good beating and banging, some wrecking, a lot of side-by-side action, two- and three-wides. I don’t know what’s better than that. Short of a 30-car wreck every damn week, I don’t know what to ask for.

“I think this place got a bad label for some reason that it really didn’t deserve ’cause what I’ve seen over

The potential for a backflip didn't pack them in at BMS Sunday. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

the last year or two it’s been great racing. Again, I think it’s better than it’s ever been.”

Earnhardt said after the race that, yes, he does think the racing is not  that great on the new surface. But that, he said, is not because the one-groove racing has disappeared, but because the potential for increased side-by-side racing has not fully materialized.

“I think the racing has suffered since the change,” Earnhardt said. “Go and watch the first race we had here with this surface. That was a great race. Carl (Edwards) and Kasey (Kahne) battled for the win all night. I remember being up in the middle of that and we were running three-wide for the lead. It’s possible to have an awesome race here.”

In the grandstands, well the vote about the type of racing which all saw on Sunday will be taken later on in the season when Bristol hosts its second Cup weekend.

But the guess here is that Sunday’s race will do little to boost attendance or quiet the huffing.

Of course attendance is not the sole determinant when it comes to thumbs up or thumbs down on the style of racing at Bristol or any place else.

Bristol is not an easy place to get to. Once there, there is, basically, only the four hours of racing to fill the time over the weekend. And despite signs that the economy is on the mend, disposable income remains in short supply for the working class and people are opting to save for the next financial shock wave that may or may not be coming.

Finally, interest in NASCAR might be going the way of the Baby Boomer. It was that post-WWII generation who watered the sport for the last 40 years. Singer/song writer Van Morrison called people of that generation “the wild children”, which might explain their tastes in things like racing.

Those folks are getting old (seen Van Morrison lately?). So old that travel and popping tallboys at 7 a.m. notlonger holds as much appeal. Perhaps today’s stock-car racing is not the thing of a new generation which seemingly has bottled water grafted to the palm of one hand and an iPhone to the other.

Maybe that accounts for the massive crowds which attended Sebring this year and lured record crowds to the Rolex 24 a couple months ago.

Last Friday, I got a call from an old sports-car hand who down in Sebring. I asked him what the scene was like down there.

He said the crowd was huge. And he added, “It’s 150,000 partying college students, but at least they’re here.”

And at “here”, wrecking is the antithesis of racing.

Maybe this new generation, the one which NASCAR is lusting seeking, will pick up on more subtle racing. Maybe not. Maybe bump-and-run was, is and always will be what beats so strongly inside of NASCAR Nation’s chest.

And there is nothing wrong with that. As the wild children used to say; different strokes.

But on Sunday at Bristol, there was one new generation fan who sounded as though he kind of likes new Bristol. The old Tweetmeister. And he was clearly hoping others would join him at future Bristol race.

“I think those that don’t like the new Bristol are missing out on something great,” Keselowski said.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, March 19 2012
6 Comments

6 Comments »

  • I can only speak for myself, but as a long time fan the biggest factor in why we gave up our season tickets is the price our tickets. We were forced to buy season tickets to ALL events held on NASCAR weekends (including a truck race we could not make). Before letting our tickets go I tried to get our seats for just Sunday and it was no go. Our 2 tickets to the 2 Bristol races cost more money than all the other races we went to put together. At that time it was both atlantas, all 3 charlottes and darlington. I think with all the empty seats they would have been happy to sell just the sunday tickets but for the seats we always had in Earnhardt terrace we had to buy all or nothing. Which by the way is pretty funny since all around us were company freebie tickets and we always had a few empty seats around us even in the “sold out” times. So while I am kinda divided on the new vs. old bristol (I agree with what Earnhardt said) I didn’t love all the wrecking BUT not a fan of this either.

    • Ed Smith says:

      I agree. I think both NASCAR and NHRA tickets are just too expensive for their core fans. NHRA is improving some, with the tracks that offer kids under 12 free with adult admission. But both sanctioning bodies, and especially Bruton Smith’s organization, should price the tickets lower. They need to realize that an empty seat after race start is revenue they cannot get back.

  • SAB says:

    Nascar has plenty of track that offer lots of grooves to race side by side…with the exception of Martinsville and the road courses. The racing ‘purists’ can attend any of those tracks and not be sullied by those who appreciate the ‘old time’ racing that used to be Bristol. The descent into ‘just another track’ began with the introduction of the ‘chase’, when drivers in to top 10 worked harder to protect their points position instead of trying to win a race. The completion of mediocrity came with the reconfiguration. It seems that there aren’t lots of ‘new’ fans that want to see a race at Bristol these days. I know I gave up my ‘dream of a lifetime’ season tickets 2 years ago after I almost fell asleep in the stands by half way. Left with 100 laps to go because it just wasn’t Bristol. When I felt the electricity draining out of the crowd as the race dribbled to it’s conclusion, I knew we had lost something unique.

  • Dave says:

    Speed has a lot to do with it. Those cars you call Mattel cars can lap a Cup car every 3 or 4 laps on any kind of track. Years ago at Lemans they used to do over 250 before they added the kinks in the track. Contact however is not so good.

  • Tony Geinzer says:

    Sooner or later, you’ll need to get people my age and younger “here” and back to NASCAR or Indy as I want good racing,too.

  • Alex says:

    Thanks for the article, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what your point is. This article is all over the place, it is basically just some random thoughts, from ignorance, to borderline racist to sentimental.