The Frontstretch: Five Points to Ponder: Empty Seats And No Bump & Run? Are We In Bristol Anymore? by Bryan Davis Keith -- Tuesday March 22, 2011

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ONE: Bristol Goes From Coliseum to Cavern

Estimates that 120,000 fans were in the stands at Bristol Motor Speedway this past Sunday were gross exaggerations. Maybe, between the Nationwide and Cup races combined, there were 120,000-130,000. But any talk of six digit attendance figures for this event are figments of someone’s imagination… that, or the usual deliberate attempt to conceal just how many people stayed home.

The downturn from just a year ago is shocking. Taking a conservative estimate of 125,000 for last year’s spring race, and comparing it to the 80,000 or so that I believed were present on Sunday… that’s a one-year decline of 36%. It was depressing to witness in person, especially considering the history of this track, whose waiting list for suites and tickets just a few seasons ago rivaled even the Washington Redskins’ season ticket list in their heyday.

Some will say this crowd’s the latest sign of our economic downturn at work. That’s not the case. Even after a concentrated effort by local businesses to cut hotel prices, even as the track made fans fully aware that yes, their wait list was gone and tickets were available, more people stayed home on Bristol race weekend to cause the first significant decrease of any track this year.

Square in the minds of all seeking answers is the recent reconfiguration that turned Bristol from a one-groove bullring to a multi-groove speedbowl. For whatever reason, more side-by-side racing with fewer wrecks is proving to be a difficult sell.

Typically, the night race draws the bigger crowd for Bristol’s half-mile theatrics. But after a horrific Spring attendance record, the track better start addressing why the hottest ticket in town is going ice cold – and fast.

But the change that really should be blamed for Bristol now joining the ranks of the mortals, becoming “just another track” struggling to sell tickets happened long before the addition of variable banking.

It came at the hands of the Chase.

As much as Bristol is hyped, it’s the night race at the track that is the crown jewel. That’s the race that fans bought tickets for, the one circled on every calendar. It was the night race that saw Dale turn Terry, multiple gloves thrown and even the most innocent driver’s blood boil in extenuating circumstances. But thanks to the Chase schedule, which pits a race that used to be a no-holds-barred slugfest a mere two events from the cutoff to make the playoffs, the contenders points race and the others strive not to be the driver that ruins Chase hopes for a big-name competitor. Attendance may be higher in August, but it’s the night race that’s lost much of its luster since Brian France’s brainchild came into this world.

So with its crown jewel race reduced to a shell of what it once was, even a solid event at the new Bristol, one that saw three big names duking it out for the win Sunday in what may have been a preview of the title fight to come in 2011 proved to be a tough sell to fans.

TWO: Then Again, Damn if Bristol Ain’t Expensive

Of course, races cost money nowadays, and while greatly exaggerated the impact of community businesses jacking up hotel prices appears to have merit. A local news article described how in their efforts to draw more fans to Bristol in a harsh economic climate, a number of local hotels agreed to work with the track and fans to lower prices. Yet the one price quoted in that article, from a Comfort Inn established the rate as a minimum of $199-249 a night. Couple that with gas prices not in the control of local merchants (the cheapest this writer found on his trip down I-81 to the track was $3.29 a gallon for regular unleaded, over 40 miles away), and fans were still getting robbed – they just weren’t getting raped afterwards as in years past.

Granted, other reports cited lower rates for area stops I couldn’t find. But for the hotels in the article cited above, they noted that even after cutting prices, there was no surge in reservations. This perception isn’t rocket science to figure out, either. For nearly 20 years, the area surrounding the Bristol Motor Speedway was among, if not the most notorious on the Cup circuit for price gouging. Paying $400 a night for a hotel room was commonplace, and that’s not including in-demand, sold out tickets plus expensive merchandise that made your trip approach $1,000-plus in no time.

Sadly, with that in mind it seems that the Tri-Cities area surrounding the world’s fastest half-mile is learning the hard way that earning a reputation as an opportunistic gouger is a hard, hard, hard image to shed. Right alongside NASCAR itself; oh, how the mighty have fallen…

THREE: Speaking of NASCAR, They Played Their Role, Too

Not only was attendance way down for Sunday’s race, it was the first event of the 2011 Cup season that saw TV ratings decline from where they were a year ago. What’s worse, this decrease occurred on a day where the race wasn’t too long (it finished in under three hours), it was run at a non cookie-cutter venue, and its on-track product was actually worth watching at points. But between swaths of empty bleachers, smaller viewership and Kyle Busch making a mockery of the front of the field on Saturday and for much of Sunday, a great deal of momentum that NASCAR seemed to be riding on came crashing down.

Go figure, it happened the first race back from an off-weekend… a mere three events into the season. Sure, the Truck Series did race at Darlington over that bye, but it’s a tall order for a race solely covered on SPEED that Kasey Kahne made a snoozer of to sustain the type of wave that Trevor Bayne’s historic win and Jeff Gordon’s resurgence had started.

It also begs the question… who in their right mind thinks this schedule makes sense? There is a justifiable need for an off-weekend after sending teams from two weeks in Daytona to two weeks out west, thousands of miles from the race shops, but in terms of trying to get a sport and season up to speed a bye weekend 1/12th of the way into the schedule is about as counterproductive as it comes. Couple that with the fact that NASCAR tried to get back into the public consciousness at the same time as March Madness came on TV, and there’s no need to look at what kind of racing Phoenix or Las Vegas have to offer. NASCAR took a week off right as it was getting back on its feet, then tried to go after one of sport’s 800-pound gorillas trying to get back into the routine.

If that’s not a recipe for declining TV ratings, Michael McDowell is your future 2011 Cup champion.

FOUR: Edwards Didn’t Bump Kyle… Again

In the second Nationwide Series race of the season at Phoenix, Kyle Busch dominated all afternoon long until the final stretch, where a hard-charging Carl Edwards took advantage of a late restart and became the first car to pose a real challenge to the No. 18. For laps, Edwards raced Busch even, at times even getting alongside him. But the No. 60 could never make the pass, leaving Busch driving off into the sunset.

Carl Edwards still feels like he “owes” Kyle Busch one after the No. 18 was involved in wrecking this pole-winning car at Phoenix. So then why, with the race on the line Sunday, did he not use up that opportunity to get even?

Fast forward to Sunday’s Cup race, and Edwards apparently did not learn his lesson; get close to Kyle Busch, pass Kyle Busch. No matter what it takes.

Again, Edwards on the short run was able to race with his rival, even getting alongside the No. 18 car for a number of laps. But Busch started to pull away, and Edwards let him. Opting to bank on a late-race caution coming out instead of pulling an early bump-and-run, then spending 15-20 laps playing defense with Rowdy on his bumper, Edwards let the No. 18 drive off into the sunset… leading to a satisfying result. Big picture, you had a good points day for Edwards and an even better one for Kyle – with a trophy to prove it.

This early in the year, it’s almost as if Busch is enjoying much the same treatment that Jimmie Johnson has gotten from his closest competitors the past five seasons at the front. Everyone’s tip-toeing, afraid to make a move that could ruin his day or, in Rowdy’s case, make him angry. If even mighty Edwards, who time and time again and has shown no fear or reluctance to use the chrome horn, won’t put it to a continual race winner that’s getting the best of him, Busch is going to score some serious hardware in 2011.

FIVE: For Race Fans That Missed It

For those who either spent 500 laps in the Bristol infield with no ear protection or crawled under a rock all weekend long, Kyle Busch swept the weekend, marking his fifth consecutive win at Bristol across all the NASCAR series racing on the high banks. In other news, there has never been a more accomplished Buschwhacker.

And that begs the question… what are the chances that Busch will file to run the Modified race run there in August to keep the streak alive? Put it this way; if there’s a bookie out there stupid enough to run a pool on that, take Busch running the Modified race – no matter the odds.

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Tuesday on the Frontstretch:
Who’s Hot / Who’s Not In NASCAR: Bristol-Fontana Edition
Growing Up Is Hard To Do: But If Kyle Busch Does It, Will It Make Him A Champ?
No Bull: Thunder Valley Full Of Lightning – Why Bristol… and Kyle… Still Entertained
Talking NASCAR TV: ESPN Handles Bristol Adversity But Struggles With Their Own

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Racing to the Point: NASCAR Has Its Own Heartbreak Kid
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Voices from the Cheap Seats: Advertising for Dummies
Who’s Hot / Who’s Not in Sprint Cup: Off Week-Richmond Edition
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phil h
03/22/2011 01:57 AM

Even though it wasn’t the night race,I have to say,it really is shocking at how a gem like Bristol has seen its attendance drop as it has.
Hope this isn’t a trend that continues.

03/22/2011 06:35 AM

I’ve said for a while that the chase started the demise of Bristol, turning the night race into a lesson on good manners. Why you would take something that was unique as Bristol and turn it into just another track still puzzles me. I gave up my season tickets 2 years ago when I almost fell asleep during the night race…noise and all! Let’s hope that Nascar doesn’t decide to ‘improve’ Martinsville the way Brisol went. It’s the only short track left that harks back to the ‘old days’. As far as hotel rates, if you’re willing to drive a ways to get to the track (I stayed in Boone, NC, about an hour away) the rates are at least doable. So sad that someplace that used to be so much fun and unique is now so run of the mill. It’s time for TV and Nascar to stop billing races there as ‘beating and banging’ to try to get an audience.

Bill B
03/22/2011 07:47 AM

Yep, you’re right Bryan. First the chase neutered Bristol and then the track reconfiguration stuck a dagger in it’s heart.
I’ll still contend that I’d rather watch a race at Bristol than any of the 1.5+ mile tracks but that ain’t saying much.
If they want to sell tickets, Martinsville should use the slogan “Martinsville. The new Bristol”.

Brian France Sucks
03/22/2011 08:39 AM

I blame the Chase and the idiots at NA$CAR corporate moreso for Bristol’s demise than the progressive banking. The Chase has castrated the night race. The banking has led to overall better racing. Count me among the minority, but seeing cars race side by side using multiple grooves is racing to me. Knocking cars out of the way is better suited for the knuckle draggers at the local county demo derby. There was nothing worse than seing a good car pushed up high and then having to pass 8-10 cars that were not as good as that car, spending 50-70 laps to do so. All because the first car rammed the lead car out of the way. That is not racing.

03/22/2011 09:10 AM

Even though the racing has changed with the new surface I would still like to go to a race at Bristol. What’s stopping me from making the relatively short drive from Chicago to Tenn. is paying $150-$200 a night with a 3 or 4 day minimum in 2-star motel room that normally goes for $50 a night.

Earth provides enough for every man’s needs but not his greeds.

03/22/2011 10:46 AM

The ultimate answer to the question as to why Bristol has become boring is this. Brian France. Since he took over nas$car, it has gone downhill fast. And why Bruton Smith re-configured is beyond me. In recent years nas$car has become adept at knee-jerk reactions. Nothing consistant . I never thought Bristol would or could become boring. But until nas$car wakes up and actually listens to it’s true fans, nothing is going to change.

03/22/2011 12:05 PM

Of the eight tracks you listed in the Southeast, I’d pick Martinsville in a heartbeat (even though the drivers I don’t pull for always win). That’s something I don’t think I can say for any other track… I’d happily watch someone I don’t want to win, win.

As for Bristol… let’s get rid of the Chase, and if attendance doesn’t rebound, it was the re-configuration. I’m thinking the latter is the bigger problem for Bristol, but I think killing the Chase should be the priority.

For consistency’s sake (because half-full stands usually lead to losing a date), what they should do is take a date away from Bristol (!). Maybe try giving it to Road Atlanta—I’d go to that one.

03/22/2011 12:41 PM

Points racing has been a major contributor to the decline of interest in NASCAR. Perfect examples this season – Edwards will trail around right on the bumper of Kyle for many laps and not touch him. CE would rather finish second and preserve points – doesn’t make sense in NW but it is the going mentality. I don’t want to watch a wreckfest but I want to see drivers aggresively seeking a WIN.

Carl D.
03/22/2011 12:46 PM

I agree the Bristol races just aren’t what they used to be. These days the races at Richmond and Martinsville seem to be more exciting.

I’ve been to two races at Martinsville, and they are among my favorites. The hot dogs there… not so much.

03/22/2011 01:57 PM

points racing has hurt in the fall but I was there and it was more filled than anyone is giving credit. It seats 160K so to say that half the seats were empty is ludicrous. Bryan, stop trying to sensationalize!

Russ Edwards
03/22/2011 03:06 PM

I agree with the previous poster re points racing. Despite their protestations,it starts at the second race.

You know people most people dont wake up on Thursday morning and decide they want to go to the race at Bristol. Whether its because of work or finances. Its the same as anything else. You decide whether you want to and can afford it a while in advance and make the necessary arrangements. Obviously quite a few decided “no” to one or the other.
So either Bruton will change to accomodate those people, or he wont before the next race.
My guess he won’t, and we will have the same discussion then.

03/22/2011 03:14 PM

When a local merchants want to max out their profits cause I came to town to spend a few bucks…They get less of my Bucks & they don’t get them twice. & theres lot’s of other tracks in bigger markets with better air service & weather..Bye Bristol

Sharon Jones
03/22/2011 03:28 PM

Nascar has made so many regulations, they have ruined the races. Each race seems like the same race as the one before. It does not seem like entertainment anymore. Nothing unexpected.

03/22/2011 08:52 PM

It is very sad to see so many empty seats at Bristol. Very sad. Listen, guys. OK, forget about the wrecks. There’s side-by-side racing and a good three-car race to the finish in Sunday’s race. Besides, wrecks are very expensive because these cars cost several hundred thousand dollars. The drivers prefer this racing.

If you want the racing that Bristol had on the previous concrete surface, here’s what you should do: Send a letter or e-mail to BMS or NASCAR and demand that the track be repaved immediately after the summer race, making sure that progressive banking is eliminated in the repaving project. That’s the only suggestion I can think of. Also, the race would draw more people if it were in April instead of March because it can still be cold and snowy in March there (even though it was warm this year).