The Frontstretch: "Pure Michigan:" A Race For Revenue by Mark Howell -- Thursday August 25, 2011

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"Pure Michigan:" A Race For Revenue

Mark Howell · Thursday August 25, 2011


The Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway was pure Kyle Busch. His pull-away win over Jimmie Johnson following a late-race restart solidified his top-seed chances for the 2011 Sprint Cup title, but – as we’ve seen during the Cup season so far – a strong performance is just that: a strong performance. The junior Busch’s six-car length victory may have looked impressive, but we’ve still got a lot of racing ahead. Despite his flashes of dominance, and a guaranteed place in the Chase, it’s far-too early to simply hand him the championship trophy.

The events surrounding Busch’s win at MIS last weekend were a combination of triumphs and tragedies, all connected to the ideology behind the “Pure Michigan” theme. I’m only stating the obvious when I write that Michigan is one of the most depressed (both emotionally and economically) states in America. The near-death of our automobile industry, and an overall loss of manufacturing jobs, has led to a near-mass exodus of residents. The urban area of Detroit is a mere shell of what it once was, with entire neighborhoods abandoned because of unemployment and the inability to pay mortgages. What used to be called “white flight” has become more like “life flight” in that diverse populations of Detroit residents are packing up and seeking new opportunities elsewhere. You want an example of this? Consider the statistic that Sunday’s race attendance at MIS was around 81,000 – down from last year’s crowd of nearly 105,000. The race was run not too far from Detroit, in what used to be a pretty populous southeastern region of the state, but the recent years of economic woes have led to fewer people with the surplus income to spend on a day at the races.

That said, the Pure Michigan 400 was a good example of how Michigan is hoping that positive publicity can breathe new life into an old condition. The race, despite what race fans may have thought about it, carried NASCAR’s momentum into the Irish Hills near Jackson. “Local” driver Brad Keselowski (a native of Rochester Hills, near Detroit) limped into Michigan on the heels (pardon that awful pun) of his storybook season; his victory at Pocono just days after a horrendous wreck at Road Atlanta captured the attention of even casual race fans all up-and-down “the mitten” that constitutes the great state of Michigan.

NASCAR’s battalion of “five fantastic first-timers” – Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith, David Ragan, Paul Menard, and Marcos Ambrose – were all on the entry list at MIS, bringing the nation’s sports pages to life, along with the more traditional “fan favorites” like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, the brothers Busch and some young guy named Earnhardt. After sharing several drivers with the Nationwide event across-the-border in Montreal, Sunday’s Cup event unfurled as was to be expected, with the usual schizophrenic weather conditions, numerous drivers slapping the wall, and a green-white-checkered finish. The late-race battle between Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson had the potential to be a “Sunday Night Sport Report” highlight clip, but the final restart saw the No. 18 drive away from the No. 48; the photograph in Monday’s newspaper of Kyle Busch’s win was a picture of his No. 18 Toyota as it crossed the finish line of the Pure Michigan 400 – all alone – under the waving checkered flag.

Given the current economic climate in Michigan, there has been competition to win over tourists at venues other than Michigan Speedway.

“Pure Michigan” is the name of the national marketing and promotional campaign created by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation that tries to attract visitors to the state. Tourism is critical to the survival of the region in which I live and work (the Northwestern Lower Peninsula along the shores of Lake Michigan); our area is divided between agriculture (mainly cherries) and more tourist-centered attractions involving the lakeshore. When attracting visitors (and their wallets) is your primary industry, you try to do so by any means necessary. Any bright spot means a potential lure for catching additional guests. Just last week, an online poll conducted by ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America” selected our area’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore as “The Most Beautiful Place” in the United States, beating out other apparently “so-so looking” places like Newport, RI; Cape Cod, Ma.; and Aspen, Co.

Our region has built a pretty solid track record with “Good Morning America’s” online polls; just last year, a local creamery (Moomers Homemade Ice Cream) was voted “the best ice cream store in the country” by “GMA” viewers based on the popularity of its most famous flavor: “Cherries Moobilee” (a tasty combination of their homemade black cherry ice cream mixed with tart red cherries, swirls of fudge, and chunks of homemade brownies). Either this region has truly “best in America” attractions to offer, or we have a lot of residents with 1) free time on their hands and 2) internet access.

Talk to Cup drivers and crew chiefs, and many of them will tell you that Michigan International Speedway itself qualifies for its own “best in America” honor. The track is popular for its length, its competitive nature (a wide, decently banked, non-restrictor plate facility), its proximity to the administrative epicenter of the automobile industry, and its demand for flat-out, all-day speed. Given all this, it compounds the sadness felt when grandstands at MIS go empty with decreasing attendance numbers. This has been an all-too-common sight at Cup events across the country for the last few seasons, but in a state such as Michigan – where the residents are such devout, vocal, and loyal sports fans – seeing smaller crowds at such a big track simply adds to the general feeling of recession-driven depression affecting so much of the state.

It has been a rough summer for Michigan public/tourist-driven attractions. About a month ago, two sailors from the state died while competing in the annual Chicago-to-Mackinaw sailboat race after a severe thunderstorm capsized their vessel late at night. The two racers died in Lake Michigan near the town of Charlevoix, close to sixty miles or so north of where I live. And on the same afternoon that Kyle Busch moved one step closer to his first Sprint Cup championship, a 48-year old stuntman from Ann Arbor died after he fell while trying to wing-walk from a biplane to the landing strut of a helicopter flying nearby. The second-generation wing-walker, Todd Green, died during an air show at the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Macomb County; he fell 200 feet to his death before a crowd of 75,000 spectators. Such events might be regarded as part of “Pure Michigan”, but they’re also part of what might be considered “pure fate”. There’s a little bit of destiny out there for all of us, and even though our actions can speed up or slow down the process, fate is there to keep things real.

Maybe the crowds at MIS were smaller-than-usual because there were simply too many events competing for spectator dollars. In addition to the Pure Michigan 400 on Sunday, there was a Detroit Tigers game at Comerica Park that ended in a bottom-of-the-ninth, once-in-a-lifetime double play that gave the Tigers a much-needed win against the Cleveland Indians. There were also plenty of art weekends, car shows and county fairs to keep people occupied. Maybe visitors seeking fun were more apt to find it by hiking along the lakeshore, swimming at a beach, or touring a nearby winery. Maybe we need to accept the fact that NASCAR has perhaps run its course as a nationally-beloved event worthy of packed grandstands and stuffed cash registers at hotels and restaurants. With football season close-at-hand, there’s going to be even more competition for spectator attention – not just in Michigan, but in communities all across the country.

While Kyle Busch’s victory on Sunday was something to behold as part of the “Pure Michigan” marketing blitz fighting for tourism dollars, it became little more than a small blip on our regional news radar. A double-play throw from centerfield to home plate, and the public death of an air show performer made sure of that. For all the attention that usually goes along with a Kyle Busch win in the Cup Series, his recent success at MIS was more of an afterthought. Maybe it’s a good thing, since Busch will be the center of attention this weekend at Bristol, where he’s five-for-five in NASCAR races and looking to sweep his way to an eight-for-eight run of consecutive wins. Kyle Busch is typically good for headlines, and this weekend will be no different.

It was rather odd, then, to see photographs of Busch during his court appearance in Statesville, NC, the other day. While he pleaded guilty to driving 128 miles per hour in a 45 mph zone, which was the proper thing to do (to plead guilty, that is – not to drive that fast in the first place), and received kudos for his many benevolent works on behalf of his community, it was Busch’s off-track appearance that caught my attention. Seeing him standing before microphones and cameras in a dark suit and tie made me think, at a very quickly mistaken first glance, that Busch was one of the lawyers who argued the speeding case. It’s always strange to see drivers “out of uniform”, so to speak, which (when they wear business-type suits) makes them look like junior partners at a law firm or insurance salesmen. At least justice was served to the Cup Series’ points leader before NASCAR gets busy in Tennessee. T-minus three races and counting until the Chase…

From Pure Michigan to Traditional Bristol, this weekend should Totally Rock. If the weather is good, the racing should be, too. Even if the crowds aren’t large, the pressure on teams most certainly will be. From the Great Lakes to great stakes, the remaining eleven spots in the “post-season” are coming into focus yet still up-for-grabs. His win at Michigan may have earned Kyle Busch a guaranteed spot (and a top seed?) in the Chase, but it’s still an awfully long haul to November.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Did You Notice? … Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
Beyond the Cockpit: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. on Growing Up Racing and Owner Loyalties
The Frontstretch Five: Flaws Exposed In the New Chase So Far
NASCAR Writer Power Rankings: Top 15 After Darlington
NASCAR Mailbox: Past Winners Aren’t Winning …. Yet
Open Wheel Wednesday: How Can IndyCar Stand Out?


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Dick Lee
08/25/2011 10:42 AM

Are you kidding about all of the reasons why the grandstands at MIS are so empty? The one and only reason is that the track was poorly designed and every race is boring. Only the Indy Cars make it exciting. NASCAR sucks at MIS.

08/25/2011 11:59 AM

When the stands were “empty” in Fontana for too long the track lost a race. What’s taking so long for MIS to loose a race? There are plenty of other tracks out there that can put on a better show.

BTW, if the magic answer to this question is because the big 3’s corporate HQ’s are there in Michigan, then somebody needs to figure out how to squash the oval-t’s at in their own back yard.

08/25/2011 12:27 PM

Jim, if I may answer you! I know everyone hates Michigan with a passion. And I was at Sunday’s race, and I hated it too, but only because the three biggest jerks in NASCAR finished 1-2-3! However, I think the reason that NASCAR still allows Michigan to keep both dates is due largely to the number of “foreigners” who attend their races. By that, I mean people from Ontario, Canada. It seemed at both weekends this year, more that half the crowd was from there! At both the June race and Sunday’s race, you could tell the Canadians. They nearly drowned out the band playing the Canadian National Anthem as they sang “Oh Canada”! And I hate to say this, but it was considerably quieter as the American anthem played. And in the parking lot we parked in (number 11), there were more cars with Ontario plates than Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and all other states put together! This included a certain Ford Focus that came from Ontario and is driven by yours truly! The Michigan races are as close as Ontario will ever get to a Cup race. And unfortunately, even though everyone hates that track, that’s the reason I hope Michigan keeps both dates forever! It’s close enough to make the race and get home on the same day, even with the back-ups at the boarder.

08/25/2011 01:57 PM

Hey Ken, Thanks for the feedback. That actually makes a lot of sense. It also explains why they do the Canadian National Anthem there, which I hadn’t really given too much thought too. I’ve watched racing at MIS for a long time and I don’t remember TV making any references to the fans from Canada making the trip. But after all these years my memory isn’t so sharp. Then again with the lousy coverage we get anymore, I wouldn’t expect them to do you guys any justice, cuz they don’t know how. They can’t do themselves any justice with their own broadcasts.

But to be perfectly honest, I don’t think the general nascar populous hates MIS like they hate Auto Club here in California. I don’t know what Roger Penske was smoking when he thought another near identical nascar track as opposed to something new was a good idea, but I wish they would blow it up and start over.

Could be worse I guess, we could be in Kentucky!

08/25/2011 02:44 PM

Also Jim, with regard to the Canadian Anthem, after it was played, there was a long “intermission”, with the announcement that the opening ceremony (Presenting of the U.S. Nation’s colours, the prayer, and the American anthem) would start “once the national TV network came on”. They (ESPN, and in June, FOX) just don’t show it! Oh well, we Canadians who attend Michigan know it’s played, and I guess that’s all that matters. And by the way, our tradition for our National Anthem is to stand at attention. However, we are slowly adopting the American tradition of the hand-over-the-heart for Oh Canada. See, Canadians and Americans really are a lot alike!

08/25/2011 03:40 PM

No slam to Ken, Jim or Dick… The economy in Michigan does SUCK BigTime. I have attended every race at MIS since 1998 (except 1=hospital). The racing there is exceptional if you don’t just watch the front. Hell they were almost 5 wide at one point. I do agree about the top finisher though.

08/25/2011 04:09 PM

Well Ken, you won’t read any more calls to close MIS from me. If it means more racing for you and every other Canadian Fan that can make it, I’m all for it. Thanks for the insight.

Don Mei
08/25/2011 05:02 PM

Now you understand why I go to Montreal and enjoy it so much. Also, pretty much the same thing happens at Loudon because its only about four hours from Montreal and less than three hours to the border.

08/25/2011 08:12 PM

Don, you must live in Eastern Ontario. I’ve been to Loudon (via Bennington, Vermont! Love that Hemmings Garage!). It’s approximately 10-hours from where I live. Michigan is 4-1/2-hours. Unfortunately, with me, it’s the time restriction. I can’t get any long-term time off in June, July or August, so Michigan is perfect for me to go to. I left the race and made it to the Bob Evans in Romulus for dinner at 6:30, was over the boarder by 9:15, and home at 11:45.

Super Dave
08/26/2011 01:58 AM

I don’t quite get why Michigan gets such a bad rap! Granted, i’m biased since i live an hour from the joint and saw my first race there (sadly, the day Ernie Irvan was first injured there). It’s a wide high-bank that cars go 5 wide on, draft, 210mph into the corners. The curved front stretch means you are looking at the on-track action, not the race fan sitting next to you (though it’s doubtful that’s a problem these days). I’m sure it gets lumped in with the cookie cutters, especially it’s ‘sister’ track in fontana, so it’s easy to forget it was a unique circuit for a long time. I got no problem with it being on the schedule twice. Bummer to see the poor attendance, i worked late saturday so didn’t go this time. And the indy 500-miler needs to come back, best racing those cars do!