Full Throttle · Mike Neff · Monday April 23, 2007
The Busch Series ran a race at Phoenix International Raceway Friday night, but if you looked at the stands, you might have been easily confused. With the limited number of seats in use, it could have easily passed for a Champ Car or IRL race if not for the noticeable sounds of stock cars circling round the track. In fact, the crowd was so thin there appeared to be almost as many ushers and event security staff in the stands as there were fans, a sad state of affairs for what is supposed to be the No. 2 stock car series in America. Certainly, it’s a problem that NASCAR appears to need solutions for, especially if they want their stars of the future to attach themselves to the fans of today.
To give the track some benefit of the doubt, there is a distinct possibility that the timing of the race had a direct impact on attendance. The race was held on Friday night, with the green flag dropping at approximately 6:00 PM local time; that creates some difficulty for fans to make it to the track after work. Considering the fact that there are only two Busch races per year in the Valley of the Sun, you'd think that people would be able to take a day off in order to make it to the track by race time…but everyone knows that can’t always happen.
If that theory holds weight, there’s an easy option for fixing this problem: change the time the race is run. You could take the risk of moving the event to Saturday morning before the Cup race; while it’s a logistical nightmare for the track, the move isn’t without precedent. Dover did it a few years ago with the Truck and Busch race when the Truck race was rained out. If anything, the move would certainly make things nicer for people who were traveling from a distance and wanted to see both races. The other option, of course, would be to run the race later in the evening, so that people had a greater opportunity to get to the track after work. The problem there is that you'd be pushing the race much later into the evening on the East Coast and well out of primetime.
Another thing to consider is that the product on the race track is simply not what people are looking for anymore. “Cup Lite,” as the series has been referred to as of late, is about overly-funded Cup-backed teams with Cup-level drivers coming out and running the few regular Busch teams into the ground. As recently as last week, Frank Cicci Racing, a standalone Busch team with 20 years of history in the series, was forced to close its doors because they could not secure sponsorship for their race cars. Even though the team was locked into the Top 30 in owner points and was guaranteed a starting spot in the field in Texas, they still could not attract a sponsor willing to put their name on a single car effort with a Busch-level driver. It is a shame that the entry level series that used to allow local talent to get their feet wet and possibly impress someone who owned a car at the Cup level has now become the playground of well-funded Cup teams instead.
The possibility exists that the point will be moot next year as the Car of Tomorrow (or Today, as it may be) is phased in, greatly diminishing the advantages of Cup drivers running in the Busch races. Of course, by the time next year rolls around, there may not be enough teams interested in running in the series to begin with, and we could end up with fields that are shorter than the advertised 43 cars; in fact, it’s already happened once this season. Weak fields then produce a snowball effect; the fans are already turned off as it is, and then when the fields start showing up 90% full, attendance will certainly lag even further. Make no bones about it, it is a very slippery slope that the Busch Series is attempting to traverse right now.
That being said, the issue at hand is really the fact that the stands were possibly 1/3rd full Friday night. While there are issues as to why people are not attending the race, there is also an issue of cultivating the fans of the future to foster an interest in the sport at a young age. If there’s the potential of 80,000 or so paid seats that are going unused, there should be some vehicle in place to allow kids who can't normally afford to attend a race the option of using a seat that is not being utilized.
There is a golf tournament in the Charlotte area every year where people who aren't using tickets or are done with them for the day can turn them in; they are then resold for a nominal fee to ensure the seats will be filled come race day. Why couldn't the folks at Phoenix, or at any track for that matter, set up a system where, if a season ticket holder does not want to use the Busch tickets, they could allow the Speedway to resell them for a small amount? They could also donate them to the Boys and Girls club, the local Boy Scouts, or some other organization that would allow some underprivileged kids the opportunity to see a Busch race and cultivate the future fans of the sport.
The Busch Series is in trouble on several levels. Sponsorship, Buschwhacking, and now it looks like attendance may be turning into a problem. It is up to the promoters and the sanctioning body to work hard to facilitate as many opportunities as possible to allow kids who are not regularly able to see races the chance to attend events and begin to become fans of the future.
Clearly, NASCAR needs to do its part to start putting fans in the stands in whatever way they can, so that empty seats on Fridays and Saturdays don’t spill over into empty seats on Sundays.
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