The Frontstretch: Perception: Why Iowa's Attendance May Not Have Been As Great As It Seemed by Summer Bedgood -- Wednesday May 25, 2011

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I’ve always been amazed at how people perceive things. For instance, have you ever looked at a picture of two old men, only to have your friend say it was a picture of a wine glass? Or perhaps one person sees a princess while another sees an old lady.

First of all, those are usually goofy and incredibly creepy pictures but most of us have seen one. No one is really right or wrong in what they see. Typically it’s just a matter of what you see first.

Well when tuning into Sunday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Iowa Speedway, I couldn’t help but immediately notice the grandstands. Standing room only shoulder-to-shoulder fans had filled the track, proving that not only the fans there are passionate about racing but, more than likely, there really is nothing better to do in Iowa.

Small crowds in the grandstands have become common this season, but is it really as bad as it seems?

The official attendance was listed as 37,811, referred to as a sellout by the track even though their grandstand capacity is listed as 56,000 in the NASCAR Media Guide. But one look at the grandstands, and there’s no doubt that Iowa Speedway did indeed fill the place up, and that’s not including any of the campers located inside or around the track.

Rewind to a week prior at Dover International Speedway. Remember the grandstands for the Sprint Cup Series race on Sunday? The grandstands looked pretty empty, and everyone wondered why Dover was allowed to keep a second date when they sold so few tickets.

So exactly how many people were there? 82,000.

Now, I understand that NASCAR’s estimations tend to be a little inflated, but even if their margin of error was somewhere between 10,000-20,000 there were still twice as many people at Dover than Iowa. If that’s the case, why did the grandstands look so empty at Dover while Iowa continues to be praised for filling seats?

It’s all about perception. Remember when I said Iowa lists their seating capacity as 56,000? Dover’s is 135,000. In case you’re bad at math, that’s a difference of *79,000* seats. Looking at those numbers, it’s not really hard to understand why 80,000+ people looked so flimsy. Imagine how 40,000 people would have looked!

In fact, the lowest attendance estimate through 11 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races this year is 60,000, with five of those races selling well over 100,000 tickets, meaning that most races we’ve seen this year could fill up Iowa Speedway several times over.

But Iowa Speedway doesn’t have a Sprint Cup Series race, so it’s fair to say that they will not have Cup Series numbers or seats available. However, the Nationwide Series is just under Cup in terms of popularity in America and could still sell a significant amount of tickets.

That being said, let’s head on back to Dover. If NASCAR is to be believed, Dover’s Nationwide Series race only had 28,000 people in attendance. That’s kind of pathetic, so let’s just be kind and round it up to 30,000. That still only leaves around a 7,000 gap between both tracks, but only one was criticized for their attendance.

Darlington’s Nationwide Series race saw even a lighter crowd, with only 21,000 showing up for the Mother’s Day weekend extravaganza. Richmond had a decent crowd, with 45,000 in attendance, while Nashville (like Iowa, a standalone race) had only 18,000.

So clearly, Iowa has had more people in attendance than every track save Richmond in the last five weeks of competition. However, five of the first seven races of the season outsold Iowa by around 20,000 people, though they were Sprint Cup Series companion events and attendance was up all around at the beginning of the year.

Clearly, Iowa’s numbers aren’t all that impressive in the grand scheme of things, but don’t get the wrong impression. Any track that sells out in this sport is a rarity in this economy, and kudos to Iowa Speedway for marketing to the right amount of people.

So should Iowa add in more seats? Absolutely not! As mentioned above, having too many extra seats is what is hurting several racetracks right now. Even when they have numbers that would make most sporting events blush, one glance at the grandstands causes people to turn up their noses, shove their hands in their pockets, and mutter something about that “damned Brian France.” Had a majority of the racetracks had what was a celebrated number in Iowa, it would have been considered a failure and somehow been further proof of the decaying state of NASCAR. Now, it’s somehow the proof needed that fans will show up with or without Cup Series drivers (only two were in the field that day) and some extra hope added to NASCAR that people are indeed still interested in the sport.

So next time the grandstands look empty at a track like Indianapolis, Atlanta, or even Dover, think back to Iowa and remember: Perception. It can be a crazy thing.

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©2000 - 2008 Summer Bedgood and Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

05/25/2011 12:30 PM

Another reason Iowa was a “sellout” – they utilize portable seating. In other words, only bring it what you need, therefore you always have a “sellout”.

05/25/2011 01:09 PM

When you build a certain number of seats at a track, you are expected to sell them out. When tens of thousands of seats were empty at Dover and Bristol in the Cup series, concern is acceptable. Supply is not equal to demand. We saw this tested when Fontana added a second date. At the height of NASCAR’s popularity, attendence showed there was clearly only demand for one date.

Iowa seems aware of the demand, which is why temporary seating was not added for this new event. They were conservative, the stands were packed despite the weekend weather, and it paid off. I believe Allen Bestwick said on the broadcast temporary seats would be added next time the Nationwide series returns later in the season. Attendance at the second Iowa race will determine if there is demand for 2 race weekends at the track.

05/25/2011 02:40 PM

Well said, Matt.

05/25/2011 08:13 PM

I would still rather have attendance of 82,000 at $90 each with 50,000 empty seats than 37,000 in the stands at $90 with no seats left and with no demand for more. Only an idiot would think otherwise.

05/25/2011 09:53 PM

Does it really have to do with seating, or is it the potential draw from surrounding area that needs to be looked at?

If you go out 180 miles from Dover, you have a population of 15,000,000 people. The same distance from Newton, IA and it’s probably 1,500,000.

So based on the potential market share, which track performed better for a Nationwide only race?

Granted there are more leisure activities available in the Dover area, but if interest in Nascar has dwindled that much in the North East, that is certainly cause for concern.

05/26/2011 06:14 AM

Comparing attendence at a standalone Nationwide race in the Heartland to that of a companion event with millions within easy driving distance is a fool’s errand. Suggesting that 40,000 (give or take) at Iowa is unimpressive when companion events in or near major markets draw less makes no sense at all. The crowd at Iowa last week was a bright spot in the big picture of the NNS which is being overrrun with Cup drivers and Cup money. Having a NNS regular win the show (even if run by a Cup organization) was icing on the cake.

05/27/2011 08:11 AM

the problem is…..Dover used to have a waiting list for tickets…now they have empty seats…thats the issue.