The Frontstretch: Empty Seats, Broken Hearts: Has The Monster Lost Its Bite? by Thomas Bowles -- Monday May 16, 2011

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Empty Seats, Broken Hearts: Has The Monster Lost Its Bite?

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday May 16, 2011


Dover produced an unexpected twist on Sunday, Matt Kenseth stealing a victory after two other drivers – Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards – led about 99.9% of the race up until the last 50 laps. Mark Martin was a season-best second, Brian Vickers was fifth one year removed from being in a hospital bed, fighting for his life yet the story this Monday morning from Dover revolves around three things: a FOX split screen commercial, monotonous racing, and more empty seats than most stadiums have capacity.

Not the type of water cooler talk you want, right? For now, we’ll save the FOX hallelujah, some sort of TV one-week wonder and focus on the larger, long-term worry of what’s wrong with the Monster Mile. Attendance has declined from a listed 150,000 to Sunday’s 82,000 number in less than six years: a whopping 45.3 percent decrease for what used to be one of the most competitive tracks on the circuit. Unofficially, other journalists were estimating the crowd at less than 60,000 although I tend to trust the track’s judgment based on my own eyes Sunday; keep in mind when you have a 130,000+ seat racetrack 50% capacity looks far more empty than it really is. It’s still a shocking turnaround, considering just two-and-a-half years ago I maintain the Dover Fall event was easily the best of the ten-race Chase: as the laps ticked down, a furious four-car battle between Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray raged for the lead. All Roush-Fenway teammates at the time, they spent the race’s last half-hour acting like rivals fighting for supremacy on your local go-kart track, making dicey move after hair-raising maneuver until Biffle pulled away to Victory Lane. It was part of an all-around performance to be proud of for NASCAR; the racing that day, front to back was so impressive I actually thought the Car of Tomorrow had turned a corner.

Too bad that road led to the local junkyard. Four of the last five races since have been snoozers, with only one (Spring 2009) producing a single pass for the lead in the last thirty laps. Jimmie Johnson was the culprit there, passing Tony Stewart to start a recent 3-of-5 streak at the speedway that’s actually part of the problem. He’s led an ungodly 1,192 of 2,000 laps (59.6 percent) during that stretch, often pulling away to large leads over the midpoint of races while leaving fans with nothing to do but watch the Lowe’s car simply come up and lap people. Honestly, if Lady Luck had swung the proper direction the No. 48 team could have won all five: pit road mistakes by Johnson (speeding, Spring 2010) and crew chief Chad Knaus (four tires, not two Sunday) led to victories by Kyle Busch and Kenseth, respectively in those events.

But the one-man dynasty is just a small part of a growing problem, declines that simply wouldn’t be if the sport were healthy. As my home market, I can tell you the track lies reasonably close to two major markets: less than two hours from Philadelphia (No. 5) and Baltimore (No. 21) with Washington D.C. and New York City within striking distance of a day trip. That’s well over 10 million people combined in that corridor, nearly ten times the amount within a similar radius of tiny Martinsville Speedway, the half-mile short track that nearly outdrew Dover’s fan base in April despite having less than 70,000 seats. Sure, the Mid-Atlantic isn’t exactly what you’d call a racing hotbed but with those kinds of numbers available? You should pull a crowd, especially with the added entertainment value of a casino next door (isn’t that why Kansas got a second date?)

You can’t blame the economy much, either as Delaware’s unemployment rate of 8.3% is actually below the national average. And marketing? In past years, the track’s been criticized for improper advertising but I can testify that wasn’t the issue this year; the last four weeks, you literally could not turn on the television in Philly without seeing some sort of blown up ad for the Monster Mile. Heck, I was coming home from a Friday night out a couple weeks ago, blasting my indie rock/college radio type station (let’s hear it for 104.5) and I came across a 30-second commercial for Dover at 2 AM. Clearly, that’s not the most expensive option (or the best timing, either) but it was outside the racetrack’s target audience, showing how extensively they’re trying. In recent years, the public relations team has been solid (Gary Camp is very good) and they’ve hosted events in Philly to try and connect the fan base to the racetrack.

Part of the problem could certainly be the ghosts of traffic past. At the height of Dover’s popularity, one horror story from a friend in 2005 explained an eight-hour ordeal just to get from the track to the state line (typically an hour’s drive) after the race was over. In the Fall of ’06, my first year covering for television I left the second the checkered flag dropped and still got stuck in a two-hour delay, the type of issue that fans have written in and say leaves them sitting on their couch, not at a racetrack watching for good. In 2011, those worries are long gone, much to the speedway’s chagrin – I literally hit the brakes for less than five minutes once I left, shocking when you think about how quickly that problem faded – but you know what they say about first impressions lingering on.

That leaves the giant elephant in the room NASCAR’s rapidly fading popularity, a theory they tried to disprove with February’s Daytona 500 until recent numbers have jarred reality back into focus. In a market like this one, where most of the interest at the height of the sport’s reach produced more of the “casual fan” Brian France likes to talk so highly of it seems their interest has been passing, not permanent. The new point system, a Nationwide Series Car of Tomorrow, even Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s new competitiveness hasn’t been enough to get people excited to come and see the races. New blood, or lack thereof has been an issue for a number of years now, the few bright spots like Trevor Bayne and Joey Logano fading quickly to aging veteran stars. Who was NASCAR promoting five years ago here? Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart. Wonder who they’re promoting now? You guessed it… bread can only last so long before it gets stale, even if you put it in the freezer (trust me, I’ve tried).

The competition issues have been focused mostly on the tires, a compound drivers claim has made it impossible to pass at Dover. Indeed, it looked like they were trying to figure skate instead of finesse their way through the one-mile oval Sunday, man after man complaining on the radio the cars just wouldn’t handle in traffic. Denny Hamlin was pretty vocal about the compound, joining Greg Biffle’s rant last Fall that Goodyear needs to make major adjustments. But you’d expect universal criticism and multiple failures to accompany a problem; neither happened.

“Great job by Goodyear,” said Vickers after finishing fifth, one of many drivers happy with the hand they were dealt. “I’m sure some guys complained about it, but I love it. I love it when the track lays down rubber like that. Makes it slip and slide and you have to move around and find a groove.”

Don’t believe a top-5 finisher? How about A.J. Allmendinger, who after DNF’ing with engine problems referred to the day as “fun” in trying to find the right line.
Hmm… slipping and sliding. Sounds a lot like the treacherous Monster Mile of years past, the type that used to eat up cars and spit them out when you made a mistake, right? Perhaps that’s what’s most notable about the last few years, that no racecars are actually wrecking at a track that’s known for its difficulty: in just the last three Cup races, there’s been a total of five cars – that’s right, five – involved in accidents. Of those five, only three were hurt badly enough to wind up behind the wall for repairs. Those stats make it sound more like Glenda the Good Witch than Miles The Monster to me.

The layout of the track hasn’t changed during that time, and neither have the cars themselves; but what about the drivers? What about the theory they didn’t need to push the issue? Could that be what we’re seeing here in some of these races, especially with a DNF-destructive point system that’s emphasizing consistency? When Johnson fell back in the pack post-pit stop Sunday, the voice in his ear immediately was Knaus emphasizing a top-10 finish, not a win as the goal. And for all the talk about “win, win, win” from the post-race press conferences, there was a comment from Mark Martin that stood out to me.

“All the cars are almost the same speed, so it’s incredibly difficult,” he said when asked about the passing. “This is the era of NASCAR racing that we have today. Twenty years ago, there weren’t so many cars the same speed and passing and overtaking was easy.”

Perhaps that forced parity of the CoT, so good for that one race in ’08 may actually be what’s hurting Dover most of all. This track used to be a haven for comers and goers, tire dropoff allowing drivers to gain huge chunks of speed and positions over the course of a run. But now, the difficulty of simply passing a guy takes five, ten laps and the aero push you earn from being around those cars negates any type of advantage you have over the course of a run. So considering the amount you have to lose in the points, the time lost running side-by-side, and the handling problems encountered while doing so why take the risk for 14th over 15th? Especially when Dover’s a one-groove racetrack?

You found your answer Sunday, a single-file parade where any type of action was restricted to two, maybe four turns at most so everyone could go back to “searching for the right line.” Fun for the drivers? Absolutely. But their excitement means nothing unless there’s paying customers in place to go see that entertainment. The fact that those fans are dwindling, in record numbers means the current handling package in place, combined with this “new point system” isn’t the answer. And unless they find it, a track that’s been one of the sport’s finest, most unique facilities could be falling prey to a second date for another cookie-cutter sooner rather than later.

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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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Stephen HOOD
05/16/2011 07:52 AM

Don’t discount the traffic as a major culprit. I live in Birmingham and know people who will not travel east on Talladega weekend because of horrible experiences in the 90s with traffic on I-20. When I tell people I’m headed to Talladega, 9 out of 10 people will tell me they’d love to go but they can’t stand the traffic. These are also people that love to tailgate at Auburn and Alabama football games, so I have to think their commitment to NASCAR is more the issue.

But, if you are a sport that is relying on a casual fan to fill out the grandstands, you are going to have a problem if people hear rumors of “terrible” traffic, even if it has been 10 years since traffic was a problem. Atlanta suffers from this problem as well even though the state solved Atlanta’s problems with some new interchanges.

I agree with you that Dover should be able to draw a bigger crowd, and my guess is some fans stayed away because of the weather report (I was surprised to find the race on when I turned on the TV).

Weather and traffic are two negatives to keep away the casual fan and marginal racing is going to eat away the base.

Daddy Wiltone
05/16/2011 10:52 AM

For what ever reason Dover wasnt a better sell, your last sentence scares the hell out of me and would be another Cashcar blunder if they chose to go that way. Nice article as always.

05/16/2011 10:59 AM

I just shake my head every time I hear someone try to blame the weather for attendance issues. I mean in all the races I have been to since 1980, never, not once, was weather a factor in deciding to go or not go. Tickets are bought in advanced, travel arrangements, lodging all made way before the day of the race. Now true, it could effect a few local fans, but when was the last time you went to a NASCAR event and sat beside a “local” fan?

Hell the way things are going, you will be lucky to have anyone sitting beside you! But that’s not necessarily a bad thing!

The stands were a very sad sight to see yesterday in Dover on TV. Even with huge sections covered with ad tarps, there were still huge empty sections of seats where people were supposed to be sitting. How much longer can NASCAR survive if the declines (attendance and interest) continue at their current rate?

I remember days at Bristol where rain was imminent and the stands were still full. Yes that has been a few years ago. As a matter of fact when the race was finally called that day, there were still more people sitting in the stands than there were for the entire race this Spring at Bristol! Make the racing exciting and people will be there and face any condition to witness the spectacle. Leave it boring with little action or passing, and they will just stay home. They probably wont even bother turning it on at all.

I think the fat lady might just need to start warming up.

05/16/2011 11:12 AM

I disagree about the economy, I believe that is a huge factor in not selling seats. A lower unemployment rate does not reflect how many people are UNDER-employed and cannot afford such luxuries as a NASCAR race any more. If they can watch the race on television and save the money they would have spent at the race, in order to buy food or fill up a gas tank or two, it is a no-brainer.

I remember the days of employment and my trips to Martinsville, now I cannot afford to even think about something this extravagant on unemployment wages… It is not just NASCAR, people have to be more strict on what they spend their money on.

Don Mei
05/16/2011 12:59 PM

It’s spec car racing at it’s worst. Combine that with focusing on points instead of wins and you get Dover yesterday. Sad.

05/16/2011 01:58 PM

Brian France went after the casual fan, and that’s exactly what he got. But I don’t think he was trying to make casual fans out of hardcore fans.

NASCAR today is completely unrecognizable from just ten years ago; they’ve got their parity and now no one is a superstar. Who’s tuning in to see if Regan Smith can pull down another win?

I turned on the race in mid-race and saw most of the screen covered up with a Sprint ad for a good minute; once it was off the screen it was about four laps before they went to commercial. The whole time the leaderboard was being interrupted: Coca-Cola, UPS, etc.

It’s like the networks know the ship is sinking and are grabbing every cent they can before they jump into the lifeboat.

Well done Brian.

05/16/2011 02:47 PM

In your assessment of the problem with attendance you missed the real reason, NASCAR moved the date from the first weekend in June to the middle of May last year, with the promise it was just for 1 year. Now, we are told it is permanent. I had to change to the fall event after 15 consecutive season at the spring race. NASCAR created this attendance problem, they were steady 100,00 plus at the spring race till then. I know 15-20 other families that also had to make the switch. Please place the blame where it belongs, NASCAR

Bob from OC Cal
05/16/2011 03:31 PM

If you all recall the old ‘business growth model’, it will explain clearly what is happening to NASCAR.
1. The first generation of a business owner has a vision and get the business ‘off the ground’ and on its way.
2. The second generation takes the business vision of the first and grows it even more – some to astronomical levels!
3. The third generation takes what the first and second did and gradually throws it all away because they forgot or chose to ignore what made it so successful in the first place!

05/16/2011 03:37 PM

I live 10 minutes from IMS and have no intention of going to the Brickyard this year. I refuse to spend 75 bucks a ticket to watch mediocre racing. And Indy is one of the worst for traffic (and I used to go to Pocono – which is another story altogether).

05/16/2011 03:40 PM

Kevin if its “just” the economy, then why arent the TV numbers through the roof with all these people tuning in that cant afford to go to the race? Its not “just” the economy!

NASCAR is the new IROC. And what happened to IROC?

05/16/2011 03:50 PM

with that many folks nearby, they probably lost some due to weather as a lot of walk-ups changed their mind. But to tell the truth, Dover is getting what it deserves. Their mismanagement in Memphis and St Louis led to the demise of those tracks and now it looks like they have under promoted and mismanaged their own home. If there is justice the management at Dover will be in an unemployment soon.

sylvia richardson
05/16/2011 05:42 PM

it is the [old poops that have ruin our sport. not the drivers not the tracks. but the [old poops that have their brains in the wrong place.

Sue Rarick
05/16/2011 06:12 PM

In the past two years I finally converted my BF to a NASCAR fan. And its interesting to hear his views. One thing he noticed and hates more than anything else are the drivers he calls points racers.
I on the other hand like the safety of the COT and kind of like the overall appearance of the retro 1980’s look. But where I think they went off track was adding aero aids. Things like the tall rear spoiler, the ‘shark fin on the left side and the front splitter help create boring racing by making the cars aero dependent.
It’s really an easy fix to make the cars less aero dependent and allow more side by side racing and make passing easier. And makes getting ‘clean air’ less important. I took a few moments to modify a current COT to what I think is a far better design while doing very little modifications: linktext

05/16/2011 06:23 PM

Weather has nothing to do with it. Times are bad, really bad. $200 a night w/2 night min for Red Roof Ins just don’t cut it anymore. Tix are still expensive, and we have to pay for all that private jet fuel now, don’t forget. When Dale died, so did NASCAR. Even Gordon looks bored in the 24, and has lost his thirst. Racing on Sunday used to be about going to the races and forgetting about corporate america, now there’s 43 mid level managers on tv every Sunday afternoon saying I just wanna thank, God willing, car ran real reall good etc….I’m done with it. And I can be at Dover in 35 minutes. And one more thing..put back the asphalt and let ‘em slide a little again.

05/16/2011 08:30 PM

I think NASCAR has just come back to reality. Outside the big races you aren’t going to draw 100,000+ week after week anymore. Though the talk that the sport is going to shut down is a bit over the top. They still draw more than most MLB teams for a weekend series.

I agree that logging costs are a huge problem. However, on the other hand NASCAR tickets are very reasonably priced in my opinion. Not to mention they have free parking and let you bring coolers into the track. For me its refreshing to go to a race after going to a Yankee game where a decent seat costs $100+ and beers are $9.75. I agree with many that B. France has tried hard as hell to screw the thing up, but NASCAR still has a lot going for it. Overall the racing has been really good this year.

05/16/2011 09:42 PM

Sue… I like your concept car, but it’t too simple an idea for Na$crap and Brainfart Z. France to understand.

05/17/2011 12:43 AM

I’d like to think all those missing fans are out supporting their local short track. I know I am and have rediscovered real racing. Late Models rock.

05/17/2011 08:50 AM

With all the success of the Lowes car I wonder what Home Depot could be thinking running in the back every week. Are the Gibbs teamates all running the same equipment? If I were little Joey I wouldn’t be smiling so much.

05/17/2011 05:38 PM

I have attended races at Dover since 1988. I agree the racing just is not that good these days. I think the car is to blame. Lets face it, the CoT will not spin out by itself. As loose as those cars were Sunday, not one went around on it’s own power without a tire issue. There is no risk/reward for racing this car hard which leads to a single file parade. Fix the car and the racing will get better.

The other issue with Dover is ticket prices. This track has never lowered prices. They just now came up with ticket packages (full price with a few perks) but I only heard about those last minute, not that it mattered, I renewed my tix months ago. I understand they can’t just lower prices across the board but if it means keeping both races, lower them as they get closer to the date. Just give us long time full price ticket holders a few perks when I get there.


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
Did You Notice? ... Drivers Still Make A Difference... But Silly Cautions Don't
Did You Notice? ... NASCAR's Free Agent Lynchpin, Uncomfortable Reality And Gambling
Did You Notice? ... Toyota Trouble, Limping Into Action And Testing The Waters
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