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Thompson in Turn 5: Blame Slumping Attendance on the Economy & Oh, Yeah… Jimmie Johnson

It is difficult to determine where the blame lies for race enthusiasts turning away from the final weeks of the Chase, but there’s no denying that they are. Seeing is believing, and all those empty seats, most recently at Atlanta and Texas, are all the seeing anyone needs to believe that interest in the season-ending 10-race playoff is waning.

However, there is no denying that the sport is and will continue to be adversely impacted by a downward economy. Though in recent years NASCAR has shifted more of their attention to attracting upper-income Americans, it is still the working class fan that saves a little back from each paycheck for a NASCAR weekend or two a year that fills the stands. Many of these fans are the same folks that have recently lost their jobs, or are in fear of becoming unemployed.

In short, one has to consider that there certainly are many fans that have recently discovered that they truly cannot afford to attend the races.

Unemployment is on the rise nationwide. Now at 6.1%, even conservative economists are predicting the jobless rate to exceed 8% in 2009. Not knowing how many more paychecks may be counted on, race fans, like all Americans, are not spending money as they have in the past. In the grand scheme of family budgeting, when times become worrisome, expensive NASCAR weekends are dropped from the list of priorities for survival.

And then there are the voluntarily unemployed, or better known as retired folks, that also contribute mightily to the sport and trackside campgrounds, living out of their fifth-wheels and motorhomes. Many of these fans, who are present at 15 or more race weekends a season, are reevaluating their retirement annuities as pension funds down one-third in value this year, deciding that it is fiscally prudent of them to cut back their NASCAR schedule until the markets improve.

Inflated gas prices undeniably have played a part in the obvious loss in attendance at Cup events, as well. Though there has been a dramatic drop in gasoline prices recently, it has been a significant concern for cash-strapped fans contemplating attending a Cup event. In the week leading up to the Amp Energy 500 at Talladega last month, a gasoline shortage gripped a large part of the southeastern United States. The price of gas, which rocketed to more that $4.65 a gallon in some places, was secondary on the public’s mind to concerns of just finding gas for almost two weeks.

That’s not a good situation for retirees already concerned about their finances and commuting by way of 6-9 mile per gallon motorhomes. And certainly, it’s a “deal-breaker” for those pinching their pennies but still considering splurging on a race.

All of this has added up to some embarrassingly small crowds, small enough to notice on TV. Even the large number of cleverly painted empty seats at Lowe’s Motor Speedway did not deceive anyone that the race was sold out. Held the second week of October, the Bank of America 500 was a ticket purchaser’s dream, as plenty of deals were available. Even heretofore reserved deluxe RV sites were not only available, but prices were reduced. An RV park manager at one of the more convenient and popular of-track campgrounds adjacent to LMS estimated to Turn 5 that, “…RV site rentals are down 40%-45% here. Driving around today (race day) it looked like it was pretty much the same at the other campgrounds compared to last fall’s race.”

Call it necessity, fear, uncertainty, or voodoo economics… people do not have or are not spending money. The third-quarter of the nation’s fiscal year, which coincides with NASCAR’s championship playoff, has seen the first cutback in consumer spending in 17-years. In fact, the measure of consumer confidence is the second lowest it has been since the Great Depression.

There are others, however, that wish to pin the downturn in attendance on policies that NASCAR has adopted and fans are rejecting. This storm has been building since the Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of NASCAR Brian France took over the reins to the sanctioning body in 2003. The introduction of the Car of Tomorrow, the Top-35 rule and the Chase format have all been sources of disenchantment for fans concerned about the direction of the sport.

However, it is doubtful that the noticeable drop in gate receipts can be attributed in any meaningful way to longstanding gripes that the stock car enthusiasts have with NASCAR. Those that found the direction that the present management team have instituted did not now suddenly and en masse decide to abandon the sport. In large part, those with a “belly full” of discontent had previously found more rewarding endeavors to occupy their time during race weekends.

Additionally, television numbers do not reflect any significant drop off in viewing the race broadcasts. In fact, FOX recorded a slightly better viewer rating number for the first 13 races of the 2008 Sprint Cup season than last year. Networks TNT and ABC/ESPN likewise have held their own over last season’s ratings, having shown incremental improvement at times. However, there has been a glaring drop in numbers since the October Talladega race of the Chase. Charlotte, Atlanta and last week’s fuel-mileage race at Texas have all suffered losses when compared to 2007.

Then, there is the Jimmie Johnson factor to consider. The robotic performance of Johnson and his No. 48 team since race one of the Chase at Loudon has served to suck the drama and excitement out of the championship battle that the Chase was supposed to create. Johnson’s performance has left many fans as well as sportswriters empty, saying “here we go again” as Johnson and his team marches towards the 2008 championship in much the same manner that the racing community already watched him do in 2007… and for that matter, 2006.

How much a hotly contested championship fight between three or four of NASCAR’s finest would have mitigated the attendance numbers at the track, though, is unknown. Logic dictates that such a competition would have piqued race fans’ interest and had at least some positive impact on ticket sales.

However, the underlying truth is that folks faced with dwindling financial resources are not able to justify a weekend at the races… regardless of how good the racing may or may not be.

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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