While Saturday’s Stater Brothers 300 was a snoozer of a race, it was nonetheless an eye-opening weekend for the Nationwide Series.
First off, I have to concede to the advocates of the Auto Club Speedway that they did an admirable job in improving attendance for the Auto Club 500 on Sunday. While a lot of folks have disputed the 78,000 number that the Speedway announced, I can safely say from what I saw on TV that the crowd looked a whole lot healthier than it did in 2008. To draw even 65-70k to the circuit’s most boring track in the face of bleak weather and the ever-sagging economy isn’t that bad, and coming from me, a longtime critic of ACS, that’s saying something.
But, that cheery outlook of the past weekend in Fontana ignores the fact that there were two other races on the slate. And judging from what transpired in the grandstands for the Nationwide Series race Saturday night, the folks in charge at ACS did just that. They ignored the other two races they were responsible for.
The announced attendance for Saturday’s NNS event was 15,000.
To put that in perspective, that’s 75,000 empty seats on the frontstretch. DC United of Major League Soccer draws more than 15,000 fans for many of their regular season games. Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C. draws more than 15,000 for their Whelen All-American Series races. Duke football draws more than 15,000 fans to the ditch that is Wallace Wade Stadium to watch one of the nation’s lowliest college football programs.
Congratulations, Ms. Zucker, you made some progress on the Cup front. But you and your speedway’s efforts to push the Nationwide race that you were responsible for were non-existent, just like the Saturday night crowd. While you proved diligent in pushing the Sprint Cup Series, you obviously see the Nationwide Series as just an afterthought. And judging from the paltry number of fans that showed up, it seems like a lot of the “California race fan” market that NASCAR just has to cater to sees it the same way.
Considering this, why continue to force the Nationwide Series teams to pull off the logistical nightmare of trekking from Daytona to North Carolina to California in less than a week? If no one is going to come watch, why force the Nationwide teams to trek so far out west? With the crowd that showed Saturday, the Nationwide guys might as well have stayed home this weekend. NASCAR has made a huge deal about saving teams money… imagine how much those teams would have saved in travel costs and logistical planning? And heck, if you want to maintain a 35-race schedule, add a Nationwide race at Hickory Motor Speedway or the Rock. Even the besieged Rock with its crowd problems can and would equal or beat 15,000 butts in the seats, even in February. Lots of money to stay in the Nationwide teams’ pockets… isn’t that what you want, NASCAR?
Further, if ACS can only draw 15,000 for a Nationwide Series race… why do they deserve to keep their spot on the schedule? ACS is fortunate that NASCAR bends over at their beck and call… because I can’t think of many other tracks that would be allowed to keep their date with that kind of attendance. With the trip to Fontana being one of the most expensive treks the teams face all season, and a purse that is far from spectacular, logic dictates that Fontana needs to meet a higher standard than most to keep a Nationwide race. Mexico City drew over 55,000 fans for each race they hosted while boasting a purse nearly three times bigger than the average Nationwide race, but that wasn’t good enough for them to keep a date. Why should average money and pathetic attendance be good enough for California?
The title of this article mentioned 75,000 eye-openers, plus 12. What are these 12 I referred to? 12 is the number of Cup regulars who ran in Saturday’s Nationwide race. Over a quarter of the field was composed of Sprint Cup stars and still… only 15,000 people showed up.
I thought the Nationwide Series needed the Cup regulars to put fans in the seats? Yeah, that argument held up real well this past weekend. Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and friends all showed up and put on their usual shellacking of the minor leaguers, and that still didn’t draw a crowd.
Can this be taken as a sign that maybe, just maybe, now that the Nationwide Series has become more established over the years, that the Cup presence in the field just isn’t needed anymore? Maybe, maybe not. Attendance numbers make a strong case for it. The crowd that showed for the Fontana race Saturday was less than a third of the 46,224 fans that averaged in attendance for the Nationwide Series’ standalone events in 2008. But that is a bold claim, one that can’t be proven because of one race weekend.
What this weekend did seem to conclusively prove is that, Cup guys or no Cup guys, the racing product on the track is first and foremost in fans eyes. And when you couple a track with a well-earned reputation for putting on a sour show with Busch annihilating the field in its last race leading up to this one, it’s hard to be surprised that no one showed for Act 2 of the Shrub show.
70,000 fans showed up for the Nationwide show at Daytona, where restrictor-plate racing produces some of the most exciting laps of the season. This weekend, the Series returns to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which packed in over 120,000 fans for last year’s Sam’s Town 300, a race that for the second year in a row came down to a nail-biting finish. Both of these venues have proven capable of producing entertaining racing, and the crowds have come.
ACS has not done the same. They don’t have the on-track product, they don’t have the attendance. And what they should not have is a spot on the 2010 Nationwide Series schedule.