Perched atop pit road in the media viewing area at Michigan International Speedway this weekend, I had the perfect vantage point from where to view the Lifelock 400. The addition of a Sprint FanView device courtesy of Sprint’s Chris Hannigan made all the difference in the world, having a television feed, MRN’s broadcast (which wasn’t hard when Jeff Streigel was wedging himself in next to me to call pit stops – or just rub elbows with the greatest name in motorsports journalism. Just kidding. Not really – it is the greatest name when you think about it), in addition to scanner access to any of the 43 cars with just a flick of a button.
From where I was stationed, I also had an unobstructed view of empty seats and grandstands – a familiar sight at NASCAR events this season, with more and more states, cities and racetracks feeling the fallout and blast wave of the economic nuke that has struck the United States. Being from the state of Michigan and now all but a half an hour outside of Detroit, I was at Ground Zero of the epicenter of a crumbling economic infrastructure that has affected NASCAR maybe more so than other sports.
I arrived at MIS a bit earlier than I had anticipated on Sunday morning. A vastly improved traffic plan coupled with grand stand attendance that was cited at 90,000 meant I probably didn’t have to resemble a Tomahawk cruise missile sailing along I-96 at 5:30 in the morning. Since I had some time on my hands I decided to venture into the nucleus of NASCAR and stick my head in the lion’s mouth – the infield at Michigan International Speedway.
To be sure, I am no infield rookie, some fly-by-nighter who is new to NASCAR. I have been following the sport since birth, while some of my earliest memories are peddling my Big Wheel around the infield at Michigan, looking up to see the green and white No. 88 Gatorade of Bobby Allison flash by through the banking. I wanted to get an idea of how the economy had affected these fans, as well as their enthusiasm for the sport, what with the ratings decline that has plagued NASCAR for the last couple of years. Also in decline some have criticized, has been the competition.
The infield at MIS is a different animal. Think of it as a University of Michigan football game tailgate meets a Grateful Dead concert – with a dash of Woodstock ’94. The only other one that comes close is Talladega, which if I am not mistaken is detailed graphically at great lengths in Dante’s Inferno. Of those I surveyed, 75% of them said the economy had affected them or someone they knew. Several I spoke with said there was a friend or regular member of the group who normally joined them who was unable to, due to their circumstance financially – not because they are sick of the sport.
Even if there were hardships to be had money-wise, they were not going to allow it affect them.
Bill, an electrician from Battle Creek who was there with is wife Sue and daughter Lindsey, responded laughing, “I’m not working anymore – I’ve been laid off for two years and gave up.” They had been coming to Michigan since 1974 and normally attend the June race, though are thinking about coming in August too. Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans, they have not let these downtimes halt their attendance, but it has tempered their enthusiasm. “It has gotten a touch boring; one car gets out front and just drives away.” Said Bill. It’s not like the old days when [David] Pearson would slingshot past [Richard] Petty to win the race.”
He may have a point; the majority of the passing for the lead Sunday at Michigan was due to cars running out of gas.
Bob Huddleson (the majority of people I talked to were named Bob or battling a hangover) from Belding, Michigan is in commercial construction. “I’ve been laid off for six months, but my wife still works. So it ain’t too bad.” It was his second race he had been to, a newer fan who has been watching NASCAR for five years now. He’s planning on going to Talladega later this season. He is a relative newcomer to the sport, but has heard enough talk from his buddies of days gone by, that he thinks he may have missed the boat on some of the classic battles in racing history.
“I’d like to see them go out there and race how they used to race.”
It had been some time since I did go through the infield though – however not much has changed. There are still fleets of old school buses painted up like their owner’s favorite driver’s car, lots of life-sized cardboard stand-ups of drivers with their hands on their hips, as well as the requisite scantily clad beer babe poster.
Though the coolest thing I saw was probably a from a group of guys from Kalamazoo, Mich. Bob and Andy have been coming for about five years, while two of their friends, Ken and Dan who have been going for 10 years were not able to make it this time around. “You know what, I’ve been lucky enough to say probably not. I haven’t had any financial issues or anything like that. I’m still plugging along.” He said he was a huge NASCAR fan – but didn’t have any particular driver affiliation. He was simply a fan of the sport and the atmosphere, as evidenced by their makeshift camping accommodations – a Ford Econoline van festooned with beach towels and a tapestry featuring Sylvester Stallone from Rocky IV.
“It doesn’t look like a shanty town at all.” Said Andy, who also commented upon his Rocky print, “it cheers me up every time I see it.”
The access roads in and around the camp sites were pockmarked with a cobblestone creation of crushed Budweiser and Miller Lite cans – proof that NASCAR still has it roots planted firmly in the foundation on which it was built – fermented beverages. If sports bars and corporate suites are the domain of the casual fan, then the infield is still the domain of the core fan. The ones who would camp three days in the mud or scorching heat without shelter or a shower, to see the greatest show on Earth, for a few short hours on a summer Sunday afternoon.
You don’t find loyalty in any other sport like this; it what allowed it to be deemed “America’s Hottest Sport” on the cover of Sports Illustrated nearly 15 years ago. The weekly ratings reports suggest that it has cooled some; while many long time fans have drifted away from a sport they would list not far below God, Family and Country.
Taking in the sights and the sounds early in the morning on race day – smoldering camp fires, the Camaro SS pace car being wrung out on the backstretch, Porta-Johns that have been basking in the sun for three days, I had the opportunity to speak with some more core fans – my people.
Bob (again with the Bobs), Jackie, Donna, Sherry and Don from Grand Haven and Perry Michigan, Bob from Bristol, Indiana. They have been coming for over a decade, staying Thursday through Monday morning, their enthusiasm unaffected for the sport that is going through a transition period now – and about to likely undergo yet another with the impending loss of manufacturer funding. “11 years now, said Sherry.” It hasn’t affected our enthusiasm… we still like coming to the races.” The economy though has kept some of their friends at home this year.
It was a familiar thread that proved a point that now seems so blatantly obvious; of course it doesn’t effect the ones that are there; it’s the ones you don’t see or hear from that need their voices heard.
Even though the infield was packed as usual, the empty seats surrounding the track told the tale. NASCAR is not alone in this struggle however. Virtually every professional sport is experiencing declining attendance, and NASCAR races do usually cost more than tickets to a Major League Baseball game or an NFL game. Considering that many tracks are located in remote or rural areas – the big ones tend to take up a lot of space – the increased cost of fuel has compounded the issue of putting people in the stands. There isn’t just one answer as to what is causing this; much like a racecar there are many factors and moving parts to what makes this work.
And just like a racecar that is in need of a chassis adjustment, it is corrected with little tweaks here and there, not gigantic changes that send it skittering through the turns like a shopping cart with a wobbly wheel. Perhaps that is what got NASCAR to this point they are at today. In the past they had often prided themselves on making small, incremental changes when something was needed. While it can be argued that a new points system and championship format combined with a new car may be too big of a swing at once, it might be time to reign some of that in a little bit. There are many in the infield who aren’t working that don’t mind, but those on the periphery – those in the stands who are both core and casual fans – do seem to mind; those empty stands are doing the speaking for them.
If only they had been there to talk to Sunday, we’d know for sure.