Saturday night was a night race with strategically placed camera angles, but every once in a while there was a shot that showed the backstretch grandstand in all of its glory, completely vacant. The aerial shots provided by the two guys carrying on random conversations showed a main grandstand that was spottily filled at best in the upper reaches. Vacant enough that fans could make out the checkered flag image built into the seats by colorful individual seats. This wasn’t for the Nationwide race, it was for the Cup race, on a holiday weekend, for one of the most historical races on the schedule.
There is no doubt that the economy has played a roll in the attendance decline at every track on the schedule. While some of the races this year have been very well attended or even sold out, several more have been attended by crowds far below capacity. One of those races was the spring race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. That is significant because Atlanta is the track that is most in danger of losing a race date in the near future. The Atlanta track is owned by SMI, the parent company for the tracks in Charlotte, Bristol, Sonoma and three others that have Cup Series race dates. SMI also owns Kentucky Motor Speedway, which is hoping to add a Cup level date in the very near future once litigation with NASCAR is resolved.
The problem for Atlanta is that, of all of the races held in the SMI stable, the attendance at their races is the most lackluster. Since the governing body of the sport has never awarded a race date to SMI, they will have to move a date to Kentucky from another SMI property. The bottom line of any business is making money, and the way racetracks make money is through attendance. Since Atlanta is doing the worst in terms of bodies through the gate, it makes sense that they’ll lose one of their dates to Kentucky when the time comes.
The sad thing for Atlanta is that the attendance at Daytona was as bad, or worse, than the Spring race in Atlanta. Daytona is a restrictor-plate track, and like it or not, they are the most popular tracks on the circuit in terms of TV ratings and attendance. To have such a terrible showing at the crown jewel track of the sport speaks volumes on several fronts. The product that is being offered to the fans must not be as good as it used to be or the race would still sell out. The economy is hurting race fans more than anyone thought. The promoters for Daytona are not doing a very good job at getting people in the stands.
It was noted during our live blog during the race Saturday night that it had been announced last year that the backstretch grandstand would be closed for this year’s July 4th race. The economy wasn’t that far in the tank last year to be shutting down a 100,000-seat grandstand. There is obviously something amiss at the home of the sports biggest race and one of its oldest, most historical events. Whatever that is, the folks that run Daytona International Speedway should not continue to be rewarded for doing such a poor job.
While NASCAR has never awarded a race date to SMI, the time might be right for that history to be changed. Kentucky, among other tracks, should have a Cup level date and it should come from Daytona, not Atlanta. The fans have spoken with their wallets and their butts and Daytona is not pulling in the fans like it used to, at a greater pace than other tracks. Hopefully, when the time comes, NASCAR will do the right thing and let Atlanta, another historically significant track on the circuit, keep its two dates, at least until Daytona loses one.