NASCAR Race Weekend Central

MPM2Nite: Where Did Everybody Go?

I’ve been roaming this earth over half a century now so little surprises me, but there are still things I never expected to see or see again. I never thought I’d see two young people in love spending more time texting each other rather than speaking on the phone where they could enjoy the sound of one another’s voices. Back in the dark days of the Mustang II (a Pinto going out for Halloween as a Mustang) I never thought I’d ever see a new Mustang with over 400 horsepower again, nor did I think one day a six-popper Mustang would produce over 300 horses. And I surely never thought I’d see a day when a fan could walk up to the ticket gate at Bristol the evening of the Night Race and purchase a ticket.

Yes, there was in fact a fair amount of folks at Bristol on Saturday night as noted by the typical band of NASCAR apologists, syncopates and toadies. There were in fact more folks on hand than will attend any NFL game this season. ABC estimated the crowd size at 100,000. I’ve read laughable opinions that as many of 140,000 fans showed up. (Maybe they were all under the grandstands shopping with Jillian Zucker?) Even given the most optimistic estimates, and again I put as much stock in the higher number as I do on advice from cold-call stockbrokers and online astrology sites, that means there were 10,000 empty seats at Bristol where there used to be a waiting list longer than that of fans desperately wanting a seat for the night race. Where’d everybody go?

According to Bristol track officials, 62% of fans who declined to renew their tickets for the big race cited the economy as the chief reason. I don’t know how scientific that sampling was, but I can believe that number. Of course if reached by a Bristol employee asking why I chose not to renew, A) I’d be pretty impressed they actually cared, and B) most people being polite, I’d guess more are going to say “the economy” rather than, “I’m pretty damned pissed off you jackasses won’t let me light up a smoke in an outdoor arena” or “Last year when I came the race was just awful and I’m not wasting anymore money on a race ticket until the last Car of Tomorrow is pushed into the depths of the sea.”

Yeah, the economy is tough right now. I’m not immune from that, nor are the people I am close to, some of whom are out of jobs, struggling to pay the mortgage or nursing tired old cars and trucks along on a shoestring because they can’t afford to replace them. But most of them still go on at least one vacation annually. Maybe it’s Ocean City rather than Myrtle Beach or the Keys, but they still go. In fact the two people I know who complain the most about being broke have gone on a dizzying array of vacations this year. I guess I’m lucky. I prefer Ocean City to Myrtle Beach. I can have a fine vacation just riding the scoot with the sun on my back, eating at KFC and sleeping (late) in my own bed each night. The car and truck are paid for, as are the bike and the Pontiac and I don’t even have a credit card. So yeah, people are still going on vacation and for some folks “vacation” used to be race weekends.

But using the “economy” excuse begs the question “so why are TV ratings down too?” After all Saturday night’s race was on network TV meaning even those who had to cut out cable TV could have watched for free. I mean if these folks can’t afford to attend races, but are still NASCAR fans, why aren’t they watching on TV? Sure, there’s other ways to follow a race: on the internet, on your cell phone (if you have one of the cursed things) or on the radio, but the same is true for NFL games and NFL ratings aren’t in the crapper.

A lot of tracks, Bristol included, have finally admitted they priced a lot of fans out of attending their races back in the salad days of the sport when there were waiting lists for tickets. With knowledge and fore-planning they priced out the blue-collar fans who had been attending their races for generations. To their credit most tracks have tried hard to win over the fans by lowering ticket prices, sometimes radically, in an attempt to convince race fans catching a race is no more expensive than taking the family to the movies and a sitdown dinner at a restaurant with cloth napkins and no drive-thru window, or renting a ski boat for the day down at the shore.

That’s all well and good for fans who live within easy driving distance of the track (and if I ran a track that’s who I’d be courting most heavily). The folks at Bristol note that the ironically named “hospitality” industry is a big part of their problem. Bristol is in a pretty remote area and there aren’t a whole lot of hotel and motel rooms, so the hotels closest to the track charge exorbitant fees and even some of them a good distance away jack their rates out of site and require three- or four-night minimum stays. I’m all for free enterprise but sometimes, like when retailers triple the price of plywood, generators and bottled water when a hurricane approaches, well, some folks deserve to be found with a single round to their head in the dumpster behind their businesses after the storm rolls through.

It behooves the track, local and state governments, and other area businesses to try to encourage and, if necessary, strong-arm concessions from the hospitality industry on race weekends. A NASCAR race pumps a lot of dollars into the local economy and the state economy. It helps provide jobs in these gloomy times, for waitresses, bar owners and so on right down to the folks who make a little extra cash letting folks park in their front yards near the tracks. Some overtime hours and the extra tip money from the Pocono race weekends are a Godsend to a friend of mine who is a waitress in that area and is trying to raise three kids, one of them with Autism, as a single mom. Sally tells me that race weekends aren’t what they were for her even a few years back.

I truly feel that traffic woes are one of the unsung reasons that fans have stopped going to races. I hear from annoyed and even furious fans on the matter weekly. It takes some marketing work to convince a fan to bring his family or buddies to their first Cup race. Then that group misses the first 50 laps of the race because they weren’t expecting traffic to be so bad and it takes them three hours just to get out of the parking lot after the race. You know what? They probably won’t be back. If they get their car mired in a dirt and grass parking lot after a storm passes through the area and have to wait six hours and pay hundreds of bucks to get towed out of the swamp, they surely won’t be back and after hearing of their nightmarish experience their friends and coworkers probably won’t be going to the next race either.

I love the fact the local cops are trying to wrestle more money from Bruton Smith for security and traffic control which incidentally they suck at. Send in the state cops. Lots of them. Given the money those two races pump into the New Hampshire economy it only makes sense, and my guess is the troopers would appreciate the overtime and spend more freely as well. Wait until the politicians see the hit the area economy takes and the jobs lost if Bruton decides to move one of those NHIS dates to Las Vegas next year. I’m not a patient guy in traffic and my bladder isn’t what it used to be. For me traffic was always the worst part of attending a race professionally or personally.

But the fact remains if the racing itself was better, fans would get a second job to pay for those tickets and hotel rooms. They’d park in remote locations and hike miles to get to the track. They’d sit in hour-long traffic jams still buzzing about what a great race they saw. Been there done that, bought the $30 t-shirt. Not all races are going to be classics and they never have been. But the current ratio of clinkers to classics is so bad the idea of spending all that money and time only to wind up bored, unhappy and leaving the track at the halfway point to avoid some of the traffic doesn’t make sense. One of the things I always watch during races are how many people are filing out of the grandstands and how many cars are on the access roads exiting the track prior to the finish of the race. Of course when Dale, Tony or Jeff drop out of a race there’s a mass exodus of their fans, but even without problems for the big three I’ve noticed a decided uptick in the early departers even over the last few years.

I’m not a huge fan of baseball to put it politely. Most ball games I see are because they are on in the background at some tavern where I’m kicking back a few cold ones with the usual suspects. But I’d equate the current state of NASCAR to the dark days of the Phillies, a team once so hapless that when they won a game you had to wonder if the other team lost to them out of sympathy. But all of a sudden the Phillies are hot. They make it to postseason play. They won the World Series (talk about another thing I never thought I’d see again). The players are an interesting and colorful bunch of fellows. Even when they’re down six runs in the eighth you dare not leave early because the big guns might just start firing again and they might pull it off. And recently “the Bank” as local sportscasters call that stadium enjoyed their 100th straight sellout. HMMM. Is there a lesson here?

To cite another example, by the standards of FM radio play and album sales the Grateful Dead never did that well. But for decade after decade a ticket to see the Dead was one of the hardest to score in all of rockdom. You had to sleep on the sidewalk for nights before tickets went on sale or pay scalpers’ prices to see Jerry and the Band. Why? Because night after night the Dead put on a great show. Because the Dead stuck to what they did best (and they weren’t the best at what they did, they were the only ones that did what they did). They didn’t branch out into disco, hip hop and pop trying to win newer and trendier fans with more disposable income. The fans who grabbed up all those tickets were the loyalists. They didn’t have to be sold on the “product.” They knew what they were getting. And being at one of those shows it was impossible not to get the vibe the band appreciated their fans, not if you ever felt the surge of energy and heard the roar of the crowd during the opening notes of Box of Rain, Atlhea or Wharf Rat.

Is it the Chase, the new car, the new generation of drivers, the new TV coverage or some other factor or combination of factors that’s killing interest in NASCAR? I can’t say for sure. I’ve seen a lot of things I never expected to see. Unless they fix this mess, I might be around to see the final NASCAR race too and I surely never thought or hoped for that.

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