NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Empty Seats, Broken Hearts: Has The Monster Lost Its Bite?

Dover produced an unexpected twist on Sunday, Matt Kenseth stealing a victory after two other drivers – Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards – led about 99.9% of the race up until the last 50 laps. Mark Martin was a season-best second, Brian Vickers was fifth one year removed from being in a hospital bed, fighting for his life yet the story this Monday morning from Dover revolves around three things: a FOX split screen commercial, monotonous racing, and more empty seats than most stadiums have capacity.

Not the type of water cooler talk you want, right? For now, we’ll save the FOX hallelujah, some sort of TV one-week wonder and focus on the larger, long-term worry of what’s wrong with the Monster Mile. Attendance has declined from a listed 150,000 to Sunday’s 82,000 number in less than six years: a whopping 45.3 percent decrease for what used to be one of the most competitive tracks on the circuit. Unofficially, other journalists were estimating the crowd at less than 60,000 although I tend to trust the track’s judgment based on my own eyes Sunday; keep in mind when you have a 130,000+ seat racetrack 50% capacity looks far more empty than it really is. It’s still a shocking turnaround, considering just two-and-a-half years ago I maintain the Dover Fall event was easily the best of the ten-race Chase: as the laps ticked down, a furious four-car battle between Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray raged for the lead. All Roush-Fenway teammates at the time, they spent the race’s last half-hour acting like rivals fighting for supremacy on your local go-kart track, making dicey move after hair-raising maneuver until Biffle pulled away to Victory Lane. It was part of an all-around performance to be proud of for NASCAR; the racing that day, front to back was so impressive I actually thought the Car of Tomorrow had turned a corner.

Too bad that road led to the local junkyard. Four of the last five races since have been snoozers, with only one (Spring 2009) producing a _single_ pass for the lead in the last thirty laps. Jimmie Johnson was the culprit there, passing Tony Stewart to start a recent 3-of-5 streak at the speedway that’s actually part of the problem. He’s led an ungodly 1,192 of 2,000 laps (59.6 percent) during that stretch, often pulling away to large leads over the midpoint of races while leaving fans with nothing to do but watch the Lowe’s car simply come up and lap people. Honestly, if Lady Luck had swung the proper direction the No. 48 team could have won all five: pit road mistakes by Johnson (speeding, Spring 2010) and crew chief Chad Knaus (four tires, not two Sunday) led to victories by Kyle Busch and Kenseth, respectively in those events.

But the one-man dynasty is just a small part of a growing problem, declines that simply wouldn’t be if the sport were healthy. As my home market, I can tell you the track lies reasonably close to two major markets: less than two hours from Philadelphia (No. 5) and Baltimore (No. 21) with Washington D.C. and New York City within striking distance of a day trip. That’s well over 10 million people combined in that corridor, nearly ten times the amount within a similar radius of tiny Martinsville Speedway, the half-mile short track that nearly outdrew Dover’s fan base in April despite having less than 70,000 seats. Sure, the Mid-Atlantic isn’t exactly what you’d call a racing hotbed but with those kinds of numbers available? You should pull a crowd, especially with the added entertainment value of a casino next door (isn’t that why Kansas got a second date?)

You can’t blame the economy much, either as Delaware’s unemployment rate of 8.3% is actually _below_ the national average. And marketing? In past years, the track’s been criticized for improper advertising but I can testify that wasn’t the issue this year; the last four weeks, you literally could not turn on the television in Philly without seeing some sort of blown up ad for the Monster Mile. Heck, I was coming home from a Friday night out a couple weeks ago, blasting my indie rock/college radio type station (let’s hear it for 104.5) and I came across a 30-second commercial for Dover at 2 AM. Clearly, that’s not the most expensive option (or the best timing, either) but it was outside the racetrack’s target audience, showing how extensively they’re trying. In recent years, the public relations team has been solid (Gary Camp is very good) and they’ve hosted events in Philly to try and connect the fan base to the racetrack.

Part of the problem could certainly be the ghosts of traffic past. At the height of Dover’s popularity, one horror story from a friend in 2005 explained an eight-hour ordeal just to get from the track to the state line (typically an hour’s drive) after the race was over. In the Fall of ’06, my first year covering for television I left the second the checkered flag dropped and still got stuck in a two-hour delay, the type of issue that fans have written in and say leaves them sitting on their couch, not at a racetrack watching for good. In 2011, those worries are long gone, much to the speedway’s chagrin – I literally hit the brakes for less than five minutes once I left, shocking when you think about how quickly that problem faded – but you know what they say about first impressions lingering on.

That leaves the giant elephant in the room NASCAR’s rapidly fading popularity, a theory they tried to disprove with February’s Daytona 500 until recent numbers have jarred reality back into focus. In a market like this one, where most of the interest at the height of the sport’s reach produced more of the “casual fan” Brian France likes to talk so highly of it seems their interest has been passing, not permanent. The new point system, a Nationwide Series Car of Tomorrow, even Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s new competitiveness hasn’t been enough to get people excited to come and see the races. New blood, or lack thereof has been an issue for a number of years now, the few bright spots like Trevor Bayne and Joey Logano fading quickly to aging veteran stars. Who was NASCAR promoting five years ago here? Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart. Wonder who they’re promoting now? You guessed it… bread can only last so long before it gets stale, even if you put it in the freezer (trust me, I’ve tried).

The competition issues have been focused mostly on the tires, a compound drivers claim has made it impossible to pass at Dover. Indeed, it looked like they were trying to figure skate instead of finesse their way through the one-mile oval Sunday, man after man complaining on the radio the cars just wouldn’t handle in traffic. Denny Hamlin was pretty vocal about the compound, joining Greg Biffle’s rant last Fall that Goodyear needs to make major adjustments. But you’d expect universal criticism and multiple failures to accompany a problem; neither happened.

“Great job by Goodyear,” said Vickers after finishing fifth, one of many drivers happy with the hand they were dealt. “I’m sure some guys complained about it, but I love it. I love it when the track lays down rubber like that. Makes it slip and slide and you have to move around and find a groove.”

Don’t believe a top-5 finisher? How about A.J. Allmendinger, who after DNF’ing with engine problems referred to the day as “fun” in trying to find the right line.
Hmm… slipping and sliding. Sounds a lot like the treacherous Monster Mile of years past, the type that used to eat up cars and spit them out when you made a mistake, right? Perhaps that’s what’s most notable about the last few years, that no racecars are actually wrecking at a track that’s known for its difficulty: in just the last three Cup races, there’s been a total of _five_ cars – that’s right, five – involved in accidents. Of those five, only three were hurt badly enough to wind up behind the wall for repairs. Those stats make it sound more like Glenda the Good Witch than Miles The Monster to me.

The layout of the track hasn’t changed during that time, and neither have the cars themselves; but what about the drivers? What about the theory they didn’t _need_ to push the issue? Could that be what we’re seeing here in some of these races, especially with a DNF-destructive point system that’s emphasizing consistency? When Johnson fell back in the pack post-pit stop Sunday, the voice in his ear immediately was Knaus emphasizing a top-10 finish, not a win as the goal. And for all the talk about “win, win, win” from the post-race press conferences, there was a comment from Mark Martin that stood out to me.

“All the cars are almost the same speed, so it’s incredibly difficult,” he said when asked about the passing. “This is the era of NASCAR racing that we have today. Twenty years ago, there weren’t so many cars the same speed and passing and overtaking was easy.”

Perhaps that forced parity of the CoT, so good for that one race in ’08 may actually be what’s hurting Dover most of all. This track used to be a haven for comers and goers, tire dropoff allowing drivers to gain huge chunks of speed and positions over the course of a run. But now, the difficulty of simply passing a guy takes five, ten laps and the aero push you earn from being around those cars negates any type of advantage you have over the course of a run. So considering the amount you have to lose in the points, the time lost running side-by-side, and the handling problems encountered while doing so why take the risk for 14th over 15th? Especially when Dover’s a one-groove racetrack?

You found your answer Sunday, a single-file parade where any type of action was restricted to two, maybe four turns at most so everyone could go back to “searching for the right line.” Fun for the drivers? Absolutely. But their excitement means nothing unless there’s paying customers in place to go see that entertainment. The fact that those fans are dwindling, in record numbers means the current handling package in place, combined with this “new point system” isn’t the answer. And unless they find it, a track that’s been one of the sport’s finest, most unique facilities could be falling prey to a second date for another cookie-cutter sooner rather than later.

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