Race Weekend Central

Shakedown Session: Bristol’s Backwards Mentality: Lodging Up, Attendance Down, Mistakes All Around

For years, the true Taj Mahal of motorsports was the night race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Getting a Bristol night race ticket five years ago was about as likely as Dolly Parton taking Dollywood out of Pigeon Forge. It wasn’t unheard of for Bristol night race tickets to be contested in divorce cases! The action was great, the tempers flared hotter than a First Baptist hell and every race was a must-see event. Yes, all was seemingly well in Bristol, the one NASCAR track seemingly immune from ever losing its luster.

Fast forward five years later.

Attendance has been sharply declining at an alarming rate. Case in point: in the last two years, the night race at Bristol has not sold out, and this year’s spring race was lucky to have 80,000 fans, NOT the 120,000 erroneously posted by NASCAR. To see fans dressed as bleachers at the so-called “Mecca of Motorsports” was as disconcerting as watching the past few years of Bill Elliott’s NASCAR career. Many have blamed the local economy for all the empty seats, but it is time to officially debunk that myth once and for all and solve the mystery of the disappearing fans at Bristol.

While the job market in northeast Tennessee is not excellent at the moment, it’s actually better than places like the Charlotte metropolitan area, which is the true heart of NASCAR. Where the real problem lies is in ridiculously high ticket prices that haven’t changed in many years, along with highly overpriced lodging and camping. Don’t believe me? Look online, where the cheapest ticket being sold on site is currently $90 – more than four times the cheapest ticket being offered at Atlanta Labor Day Weekend.

NASCAR and Bristol Motor Speedway have made a concerted effort to try to right that wrong by offering discounted rates to fans at select Kingsport/Bristol/Johnson City (Tenn.) and Abingdon (Va.) hotels; still, rates can run fans up to $300 a night, in some cases more as price gouging in the local area continues to spiral out of control.

It would be nice if those affected fans could camp to save some cash. Unfortunately, the campsite owners have taken somewhat of a curt and flippant attitude towards declining attendance, refusing to lower their prices. The end result? Fans still have to pay ridiculously overpriced rates for one weekend of camping, and this attitude has led many fans to just say forget Bristol and just watch the race on TV.

Many fans have also been highly critical of the progressive banking installed at Bristol Motor Speedway, installed in the summer of 2007 to replace the one-groove, “boot ’em out of the way” oval of years past. Sure, there are more opportunities for side-by-side competition, but that’s created an almost chivalric, cavalier approach to racing at the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile.” For the dyed-in-the-wool, die-hard Bristol fans, the new facility has all but taken out all the beating and banging that made Bristol a “must-see” race.

It also can (and will) be argued that the Chase has killed Bristol’s appeal as well, with drivers taking a far-too-conservative pace around the track in the August event; after all, would you want to be the driver known for wrecking Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of the playoffs? The laissez faire single-file approach combined with all these other reasons have some fans being lulled to sleep by the new Bristol. As more time goes by, in fact, the repaving’s beginning to go over about as well as New Coke.

Ultimately, the past few years have shown racing fans that not even the great Bristol Motor Speedway is immune to the pratfalls that come from a down racing climate. A lot of it is the track’s own doing, while at the same time, the blame falls just as much on hotel and campsite managers for making a race weekend at Bristol a bit too expensive for the casual fan. The big question now is can Bristol rebuild its reputation before it’s too late?

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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