When the Sprint Cup Series came to the Tennessee mountains in March the stands looked more like an afternoon at Caraway Speedway than the sellout factory that was Bristol Motor Speedway. While the sellout streak at Bristol had been broken before this Spring, the sheer numbers of empty seats were a slap in the face to everyone in the sport. The discussions and debates raged on for weeks about why the fans stayed away but one thing was certain, there were enough empty seats at the World’s Fastest Half Mile that there wasn’t a camera angle to be used that didn’t show a whole bunch of them. After this past Saturday night hopefully the trend is beginning to swing the other way and we’re going to see the stands start filling back up again.
The folks who write the big checks at Bristol tried to blame the economy for the lack of attendance this Spring and, to some extent, that was a legitimate reason. The SMI people cited the fact that a majority of the people who came to the race drove more than six hours and had to stay in a hotel. The combination of the two expenses, with gas going through the roof and three night minimums still standard in the Bristol area, definitely had a direct effect. While gas may have plateaued and begun to slide back down a little, the hotel/motel industry in the Bristol area still seems to be reaming anyone who wants to stay anywhere close to the track. The economy obviously was a problem but it was hardly the main reason.
Aside from the cost, there is the incessant whining that has been coming from the half to two-thirds of the fan base who insists that somehow allowing cars to pass others without wrecking them is a bad idea. There’s no doubt that wrecks are exciting and the raging tempers that are associated with the aftermath make for a lot of media coverage for the weeks after races but cars going three wide around Bristol is something that was so unheard of just a few years ago the fans might just not be able to comprehend the pure excitement of it yet. While some more wrecks and people moving others out of the way might add a little intrigue to the post race activities at Bristol, the tremendous racing that is now provided by the track is certainly enough to draw in fans who appreciate racing for racing, not wrecking.
In the end the event at Bristol Saturday night was not a sellout but it was really close. So why were all of those people there? The racing is still exciting, although it is very different than it used to be. The economy is coming back a little bit but there is a long way for it to go before the masses can afford weekends at the race track again. When it is all said and done, the media onslaught that SMI put on leading up to the race weekend has to be at least credited with maintaining the race crowd. However, when the fans who may have attended for the very first time the question for them has to be: Did you get to see what you thought you would?
Bristol’s management had advertisements everywhere that showed the beating, banging, spark flying action that was Bristol. Unfortunately that isn’t what Bristol is any more so there may be some fans who left the track disappointed after Brad Keselowski’s win on Saturday night. If the number of first timers in attendance this past Saturday matches the established Bristol fan base, somewhere around 60% of them will complain that they didn’t see enough wrecking and the other 40% will think it is one of the greatest races they’ve ever seen.
Bristol is definitely different than it used to be and, depending on which side of the proverbial fence you reside, it is either better or worse. When the final analysis takes place after the checkered flag flew there are two things unquestioned. There were somewhere around 160,000 people in the stands at Bristol on Saturday and they left talking about the race. Whether they were talking positively or negatively is yet to be determined, but they were talking. Providing the racing continues to get better as the drivers have seemed to feel it is, then hopefully the fans will continue to show up in droves and the end result will be the Night Race still being the top draw in the sport.
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