Dollars And Sense: NASCAR needs to make a move with Bristol

Official attendance for Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event in Bristol, Tennessee was listed at 102,000. Bristol Motor Speedway can fit 160,000 spectators in this coliseum of a racetrack. During this much talked about attendance debacle Sunday, the seats didn’t appear to even be at half capacity. Money is being lost at the gates and NASCAR has lost a marketing machine in BMS.

Fans are calling for heads. Knee jerk reactions suggest ripping up this track that drivers consider to be conducive to safe and fun racing.

It just doesn’t make sense to revert a smooth track to something that leads to more wrecked racecars, increasing the chance of injury to drivers and fans that are close to the action. Something as simple as NASCAR scheduling warm weather venues during the entire month of March is a safer and fan friendly move.

Sunday’s attendance was not something to be blamed entirely on the multiple racing grooves, high travel prices or the poor economy. As BMS and Speedway Motorsports Inc. owner Bruton Smith has pointed out, the weather in March is a major factor in poor ticket sales.

“We certainly thought it was going to be better, but the rain got us,” Smith said to the Associated Press.

This was the first Sprint Cup race of the 2012 season where television ratings went up compared to the same race in 2011. A total rise in ratings of 3% shows that fans still do want to watch the Spring Bristol race, provided they are within the comfortable confines of their TV room.

A few years back, nothing would slow ticket sales at BMS. This was when the track was known for rough and exciting racing and sold out 55 consecutive Sprint Cup events. But the track has changed and so has the economy. Now that many fans need to make some spending cutbacks, Bristol appears to no longer be one of their most important races to attend. And when faced with the decision of travelling to just one Bristol race, the fall night race is a more appealing event.

“There are still a lot of folks that are having to decide between our March and August races. That’s what we’re hearing, and they are choosing August,” BMS general manager and president Jerry Caldwell said in an interview with the Bristol Herald Courier.

The most logical race date swap would be with another one of Smith’s SMI venues. The options in warmer climates are Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California and Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.

Sure, the teams are already complaining about two consecutive west coast race weekends sandwiched between the Daytona 500 and Bristol’s Food City 500. The travel takes a toll on everyone involved in getting these cars to the track on time. But if NASCAR makes a schedule with a four consecutive race west coast swing, teams will adjust. They will find a way to get it done more efficiently.

The Texas mid-April date would be the easiest option for NASCAR to swap with Bristol. After the Las Vegas race weekend, the teams would travel to Fort Worth. This would be followed by one more trip west to Fontana, California. The next time NASCAR would go that far would be late June. This gives teams nearly three months to recuperate if March is too difficult. NASCAR could even return to doing an early season weekend off, to smooth things out with the team owners if they like.

Another idea would be to swap Kentucky’s race date with Bristol. However, with the weather still being less than reliable there, it wouldn’t be of much benefit. And with March Madness in full swing, NASCAR would not want to consider invading the bluegrass state. Bristol may even be too close to NCAA basketball hotbed known as ACC country.

A large crowd watched the North Carolina Tarheels in Greensboro, North Carolina during the Food City 500 race last weekend. Things like that do play a small factor in race day attendance. The Dallas/Ft. Worth area does not experience the same type of hysteria towards college basketball. And the weather this time of year in Texas can also be quite ideal.

Caldwell also places partial blame on the early season Bristol weather. He said, “We’ve been very blessed the past several years with great weather, but I do think it would be better for the fans and for us to be able to slide the race date to a little bit later in the year and get rid of some of this uncertain weather.”
Smith isn’t planning on waiting for NASCAR to make a move to help his race. SMI has been petitioning NASCAR for years to move it a few weeks later. Nothing has happened yet and no indications suggest NASCAR will make a change.

Smith also announced that he is considering a $1 million renovation to the .533 mile high banked oval track surface. Fans suggest he should bring it back to the configuration that caused the racing to be a bump and run style. Much like it was prior to the 2007 resurfacing that opened up multiple lanes for the drivers to pass easily and with minimal confrontation.

“We are going to take a very hard look at it this week,” Smith told The Associated Press on Monday. “We have everything in our computers that shows us what the track used to be and what it is now, and we started working on that last night. I’ll have an answer for you next week on if we’ll alter the track.”

If nothing is done to make the fans happy again, or if all attempts to fix the problems don’t fill seats like they used were in the past, the next topic of discussion will be the unthinkable. Bristol Motor Speedway could lose a race date all together.

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