NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Frontstretch 5: Thoughts on NASCAR’s Attendance Dip

  1. There’s no need to panic

It’s easy to look at the empty seats at racetracks and wonder if the sky is falling. Sure, the empty seats are a concern, particularly for racetracks whose revenue is based directly on attendance, unlike NASCAR’s, which comes from a variety of sources including television and sponsor deals.

NASCAR doesn’t release attendance figures, so it’s not an exact science, but let’s look at a few numbers. Martinsville Speedway looked about 70 percent full on Sunday, maybe 75 percent, but we’ll take the lower number. Yes, you can compare that to the NFL and fall short all day long, as most of those teams post over 90 percent on a regular basis. NBA figures range from averaging a sellout for some teams to 71 percent for others, a number that’s on target with what we saw at Martinsville

And what of America’s pastime, baseball? Last years American League numbers showed an average attendance across its 15 teams of 28, 892. Some stadiums hold 45,000 or more, with the smallest coming in at 31,042. The Toronto Blue Jays, which posted the largest overall attendance last year at 3,392,099, have a stadium that holds 48,297.  That means, on average last year, it was at 86 percent capacity, but there were games where the team posted less than 50 percent. Averaging both attendance and capacity, the overall AL attendance percentage for 2016 was 69 percent.

This sport has a much longer history of a national audience, and while there may be concern, there isn’t panic.

  1. The hula hoop effect

Which brings us to the new normal. NASCAR was a fad in the late 90s and early 2000s. It was the cool thing to talk about around the water cooler, so people watched, many casually, just to be included. Yet those are the numbers we are trying to compare today’s figures to, and that’s just not accurate.

For reference, when the hula hoop was introduced nationally as a toy in 1954, toy companies sold 25,000,000 of them in four months, producing more than 50,000 every day to keep up with demand. More than 100,000,000 sold in two years.

Compare NASCAR to that.  In the late 90s, in an effort to capitalize on its newfound popularity, tracks added seats anywhere and everywhere and raked in money hand over fist.  Times were good, supply still wasn’t keeping up with demand, and foolishly, a lot of people seemed to think it would last forever.

If a company manufactured 25 million hula hoops today in hopes of selling them all in four months, it’d be mocked, because that fad has passed. As has the NASCAR fad. Comparing today’s attendance to those days is as effective as comparing 2017 hula hoop sales to 1958. They will never measure up and make things look worse than they really are. You can’t not see the empty seats, but you also should not ignore that there are simply too many of them as the fad bandwagoneers have moved on to the next popular thing in the office.

  1. It’s not the journey…

Another thing to consider is the location of NASCAR’s events.  While other sports are, for the most part, located in big-city markets, many NASCAR tracks are in rural locations, especially the ones that have been on the schedule of what was for 40 years a regional sport. Martinsville and Bristol are beautiful small towns. But they’re small towns, and not destinations of themselves if not for racing.  If fans want to combine a race trip and a vacation (and those may have been separate trips years ago when costs were more affordable), they’re probably going to opt for a bigger market, and those tracks aren’t generally the best ones (Richmond and Boston may beg to differ).

kubmonster
Martinsville is a great track that puts on a great show, but the area around it doesn’t offer much for a vacation destination. (Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

NASCAR doesn’t have a good track record for moving into new markets, either, in that the tracks they have added to the schedule near larger cities have been 1.5-mile tracks. Had Speedway Motorsports, Inc., or International Speedway Corp., the two biggest players, built a replica of Martinsville or Bristol in Texas or Kansas City, the conversation about those tracks, and maybe racing in general, would be different.

NASCAR is also unique in that there is no home team. With most teams located in the Charlotte area, it’s not like other sports. Fans will see all their favorites at every race, so they don’t need to travel to see them. Some want to travel for the tracks themselves, others want to see the cities, but people won’t plan a schedule around a team.

  1. But what about the racing?

The elephant in the room is, of course, the racing, and many fans aren’t satisfied with it. That’s absolutely valid. Tickets are expensive, and people aren’t going to pay for them if they don’t think they will see a quality product. Fair enough.

But there are tracks where the racing is always good, like Martinsville. It’s hard to come away from seeing a race in person at Martinsville, Richmond, Bristol and a couple of others, disappointed with the action. So the racing argument doesn’t really hold water all the time. At those tracks, it often goes back to the lack of other attractions, the cost of hotels and other factors. But to say people aren’t at Martinsville because the racing is terrible is a poor argument, and if people didn’t go Sunday for fear of mediocre competition, they missed a great weekend of racing.

  1. Money, and mouths, and all that

Another piece to the puzzle is the expense of attending a race.  Beyond tickets, there’s food, gas to and from the race, and, if you live more than a couple hours from the track, hotels which don’t come cheap near a track on race weekend. For a three-day race weekend in Bristol, where hotel rates are ratcheted up anywhere near the track, a family of four can be looking at close to $1000 all told.  The problem is that tracks can only control their own expenses, not the prices of hotels, gas and food outside, so when people say the cost of attending is prohibitive, that can’t just be blown off as an excuse.

You can’t really blame fans for not wanting to spend all that money if they don’t believe races that they can realistically attend will be worth the cost. Or if the tracks that put on a great show are too far away to travel to for a weekend and don’t offer much else to justify a longer vacation.

But what good does it do fans who don’t go to the races, for any reason they might have, to complain about the attendance numbers?  It doesn’t. But it also does little good for fans to talk about how they wished there were more races like this track or that if they’re not going to this track or that.

Look at Rockingham. When NASCAR left the track in the early 2000s, fans railed for years, and when the track was purchased and it looked like there might be a race there once again, they rallied around it.

Except when NASCAR did return, the fans did not, and NASCAR stopped trying after a couple of years. And there is nobody else to blame. There’s nobody else to blame for the loss of the XFINITY Series at Martinsville, either; the track loses money on that series every time out, so they gave up. Will Martinsville, or its owner, ISC, give up on two Cup dates?  Probably not anytime soon, but if people don’t go and show support, it could happen. At some point, if fans really want to see certain tracks stay on the schedule, the only way to make sure that happens is to show up when the gates open.

Is it a disaster if every seat is not full every race, like some seem to imply? Nope. Attendance for sporting events in general has dropped in recent years as people simply don’t have the money or the attention span to go to every event on their lists.  Accepting the new normal is going to be an important part of maintaining the audience the sport does have. But fans have to play a role, too, by supporting the tracks that do have great racing either in person or on TV.  Otherwise, if they lose them, the reason why is pretty clear.

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kb

Good points, the demise no matter what point you make is squarely on the backs of the NASCAR Wizardry!

They are like mushroom in the dark, except it is self imposed and they continue the poor Stevie Wonder blind routine…wait..I take that back..they think everything is just perfect! That is what they tell us, no?

Joseph Jacalone

Amy, Martinsville sure didn’t look 70% full to me. NASCAR’S decline is about the fact they have become more like the WWE, rather than a hard core sport like Hemingway spoke of. They have become more interested in flashy driver intros and glitzy ad campaigns, rather than dirty, gritty racing, which is what built the sport in the first place. As you said, the fad chasers have moved on, and they need to start catering to the core group of fans who have stuck with them. The tv ratings decline, and empty seats, which are much more dramatic than in most other sports, tend to support this point of view.

Fed Up

People leaving the stands are due to a bad product presented by NA$CAR: Over-hyped playoffs and chases. Goofy rules along with segments that kill the flow of the race. A point system that would stump Archimedes. Fans at home are fed up with the TV presentation. Directors who have no clue what is going on
and continue to swap from one camera to another. In-ground and finish-line shots which show cars passing a fixed point do not show racing. Fox was back to the old digger cam Sunday, only to bring back another unwanted gimmick to the presentation.

The finish product and presentation is stale and the France family is leaving the sport to die a slow death.

Dj

Brian France brings to mind the scene from Smoke and the Bandit where Sheriff Buford T Justice (Bill France Jr) tells his son (Brian France). “Ain’t no way you could have come from my loins. When I get home I’m gonna smack yo Momma in da mouf!”

bob

I don’t go to the track anymore because they took all the fun out of it..

Go back 20 years, a Nascar weekend was jam packed with stuff to do at the track,
longer practices, 2nd round qualifying, more support races, you didn’t have to go
find other stuff to do..

The last race I went to in the fall of 2009, Saturday was 2 short practices and then a
quick race and then get out.. Now what do I do for the rest of the day??

The trailers became more corporate, all the merchandise started to look the same.
The local sports memorabilia store didn’t have a tent selling last years odd ball t-shirts
for $5 anymore. I got a Jimmie Johnson Alltel shirt from when he was in the Busch
series… How cool is that, and I don’t even like Jimmie Johnson, and I got it at Watkins Glen,
where he pile drived into the styrofoam barrier in turn one.. Look it up, its a classic, and
probably the coolest thing JJ has ever done.

Smaller coolers, can’t go here, can’t go there, the clear bags.. Security guards telling
you to sit down…

The racing has been pretty crappy also. I think part of that is the identical cars, and the
aero garbage.. They used to be able to play with their front fenders and the spoiler and their
gearing.. Used to be one guy was set up with more downforce and lower gearing and had higher corner speeds but gave up some on the straight, and the other guy gave up some in the corner but could haul
the mail down the straight… Now they are all the same speed at the same point on the track. Then you had guys setting the suspension so they would lay down 10 rocket fast laps and then fall on their face, and then you had the guys setting it up soft, they would give it up a bit in the short run, but they
were still running good after 30 laps.. Seems to me at least, that those differences in the cars made the racing more interesting.

One other problem I see.. The drivers stagnated.. in the late 90’s and early 2000’s all
the owners wanted the next Jeff Gordon, all the old guys got pushed out and a whole
bunch of yung’ns came in, and they are all still there in their 40’s… From the
early 2000’s until a few years ago, there was almost no new faces, Logano and Keselowski,
that was about it.. Montoya and Allmendinger, but its still mostly the same guys..

The constant changing of paint schemes and sponsors doesn’t help either.. The black 3 and
the rainbow 24, they were the same every week, and when they did have a different scheme,
it was a big deal. Even this week, “hey Dad, what color car is Earnhardt in this week?”…

And for some reason, it seems harder to see the #’s on the cars.. I think its the vinyl wrap
thing. Seems it was easier to see the #’s when it was a big sticker on paint..

I’ve got a bunch more complaints, but I have to get to work..

Just so you all don’t think I’m 100% negative, the racing this weekend was pretty good,
I was pleasantly surprised.

wildcatsfan2016

Well said, Bob.

russ

I think thewhole issue of declining attendance has been beaten to death and it boils down to two basic points. A business model that can’t survive on local fans attending. To survive they have to entice people to travel from remote locations to attend. Thats when the hotels , etc. come into play. and most importantly a product that just doesn’t entertain people the way it used to in the past. Changing times have passed it by. People will still pay for what they want to do if they can afford it.
To illustrate my point in the last two weeks I had te choice of driving about the same distance to see either a concert in Charlottesville or the race in Martinsville. Concert, by a rock and roll superstar was much more expensive. But up, watch a quarenteed great show and back in 8 hours. A no brainer didn’t even consider Martinsville.
That sort of thing is what they are up against and they can’t win.

Doug M

I take issue with your statement about Rockingham, yes it was opened back up after years of being closed.
But it only held a few ARCA races and I think one truck race, NO Cup series races. Nobody unless you have some
favorite driver racing there is going to travel to the middle of nowhere to the Rock for just a lower tear race.
Also they took out the best seats and facilities at the track (on the back side) for some strange reason.

Andy

good article….I am amazed though that it took a poorly attended race at Martinsville to make a bunch of people suddenly wake up to a problem that has been showing itself for the past 5 years or more….

russ

Its only a problem for nascar. We still have our money and our weekends to do what we want.

Bill H.

I forget who coined the phrase about “lies, damned lies and statistics,” but throwing all those statistics around sounds to me like whistling past the graveyard. Sure, NASCAR races aren’t in big city markets, but were they in big city markets thirty years ago? Come on.

“bob” said much of it. What we have now is the IROC series, which died off because it was boring. NASCAR even dictates gear ratios. Why would they do that? Like Bob, I recall when one guy was lightening on the straight and dogmeat in the turns, while another guy was just the opposite, and they would duel each other off and on for the entire race. That’t can’t happen now with NASCAR dictating every nut and bolt on their cars.

Announcers don’t help by talking endlessly about the performance of the cars. “He’s loose in on turn four, tight in the middle and tight going into turn two. They’re going to make air pressure adjustments, and add some wedge.” And then he won’t be in fourth place any more, presumably, but will zoom up into first, because it’s all about how the car is performing and the driver has little or nothing to do with it.

Bill B

I’ve always heard that quote attributed to Mark Twain but I wouldn’t bet on it.

DoninAjax

“The term was popularised in United States by Mark Twain (among others), who attributed it to the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

DoninAjax

Brian should get a better reality check when the current TV contract comes up for renewal. Just like when he tried to find a Cup series sponsor, when he tells them what he wants they’re going to say “You want how much????????”

Norman

Toyota ruined it for me! The N in nascar stands for national not international. Bring back dodge ,loosen up the rules, and get rid of Toyota and I just might go to a race again.

Austin

I don’t see how toyota has anything to do with your lack of support.

Norman

I don’t want a foreign manufacturer In nascar. Don’t care for it , don’t like it. If you want a bunch of foreign manufacturers then it should be called iascar. International association of stock car auto racing.

russ

all three manufacturers currently active in Nascar are international brands now. Plants all over the world and both Ford and Toyota sell their models in multiple countries. In fact I think that the Toyota Camry is supposedly using more US made components than most. In short I think this issue is a thing of the past.

Bill B

So then, are you saying they should definitely change NASCAR to IASCAR regardless of Toyota’s participation?

Bill B

Well that about covers it Amy. The only thing I would add is that there is also a bit of disenfranchisement (is that a word?) among the diehard fan base. Too many years of being given lip service about how important the fan is to NASCAR but their actions don’t measure up. That breeds anger and anyone that is on the fence about going to a race for any reason gets pushed over the edge.

Upstate24fan

Falling attendance is not just a NASCAR problem. The Yankees just removed seats this year. The Old Stadium seated 60,000+. I believe the new one now seats less than 50,000 now. I don’t like to see it, but on the positive side its easier to get tickets (no more waiting lists at Bristol).

RMM

I was at Martinsville on Sunday. The track was about 60% full.

The later starting times are going to really hurt attendance. Starting races at 3:00 local time makes it very difficult for people traveling 3 or more hours to attend the race.

The Fall Martinsville race will start about 3:15 pm, about 2 1/2 hours later than in years past. That will keep a lot of people away.

wildcatsfan2016

RMM, I agree with you. We always went to the races in Martinsville and usually the race was over and there was time to either drive straight back or get to the airport to catch the 8 p.m. flight out. With the later start times, that isn’t possible and so the cost of the trip goes up to add another night in a hotel.

Plus while Kurt and his friends are still having fun at the races (and I’m happy for them), it seems that many people, and I include myself in that, stopped having fun and so don’t go anymore. That’s also a reasonable choice from that point of view. I spend my $ on entertainment that is fun for me, not because I used to like it. When taking a nap in the middle of a race seems like a good option, then there is a problem. That isn’t usually a problem at Martinsville because they don’t get strung out as much but at the cookie cutter tracks, sheesh, that was a big issue. Yeah supposedly the segments will “fix” that problem but it seems silly to me that they had to go there. Adding them just admits that the racing was boring most of the time.

Also as Steve pointed out, there aren’t home teams for races so comparing NASCAR to the stick and ball sports doesn’t apply. And now with the new rules on being wrecked, well, you could go to a race, your favorite driver is out on the first lap and can’t fix the car, so you really did waste your $.

paltex

Not to repeat what others have said, but nascar has thrown the old fans under the bus and, if they are trying to get support from the young generation, forget it. Monster energy won’t get the young crowd to nascar because they have a LOW ATTENTION SPAN. Young people flock to drag racing because the race is over in seconds, then on to the next race and so on. Monster energy wont keep them awake for 3 hrs. or more.

Nascar is reaping what they sowed, now the middle age and older folk found something else to do on Sunday.

Kurt

I haven’t missed a single race at Martinsville since 1998. The racing there Sunday was as good as any I’ve been to with a few exceptions. It’s people’s negative attitudes for one reason or another they don’t go support. Well you can sit at home all you want but there’s only 1 Nascar and if it goes away the we have nothing and we all lose! It’s mind over matter. If people could get over their beefs and ease the pain in their sore butts they will find that the race tracks welcome you with open arms as they always have! I still have just as much fun as I always have because I don’t let the petty things stop me fromantic laughing with my family and friends. THE only thing stopping people from going is themselves. That’s a fact.

jim

Been going to races since the early 70’s. Myself and friends would go to 5 races a year. This has become so scripted with the cookie cutter tracks, drivers, and cars. Look at the ticket prices this was a blue collar sport That was growing until they decided to take it uptown.
Guys like Earnhart, Ellliot, Wallace wouldn’t be in today’s Nascar.
They Nascar seem to worry more with what they read on social media. They also want to be F1 with the terminology that they are using i.e. P1 podium finishes and paddock they want to go to Europe.
The technology has driven the cost way up and the racing has suffered. Thats why we have wave a rounds and lucky dogs. How many cars would be on the lead lap with out this gimmick.
Lets not forget that you buy your rides now more so then ever.
We were the ones who’s fathers took us and in turn we took our kids and grand kids. Gone are the days of driver signing autographs for hours and show cars all over town.

JTW

I think most writers of Nascar oriented pieces don’t give enough credence to the connection between the TV presentation and the decline of the interest in our sport as a whole. I grew up in Detroit in the sixties before Michigan International Speedway opened in 1968 or 1969. I was a drag racer and a drag racing fan. I didn’t know much about Nascar or follow it at all. I never attended a Cup series race at MIR until I saw the 1979 Daytona 500 on live TV. I was hooked! The broadcast presentation was nothing short of EXCITING. The play by play was fast paced and descriptive to the point that I felt like I was there! There were times during the race where I felt as winded as the drivers must have been. My point is this: The TV presentation made me a fan, not attending a race in person. I have since attended dozens of Nascar Cup and Xfinity races but you can’t go to all of them. The TV presentation kept me involved in the sport. That all changed with the FOX TV deal. No nothing producers ruined the race presentation. The races became NOTHING more than a vehicle for commercials. Unfortunately the other networks followed the FOX formula and here we are today. The big teams are making $. The networks are making $. BF is making $. The fans? We are screwed and Nascar just doesn’t care. Spec racing stinks. It seems that the aforementioned Nascar oriented writers miss the TV presentation connection just like BF misses everything else.

Steve

While I agree with most of this article Amy, I don’t agree with a few things you mentioned:

-Comparing the NFL to Nascar attendance is not the same thing. Nascar is a tour and is in a different city each week. There is no home game, except for the drivers really, so Nascar can’t benefit from that the way the NFL can. NFL fans can buy season tickets for their team and can go see their team every week they are home. They can only go to a Nascar race once a year, unless they are willing to travel that is.

-Also you can’t compare one game in MLB to Nascar attendance. Nascar races once a week. If you added the MLB attendance of all the games in a given week vs Nascar, that would be a closer comparison, but I just don’t think you can compare them at all. You also have the home game affect mentioned in my last bullet point.

I’m not defending Nascar though. The brought all this on themselves. TV money was far more important for France and now he is reaping what he has sown as far as attendance.

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