According to Denny Hamlin, that’s how NASCAR president Steve Phelps described the glaringly sparse grandstands at Texas Motor Speedway earlier this month.
The grandstands, once packed to the rafters in the track’s first decade of existence, now had entire sections (including where I sat during the inaugural race in 1997) blocked off for the NASCAR Cup Series’ playoff race.
Phelps made his observation in a meeting that included Hamlin the Wednesday before Kansas Speedway’s playoff race (Oct. 24).
— Daniel McFadin (@danielmcfadin) October 17, 2021
Unfortunately for NASCAR, a week after its visit to the Lone Star State, another motorsports series made a Texas trek and was greeted in an entirely different way.
Two years after its last event in the United States, Formula 1 returned to Austin, Texas, for the U.S. Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas.
Maybe it was because COVID-19 kept F1 from visiting in 2020. Or perhaps it’s the increased awareness of the series provided by Netflix’s Drive to Survive series that’s three seasons strong. Or the close championship battle between two drivers who have combined to win 12 of 17 races this season.
Whatever the reasons, the stands in Austin were jam-packed.
— Formula 1 (@F1) October 24, 2021
Meanwhile, in Kansas City …
Maybe it was the 550-horsepower package, which was used for the final time with the current car.
Or the fact rain was in the forecast all week.
Maybe it was because Kansas Speedway hosts two points races a year.
Or possibly it was because there’s nothing to do at or around Kansas Speedway in your down time except visit the casino next door that sponsors the race.
Whatever the reasons, just before the start of the Hollywood Casino 400, this was the scene at Kansas Speedway.
— Daniel McFadin (@danielmcfadin) October 24, 2021
Pre-race fan zone pic.twitter.com/wNaU4lERhN
— Jenna Fryer (@JennaFryer) October 24, 2021
Combine the proximity of each series’ Texas race on the calendar and the frustrating decision by NBC to have the race start within a half-hour of the U.S. Grand Prix, and you couldn’t ask for a more worst-case scenario optics-wise.
This comparison isn’t a problem every weekend, though. NASCAR is guaranteed to be bested twice a year as far as receiving attention: on Memorial Day weekend with the Indianapolis 500 and when F1 visits.
“Whenever they do come to United States, it naturally ramps up,” Brad Keselowski said before Sunday’s race. “I think that’ll always be the case. But I do think we should always be mindful of other sports or sports properties.”
Big events like the Daytona 500, the championship race at Phoenix Raceway, Watkins Glen International and the inaugural race at Nashville Superspeedway (which featured traffic jams from the amount of people trying to get in) are among the Cup events that sold out this year or in recent non-COVID-19 influenced seasons.
Road America reportedly hosted around 100,000 people for Cup’s return there on July 4, the Wisconsin track’s highest attendance since the mid-20th century.
But that didn’t get nearly the attention or praise of Sunday’s COTA event.
Earlier this year, NASCAR Chief Marketing Officer Pete Jung told me more than half of the people who bought tickets to the inaugural Cup race at COTA were bought by people who’d never been to a race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Aside from Watkins Glen, all of those were events, new races or held at smaller venues.
Aside from potentially having dates taken away, what do you do about tracks like Texas and Kansas that don’t host marquee races and are clearly hurting?
“Whether we got to work with them or audit them, whatever it might be, we’ve got to fix the promotion side of things,” Hamlin said. “And certainly, I think that everyone could be held to a higher standard, especially the tracks, given the revenue they have.”
Kyle Busch had a more succinct way of putting it.
“‘Make promoters great again’ is kind of our go-to,” Busch said Sunday. “Why are people at COTA for Formula 1? Is it because they only come here once a year and we’ve got 38 shows and so we’re a little redundant maybe? It’s not really an event (anymore). […] I had a friend of mine who I’ve been friends with for 10 or so years reach out to me last weekend and said ‘I had no idea you guys were in town for the Texas race. I live six minutes from the speedway.'”
But what about when the marketing works?
What needs to be done to make the whole race weekend valuable for those fans who’ve made the effort and investment to show up at the track?
For Keselowski, he wants to see the return of a more lively fan midway outside tracks.
“I think when I first started coming to the races, before the broadcast was so important, and it was more about the events. (What) stood out the most to me is you could go to the midway and it felt like you’re at a fair,” Keselowski said. “It doesn’t feel that way now. That’s changed so much, right? And not that that’s good or bad. But I think there’s a lot of ways that we could spice it up.”
Keselowski’s “No. 1 contention” around the midway is “simple things like driver interaction.”
But according to Keselowski, those interactions come at a price … to the driver.
“I would love to interact more with the fans. Anytime I go to do it, I get charged,” Keselowski said. “If I want to go to an event somewhere or if I want to just even park a souvenir trailer outside and sign autographs for fans (the tracks says) ‘Oh, that’ll cost you $20 grand.’ ‘I’m doing this for the fans.’ ‘No, we want our $20 grand. In fact, this week, it’s $40 grand.’
“I’m not going to pay $40 grand to sign autographs for you to collect the ticket money. That makes no sense. So until those things change, there’s at least from my side a complete deep motivation to not do those things.”
This might be the one subject Keselowski and rival Busch see eye-to-eye on.
“$30,000 a spot out in the Midway,” Busch said. “Every track is different. They have their own pricing. But yeah, it’s way too high. That’s why the Midway is dead. So you don’t have a Midway, you don’t have any fan interaction. You don’t have fans coming out.”
In the end, Sunday was an optics battle that F1 won. That’s important for the perception of any sport. As noted, before the last two weekends, NASCAR had its fair share of great optics this year.
On Tuesday, everyone got a dose of reality.
NASCAR didn’t play second fiddle to F1. Despite its clear gains, the international series was actually the third fiddle to Cup and the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
U.S. motorsports viewership last weekend:
1) NASCAR Cup (NBCSN): 2.105 million
2) NASCAR Xfinity (NBC): 1.306 million
3) F1 (ABC): 1.225 million
4) MotoGP (NBC): 510,000
— Adam Stern (@A_S12) October 26, 2021
Keselowski spoke to the dynamic that now hovers over TV viewing of sports vs. event attendance.
“Every sport, at least for the United States, [seems to] be more interested in events than broadcasts, where we seem to be the opposite and more interested in broadcast than an event,” Keselowski said. “And that’s flipped over the years, 20 years ago, I would have said we were probably the opposite, we were where they [F1] are. So generally speaking, when you can’t get the broadcast money, you go after the amount of money, the broadcast money [which] is much bigger, much larger pot. So in that sense, I would say we are ahead, undoubtably [sic] compared to them here in the United States.
“But there’s no reason why we can’t have both. I think that’s something that we should certainly aspire to.”
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