NASCAR on the Wrong Track(s)

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New venues fail to attract new fans or retain old

New venues fail to attract new fans or retain old

by Vito Pugliese

NASCAR’s running of the inaugural Sprint Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway last weekend should have been the culmination of all things grand — one that left an indelible image on the core of race fans everywhere. Suffice to say, the result was not exactly a 2001 event at Talladega or the 1994 Brickyard 400. Instead, it was what one could have reliably expected: just another 1.5-mile race along the lines of Las Vegas, Kansas and —excuse me while I cough a little bit — Chicagoland.

While it was certainly refreshing to see the grandstands full (once people actually got in) at the Kentucky race, coupled with the announcement that the Nationwide Race at Lucas Oil Raceway (formerly O’Reilly Raceway Park, which begat Indianapolis Raceway Park) is being moved to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, part of NASCAR’s popularity problems are becoming readily apparent:

The tracks hosting NASCAR races are terrible.

You’d be hard pressed to find a track built in the last 15 years that comes remotely close to fostering racing the likes of which was commonplace at some of the more storied NASCAR locales — particularly ones that have lost a date or are little more than termite estates now. It took Auto Club Speedway (i.e., California) 14 seasons of competition before it hosted a race worth finishing, which has been reinforced by the dwindling attendance and its loss of a race date. Kentucky was little more than another race at Chicago, albeit with twice as many gracious and geared-up fans, some of whom waited over five hours to get in, while many others — estimated to be as many as 20,000, but more likely around 5,000 — gave up and went home. Inexcusable on the track’s part, by the way.

The decision to move the Nationwide Race form LOR/ORP/IRP to the Brickyard is even more befuddling. Part of the motivation is to help sell packaged ticket bundles that include the Nationwide and Rolex Grand Am Series (the latter on the former Formula One road course) to fill the stands at the speedway, which have become glaringly empty in the last few years. Credit the tire fiasco of 2008, the economic impact on the Midwest, the general malaise that has overcome NASCAR as a whole since 2007 and the sport’s message becoming more mixed.

For a circuit like the Nationwide Series that barely fills up the frontstretch at any one track, how is it going to look on TV when just a smattering of people are occupying seats by the flag stand at the big track? That said, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone within the sport who is not toeing the company line about the Nationwide Series at Indianapolis as a “great opportunity.”

It is great for those competitors who have never raced there, and may spur some sponsorship interest. However, for the fans and those Nationwide teams that compete and struggle to show up on a regular basis, it simply compounds an already growing problem. How are Nationwide teams to compete with their Cup counterparts at a track as one-dimensional as Indy, while a short track like the one down the road puts them on an even keel for a change?

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<p> Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese notes that, while expansion for NASCAR is good, it can come at a cost if its new racetracks don't deliver.</p>

I was on hand at the track formerly known as Indianapolis Raceway Park in ’07 when Toyota scored its first Nationwide Series victory with series stalwart Jason Leffler and fellow Toyotian David Reutimann in hot pursuit. There was racing throughout the pack, a clear view of pit road from virtually any seat and a full grandstand, to boot. The next day, while at the Brickyard 400, no one could have been aware of what was transpiring between Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick in the closing laps, until Smoke let loose with one of his more memorable post-race interviews that was broadcast over the PA system.

What’s more, that race was one of the few that had a relatively full crowd, and considering the typical margin of victory at a Nationwide race, I fail to see how the move helps anyone.

What is doubly frustrating is that the tracks NASCAR should be at — or looking at visiting — are largely ignored. Since 2000, the margin of victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway — which lost a date to Kentucky — stands at 1.14 seconds, with some of the most memorable last-lap, down-to-the-stripe finishes in the sport’s history highlighting its finishes. The margin in Saturday night’s Kentucky race was .179 seconds, courtesy of a late-race, double-file restart. With the exception of the start of the race and a lap 142 restart, there wasn’t much memorable about the evening with the exception of Jamie McMurray’s smoke show in Turn 2 and the aerial view of traffic backed up for miles on I-71 (not that TNT acknowledged the significance of the shot).

The Nationwide race at Road America last month, which looked like musclecar bumper cars, drew over 50,000 on a Saturday — with half of the track not visible or even having a place to stand and watch. The NNS attendance at Daytona, a track synonymous with stock car racing? 50,000. There are clearly tracks NASCAR should be entertaining to entertain, rather than racing at a venue just because the guy who owns most of the tracks owns it.

Considering NASCAR needs to reach as many fans as possible, racing at as many new venues and in new areas of the country is necessary. Five years ago, I was of the mindset that NASCAR should predominately run in the southeastern United States, but make an effort to visit most every area of the country at tracks at least twice. That was fine. It helped build the sport and NASCAR could reap the benefits.

An attempt to build newer tracks in untraditional markets, however, has run into stiff opposition.

The planned Bristol-esque track that was long-rumored to be built on Long Island fizzled, and when a big push for a track to be built in Washington state in 2007 was broached, the speaker of the house in the state’s legislature accused Richard Petty of having a DUI, while another house member stated publicly that, “These are not the kind of people you would want living next door to you. They’d be the ones with the junky cars in the front yard and would try to slip around the law.”

Considering the precarious position the sport remains in as the economy dictates what survives and what dies, Jeff Burton’s sentiment is right on target: Going to different markets and areas of the country are key, but only if it produces a better product.

NASCAR was arguably at its best in the early- to mid-1990s, with exponential growth, interest, excitement, appropriate coverage to pique curiosity and a lack of over-saturation. Each time a new track was built, a little piece of the past died, though. That will come with any evolutionary step, but is it too much to ask for the old favorites like Atlanta and Darlington to not be substituted for calamities like the tracks in Fontana and Kentucky?

This isn’t to say that NASCAR’s oldest tracks haven’t had issues of their own. I once sat in traffic reminiscent of Kentucky’s going to Michigan International Speedway in the ’90s. When Charlotte Motor Speedway brought the term “levigation” into our vocabulary, it did so by destroying the finest 1.5-mile track that motorsports had ever known. And regardless of how brightly Bruton Smith paints the walls yellow, it is not the same track it once was.

We’ve all watched as chunks of the track at Martinsville and Daytona started flying around, while North Wilkesboro never really looked much different when it hosted its final race in 1996 than its first 40 years earlier. The difference is each of these places provides something special, having been witness to some of the greatest moments in the sport’s history. If they are going to be replaced by new locations, is it too much to ask that they produce something tangible — beyond ROI for ISC and SMI — in return?

New tracks are needed in NASCAR, no question. The problem is, the ones that are awarded new dates continually resemble the same ones that no one cares about in the first place. That points to a downward trend — and at the absolute wrong time for a sport that has some distinct challenges that lay ahead.

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