Racing Returns, Fans Vanish

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The Martinsville show excellent, but fan support lags

The Martinsville show excellent, but fan support lags

by Mike Neff

Martinsville Speedway provided another fantastic race last weekend with 24 lead changes among 12 drivers swapping paint and knocking fenders. Six points now separate first and second in the Chase standings by virtue of Denny Hamlin’s win, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a leader for 90 laps. And, maybe most telling, was that there was no late-race debris caution thrown to engineer an exciting finish.

The race was attended by 56,000 fans — 92 percent capacity for the speedway — while 3.9 million fans watched the race on television. While at first blush those numbers seem decent, when compared to the rest of the Chase races, the Martinsville event was behind California, Dover and Charlotte in terms of attendance and viewership. Fans continue to vocally complain about what is wrong with NASCAR and how it needs to get back to its short track racing roots, but fail to back that up with their actions.

Martinsville Speedway has been on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule since the series’ first season in 1949 and is one of only two race tracks still in existence from that inaugural season. Hard core fans scream about tradition, history and how the sanctioning body turns its back on the foundation of the sport, but when the time comes to support these cornerstone facilities, the fans continue to drop the ball.

There’s no doubt that the Martinsville, Va., area is suffering mightily during this economic downturn, with unemployment near 20 percent. However, local fans are only part of the attendance for any major touring series event, and fans from outside of the region need to speak with their wallets by showing up at the half-mile paper clip. Of course, there are the usually excuses from fans — the traffic is a problem, parking is difficult, ticket prices are too high, hotel rates are ridiculous — but by comparison, Martinsville is on par with all of the other tracks on the schedule.

The speedway has done its best to help alleviate the traffic problems associated with entering and exiting the venue. Track management has worked with the state of Virginia to secure a grant from the Tobacco Commission for an upgrade to the immediate area’s infrastructure, ultimately building a new exit ramp from US 58 next to the speedway to help ease traffic flow. As part of the agreement securing the grant, International Speedway Corp. has promised to host two Sprint Cup races at the facility for the next five years. The Virginia Tourism Commission has also committed to assisting in promoting the Martinsville races through its nationwide marketing campaigns.

As far as ticket prices, Martinsville is always trying to make the racing experience affordable for the fans. This year it offered a family four pack for the Tums Fast Relief 500 that allowed a family to purchase four tickets (two adult and two child), four hot dogs, four soft drinks and two Martinsville hats for $99. To score four tickets to a Cup race for $25 is a pretty decent deal to begin with, but add in food, drinks and souvenirs for four and it is pretty hard to claim the speedway isn’t doing its best to make attending a Cup race affordable. In addition, Martinsville offered other tickets specials, from $25 backstretch and $40 Bill France Tower seats to $55 Clay Earl Tower and $65 Sprint Tower seats. The prices are without a doubt as reasonable as any found on the Cup schedule, and offer a wide variety of options.

Weather is also a factor that tends to make fans stay away from races, and Martinsville has been working hard with NASCAR to try and move its spring date closer to the late-April timeframe it occupied for years. Next year’s schedule sees the spring race moved to the first weekend in April, which will certainly allow for more comfortable conditions. The fall race lands on Halloween weekend in 2011, which should be an ideal time to enjoy the hills of southern Virginia.

The bottom line is that the fans can complain all they want that NASCAR is getting away from its roots by moving more and more races to 1.5- and 2-mile cookie-cutter tracks, but when the rubber hits the road, the fans are dropping the ball in proving to the sanctioning body that short track racing is what they want to see.

The track offers some of the best racing, year in and year out, that anyone will see during the season. Cars beat and bang, strategy comes into play and occasionally there are even dustups on and off the track, as we saw last weekend with Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon. However, the fans left 4,000 empty seats in the stands on Sunday and didn’t tune in for the television broadcast, so there’s no reason for the suits in Daytona to be impressed with a crowd of 56,000 fans for a great race when Fontana gets ripped for having 70,000 in the stands at a boring one.

The populace is going to the polls next week to elect government officials for the next two years and a groundswell seems determined to send a message to Washington that the changes they’ve seen the last couple of years are unacceptable. The fans of NASCAR need to do the same thing with the races at Martinsville and the other short tracks if they truly want to see change. Because if the races at NASCAR’s oldest track are not sold out next year and the year after, then when the five-year commitment from ISC runs its course, the only people to blame for the demise of the track will be the absentee fans.

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The racing at Martinsville was as good as NASCAR fans have seen all season, yet attendance and viewership was still down. Athlon Sports contributor Mike Neff warns that without fan support, the grand old short track stands no chance in the boardroom, where its future will be determined.