A Different Kind of Track

Attendance down, racing changes at Bristol

Attendance down, racing changes at Bristol

by Mike Neff

Bristol Motor Speedway is sometimes referred to as the “Cathedral of Racing.” For years obtaining tickets to the events at the alter of speed was harder than getting the homecoming queen to give it up on prom night — after all, there were divorce settlements where people took the Bristol season tickets over the 401k account. However, that all changed last March when the 53-race consecutive sellout streak at the world’s fastest half-mile came to an end. While there’s been continued debate over what, exactly, is keeping the fans away, the inarguable fact is that they are staying away in droves.

Speedway Motorsports, Inc., purchased Bristol in 1996 when the seating capacity was roughly 71,000. Over the next 10 seasons, track general manager and president Jeff Byrd along with the deep pockets of owner Bruton Smith, more than doubled the capacity to somewhere in the neighborhood of 160,000 seats.

NASCAR was relishing its biggest boom in popularity at the time. And since every seat was continually filled, there was no question the additional investment was paying off. Unfortunately, just prior to those seats being completed, the sanctioning body switched to the Chase format and ultimately the new style of racecars, which took away much of the personality of the vehicles on the track and impacted how they raced.

In 2007, the track’s surface was beginning to crumble due to years of hot summers and cold winters in the area, so while the track was resurfaced with new concrete, it was also reengineered to have progressive banking, allowing for side-by-side racing. Couple these fundamental changes with one of the most damaging economic downturns in the history of the United States and the end result was a drastic reduction in attendance that culminated with a just over half-full venue at last weekend’s Jeff Byrd 500.

There is no exact answer as to which of the different changes had the most impact, but it may very well be certain parts of all of them. What’s obvious is that people who used to spend their money at the track are now choosing to keep it for other uses.

The Chase format definitely had an impact on the racing at Bristol. The track once offered single-file racing, which encouraged — no, mandated — bump-n-run maneuvers that set tempers boiling and passions flaring. With the advent of the Chase, a more conservative, “good points day” mentality prevailed, as the goal of the drivers in the early spring and again in early fall is to simply qualify for the playoffs. Tearing up one’s equipment going all-out for a win is a fool’s way of missing the cut.

The new car design has presented a problem not just at Bristol, but across the circuit. The lack of personality and its IROC-feel have been complaints of the fans (and some drivers, behind closed doors, of course) since it was introduced at Bristol in 2007. Television ratings and attendance across the entire schedule have gone down for the most part since the new car rolled out. The sanctioning body is working hard to bring brand identity back into the series, and the redesign of the car that will be rolled out in 2013 may bring back a feeling that the cars on the track are at least somewhat identifiable with the cars fans drive on the street. While racecars have evolved too far to ever get back to the point that they look exactly like street cars, the folks in Daytona now know that distinguishing a Chevy from a Ford is paramount in the eyes of the sport’s lifeblood — its fans.

Despite cries from the government that the recession has ended (or at least the economy is beginning to rebound), NASCAR and much of its largely blue-collar fanbase wouldn’t know it. Staffers at Bristol that contacted fans who did not renew season tickets stated that the majority coming to Bristol travel over six hours, and with gas prices up and lodging rates on race weekends gouged, they simply can’t afford to make the trip.

Bristol is a “destination race,” meaning the sole destination for the incoming race fan is the track itself. There is no NASCAR Hall of Fame, Vegas Strip or big city nightlife to act as a two-in-one vacation. If a fan is going to spend a mortgage payment on a race weekend, said fan can at least belly up to a blackjack table or cruise the Sunset Strip by choosing other races.

The last factor is one that brings up the most disagreement between fans, media and competitors alike: The aggressive nature of Bristol — which is no longer evident — brought fans to the track. The bumping and banging, bent sheet metal, flying sparks, heightened tempers and occasional fisticuffs defined what many felt was true short-track racing. However, when the track was reconfigured with progressive banking added, the racing groove opened up, allowing cars to run from the bottom of the track to the top. No longer do drivers have to follow one another nose-to-tail and “move” the car in front in order to advance. Drivers can now spend multiple laps running door-to-door around the half-mile racing surface, and while contact does take place, it isn’t a continual activity. Drivers say the “new” Bristol provides great racing, but they fail to understand that fans also require great entertainment.

Multiple fans voiced their opinions on countless internet forums after last weekend’s empty seats were so evident. The vast majority maintained that the reason they aren’t interested in attending races at Bristol anymore is because the racing has changed and they no longer enjoy it. They’re basically saying that the repaving project that gave the drivers multiple racing grooves and allowed for more passing and lead changes is not what they want at Bristol. Ironically, the racing at Bristol now resembles that of Richmond, which is typically touted as the track that provides the best racing (and facility) on the schedule.

Apparently that’s not what fans want from Bristol, and they’re speaking with their wallets.

There is no question that Bristol is an amazing venue with a half-mile oval surrounded by bleachers that reach some eight stories into the sky. It’s an awe-inspiring sight that should be on any true sports fan’s bucket list. Unfortunately, as competitive as the racing is, it doesn’t appear to be what fans are interested in watching.

While the speedway is not likely to rip up the surface again any time soon, the aging of the concrete may result in the loss of some grip, eventually returning it to a single-file battle royale. When that occurs the fans that left will return, but there may be another faction of fans — the ones who don’t need carnage to enjoy good racing — and they might slowly fill up the coliseum as the economy continues to heal.

In the meantime, one thing is for sure: Although the stands may have been only half-full, Bristol still welcomed over 80,000 people. And that’s in a down year. Better times are ahead.

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<p> Athlon Sports contributor Mike Neff examines why attendance at a track that once enjoyed a 53-race sellout streak is so bad.</p>

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