Race Weekend Central

MPM2Nite: Bristol Crowd Control

Hey, wow, man, where did everybody go? Think what you might about the quality of Sunday’s Bristol Cup race (March 20), but one thing that stood out was the stunning amount of empty seats in the grandstands and empty parking spaces in the RV lot. What made the empty seats that much more remarkable is the fact tickets to either of the Cup races at Bristol were once described, by a stick-and-ball publication no less, as the toughest seats to get in all of sports.

They tended to be handed down through families and I know of several ugly divorces where the disposition of renewable tickets to the Bristol were one of the main arguing points. Remember, this track is one where Cup events officially sold out 55 consecutive times up until three races ago. (Though to be honest, there have been smatterings of empty seats as far back as three years ago). During this period, the track frantically tried to keep up with demand by adding seats, sometimes thousands of them at a time – but it was never enough.

Spin control is already trying to paint a happy face on Sunday’s crowd size. They point out, and rightly so, even a crowd that local police estimated at between 75-80,000 souls is a whole bunch of people for any sort of sporting or entertainment event. (I think that when NASCAR and the track owners estimate crowd size they count “soles” not “souls” thus roughly doubling the actual attendance as most people have two feet.)

Then, of course there’s NASCAR’s standby excuse since 2007, the economy. It’s been a tough month for consumers as gasoline prices soared sixty cents and more in some areas. With fans averaging a six-hour ride to the track than back home again the price of go-juice probably kept some folks who were on the fence about going to the event as potential race-day walkup ticket purchasers home on the couch.

It’s bad enough that gas is approaching $4 per gallon again if you drive a Focus, but it’s doubly bad if you drive a V10 crew cab dually or a Class A Holiday Rambler Road Rancher Supreme Jumbo motorcoach.

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Dialing It In: Running on Empty - If NASCAR Attendance Falls, Blame the Gas Tank - Not the Fans

And unlike, say, Dover or Fontana, Bristol is in a very rural area. They don’t have a huge pool of potential fans within an hour’s drive they can appeal to with race week advertising. But the “high price of gas” explanation has its problems. Typically, fans buy their race tickets months in advance and a few months ago gas prices were stable and fairly friendly by today’s standards. And at least locally I haven’t seen the same rush of consumers trying to trade in big SUVs for a Yaris, Prius or Smart Car like there was last time gas prices inched up towards $4.

Others want to blame the shift of the first Bristol Cup race from April to March. I’m not sure what they’re basing that assumption on. In fact, the last time the Cup cars ran in April rather than March was back in 1999 and that was because of the odd date Easter occurred that year. The perception is an April date would be better for the track because the weather is typically warmer and drier. Odd thing is that in August Bristol tends to be stormy and stinking hot but it never kept the crowds at home.

Track management even tried claiming that the lower attendance was a product of their own earlier success. They feel race fans haven’t gotten the message yet that yes, at long last you CAN get tickets to Bristol perhaps even as late as race-day morning. Well if that was the case, August’s Bristol crowd ought to be huge again because it should have been obvious to anyone who saw last Sunday’s event on TV they could have showed up with a platoon of friends on race morning and all sat together in prime seats with plenty of elbow room for all.

My own offbeat theory on declining attendance has to do with the graying of the NASCAR nation’s fans. While FOX and the other networks are desperately courting those “coveted” 18-34-year-old demographics the most loyal fans, those who watch and attend races routinely, get older every year. (Yes, NASCAR tried to get rid of that graying population of older fans over the last five or six years, setting them afloat on the ice-flo of expediency while searching for a younger, hipper, more affluent fanbase, but a lot of them still remain.)

Anyone who has ever attended a race at Bristol can attest just getting to your seat is quite a workout. I call the area where the track is located “the Tennessee Alps.” Fans often have to park a good distance from the track entrance and walk over hilly terrain to get there, sweating their butts off as they lug their coolers. Even once they reach the track, many fans stand stunned looking at the aluminum mountain of steps that lead to their seats.

One Bristol race day prior to the event I went up into the grandstands to visit with some of my readers who had become friends over the years. When I arrived at their seats they were trying to help a guy in his 50s, who was gray in the face, struggling to breathe and complaining of chest pains. I went to find a track worker and told him I felt this fellow was in imminent danger of a cardiac event. I was told to relay to him to sit there a while, relax and if he didn’t feel better in a half hour to seek help.

Yikes! I don’t know whatever became of him because I had to get back to the garage area.

That particular day I had to park in the lot of a gas station nearly two hilly miles from the track (and it still cost me $10 to park). On the hot and laborious walk back to my rental car I joined dozens of others on the same trek who stopped by a creek that ran behind a campground along that back road to relax and dangle my feet in the water or even take a dip or wade to cool off. “Never again,” I heard more than a few of them groan.

Of course a lot of them were sunburned, bathed in sweat, intoxicated and out of shape, but then the NASCAR nation has never had an official fitness regimen.

And a lot of race fans still smoke. A few years back Bristol decided that there would be no smoking in the grandstands, anywhere. (Isn’t it ironic that the sport used to be “Winston Cup”?) I have heard from more than a few fans who smoke they aren’t going to be able to or even try to go six hours without a smoke even as they inhale the potentially lethal levels of carbon monoxide a race at Bristol generates since they surrounded the track with sky-high grandstands.

Then, of course there’s that 800-pound gorilla in the room officialdom seems not to want to address. Since Bristol was reconfigured with multi-angle banking some (and more than a few) fans well that racing at Bristol has become too tame and orderly. They claim in fact that the new configuration has “ruined” racing at Bristol. They long for the old slam-bang days of one-groove racing with everyone running at the bottom and the only way to pass rooting and gouging the fellow ahead of you out of the way.

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5 Points to Ponder: Empty Seats & No Bump & Run? Are We in Bristol Anymore?

They miss guys punching ambulances, tossing their crash helmets at another driver and in general letting their tempers hit the boiling point. They want to see the car that won the race slamming the wall just past the start finish-line and oh, Lord, yeah, they want to see cages rattled. And rattled hard.

Most all of you remember that little bit of cage rattling Dale Earnhardt did to Terry Labonte and the stunned silence in the broadcast booth afterwards until Ned Jarrett managed to choke out, “He hit him. That’s the dirtiest bit of driving I’ve ever seen.” Most of you recall even Saint Dale was loudly and profanely booed by the crowd after the win, quite a turn of affairs. (And as he responded grinning coyly, “If they ain’t cheering, they better be booing.”)

Fewer of you will recall on that final lap out of the fourth corner Jimmy Spencer was up on Earnhardt and doing his damnedest to wreck him to avenge Labonte. Earnhardt had defined the rules of the game that night and Spencer was willing to play. Had Spencer knocked Dale into the wall and won my guess from being on hand that evening there would have been rioting in the grandstands. It was close enough anyway.

No, Bristol is no longer a haven of barbarianship on track, but even as a hidebound traditionalist I was satisfied with Sunday’s race. If Johnson and Edwards had been a little faster and Busch a little slower we might have been treated to a battle between the reigning five-time champion, a driver going for his fifth win in a row at Bristol and the driver who has won three of the last six races, each of them in a different make of car. The ingredients were all there… the cake just never baked.

Meanwhile, I saw plenty of contact, fenders bent, rear bumpers slammed to the point supports were hanging outside the bodywork, tire marks left and tempers clearly on edge. I was cool with it, but then again I don’t pay for tickets so the masses must prevail. I have heard from countless numbers of fans who think Bristol is now too tame and they either haven’t gone back or aren’t going to in the future.

There’s some validity to that point of view in that the TV ratings were also down for the event. Bristol used to be “must see TV” for fans. To a degree, the night race in August still is. Seeing the sparks shooting off of and from under the cars adds to the drama even when nobody is wrecking anyone else. The way the flash paint looks under the lights and the flames out the tailpipes ratchets it up another notch.

It doesn’t cost you anything in gas to watch a race on TV even if you happen to be unemployed and looking to cut expenditures, but a bunch of folks decided not to watch the race.

How come? Well maybe it was because a lot of the nation was enjoying the first nice weekend of spring. On my Sunday morning ride I saw a lot of folks doing yard work, washing their cars or riding their motorcycles. Lately NASCAR has become a sport where you only have to tune in for the last 20 laps to see the good stuff.

It seems to me that the reconfiguration of Bristol isn’t solely to blame for the lost ticket sales. It’s the perfect storm of less rowdy racing, the new cars, which fans still by and large hate, and the new points system which places even more of an emphasis on not having a bad day rather than having a great one.

If there were another 250 points on the line between first and second do you really believe Carl Edwards wouldn’t have sent Kyle Busch into the wall to get by when he was alongside him? Would Jimmie Johnson have been contentedly riding in third to rise a bunch of places in the points if he wasn’t thinking, “For the first 26 races all you have to do is get into the Chase. Then we race.”? This is the new NASCAR, not leaner and meaner, but more sedate and second rate.

My guess is what’s killing Bristol is actually greed. One fellow who wrote me this week decrying the new-style Bristol racing said he had decided that with the tamer action spending $1,400 on four seats is no longer worth it. Let’s see: $1,400 divided by four is $350 a seat. Jiminy. For that much money I want to either flag the race from the crow’s tower or get strapped in the passenger side of one of the leading cars. I would pay $350 a seat to see Martina McBride and REM open for Springsteen in Honolulu.

As it became apparent that ticket sales were going to be a disaster, track management arrogantly announced they weren’t going to lower ticket prices so supply met demand. Their reasoning was it wouldn’t be fair to the fans who paid full price months ago.

Hmmm. Have they ever flown on a commercial airliner? You might have paid double what the guy sitting beside you did for the seat because he gambled and bought at the last moment. I don’t care. Just get this big old bird off the ground on time, arrive on schedule, don’t lose my baggage and please don’t auger nose first into an Iowa cornfield at 500 mph en route.

Maybe the trick would have been to upgrade the fans who paid full boat into the best open seats and sell the rest of them at what the market dictated. (At least one reader commented on Sunday’s article he was able to get a Nationwide ticket at $10 and a Cup ticket for $40, so either the track relented or scalpers were desperate with unsold inventory prior to the race).

After I commented on it, many readers wrote me they’d been quoted the same $385 a night price for a hotel room near the track with “near” being a relative term.

Curious, I went to one of those online travel sites and looked. If I wanted to go to Bristol this weekend (presumably to participate in a witness protection program because there ain’t no other reason) traveling as a single fellow who wanted a private room I could book that room at a place I have stayed at Bristol, a normally moderate chain I’ve used frequently, I could check in at $105 a night from Friday to Sunday.

Now if I try to go to that same chain hotel (which I won’t name for fear of being sued) for the same nights on the weekend of Bristol night weekend in August they’d like $699-708 a night! Not unless the company of Heather Locklear, three prime rib dinners and a full keg of beer are included in that price, my friends.

Another reader commented he paid $400 for a three-day parking pass in the RV lot at Bristol. That price didn’t include a blackwater hookup. Yeah, that’s a lot more reasonable than the hotel, but then you laid out the big bucks for that RV and all you’re asking for is a slab of level ground big enough to accommodate your vehicle, not a view of the race itself.

When it comes down to it, a stock car race is a 3-4 hour entertainment event that caters to folks who like their action fast and loud. So let’s see. Ma and Pa Fritter decide to take their kids Junior and Tawny to see the Bristol night race this August. That’ll be $2,100 for a single room, presumably with one bed. $1,400 bucks for four prime tickets. Say 500 miles of driving each way in a 20-mpg car at $3.50 a gallon is another is about another $200.

We’re looking at over $3,700 bucks and we still haven’t paid for parking, meals, hot dogs, brews and sodas at the track, a few $40 driver t-shirts and other such foo-foo-raw. I’ve paid half that for cars and trucks I’ve driven for years, including the gray GMC four by half ton that’s sitting outside my office window right now.

Or you could buy a decent used lake boat and use it for a few years worth of happy weekends fishing when the weather is nice. Or cover your cable/phone/internet bill for over three years. Or in my case I could choose to pay the rent on this elderly farmhouse and the acreage it sits on for four months.

Or you could spend the same money on the Bristol night race weekend even knowing if the race is rained out Saturday night Pa Fritters and clan are going to have to miss the race on Sunday so they can head home and Pa can be at work Monday morning when the whistle blows.

The interesting thing is when I was looking at that travel site it seemed the vast majority of hotels in the area are already sold out for the August race weekend. God bless NASCAR fans. But if you’re one of them, when you look at that guy in the seat next to you.. that won’t be me.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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