Estimates that 120,000 fans were in the stands at the Bristol Motor Speedway this past Sunday were gross exaggerations. Maybe, between the Nationwide and Cup races combined, there were 120,000-130,000. But any talk of six digit attendance figures for this event are figments of someone’s imagination… that, or the usual deliberate attempt to conceal just how many people stayed home.
The downturn from just a year ago is shocking. Taking a conservative estimate of 125,000 for last year’s spring race, and comparing it to the 80,000 or so that I believed were present on Sunday… that’s a one-year decline of 36%. It was depressing to witness in person, especially considering the history of this track, whose waiting list for suites and tickets just a few seasons ago rivaled even the Washington Redskins’ season ticket list in their heyday.
Some will say this crowd’s the latest sign of our economic downturn at work. That’s not the case. Even after a concentrated effort by local businesses to cut hotel prices, even as the track made fans fully aware that yes, their wait list was gone and tickets were available, more people stayed home on Bristol race weekend to cause the first significant decrease of any track this year.
Square in the minds of all seeking answers is the recent reconfiguration that turned Bristol from a one-groove bullring to a multi-groove speedbowl. For whatever reason, more side-by-side racing with fewer wrecks is proving to be a difficult sell.
Typically, the night race draws the bigger crowd for Bristol’s half-mile theatrics. But after a horrific Spring attendance record, the track better start addressing why the hottest ticket in town is going ice cold – and fast.
But the change that really should be blamed for Bristol now joining the ranks of the mortals, becoming “just another track” struggling to sell tickets happened long before the addition of variable banking.
It came at the hands of the Chase.
As much as Bristol is hyped, it’s the night race at the track that is the crown jewel. That’s the race that fans bought tickets for. That’s the race circled on every calendar. It was the night race that saw Dale turn Terry, multiple gloves thrown and even the most innocent driver’s blood boil in extenuating circumstances. And thanks to the Chase schedule, which pits a race that used to be a no-holds-barred slugfest a mere two events from the cutoff to make the playoffs, the contenders points race and the others strive not to be the driver that ruins Chase hopes for a big-name competitor. Attendance may be higher in August, but it’s the night race that’s lost much of its luster since Brian France’s brainchild came into this world.
So with its crown jewel race reduced to a shell of what it once was, even a solid event at the new Bristol, one that saw three big names duking it out for the win Sunday in what may have been a preview of the title fight to come in 2011 proved to be a tough sell to fans.
TWO: Then Again, #### if Bristol Ain’t Expensive
Of course, races cost money nowadays, and while greatly exaggerated the impact of community businesses jacking up hotel prices appears to have merit. A local news article described how in their efforts to draw more fans to Bristol in a harsh economic climate, a number of local hotels agreed to work with the track and fans to lower prices. Yet the one price quoted in that article, from a Comfort Inn established the rate as a minimum of $199-249 a night. Couple that with gas prices not in the control of local merchants (the cheapest this writer found on his trip down I-81 to the track was $3.29 a gallon for regular unleaded, over 40 miles away), and fans were still getting robbed – they just weren’t getting raped afterwords as in years past.
Granted, other reports cited lower rates for area stops I couldn’t find. But for the hotels in the article cited above, they noted that even after cutting prices, there was no surge in reservations. This isn’t rocket science, either. For nearly 20 years, the area surrounding the Bristol Motor Speedway was among, if not the, most notorious on the Cup circuit for price gouging. Paying $400 a night for a hotel room was commonplace, and that’s not including in-demand, sold out tickets and expensive merchandise.
Sadly, with that in mind it seems that the Tri-Cities area surrounding the world’s fastest half-mile is learning the hard way that earning a reputation as an opportunistic gouger is a hard, hard, hard image to shed. Right alongside NASCAR itself; oh, how the mighty have fallen…
THREE: Speaking of NASCAR, They Played Their Role, Too
Not only was attendance way down for Sunday’s race, it was the first event of the 2011 Cup season that saw TV ratings decline from where they were a year ago. And again, this was on a day where the race wasn’t too long (it finished in under three hours), it was run at a non cookie-cutter venue, and its on-track product was actually worth watching. Between swaths of empty bleachers, fewer viewers watching and Kyle Busch making a mockery of the front of the field on Saturday and for much of Sunday, a great deal of momentum that NASCAR seemed to be riding on came crashing down.
Go figure, it happened the first race back from an off-weekend… a mere three events into the season. Sure, the Truck Series did race at Darlington over that bye, but it’s a tall order for a race solely covered on SPEED that Kasey Kahne made a snoozer of to sustain the type of wave that Trevor Bayne’s historic win and Jeff Gordon’s resurgence had started.
And it begs the question…who in their right mind thinks this schedule makes sense? There is a justifiable need for an off-weekend after sending teams from two weeks in Daytona to two weeks out west, thousands of miles from the race shops, but in terms of trying to get a sport and season up to speed a bye weekend 1/12th of the way into the schedule is about as counterproductive as it comes. Couple that with the fact that NASCAR tried to get back into the public conscious at the same time as March Madness came on TV, and there’s no need to look at what kind of racing Phoenix or Las Vegas have to offer. NASCAR took a week off right as it was getting back on its feet, then tried to go after one of sport’s 800-pound gorillas trying to get back into the routine.
If that’s not a recipe for declining TV ratings, Michael McDowell is your future 2011 Cup champion.
FOUR: Edwards Didn’t Bump Kyle… Again
In the second Nationwide Series race of the season at Phoenix, Kyle Busch dominated all afternoon long until the final stretch, where a hard-charging Carl Edwards took advantage of a late restart and became the first car to pose a real challenge to the No. 18. For laps Edwards raced Busch even, at times even getting alongside him. But the No. 60 could never make the pass, leaving Busch driving off into the sunset.
Fast forward to Sunday’s Cup race, and Edwards apparently did not learn his lesson; get close to Kyle Busch, pass Kyle Busch. No matter what it takes.
Again, Edwards on the short run was able to race with his rival, even getting alongside the No. 18 car for a number of laps. But Busch started to pull away, and Edwards let him. Opting to bank on a late-race caution coming out instead of pulling an early bump-and-run, then spending 15-20 laps playing defense with Rowdy on his bumper, Edwards let the No. 18 drive off into the sunset… leading to a satisfying result. Big picture, you had a good points day for Edwards and an even better one for Kyle – with a trophy to prove it.
This early in the year, it’s almost as if Busch is enjoying much the same treatment that Jimmie Johnson has gotten from his closest competitors the past five seasons at the front. Everyone’s tip-toeing, afraid to make a move that could ruin his day or, in Rowdy’s case, make him angry. If even mighty Carl Edwards, who time and time again and has shown no fear or reluctance to use the chrome horn, won’t put it to a continual race winner that’s getting the best of him, Busch is going to score some serious hardware in 2011.
FIVE: For Race Fans That Missed It
For those who either spent 500 laps in the Bristol infield with no ear protection or crawled under a rock all weekend long, Kyle Busch swept the weekend, marking his fifth consecutive win at Bristol across all the NASCAR series racing on the high banks. In other news, there has never been a more accomplished Buschwhacker.
And that begs the question… what are the chances that Busch will file to run the Modified race run there in August to keep the streak alive? Put it this way, if there’s a bookie out there stupid enough to run a pool on that, take Busch running the Modified race – no matter the odds.