March 21, 2011
There was an elephant in the room Sunday at Bristol. Or maybe there wasn't, because if there was an elephant anywhere near Thunder Valley, we would've been able to see it from a blimp. Because, you know, there damn sure weren't many people in the stands.
After three weeks of "NASCAR is back!" rah-rah cheerleading, after Bayne and Gordon and Junior Reborn, the stunning attendance woes at Bristol — media estimates put it at 125,000 out of 160,000, but that might be counting some people twice — wasn't just a splash of cold water. This was a splash of cold water, followed by getting the empty bucket thrown right in your face.
This is Bristol, man! Once revered as the toughest ticket in sports, now we're looking at grandstands where you can stretch out for a nap? Come on, what the hell is happening here? Let's consider a few possibilities.
First off, simple economics. If you live far enough from a track that you can't hear it on race day, it costs a ton of money to go to a NASCAR race. Gas costs, hotel costs, tickets: they all go up, and they all add up. And while a NASCAR race is more of an experience than a sporting "event," many people are willing to trade a day or two (or more) on the road for an afternoon spent comfortably on the couch watching the race in HD.
The scheduling probably isn't a tremendous issue from an attendance standpoint. While the NCAA tournament almost certainly affected ratings -- Sports Business Daily reported a 3.9 rating overnight, a 7 percent decline from last year -- it's unlikely it had much of an impact on ticket sales.
Also, it's possible that everyone was just in bathroom/souvenir/beer lines. What? I didn't say it was likely, I just said it was possible.
So what does that leave us with? The racing itself. Longtime readers of this space know I don't have a ton of patience with the cultists of NASCAR's yesteryear. The good ol' days weren't all gumdrops and happiness and five-wide racing with Dale Earnhardt standing on the hood of his moving car, a mighty golden angel roaring for vengeance from the depths of Turn 4 at Talladega, even though that seems to be how some people remember it.
Thus, when people give the knee-jerk "it's the repave" excuse, I cringe a bit. Is it possible that a surface that allows for more passing, more late-race drama, could make for a less-interesting race?
Sure seems that way, doesn't it? The drivers like the track because it allows for passing without the possibility of getting Terry Labonte'd out of the way. The fans hate it for the exact same reason. Who's right?
Both. And neither. Look, the repave at Bristol is here. It's not going away, just like the way that certain avenging angels of NASCAR yore aren't coming back. So we deal with it, we move on. NASCAR and Bristol have to work together to give greater incentive to come to the track. Whether it's a combination of promotion, financial incentives, rules tweaks, whatever — something has to change. Clearly, what got us here won't get us any farther.
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