COMMENTARY | Looking back now -- about 10 or 15 years after the grand idea of expansion hit high gear -- moving the NASCAR brand into new territories probably did seem like a great idea.
With attendance on the climb, television profits soaring, and a fresh new crop of drivers such as Matt Kenseth (Wisconsin), Jimmie Johnson (California), Carl Edwards (Missouri), and Kurt and Kyle Busch (Nevada) emerging from racing circuits outside of southeastern proving grounds, NASCAR was feeling regionally restless and financially constrained.
And the way the popular auto racing series saw it, there was too much momentum, popularity, growth and potential profits to remain essentially trapped in the Southeast. So a decision was made to take the NASCAR show on the road at the expense of racetracks, cities and a loyal fanbase that spent decades supporting and growing its product.
Traditional venues such as North Carolina Speedway (The Rock) and North Wilkesboro Speedway became collateral damage in a sport that turned its interest from green flags to greenbacks -- with both of those popular venues shut down when NASCAR moved out.
Through failing infrastructure and sagging attendance, NASCAR argues that the traditional tracks it left behind in the Southeast weren't meeting the needs for a new and more sophisticated NASCAR spectator, so the time had come to move onward and westward to places such as Chicago, Kansas City, Fontana, Calif., and Las Vegas. But at what expense?
And in almost comical fashion, Darlington Raceway -- host site of the coveted Southern 500 that was traditionally run on Labor Day weekend -- lost one of its two race dates and had its important holiday weekend events moved from South Carolina where they belonged to Auto Club Speedway, somehow fittingly, not far from Hollywood, Calif.
From Jumbotrons and rock concerts, to Wi-Fi and sushi, the newer tracks feature all the sideshows and amenities a race fan could ever imagine … until the green flag drops.
The popular 1.5-mile "Cookie Cutter" blueprint of many newer facilities feature great sightlines, clean bathrooms, and paved parking lots. But the on-track "action" is lame, providing little close racing, no passing and few crashes -- essentially turning the fender-rubbing show from the old tracks like Rockingham into a high-speed game of follow the leader.
And the novelty is steadily wearing off.
Like a brand new toy, the fresh demographic that NASCAR targeted embraced this new show early on and filled the seats accordingly, based more on curiosity and newness than knowledge and interest.
But fads fade, and these new tracks have all suffered diminishing attendance essentially every year since they opened.
According to a report last summer in USA Today, overall attendance in NASCAR's premier racing circuit dropped 8.5 percent from the 2009 to the 2012 race seasons.
And in the last six years, attendance in Chicago dropped 19 percent and Kansas about 20 percent. The crowds became so sparse in Fontana, it eventually surrendered to Atlanta Motor Speedway the Labor Day weekend race that was taken from Darlington.
For the sake of fairness, some older tracks are also suffering attendance slumps. According to racing authority Jayski.com, turnout for the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis is down 54 percent since 2007, and the two races at Michigan International Speedway were down 42 percent in those same six racing seasons.
In a high-speed case of follow the money, it's no surprise that many of the race dates awarded during NASCAR's hyper-relocation period went to tracks owned by International Speedway Corp. -- a business created by NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr., and currently run by CEO Jim France.
And since 1994 when the Chase for the Championship was launched and the schedule shuffling hit full throttle, ISC has managed to secure at least one Sprint Cup race in four of its newer locations, Fontana, Kansas, Chicago and Homestead-Miami -- and ISC tracks host six of the 10 Chase for the Championship events.
Some of the raw attendance slippage can be attributed to racing facilities cutting seating capacity for the sake of spectator comfort. But according to NASCAR Scene, advanced ticket sales have slipped about 20 percent since 2009, which has nothing to do with fewer available seats.
NASCAR saw an opportunity to get bigger and wealthier when it expanded with the blind faith that "if you build it, they will come."
But pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.
And burning the bridges with the folks that built the bridges for the sake of profits is a dangerous endeavor. And now NASCAR not only faces sagging attendance at the newer tracks expected to take it to new financial heights, but also within a ticked off fanbase in the Southeast that isn't interested in feeding the hog that ran away from home.
Todd Burlage lives in South Bend, Ind., where he covers automotive news for Wheelbase Communications and University of Notre Dame athletics in print, online and on radio for a variety of media outlets. His automotive stories have run in print and on websites throughout North America, including on newsday.com.
Follow him on Twitter @toddburlage.
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