By Doug Halberstadt
It wasn’t that long ago that every time I watched a NASCAR race on television, I never failed to notice how packed the stands were at each and every venue. Times have definitely changed.
Last Sunday afternoon, I sat down to watch the Brickyard 400 from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Traditionally, this race is second in fan popularity. Only the Daytona 500 draws more national attention in the stock-car racing world.
The one thing that was strikingly noticeable was the number of empty seats and lack of people in the grandstands. Granted, the seating capacity is well more than a quarter of a million at the famous racing venue and closer to a half million when figuring in the area available to fans on the infield. There wasn’t anywhere near those numbers there for Sunday’s race.
NASCAR couldn’t blame the poor attendance on Mother Nature. Sunday’s weather clearly wasn’t a factor for people not packing the place. It was a nearly perfect fall-like day with temperatures in the 70s. There were beautiful clear skies with a light breeze blowing; it was an ideal day for fan comfort. All things considered, it was a great day to watch a race.
If the weather wasn’t to blame, then why aren’t fans showing up to these races in the huge numbers that were so common just a couple of years ago? Has the sport lost some of its luster?
Is this a case where they’ve become a victim of their own success? Much like people shy away from the most popular restaurant in town because it’s always so busy, are fans avoiding trips to the tracks in fear they won’t be able to get a decent seat? Have they priced themselves out of reach of the average fan? Are race fans tired of the “same old show”? Has the economy taken a toll on this sport?
I don’t know if it’s any one of these things or some combination of them. All I do know is no one is denying NASCAR’s attendance numbers are way down. Actual NASCAR attendance numbers are hard to obtain. I did find one source that stated a decline of nearly 44 percent since the sport’s peak in 2007.
During a pre-Brickyard 400 press conference, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France addressed the declining fan base. “Listen, we never want to see empty seats, a little or a lot, so that’s a given,” France said. “(IMS has) obviously a huge amount of seats, so even if there’s a lot of empty ones, there’s still a big crowd.” To me, that’s clearly an attempt to put a positive spin on a glaring negative.
Sunday’s crowd was estimated somewhere between 80,000 and 90,000. That’s a far cry from the glory days when more than 250,000 people packed the venue to stand and cheer for their favorite drivers.
NASCAR moves to Pocono this weekend for the Gobowling.com 400. Their seating capacity is listed at slightly fewer than 77,000. Plenty of tickets are still available.
Doug Halberstadt can be reached via e-mail at Dougster61@aol.com.
From the July 31-Aug. 6, 2013, issue