The racing was better, but many fans still stayed away from Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Due to a change in policy, NASCAR no longer estimates crowds for its Sprint Cup Series and Nationwide Series races. While the NASCAR attendance estimate was 102,000 for last year’s Food City 500, some in the national media reported it more like 80,000 with the 160,000-seat stadium half full.
There was an obvious uptick on Sunday, although the stadium was nowhere near sold out. The front grandstand was pretty full, but there were large pockets of empty seats around the rest of the speedway.
Those of us in the press box estimated if the crowd was actually 80,000 last year, it was more like 90,000 this time around.
Speedway Motorsports, the company which owns BMS, does not release the number of ticket sales. However, track officials did go on record that sales were up from last year.
They were, however, significantly down from last August when the IRWIN Tools Night Race was nearly a sell-out.
There are several factors attributing to the smaller crowd this time around, although the majority of fans seem pleased with the changes to the racing surface ordered by track owner Bruton Smith after the small crowd last March.
Saturday’s Nationwide Series race produced one of the greatest finishes in track history as Kyle Busch edged Kyle Larson as the two were banging fenders coming to the finish line.
While Kasey Kahne scooted away at the end of Sunday’s race, the race had plenty of action beforehand.
There were 10 cautions, double the number of the year before, as well as more green-flag passes and stretches of competitive racing.
So if the racing is better what is the problem?
First and foremost is the economy.
A political cartoon which ran in this newspaper recently said it best, “I don’t know how much more of this recovery we can stand.”
With the lack of disposable income, it leaves fans with tough choices. If the choice is coming to the race in March, when the weather is uncertain like snow on Thursday before the race, or coming to the night race in August, most are going to opt for the late summer event.
While the FOX television crew was talking about an impressive crowd at Phoenix, that crowd was smaller than the one at Bristol on Sunday.
Many of the blue-collar fans who have been the backbone of the sport no longer have the manufacturing jobs which paid so well. You can look at any city in around this area and see many of those jobs are gone.
There is always some sadness when I pass by the old General Shale location off Broadway where I used to work, thinking about friends who lost jobs when the plant shut down.
Go down the road a few miles to Erwin, and there was the Hoover Ball and Bearing plant which closed around the same time.
The point is many of the folks who worked in those blue-collar jobs are the same folks who closely followed NASCAR. Most have moved on to other work, but in many cases they’ve had to settle for lower-paying jobs. It’s been even worse in the industrial areas of Pennsylvania and Ohio, from which Bristol used to draw so many season-ticket holders.
As one BMS official pointed out, it’s not just NASCAR, you’re not seeing many sellouts at any sports venues.
The NFL has unquestionably the largest following of any professional sports league, but even with the teams based in huge metropolitian areas, many of them aren’t selling out.
Of the 32 teams, only the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants averaged over 80,000 fans for home games last season. Eleven teams averaged over 70,000, while five teams drew less than 60,000 fans for each home game including huge metro areas with San Diego and Miami.
The average attendance of 64,698 was the lowest average since the league expanded to 32 teams in 2002.
Even with that, some of the attendance figures appear to be high, especially in the cases of Carolina and Jacksonville where you see huge patches of empty seats on the television broadcasts.
Understand there is only one Sprint Cup Series race per weekend, but it’s still remarkable when a venue in the Tri-Cities is able to draw 160,000 fans.
A crowd of 90,000 to 100,000 is nothing to scoff at, but it’s nowhere near the sellout crowds to which Bristol became famous for. One has to believe the night race, following last year’s action-packed race and this Sunday’s event, has a chance of selling out. Whether it gets there or not remains to be seen.
As a residents of the Tri-Cities area, we hope it does as a full house at BMS brings is good for the entire area.
Kingsport Speedway headlines the local racing calendar with a night of NASCAR Weekly Racing Series action on Friday. The Legends division will be off this week as the Mod 4 class takes its place.
Beechnut Raceway has all its classes of go-kart racing scheduled for this Saturday.
Bristol Dragway action starts on Saturday, March 30 with its Street Fights program, and the DER Bracket Racing Series has its first weekend of racing from April 5-7. Motocross racing returns to Muddy Creek Raceway on April 6-7 with round three of the Thor Mega Series.
Volunteer Speedway is off until April 6 when it hosts the “Walter Ball Memorial,” a $2,000-to-win race for the Crate Late Models named in honor of the legendary Johnson City driver and first ever Late Model track champion. The dirt track lost two more of its former champions recently. Herman Collins of Knoxville, the 1975 Late Model champion, and Dewey “Red” Ledford of Morristown, the 1976 Late Model champion, both died on March 11.