BRISTOL — At the track where racing has been advertised as the way it oughta’ be, officials are hoping attendance gets back to the way it used to be.
Following 55 consecutive sellouts from 1982-2009, Bristol Motor Speedway has seen three straight races of less than capacity crowds.
Jerry Caldwell, BMS vice president and general manager, expressed cautious optimism that trend could turn around at next month’s IRWIN Tools Night Race.
“Ticket sales are really strong for August,” Caldwell said. “We still face our head winds of the economy, but ticket sales are strong and we’re encouraged by the initivates we’ve launched.
“When we talk to fans after the races, they all say they want more exposure to the drivers and helping get to the race track easier. That’s why we’ve been working with the hotels and why we announced last week a driver Q&A series. We’ve gone to every single race team and asked them to participate.”
The speedway sent out a press release Tuesday with the news that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be one of the drivers participating, as part of a $135 ticket package which includes a Q&A session with the popular driver prior to the Aug. 27 race.
Caldwell said ticket sales for August are well ahead of this spring, when a NASCAR estimate had 120,000 in attendance for the Jeff Byrd 500, and the grandstands were only half full for the Scotts Turf Builder 300 Nationwide Series race that had both Earnhardt and Danica Patrick in the field.
According to Caldwell, the economy still remains the biggest challenge of filling all 160,000 seats.
“We could talk all day about it, but it affects us differently than a lot of other race tracks in similar situations to us,” Caldwell said. “We have so many voyage race fans, who are coming six-plus hours away. It’s going to affect them a lot more than our local market.”
With BMS listed as the world’s eighth-largest sports stadium and the Tri-Cities just the nation’s 151st largest metropolitan area, it makes the area much more dependent on the out-of-town visitors.
“We’re dealing with a much smaller market to pull from than say Las Vegas, Dallas-Fort Worth and some of the others,” Caldwell said. “We’ve got our unique challenges, but I’m encouraged. I think the economy is coming around and the gas prices here are helping some. We still have to find ways to make it work for the race fans and make it easier for them to make their trips.”
Caldwell’s takes the challenge of filling the speedway to capacity personally.
“Everyone here takes it that way,” Caldwell said. “It’s why we’re heads and shoulders better than every other race track from a fan experience. With the team we have assembled here, there is such passion with what we do. We get pretty depressed when we don’t sell out because we take it personally. We’re not going to settle for that.”
Caldwell explained that the BMS staff took a body blow back at the March race, but was full steam ahead the following day. The team isn’t only working on this year’s event, but has already begun work on the 2012 races.
“We started a couple of months ago with the renewals,” said Caldwell. “We already have some initiatives in place and we’re hard at work on next year.”
Jeff Birchfield is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.