Bristol Motor Speedway failed to achieve a sellout for a fourth straight Sprint Cup Series race.
But, it was reasonably close.
According to estimates, over 150,000 people attended Saturday’s IRWIN Tools Night Race.
The 160,000-seat stadium was near capacity in several areas with the most notable stretches of empty seats, a few spots in turns one and two.
It provided an electric atmosphere which has been missing from the sport of stock car racing for much of the past two seasons.
While it was disappointing to track officials to barely miss a sellout after getting 55 straight from 1982-2009, the good news is the crowd well exceeded the estimated 120,000 who attended the Jeff Byrd 500 in March.
That race, with its big bands of empty seats, got the attention of track owners and media as well as the drivers who make their living racing in front of the big crowds.
Five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson said so many empty seats at the track routinely voted as the fans’ favorite turned a lot of heads.
“The spring race here was an eye-opener for everyone and really it’s been going on for a while,” Johnson said. “The track owners, the sport, the drivers, everybody is trying to understand how we can create a better value for the fans.”
More than just value, the week of racing at Bristol leading into Saturday night was spectacular.
Kyle Busch and Joey Logano staged a terrific battle in Friday night’s Food City 250 Nationwide Series race. Twice on the final lap, Logano inched ahead of Busch, only to see Busch win by the closest margin in track history at the end.
This came only two nights after there were nine cautions in both the Camping World Truck Series race won by Kevin Harvick and the Modified Series race won by Ryan Newman.
The action in the preliminary events certainly didn’t hurt ticket sales, but BMS officials also deserve credit for their promotional work leading up to the IRWIN Tools Night Race.
According to Johnson, it’s not that way at every speedway.
“I still think there is a long way to go and some tracks just aren’t familiar with the way that times are now,” Johnson said. “We’ve almost educated them on what’s a good value and how to go all about it; how to use social media, how to really reach the fans and create a value for them to come out to the track.”
Once they come to the track, no place matches the atmosphere of Bristol. As the 43 cars fired up their engines, the crowd worked up into a frenzy with fans stomping their feet on the metal grandstands.
Johnson knows above all else, even more than the speed of his No. 48 Chevrolet, most important to his future is to have to those fans passionate about the sport.
“I think everybody is focused on it and knows that if there aren’t eyeballs on our sport we’re not going to have the success that we need,” he said. “We’re happy to hear that we’re near capacity. Moving forward I think there are new things coming — drivers, the tracks, everybody involved is trying to reach out the fan and make sure they have the best experience possible.”
Jeff Birchfield is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org