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Bristol had so many empty seats because the track is no longer what it’s supposed to be

By admin | March 18, 2012

By Richard Allen


At the very moment the Fox television broadcast for the Food City 500 Sprint Cup race at the Bristol Motor Speedway came on the air on Sunday afternoon the immediate reaction of anyone who has followed racing at this track over the years was likely one of disbelief. The most glaringly obvious sight in whatever direction the cameras pointed was that of the thousands of empty seats ringing the half-mile track.

Just a few short years ago, there was a waiting list of people who hoped just for the opportunity to get tickets to the races held on what was one of the most unique tracks on the NASCAR schedule. With grandstands decked on top of grandstands filled each time the gates opened, Speedway Motorsports, Inc. chairman Bruton Smith once boasted that his company could stack the layers to the sky in order to add to the facility’s 160,000+ seating capacity.

Now, there is little need for worries of how to add to the bleacher numbers. So, what happened?

In 2007, SMI officials decided that the track was in need of repairs. The old concrete was removed and a new surface was laid down. At the same time, the steepest banking of all NASCAR tracks(36 degrees) was adjusted to a progressive angle of 24 degrees in the lowest lane up to 30 degrees at the top.

The stated purpose of the progressive banking was to allow drivers more room to race rather than drive around in a long line until one of them simply lost patience and ran over another. The result of those moves was often a great deal of mangled sheet metal and hot tempers. And the Bristol Motor Speedway management never shied away from promoting that as “Racin’ the way it ought to be” with billboards and other advertisements showing smoky scenes of cars banging into each other and drivers throwing objects at other drivers.

While that type of racing typically resulted in numerous caution flags and many laps of the field rolling around behind the pace car, it was what Bristol was supposed to be. Fans went there to see what driver was going to get into it with another driver and who would win out in the gladiatorial survival of the fittest contest.

Think of it like the two restrictor plate tracks on the circuit. The 2×2 tandem racing produced more lead changes than ever before. But the competition wasn’t the same as the big pack racing fans had grown used to and they demanding that the big packs be returned.

With cars now able to race all over the track in Bristol, those sparks flying incidents do not happen nearly as often as they once did. While some may say they have a greater appreciation for the type of racing that takes place now, the scores of empty seats at the track on Sunday indicate that is not the prevailing line of thought.

One of my followers(@TheKevo23) on twitter put it like this, “The racing is better, the entertainment level isn’t.”

Essentially, Bristol has become just another track. The racing may be good, possibly even better than before. But it’s no longer anything special. The passion has been lost.

Considering the limited hotel and restaurant space in the upper east Tennessee area and the price gouging that goes along with those shortages, fans from other regions of the country may just decide to stay closer to home since there is nothing particularly different about this track than those they would pass by to get to it.

On a personal note, I attended the Nationwide Series race on Saturday with my two sons and thought the racing was very good. There was a great deal of two and even three wide shuffling and some very daring moves by the leaders in traffic. I enjoyed what I saw.

However, as we were walking out of the track, my nine year old son said, “There were only four cautions. It wasn’t a very exciting race.” I believe he is not the only one who had that opinion.

Sunday’s Sprint Cup event featured some great racing as well. The late race battle between eventual winner Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth was one of the best seen in some time. But that’s not necessarily why people used to spend over $100 per ticket to come to this track.

After the race, driver Aric Almirola sounded almost like my son. “There weren’t very many cautions and it probably wasn’t very exciting for the fans,” he said. “It wasn’t very exciting for us, either.”

Obviously, Keselowski had other ideas. “I think those who don’t like the new Bristol are missing out on something great,” he declared “They’ll figure that out 10 years from now.”

It may be too late by then.

The new Bristol may be good, but right or wrong, it isn’t what it’s supposed to be. Track officials, drivers and media personalities can spend as much time as they want explaining why it’s now better but the empty seats say all that needs to be said.

Topics: Articles |

36 Responses to “Bristol had so many empty seats because the track is no longer what it’s supposed to be”

  1. zhills fan Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 5:14 am

    I like it better this way. If you want to see wrecks go to your local dirt track. If you had to pay for these cars you sure wouldn’t like wreckin them. Considering the “March madness” and the sour economy that my friend is why the low crowds and adding to the fact that NASCAR has pretty much run its course. Just isn’t as popular as it once was, with the price gouging going on maybe they will wake up some day, just hope it’s not to late.

  2. Sue Rarick Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 6:20 am

    What your son said reminds me of a favorite saying of my Grandmother “Out of the mouth of babes”. Children tend to cut through the bull and get to the heart of the matter.

    I think Nascar’s problem at the moment is twofold. They are trying to distance themselves from the very fans that grew the sport. And they are doing it by creating a product with very little diversity. When the racing at Bristol varies little from the racing at Las Vegas or Phoenix, why set aside time to watch a race. You can see the same thing next week. When there is even the mention of Bristol being a gas mileage race it’s time to rethink your plan. In fact I turned off the TV and went to the studio as soon as those two ugly words (gas mileage) were mentioned.

    TV ratings have been down all year. So it’s not just fans going to the track that are losing interest. PS. @zhills: The ratings for ‘March Madness games are not all that great. And I still list New Egypt speedway as my favorite all time track.

  3. Chris Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 7:31 am

    I think this article was right on. I like many others had always dreamed of going to Bristol. I am now luckily in a financial position where I can; due to the track changes I now have no interest in going. I am not alone. Look at the stands. I get tired of hearing the announcers and NASCAR argue the racing is better. That is not the question. I agree the new Bristol is better than the cookie cutter tracks. (which by the way, we would all probably love to see chicago,ca, etc converted to short track configurations). It isn’t compared to the old configuration. And I, like others as evidenced by the crowd, choose to vote with my dollars shying away from the track until they decide to fix their mistake. (NASCAR eventually learned with the ugly wing, the new version of the cot, boys have at it, etc..). This was a great article; this isn’t a debate any longer; it is a fact. Another sad example of not listening to us the paying customer.

  4. Chris Fiegler Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 7:34 am

    Do you think that NASCAR Should End Races at Bristol Because of a Lack of Attendance?

  5. Tom Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 7:36 am

    Attended the Cup race on Sunday, worse attendance I’ve ever seen in 12 years of going to Bristol. At $93+ a ticket, glad I live 3 hours away and was able to drive up and back for the day and didn’t have to pay for a hotel. Most boring race I’ve ever been to and probably the last time I will be going to Bristol unless SMI wises up and figures out that they need to drop ticket prices since the demand that was once there for the “hottest ticket on the NASCAR circuit” has cooled off.

  6. jboston Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 7:42 am

    I went to the spring ‘09 Bristol race which was in the midst of the worst economic conditions since the crash of ‘29. Companies were downsizing and people were getting laid off left and right. Even so, that race was a sellout. The economy is a not an issue nor is “March Madness”. The NCAA Tournament has been going on for years and it never effected the turnout for a NASCAR race.
    It’s telling that every clip that FOX uses for it’s promos of Bristol are from before the repave. We are also being force-fed idiotic talking points like “it’s still Bristol baby!” and “the drivers love it”.
    The Bristol repave will go down as one of the dumbest moves in NASCAR history. Like it was stated in the above article…it’s just another track now.

  7. Nate Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 7:50 am

    Went to Bristol 10 years straight starting in 2001 but stopped going last year because the excitement of the action on the track is gone. It now races just like most of the other tracks on the circuit and its charm is gone. Used to be guaranteed to see something you never saw before when you went to Bristol, now you sit and figure fuel mileage. The question is how long will Smith let it go before the new surface it taken up and we go back to the way it was? I know I’ll be first in line when it happens.

  8. Russ Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 8:21 am

    I went to Bristol back in 69 thru 70 something. At one time the place was so packed we had to stand on the hill overlooking it. This was before the reconfiguration and may have been the first sellout. Haven’t been in years but that’s a different story.

    But I agree with those who say its not the economy. Nascar is bleeding from a thousand small cuts. None of them are major but they all hurt.

    Is there a silver bullet that will fix it? No, I dont think so. It has gotten to that critical mass that keeps perpetuating itself.
    Also Nascar is still making a LOT of money, and those of us who think things will go back to what they used to be are dreaming. Its not going to happen.

  9. Aaron Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 8:47 am

    I worked the Night Race 2004 as an usher in the Kulwicki tower. Best racing experience I have ever been to. I got paid $0, for 80+ hours of time, but was able to watch all track activity, and share the excitement and energy of 160,000 fans. That was then….this is today. I listened to the last 50 laps of the race, and deleted it from the DVR without even watching more than 25 laps of it. Were there even 60,000 people there?

    Yes the track now allows side by side racing, but the cars cannot pass on another. There is no contact, no bumping…nothing. 5 cautions at Bristol? C’mon. Bruton need to admit his mistake and immediately dig up the corners and reconfigure the banking.

  10. NewMarketMauler Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 8:54 am

    Good piece. I do disagree the racing is good now, however. All the progressive banking has done is create a 1/2 mile parade. There’s even less passing now than with the old one groove. I don’t care a thing about seeing 2 cars side by side for 15 laps at Bristol. We’re already subjected to Michigan twice a year.

    Why change something that was near perfect? Bruton needs to bite the bullet and admit it was the wrong move. It seems like we’ve had this discussion after every race since the resurface. 50 years of sellouts didn’t happen because of David Keith commercials, Rascal Flatts, and a progressive banked race track. Give the fans what they want and those seats will fill once again. Give them Bristol.

  11. Dennis Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 9:50 am

    The repave got rid of the drama.

  12. midasmicah Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 10:06 am

    One thing is for sure. When Bruton Smith re-configured Bristol, he effectively neutered my favorite track. I live on the west coast so I’ve never been there in person. But I used to plan ahead for this race. Not any more. When I hear the words Bristol and fuel milage in the same sentence, something is very wrong. Beatin’ and bangin’? Not anymore. Now it’s just another cookie cutter track with a parade, not a race.

  13. KayakSteve Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 10:42 am

    I was an avid attendee of BMS from 1995 through Spring 2010.

    I still vividly remember my shock and dismay during the first race after the reconfiguration. Like Rich did this past weekend, my son was at that race with me. He was also 9 at the time. He was so bored we left at lap 200.

    I tried to stick it out and went for a few more years before finally deciding that Bristol as I knew it was gone. The wrecking sure made it exciting, but more importantly the wrecks were merely a byproduct of an exciting, physical style of racing.

    I gave the best feedback I could. In 2011, for the first time in 16 years, I did not renew my season tickets. Just not worth it. I’m actually glad to see that many others have done the same. Perhaps BMS will stop drinking their own koolaid and restore the track and the excitement!

  14. DC Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 10:50 am

    I’ve become more of a casual fan of NASCAR the past 3 years or so, after following it intensely for a decade or so. Overall, it bores me to tears now. And the destruction of Bristol is one of them. My jaw literally dropped when I turned the race on last night (I Tivo the races now and only watch the last 20 laps, usually.)

    Whatever you want to call “right” or “wrong,’ the simple fact of the matter is that it couldn’t be more clear that the fans are not interested in Bristol races any more. The empty stands, literally, looked there was a Truck or nationwide race being run. It’s impossible for any NASCAR or Bristol PR hacks to spin this positively in any way. A place that sold out 5 years ago is now HALF EMPTY for the most premier race the place hosts. Even Bruton knows at this point he screwed up the place (even if he won’t yet admit it). Putting a positive spin on that place is just as aggravating as putting a positive spin on the Fontana races. Stop trying to convince people that red is white, or whatever analogy you want to use.

    Yes, the economy put a major dent in NASCAR attendance the past few years. But it’s gone way past the point of that being the reason people don’t go to this race (or many others) any more.

  15. DC Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 10:51 am

    Oh, and I wish the guys on TV would STOP coming up with excuses. I’m sure they’d get a talking to if they spoke the truth, but they were going out of their way yesterday to convince people everything was fine. (Yes, I understand DW wants to keep his name on the grandstands…)

  16. Gary Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 11:23 am

    Some people blame the track, but I blame the price gouging that has gone on in the area for years. Those of us from other parts of the country just don’t want to pay, pay ,pay at these NASCAR tracks anymore. These hotel and area merchants have no one to blame but themselves. Bristol is not the only track to face these issues!!

  17. Bill B Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 11:29 am

    I think you hit the nail on the head Rich. It’s not that the racing is bad, it’s that the racing is no different now than at most other tracks. I do not watch races just for the wrecks but the 2 Bristol races used to be so different than the other 34 races (well, maybe 32 since there is also Martinsville).
    I would not be interested in watching a demolition derby 36 weeks out of the year, but it was cool to have 2 races a year that bordered on that type of mentality.
    I will still watch both of the Bristol races because they are still better than the average 1.5-2 mile cookie cutter races, but my urge to make the trek to Bristol has certainly waned since they reconfigured the track.
    Bristol has lost it’s edge.

  18. oldirtracker Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    At some point in time there may have been a pass completed from the inside lane but i think I slept through it. Had plenty of room for my stuff as the place was hopelessly empty, Nascar must be doing some mushrooms to come up with attendence fiqures of 102000. last but not least the price gouging for everything in the area is also running people away, guess the local merchants would rather have empty rooms rather than lower prices. I used to attend 6 to 8 races a year and loved to travel to tracks i had not seen before, but after spending 5 hours on a city bus to go 12 miles to the first Las Vegas race and the texas fiasco , I attend a couple of races a year at tracks can drive to and not stay overnight. Thank god for Martinsville and Richmond. Bruton Smith is a rip off blow hard crook and hes gotten the last dollar out of me he will ever get.

  19. eric Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 1:01 pm

    They need a softer tire. Someone who has 150+ more laps on his tires should not be able to just pull away from the field on fresh tires a late race restart. This happened both Saturday & Sunday. 3 cars stayed out on that last caution:2,17,55. The only one to lose any spots over that 30 lap run to the end was vickers and that was just 2. It was a good race until that last caution fell I honestly was hoping it would go green the rest of the way. There was still a question of fuel milage & Brad and matt were having a great battle trying to negotiate lap traffic.

    That’s the reason Martinsville is the best short track on the schedule now. The last 2 years has produced some of the best races there. They have a softer tire than they have had in the past. Denny pitted with a handful of laps to go a few yrs ago restarted 8th and won the race. Tony Stewart restarted on the outside of Jimmie Johnson this past fall & won. Kevin Harvick clawed his way from 4th to the lead in the wanning laps in the 2011 Spring Mville edition

    What sounds better 31 lead changes with 12 cautions @ Martinsville or 13 lead changes with 5 cautions @ Bristol.

  20. Steve Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    This article comes out every time we go to Bristol. Its not just one thing that is hurting this place. Its a combination of alot of things and to be honest, 100,000 people for a race is pretty darn good. Why do we have to have 200,000 people at a race to be satisfied with attendance. Nascar isn’t the sport it used to be. Its time people started accepting that.

    Anyway, I will play though. Here is my list of what I think has an effect on this whole thing

    The track: ticket prices not being reduced, the economy, price gouging by hotels in the area, 2 races at this track, too many seats in the place. Overhyping this race with promos of the crashfests of the past.

    The product: the cars can’t pass even on the variable banking, rock hard tires, points racing due to the Chase

    The fans: too high expectations, fans liking crashes more than the actual racing, fans not driving far distances to go to races as they once were.

    Personally I like the new Bristol. If you want crashes, go to a demo derby. its more your speed. The changes in my opinion don’t need to be done by the track, they need to be done to the car. The tires are rock hard and the cars can’t pass. Like people have been saying, its the same thing at every track on the circuit, so why are people bashing Bristol for it.

  21. oldnascar Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 2:19 pm

    I lke to see the side by side racing and passing at Bristol.
    the peopel who say yea the racing is better but the entertanment level isn’t — i take it as i came to Bristol to see the wrecks..
    the people who like to see crashes at the tracks ,, should go to the RACE Shops on Monday and help repair the wrecked cars..
    I had to fix many of race cars in the past and it is NO fun. just to provide ” ENTERTANMENT for the fans”

  22. Earner Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    Got to agree with most the folks here (esp Chris)…Those ads showing one Bristol when we all know it’s become another is extremely annoying. Why advertise some thing that is’nt true? (i find this insulting) ..Yes they can go side by side (for ever it seems) but there’s very little passing …& Then the price gouging in the area…Yeah with out it being fixed there’s none of my cash heading that way.

  23. Mike Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 2:37 pm

    Having watched races since the early 50s and tried my best to follow NASCAR while being sent around the world in the Navy for 30 years I am happy to watch a race no matter where or when. I enjoyed the old Bristol but in the past there would be a couple of drivers dominating the race. No different than now. The issue I see now is that while the racing is good at Bristol it is not the same beating and banging folks were used to. Many don’t show and they are probably the ones that say they don’t watch raing for the wrecks. BS! I agree the problem may be more about cost than racing. Fix it, leave it the same or tear it up and start over, I’m still watching the race. I enjoyed watching the 29 fight to an 11th place finish. He was able to pass with a beat up car.

  24. Chip Dawson Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 4:17 pm

    New Bristol = New Coke…… Anyone remember how big a mistake that one was?

  25. sb Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 5:07 pm

    I didn’t renew my season tickets to Bristol last year after attending each race since 2001. It used to be that the stands were electric the minute driver intros started. Now, it’s nothing special. I could watch the same race (with less traffic) at MIS, 2 hours from home, but I don’t bother. Bristol used to be unique, and now it isn’t. As you said, the racing may be good, but it isn’t what fans expect from Bristol. And he ‘New Bristol = New Coke is the exact comparison I thought of.

    Yes, they may have had 90,000 fannies in the seats for Bristol…but it’s the only ‘game’/race in town. If you added up all those attending baseball/football games in all the stadiums around the country, I bet they draw more fans than that in total.

  26. Chris Fiegler Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 6:34 pm

    Do you think that the Irwin Tools Night Race will be Sold Out Quickly since Danica Patrick is in that Race & that race is on Saturday August 25?

  27. Tony Geinzer Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 7:22 pm

    I feel people need to see two old flavors make a welcome return at The Bristol Breadbowl, the Rose Bowl of Auto Racing: 1990s Fields and Wrecking. Lets call spades spades around here and I feel Bristol needs a Labor Day or Chase Date to crank up the juice, or the point is the Chase would be scrapped in 2013.

  28. Keith Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 8:42 pm

    Another problem is the date. When I went a few years ago the temp at night dropped to 31 degrees with no hotels around you have to camp and with $150 for the luxury of sleeping in a tent or RV and $50 bucks extra for the right to light a fire no thanks I’ll stay at home and watch on TV.

  29. Offkilter Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 9:43 pm

    Its not nearly as good as it once was, but it still beats the crap out of the snoozers at michigan and california.

  30. raceFAN Says:
    March 19th, 2012 at 10:33 pm

    It is a combination of the economy and track changes. I loved Bristol for the bumping and banging. I loved all the doughnut markes on the sides of cars from tires rubbing sheet metal. I miss it. It just isn’t the same. This ticket used to be on my bucket list. It is no more. The track is not unique anymore.:(

  31. Jim Says:
    March 20th, 2012 at 11:27 am

    Obviously it’s not just one or two things that have caused the exodus of fans there. I think it’s a combination of the reconfiguration, the economy, the harder tires, and the COT itself. Points racing might be a small factor, but these guys want to win, so they go there to win first.

    There are a few people that claim the economy has little to no bearing on NASCAR attendance, but I would bet that all or most of these folks haven’t lost jobs and probably have healthy bank accounts. I haven’t looked at the numbers, but my guess is that the reduction in attendance numbers probably coincide with the tanking economy. I know Fontana’s numbers were some of the first to go sour and California has had some of the worst job numbers in the nation. Coincidence?

    Getting back to Bristol, when the local Hotels and Motels are tripling the room rates and demanding 2 or 3 night minimums, and restaurants, shops and gas stations are gouging along with them, it costs a lot more to attend a race than it really should. Maybe these people have had enough of being ripped off, so they’re staying home and keeping their money. When cash flow gets tighter, priorities become more visible, and vacation trips get cut down or cut off.

    @offkilter, you can add everyone of the mile and a half cookie cutters as snoozers to MIS and ACS. They’re about all the same with the hard tires and aero push any more. That’s why they have Fake Debris Cautions at every one of them nowadays.

  32. Benjamin P. Glaser Says:
    March 20th, 2012 at 1:06 pm

    Repaving and removing the banking at Bristol would be akin to removing the Green Monster from Fenway and moving the whole LF back 30 feet. Yeah its still Fenway but it ain’t really Fenway anymore.

  33. John P. Whiteker Says:
    March 20th, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    I spent a little extra and got a great seat in the Dale Earnhardt Terrace. To my suprise, as the green flag dropped, I looked around at nothing but empty seats surrounding me. As we had drived 1000 miles from Kansas to see a race at Bristol, I soon understood that this was not the Bristol I had in mind. It’s just not the same. it used to be checkers or wreckers. Now it’s very uneventful. It reminds me of spec. racing, Not Nascar. I still had a wonderful time and Bristol Motor Speedway is something to see, but it ain’t what it used to be. The great seat only cost me $140, and then we started looking for a hotel. Anything closer than 100 miles away was going fro $300/night. That was three monthis in advance! So, I can understand that fans are tired of being gouged. I was almost to the point of getting a ticket refund, but we finally settled on a $89/night room in Knoxville. The same room switched to $55/night on the following Monday if that tells you anything. I hate to complain, but a lot more could be done in order to get fans back out to the tracks.

  34. Jeff Says:
    March 23rd, 2012 at 10:47 am

    We quit going because it’s become too expensive. The hotels are gouging fans, the cost of gas is too high and the tickets are way overpriced. Several of the people we used to hang out with at the races quit going for the exact same reasons. Some of them even had tickets they didn’t use because of the other costs involved. And the economy is still a huge problem. Many people are employed but make much less money than they used to. Food costs, energy costs and other costs have risen which eat up more and more of our discretionary spending. From now on we will only be attending races that are within a 4 hour drive. And that stinks because going to races is our favorite thing to do. We’d rather go to a race than someplace tropical.

  35. BristolFan Says:
    March 23rd, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    I live in Bristol, and the truth of the matter is- the local fans and long distance driving fans want some bumper to bumper racing and some excitement. Sitting there for almost 300 laps with no caution is very boring. Yes, the racing is good for the drivers, but without fans there will no longer be a Bristol track if this continues. Yes, the price gouging is bad, but that is not the reason the fan #’s are down. For the last four years everyone tells me they won’t be coming back to watch another race and this includes local fans as well. I think the best idea is a new tire configuration that has less track “hold” than the current one does.. just because the track is resurfaced again does not mean the racing is going to be magically exciting overnight. It took years for the cars to “make the groove” in the track that everyone loved.

  36. FastCharles Says:
    March 17th, 2014 at 7:55 pm

    I think there are many reasons that Nascar races have lost attendance in recent years. Most of the reasons have been mentioned by others.

    One additional reason I think is often overlooked is simply the fact that most homes now have a big screen HDTV.

    Why spend a lot of money to go to a race and be uncomfortable in a tight seat? At many of the tracks you wind up watching much of it on the big screens in the infield anyway.