By admin | March 20, 2013
By Richard Allen
By most accounts, the racing this past weekend at the Bristol Motor Speedway was quite good in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide divisions of NASCAR. However, the attendance at the high banked, half-mile track located in the mountains of upper east Tennessee was not good at all, at least in comparison to previous years.
This track used to be a virtual lock to sellout anytime it opened its gates for NASCAR. But on Sunday, there were vast expanses of empty seats when the green flag dropped on the Food City 500.
So what has happened?
In 2007, officials from Speedway Motorsports, Inc.(parent company of BMS) decided that the racing surface was in need of repair. However, the track was not only resurfaced, it was also reconfigured.
The legendary 36 degree banking that made BMS one of the most unique racing facilities in the world was reduced and changed to a progressive form of banking that gets steeper in the higher grooves. This, it was thought, would allow for more side-by-side racing and less of the beating and banging for the much coveted lower lane.
After the change, the racing on the concrete bullring just wasn’t the same. And as a result, fans stopped coming in the large numbers(over 160,000) that the track had become so well known for.
As the crowds thinned year after year, those who represented the track tired to lay blame on every possible source other than the resurfacing project as the cause for the sagging attendance. Hotel prices, gas prices, the economy and any number of other reasons were thrown out to explain the empty seats.
But it stands to reason that during the track’s run of 55 consecutive Sprint Cup sellouts, there had been times when the economy had gone sour and gas prices had gone up. And for those of us who live here in east Tennessee, it was simply a given that hotel prices were always raised to ridiculous levels on each of the Bristol weekends.
Last summer, SMI finally gave in and made an attempt to change the racing surface. Grinders were brought in to wear down the upper lane and create more uniformity in the banking. While cars still run around the top groove, fans seem to approve of the change based on the article linked above.
Should it also stand to reason that with improved racing the massive crowds will return? Well, not necessarily. And that may be especially true for the races held in March.
The race traditionally run on this track in August is contested on a Saturday night, which gives it more of a ‘wild and crazy’ feel. This, in turn, makes it a happening as much a race. The guarantee of warm weather and the night-time atmosphere create a natural party vibe which helps sell tickets, even to those less enthusiastic about the racing itself, and will always make that a ‘must-see’ event.
The race traditionally held each year in March does not have that same feel to it. It is contested on Sunday afternoons in typically cooler and less predictable weather. The same party atmosphere just doesn’t exist, and thus, it is simply a race rather than a happening. March is more about racing an less about partying. So, those less enthusiastic about racing may chose to stay away.
Fans of racing, meanwhile, can get the same vibe for the March race sitting at home and watching the high definition television broadcast as they can in the faciltiy itself, and at a much lower cost. It seems as if people began to realize that when they stopped coming a few years ago.
On a personal note, this was the first Sprint Cup race I had attended in several years. I found myself not enjoying it as much because I was not interacting on twitter nor listening to scanner chatter like I normally do. For me, that took away from the experience. I believe this combination of HD television and social media interaction is something all sports are going to have to compete with in regard to achieving similar attendance numbers as in years past.
If sporting events are to sellout in the future, they have to make the fan experince into a happening that can’t be experienced sitting at home and watching on television. The August race at Bristol has that capability. The March race does not seem to have it. So, it seems as if empty seats may become a fixture for the Bristol spring race unless something such as a date change occurs.
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