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Track owners anxious as crowds dwindle

27 May 2011

With the action in the All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway relatively lacking (read: pretty dull), it was hard not to let one's eyes wonder around the facility and notice just how many empty seats there were, for what should be one of NASCAR's premier events.

The realisation comes just after Speedway Motorsports, the company owning Charlotte along with seven other racetracks, posted a $1.5m loss earlier this month due to falling attendance revenue, bringing the deteriorating economic situation in the sport into sharp relief.

Meanwhile the company owning Dover International Speedway, Dover Motorsports, is even more worried after the this month's FedEx 400 Sprint Race saw attendance slump to under two-thirds capacity, a 45% drop in crowd numbers over the last five years, with row upon row of empty seats in evidence in May.

That was despite Dover using a new 'trick' to try and cover-up the visible evidence of declining numbers: huge 12-by-20 foot advertising banners covering up whole grandstands' worth of seats around the oval circuit. As well as hiding the evidence of the lower numbers at the track, shutting off these seating areas reduced the stadium's overheads in terms of staffing numbers and allowed the venue to avoid having to flood the market with cut-price tickets just to make the TV pictures look better.

Other tracks (Talladega, Al. and Fontana, Ca.) are also using the tactic, but Dover was the first - and is also the only one to make a conscious effort to turn the temporary cover-up into an ongoing long-term revenue-raising stream, something that Mark Rossi, Dover's vice president of sales and marketing, said was akin to turning "lemons into lemonade."

"I don't want the grandstands to turn into signage," he added hastily. "Any of us would rather have butts in seats." However much they sell the banners to advertisers for, it's nowhere near the amount they would get from an equivalent packed stand of fans, especially once sales of food and drink are factored in.

Anyone tempted to look at the precipitous decline in NASCAR crowds and gloat should be wary of schadenfreude, however: what ails NASCAR is also hitting other motor sport events (and sporting events in general) and is a sign of the recent recession which, no matter what the statistics about economic recovery say, is still biting people hard in the US and around Europe.

"I [have to] save for this stuff every year," Kenny Hucks, a long-time NASCAR fan from South Carolina who has been coming to camp at the Charlotte races every year since 1991. "This is a fun place to come to." He's noticed the recent decline in numbers too: "Attendance is down, bad," he confirms.

"This is my vacation right here," said another NASCAR fan, Demetrius Arrington, pointing out that the combined costs of transport, accommodation and the race itself now means that it has to substitute for the family holiday.

Ironically for a motor racing series, it's the spiralling cost of fuel that is really hurting NASCAR: US gas prices are approaching $4 a gallon, minuscule by UK standards but practically a national scandal in the land of the automobile. It means that people are cutting back on car travel and not venturing so far, and when you have a sport that relies on pulling huge numbers of people in from a wide catchment area to come to events, that's a big problem.

For Dover, a bad weather forecast was another problem that persuaded many potential fans to stay away. "Dover had a tremendously bad weather forecast," NASCAR's chairman and CEO Brian France said. "It's a miracle on Saturday and Sunday that they got the races off at all. We certainly don't want to see empty seats.

Charlotte hosts two Sprint Cup events - one in May, one in October - together with the All-Star Race. That's a lot of events for a region to support when you're trying to fill in a stadium with upwards of 135,000 in terms of seating capacity, especially in a series with 36 races during the year week in and week out in and around the same southern area of the US.

F1, by comparison, typically holds just one race per year in any given country, and makes a point of positioning a Grand Prix as a major "don't miss!" national sporting event. Last week's Grand Prix in Spain was one of the few times where there will be a second race later in the year (at Valencia), and the downturn in crowds at Barcelona - despite the star pulling power of former world champion local here and superstar Fernando Alonso in a Ferrari - deeply concerned race promoters.

Spain put last weekend's race day attendance at 78,130: by contrast, the "disastrous" attendance at Dover for mid-May's FedEx 400 was nonetheless higher, in the region of 82,000 despite the slump and the fact that it's the lowest attendance there since attendance records were first disclosed in 2003.

It's not just Spain: the Malaysian Grand Prix struggled to reach its target of 65,000 race day tickets, despite tickets costing as little as £11 ($19). And the future of the Turkish Grand Prix is in doubt after estimated attendance figures slumped to around 35,000.

Compared to that, figures of 82,000 for Dover are practically stratospheric, however much they're down on previous years; it's just that the crowds are not as big as track owners hoped when they expanded their circuits in the 90s and early 2000s, and today's attendance is overwhelmed by the capacity, hence the trick of resorting to temporary advertising banners.

The All-Star Race attracted attendance of 115,000, the same as a capacity crowd at Silverstone - impressive even if the empty seats in the 140,000-capacity stadium were painfully evident on TV. Things could be a lot worse for this coming weekend's regular Nationwide and Sprint Cup season races: while the "All-Star" event is a one-off with a crowd-pulling $1 million prize winner at the end of it, promoting "Round 12 of the weekly Sprint Cup season" is a hard sell in these austere times when even premier F1 Grand Prix races struggle.

The decline in figures is leading NASCAR to revaluate where it runs, how often - possibly even the very format of the Sprint Cup season. Can Charlotte really host two Sprint Cup races (and the associated Nationwide and Truck events) a year, plus the All-Star? Should the All-Star Race go "on tour" and be shared around other tracks across the country?

And what about Dover, which also has two May/October events on the NASCAR calendar: if it's struggling to top half capacity each time (with the later Chase race understandably attracting more interest), maybe it should only host one race so that fans can save to afford to come to that rather than split interest between the two? But even with reduced attendance, the races are still vitally important to keeping the facility open at all: losing an important event could mean the entire facility becoming economically unsustainable, and being forced to close.

"We certainly don't want to see empty seats," said NASCAR CEO Brian France. "We'll be working with tracks to get the best dates possible."

It's even being asked whether NASCAR itself sustain the number of events that make up the Sprint Cup season, together with the associated Nationwide and Truck Series. The Sprint Cup has 36 races in a season - once it gets underway in mid-February at Daytona, there's virtually not a weekend off until the season finale in November. Some pundits argue that cutting some races would make the remaining ones better supported, as well as adding a sense of urgency to the season rather than the sense of a long, hard, never-ending slog to the title.

IndyCar by comparison has just 17 events in a season, and four of those are outside the United States; and F1 has 19 this season, assuming that Bahrain isn't reinstated, all of them in a different country other than Barcelona/Valenca. Is NASCAR simply asking too much of its fans to ask them to support so many events in a year?

When it comes down to it, the most important statistic of all about the health of the sport is TV viewing figures. And surprisingly it seems that these are holding up very well - for Dover, despite the acres of empty seats at the speedway itself, the TV audience was up from 3.6 to 3.8 million making it the highest rating since Talladega. It's not just the Sprint Cup events, either: this week's Camping World Truck race from Charlotte featuring the début of Kimi Raikkonen saw the highest rating for a Charlotte Truck race since 2008 and topped a million viewers, with the season's coverage as a whole up 7 per cent year on year. Ironically it seems that while the downturn in the economy means that fans can't afford to go to races in person as they did, it's also leading them to stay at home more and watch more TV.

Certainly the armchair US motorsports fan will be spoilt for entertainment this coming Memorial Day holiday weekend, with an afternoon of the Indianapolis 500 followed in the evening by NASCAR's gruelling Coca Cola 600 from Charlotte making it an endurance double-header. (Really dedicated motor sports fans in the States can warm up with the Monaco Grand Prix in the morning, which is virtually a bite-sized sprint race by comparison.)

While IndyCar attendance and viewing figures are a fraction of NASCAR's, the one race that shouldn't have any problems packing in a crowd is the Indy 500 - despite the Indianapolis Motor Speedway having an eye-watering permanent seating capacity of over 257,000 making it the biggest sporting facility in the world. No wonder Bernie Ecclestone was so desperate to make F1 work here.

But even the Indy 500 is nervous: when it looked as though Danica Patrick might not qualify for the race, IndyCar and IMS went into panic mode, envisaging a devastating collapse in attendance and TV audience figures alike if they lost their biggest star draw (only Helio Castroneves comes close after his win in the reality show Dancing with the Stars in 2007.) And there's concern that whatever happens this year, Danica is bowing out after this year's race and moving to NASCAR.

Will that be a boost for NASCAR attendance and viewing figures? Perhaps, but you suspect that it won't be as big an impact on NASCAR as it will be a body blow to IndyCar which is still struggling to regain its former popularity. NASCAR may be worried about falling attendance, but IndyCar is still fighting for its very survival.


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