When Amy and I attended the inaugural Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis in 1994, a NASCAR official arrogantly predicted the race would “be bigger than the Indy 500 in the coming years.”
An overflow crowd of more than 300,000 packed the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that year.
A decade and a half later, empty seats outnumbered those with paying customers at the Brickyard 400. Attendance has fallen more than 50 percent in recent years.
A couple of years ago, the most coveted tickets for the Sprint Cup series came at Bristol Motor Speedway. Now you can walk up to the ticket window on race day and buy good seats at discount prices.
NASCAR is in trouble — serious trouble — and while some of the sport’s problems can be blamed on the economy, much of it is well-deserved payback from angry, disenfranchised fans who are fed up with rising prices, gross overcommercialism and tinkering with rules.
After years of jam-packed races, sky-high television ratings and record merchandise sales, Nascar has seen attendance at nearly every track slip this year as recession-weary fans continue to cut costs.
The Behler family could see that firsthand while sitting atop their old school bus in the infield at Pocono Raceway for last week’s race in Long Pond, Pa. From that perch, they saw empty patches of grass with untrampled dandelions that in years past were covered by other spectators’ cars, campers and trailers.
Fans like the Behlers who are showing up to races are spending less, too.
“Everybody’s still coming, but no one’s spending,” said Susan Behler, who arrived last Sunday, race day, instead of Friday night to save money. “Three years ago, I used to spend $200 or $300 every time I came here. Now, it’s a question: do I need it?”
Other sports leagues have been hurt the past two years. But Nascar — with its heavier reliance on working-class fans, low fuel prices and the beleaguered auto industry — has suffered disproportionately, racing industry executives say. Ratings on television, sales of licensed goods and sponsorships, the lifeblood of the sport, are also suffering. Several racing teams have merged in the last three years.
Nascar compounded matters, the executives say, by changing its rules in ways that made the racing safer but stripped the sport of some of the spontaneity that made it compelling. Under pressure, Nascar has reversed some of those moves, helping to rejuvenate competition on the track this season. With the economy on the mend, Nascar and its teams, sponsors, track owners and broadcasters seem confident that the worst is over.
The larger question, though, is whether in the coming years, the sport will return to its glory of the early 2000s as a money-printing juggernaut, a barometer of Middle American tastes and a political bellwether, or whether it will become a more modest, streamlined version of itself.
“It was a good candy bar when it was right,” said H. A. Wheeler, the former president of Lowe’s Motor Speedway (now Charlotte Motor Speedway) and Speedway Motorsports Inc. “It’s still a good candy bar, but people are tinkering with the mix. A lot of sports lose momentum, and they can get it back, but it takes a lot of work.”
We used to attend races but no more. We no longer watch races on TV. NASCAR is a shadow of its former self and a parody of what it once was. There are better things to do on a Sunday afternoon.