Kyle Busch claimed victory yet again when the checkered flag waved at the Food City 500. It was Busch’s eighth win at the famous short track while continuing his dominance in the 2019 season; however, there was one notable issue that stood in stark contrast to the success of Kyle Busch. There were barely any fans in attendance. The decision to not sell tickets in the corners of the track was strategically understandable, but it did nothing to mask the disappointing attendance numbers. The lack of crowd size could be down to a number of reasons, including the potential for inclement weather, and still one cannot help but remain concerned that the low turnout is representative of a deeper issue about the state of NASCAR.
Not even ten years ago, the 146,000 seat motor speedway was sold out and race fans would pin their hopes of getting tickets off of a wait list. The race on Sunday barely looked as though it could fill a football stadium. NASCAR has remained positive about the financial standing of the sport as a whole, and while the crowd has dropped as well as television viewership, the sport continues to thrive. Regardless, a sport without a consistent audience is a sport that needs to change.
Part of the excitement from watching live sporting events is the reactions and energy of the crowd. Their presence brings an atmosphere that is almost tangible. Seeing a grandstand full of devoted fans, rising to their feet in anticipation of a late race restart, inspires someone watching on TV to move to the edge of their seat. The future of a sport is simply predicated on the core audience that supports it.
The Financial Collapse came at a terrible time for NASCAR. It harmed the blue collar workers that loved the sport that represented them. That same group of fans are also the ones that have struggled most to recover from the Great Recession. Ticket prices are not cheap, and the move to broadcast more races away from local channels to sports dedicated networks asks fans to spend more while making the same if not less money. Concessions were bound to be made.
Change has certainly come to NASCAR over the past few years. The introduction of the Gen 6 cars, which placed emphasis on trying to bring back the “stock car” look; the addition of stage racing; and group qualifying are just a few of the many adjustments. All of the developments have come at the hands of Jim France and Mike Helton to attract new audiences. Unfortunately, these modifications have been unable to keep the fans in the stands.
Notable sponsors are leaving the sport. Dodge, one of the big three American manufacturers, left NASCAR in 2012. Popular drivers life Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and others have retired leaving a void of personality on the track. All of these instances in their own decade would be a big ordeal, but all have occurred within the same ten years. It would be a lot for any sport to handle.
NASCAR does not need to succumb to the considerable difficulties that the sport is experiencing with viewership. In fact, before the rivalry between Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, some could say a lull was present in the sport. Jim France, Mike Helton, and Chief Racing Development Officer, Steve O’Donnell, need to recognize that they might have made too many alterations to the racing.
NASCAR needs to remove stage racing. The change was only implemented a couple of years ago, but it quite honestly has failed to deliver anything new to the spectacle of the sport. If anything, it simply breaks up a long run in an attempt to bring a dominate car back into the clutches of the other drivers. There is no other major racing series that operates with stage format. IndyCar and Formula 1 both run a regular scheduled length with no breaks. It could be argued that NASCAR is more about endurance, while IndyCar and F1 are about short stint driving. If this is the case, then it further supports the reason for NASCAR to abandon the stage format.
Races are about who can drive the fastest over a set period of laps or time. If you have misfortune along the way, then that is just the way it goes. Drivers should not be rewarded for their position at the 1/4 or 1/2 mark of the race. All that signifies is that a driver has found a good setup and rhythm for a period of time, and most often a driver that is dominating a race will be there at the end. Can the final few laps of a stage become intense? Absolutely, but most of the time it is just a run of the mill caution.
There may be a substantial portion of fans that truly love the new format, but it is not bringing them to the racetrack or to the TV on a consistent basis. Otherwise, the stands would be full and television viewership would be on a strong uptick. Neither is true, though streaming viewership is up around 50% from the first two races of 2018. That does not, however, make up for all of the lost television viewership.
Young drivers are the future of the sport and in this regard, NASCAR could not be better off. Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Denis Suarez, Erik Jones, Bubba Wallace, and Kyle Larson, who may be on the older end of this spectrum, all look to be formidable race winning drivers for years to come. Elliott and Blaney are the favorites to win a title sooner rather than later, but the remaining drivers can pose a threat. These same competitors have all taken to social media patterns to build their brand, and have already constructed a considerable fan base. NASCAR just needs to provide a strong foundation for these drivers to take the sport forward.
It is easy to criticize when things are going wrong and some do not like to hear that the sport they love needs to change. There are a plethora of adjustments that NASCAR could undertake to try and make the racing more compelling to its fans. Yet, it is also not our job to recommend changes to NASCAR. Fans vote with their voices and actions, and by not showing up to races and not tuning in to broadcasts are ways to show NASCAR that they are unimpressed with the current product.
It was embarrassing to watch a race that was barely full whether or not inclement weather had an effect on turnout. The decline in fans showing up on race day is down across all tracks. Sunday’s incident is just accentuated by Bristol’s high seating capacity around a short track. This is the highest level of NASCAR. Those in charge need to do their best to acknowledge that all the profits in the world can not mask declining attendance and the sport’s relationship with its fans.
*Photo Credit-Unsplash: Tim Trad