By: Drew Hierwarter
Photo by: Doug Hayes
The media has made a great deal about the declining attendance at NASCAR races for about the last year or so. And there has been no end to the debate about why there are empty seats where once there were none. Everybody has their own theory and ideas on how to “fix” the problem.
But, in spite of the boom years of the late ‘90s and much of the “0’s”, empty seats at a NASCAR race really aren’t something that’s never happened before. This is not a new experience for track owners.
Case in point is the photo above shot by my friend Doug Hayes at the now defunct Ontario Motor Speedway in Southern California. The photo is of a pace lap just before the start of the 1980 “Los Angeles Times 500”, the last NASCAR race ever run at the track before it was closed for good.
Ontario Motor Speedway was built near the intersection of Interstates 10 and 15, literally just a couple of miles west of where the current Auto Club Speedway is today. The track itself was designed to be the “Indianapolis of the West” and, as such, is a near photo copy of that more famous speedway. Just like Indy, it was a rectangle, 2-1/2 miles around with four distinct corners and four straightaways.
The difference is that OMS was far ahead of its time in the amenities that it offered. It had glass enclosed private stadium clubs with annual memberships and corporate suites when almost no other race tracks did. It also featured a fully paved paddock and garage area with enclosed garages and out on the track, crash absorbent retaining walls. The back straight was slightly higher than the front and no infield buildings were tall enough to obscure the back stretch from even the bottom seats in the grandstands. Fans may have needed binoculars to see all the way around the track because it was so massive, but there was nothing blocking their view.
The grandstands were just as impressive as everything else about OMS. There was seating for 155,000 fans when most other major tracks only had 40,000 to 70,000 seats.
The track opened with a USAC Indy Car race, the California 500, on September 6, 1970. That event was preceded by a multi-million dollar PR campaign and drew a standing room only crowd reported to be 178,000. The first NASCAR race followed in February of ’71 and drew 80,000 fans, which at the time was the third largest NASCAR crowd after the Daytona 500 and the Talladega 500.
The track also hosted several Grands Prix on an infield road course and NHRA professional drag racing on the pit road. But attendance at race events on the big track never reached acceptable levels again and track management tried other events like the Woodstock style “California Jam” music festival.
In addition to low attendance, there were years of mismanagement and constant financial trouble making it almost impossible to service the debt on the bonds that were sold to finance the initial construction. But I’m going to leave that part of the history of OMS to someone with more knowledge of financial matters than I.
Ontario Motor Speedway closed after the 1980 season and fell to the developer’s wrecking ball. The land it sat on became worth much more than the money it owed. By the mid 1980’s a Hilton Hotel was built where Turn Four once was, and today the entire property is taken up with condominiums, commercial buildings, and some retail stores. For many years when you drove past the site on I-10 you could still see the huge dirt berm that supported the Turn One grandstands, but even that is gone now.
Just look at the photo again and try to think in the context of 40 years ago. The main grandstands in the foreground go from Turn One, all the way along the front straight and deep into Turn Four. That massive tower containing the suites, private clubs, press and officials facilities that looms over the Start/Finish line was something few people could imagine before. And yet, at a time when today, many people think that NASCAR racing was better, that the attendance was better, look at all the empty seats. The crowd for that 1980 race can only be described as sparse.
Today, the site of Auto Club Speedway, like OMS before it, is just about in the center of an area that is populated by more than 22 million people. And yet it has struggled to draw even 100,000 of them to the races there. But as we can see from the history of OMS, this is not a new problem.
What’s the answer? I certainly don’t have a definitive one. I do think that the boom for big time auto racing in general and NASCAR specifically is over. I believe we are in a leveling off period now. I think track owners and operators need to review their expectations about crowd sizes. Some tracks are closing seating areas off, and renumbering some of their stands to hold fewer seats.
The slow economy and the rising cost of taking a family of four to a large racing event is certainly a major factor in diminished attendance. And there isn’t much that we or the tracks can do about that.
Will attendance at major NASCAR races ever come back to pre-2008 levels? Probably not, but one thing is sure, everybody on the promotional side of motor sports, from track operators to sponsors to individual race teams needs to do everything they can to insure that those who do come to the races get a value for the money they spend. Otherwise one day we will be looking at a lot more malls and housing developments where race tracks like OMS once stood. But racing survived low attendance before and I have every confidence that it will survive low attendance again because, after all, this is nothing new.