Story and photo by Drew Hierwarter
Yes Virginia, there are empty seats at Bristol. It’s no longer a secret and there’s nothing to hide anymore. What people now want to talk about is why and it seems that everybody, from those in line at the concession stand to the guy sitting in his recliner at home who never goes to a race, has an opinion. Including me!
There are two reasons attendance has dropped off at Bristol, one is real and the other is perceived. The real one is the economy. The perceived one is the racing, or rather the lack of wrecking.
Bristol Motor Speedway is not exactly in the center of a large metropolitan area. Not even close. I don’t have exact population numbers, but the three cities of Bristol, Johnson City, and Kingsport, Tennessee that make up the “Tri-Cities” area aren’t quite Mayberry but they aren’t Charlotte or Atlanta either. Even when you include The Virginia Bristol and Abingdon, right up the road, you still don’t have a huge population center. The point here is that Bristol must rely on race fans coming from far and wide to fill all of those 160,000 seats. (Remember that number, 160,000!)
Now, here’s a news flash for you; those big motor homes and pickup trucks pulling fifth wheel trailers that used to completely cover the hills and campgrounds surrounding BMS are not exactly fuel mileage champs! Gasoline is $3.60 per gallon and up everywhere around the area and diesel is right at $4.00.
For a fans to come to Bristol from almost anywhere beyond the local area, the fuel to get there and get home again is a huge expense. As evidence of that you only have to look at the campgrounds around the track that are even emptier than the seats.
The local motels aren’t helping either. Although some have agreed to work with the speedway and lower race week rates, you still have some that are charging $150 - $200 per night for a room that would be $70 - $90 on any other night of the year.
Add in the cost of the tickets themselves and it’s not hard to spend $1,500 to $2,000 dollars for a race weekend at Bristol. It’s a simple fact that fewer folks are able to do that these days.
Next is the racing itself, or rather the lack of wrecking. Bristol used to be a one groove race track. You ran on the bottom and if you got out of line, you’d get shuffled back ten, fifteen, even twenty spots before you could get back in line again. The only way for one car to get past another was to push and shove and pretty much just knock the other car out of the way. That’s not racing, at least not to me anyway.
A few years ago they reconfigured the track and added progressive banking, i.e., the higher up the track you go, the steeper the banking gets. The result is that now two and three wide racing is possible. Cars can race side-by-side all over the track and all throughout the pack.
And yet some say it’s boring. What’s boring is watching cars slowly parade around the track behind a pace car while crews clean up the wrecks. Caution laps are boring. In 2005 the spring race had 14 caution flag periods for a total 115 laps! Twenty three per cent of the race, almost one quarter of the distance run at reduced speed. In 2006 it was 104 laps, 21 per cent.
This year they only ran 49 laps of caution, not quite ten per cent. What the fans saw instead was one stretch of 218 green flag laps with cars racing for position all over the place. They saw Matt Kenseth try to pass Brad Keselowski, the two battling for the lead lap after lap. Kenseth would gain a little at one end of the track and lose it at the other. He would get up to Keselowski’s quarter panel in one turn and have to drop back in another.
The fans that preferred seeing race cars get all beat up and wrecked over the real racing that we have now are gone. Those fans who liked endless laps run under yellow so they had time to get another beer are gone too. I say good riddance. What you have now at Bristol is racing and it’s good.
Remember earlier I mentioned the 160,000 seats that Bristol has. The official attendance figure for this year’s Food City 500 was 102,000. That means that 58,000 seats went unsold and, yes, that’s bad. But look at it this way; how many other tracks on the circuit would love to have 102,000 fans for a race?
The next race on the schedule is Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. The track in Fontana is an hour’s drive from Los Angeles and smack in the middle of 22 million people! I promise you, the management there would be breaking out the champagne if they got 102,000 people to come the race next week. They’d be happy if they just got the 58,000 that didn’t come to Bristol!
So, yes Virginia, there are indeed empty seats at Bristol. But it’s understandable in today’s economy and things will improve. In the meantime, folks are still excited about coming to Bristol and you only had to talk to some of the fans in attendance this past weekend to get that.