Racing Surface The Least Of Bristol’s Attendance Issues

Charlotte, NC (March 26, 2012) – Be careful what you wish for.

That would be the advice I would give to anyone who insists the sky is falling at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Thanks to BMS track owner O. Bruton Smith, the controversy over which is better – three-wide racing on the new, progressively banked concrete surface installed in 2007, or the old bump and run layout that had been in place since 1992 – has reached a fever pitch since the Food City 500 on Sunday, March 18.

The race, which drew ‘only’ 102,000 fans, has been skewered by many, most notably Smith who obviously was distressed the giant capacity bowl that holds more than 160,000 patrons wasn’t filled. The longtime track owner immediately went on the offensive after the event stating if fans didn’t like the current configuration of the track, he’d change it before the next race in August at a cost of $1 million.

Smith has also posted a fan comment page on the track’s website to gauge whether the layout of the ‘Thunder Valley’ oval should be revamped.


Talk about grandstanding.

Don’t get me wrong, fan input is important. After all, the fans are the ones ‘paying the bills’ for everyone who earns a living in NASCAR. Their opinions should never be ignored.

Except maybe in this case.

Sure, there were plenty of empty seats at Bristol this spring, but placing the blame on the racing surface is just plain silly if you consider the following factors:

The Economy – I know everyone is tired of hearing this as an excuse, but the fact is a lot of people are struggling with unemployment, home foreclosures, skyrocketing gas and consumer goods prices. Honestly, who hasn’t been impacted by these things?

There can be no denying this has hit all forms of discretionary spending. You can’t spend it if you don’t have it. Consequently, attendance is down at a lot of things including most NASCAR tracks, not just Bristol.

Season Ticket Program – Bristol requires season ticket holders to commit to their seats the year previous to its events. Fans have to buy all four Sprint Cup and Nationwide races in October to retain their seats the following year. That means ponying up hundreds of dollars a full six months prior to the next event in the Spring – and a full 10 months before the crown jewel of the Bristol racing calendar – the Fall Night Race.

While that’s a sweetheart deal for the folks at BMS as they collect tons of interest on pre-paid ticket money (think of what the ‘float’ is on somewhere between $15-$20 million over six months), it doesn’t help a guy who is struggling with the economic issues stated above or someone who is trying to figure out how he is going to pay for Christmas in a couple of months.

Additional Costs – Hotels and campgrounds at Bristol have been gouging fans for years. Three- to five-night stay minimums at more than $200 a night at hotels that you wouldn’t pay half of that for on a regular basis is common.

Meanwhile, campgrounds with few amenities that charge $150-$200 a week as well. Parking at facilities that offer power, water and sewer hook-up start at $400 and range into the thousands a week.

Want to park your car for a day? That’s $20 or more each time, thank you.

Throw in the aforementioned rising gas/diesel prices – a real bummer to thousands of fans who have permanently parked their RV’s not just for Bristol, but about everything else as well – along overpriced concession, souvenir and other related costs, and suddenly a single trip to BMS for a race has easily swelled into the $1,000-$3,000 range.

Double that because you have to commit to both events as part of your season ticket package, and you’ve effectively financially eliminated a large portion of your fan base.

The Date – Having a race scheduled in the mountains of eastern Tennessee in the middle of March is a real crapshoot. This isn’t Bristol’s fault. NASCAR makes the schedule and frankly, reserves many of the best dates for tracks owned by it’s parent company, International Speedway Corporation.

While this year’s Spring event at Bristol was blessed with perfect weather, fans planning on traveling long distances (like we did from Wisconsin for many years) are less likely to commit to attending any event there in March knowing they may get froze out, washed out or delayed a day or two by Mother Nature.

Television – While television has greased the financial wheel for Bristol and NASCAR, it has also created some unintended consequences. Television has done a great job in bringing racing into our living rooms free of charge. That means untold numbers of fans – who given the ratings numbers of the race telecasts – are tuning in more now than ever.

Other than the crowd at the race, all NASCAR fans grab $10 worth of their favorite beverage, saddle up the couch and dial up the race on the television for free each week. That’s how we get our fix – via the ‘Tube.’

At that price – and with the coverage wall-to-wall, in-car and out – economics and technology are almost sure to impact on-site attendance in a negative manner.

I could go on – there are more extenuating factors that have shrunk attendance at Bristol Motor Speedway – but I think you get the point.
In our estimation, to focus the blame for diminishing attendance on the racing surface at Bristol is extremely shortsighted. Is the track different since it was retooled?

Most definitely yes.

Is it better or worse than its previous incarnation?

That’s a matter of opinion.

Truth be told, a lot of folks hated it when the track’s racing surface was changed from asphalt to concrete in 1992. Did Smith, who purchased the facility in 1996, offer to plow it up and start over then?

Nope. Instead, he more than doubled the seating capacity from 71,000 to over 160,000 in the next decade.

That decision to expand BMS to that mega capacity now suggests perhaps Smith overbuilt the facility. You can see the same problems at all his other Speedway Motorsports, Inc. tracks that, by the way, have also had trouble filling the seats in recent seasons.

Think about it. You don’t hear anyone saying the track sucks at Charlotte where Smith has covered up or torn down thousands of seats over the past four or five seasons – or since the economy took a dump.

In the end, we’re not sure how this will turn out. Smith, who last week also made the dubious claim that he did not approve the Bristol track reconfiguration in 2007, is prone to do anything at this point.

Remember when he was going to move Charlotte Motor Speedway if he didn’t get a drag strip?

Only time will tell what the changes will be at Bristol. One thing, however, is for sure – Smith will have his fingerprints all over whatever happens next to the racing surface at Bristol.

It’s a very risky play on his part because if the changes made aren’t met with a resounding approval and a return to capacity crowds, then what do you do?

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