Exciting Races, Personable Drivers Seen As Keys To Regaining Traction For NASCAR
NASCAR returns to Auto Club Speedway this weekend "amid signs its popularity is stabilizing," according to Jim Peltz of the L.A. TIMES. NASCAR "still enjoys a huge audience," and Dodge President & CEO Ralph Gilles said "a lot of sports would kill for its kind of viewership." But the "challenge is getting more people ... to give NASCAR a look and keeping their interest." Achieving that goal "boils down to two things, those involved in the sport said: consistently exciting races and a greater show of personality by the drivers." When the sport was "surging in popularity, too many NASCAR drivers became bland and politically correct, their rough-and-tumble ways curbed by NASCAR and its influx of sponsors with corporate images to protect." There also is the "notion that technology has left the nation with a shorter attention span and perhaps NASCAR should shorten its races." But ESPN VP/Programming & Acquisitions Julie Sobieski "isn't sure shortening ... races would attract more viewers." Sobieski: "We don't see a direct correlation to shortening the races and the ratings going up." NASCAR driver and team owner Michael Waltrip said that shortening races also "could hurt NASCAR by alienating some fans who drive long distances and spend hefty sums to attend races and don't want the events cut short." Waltrip: "Their attention span is fine. We have to take care of those people." Team owner Rick Hendrick said that NASCAR "must find new ways to attract increasingly distracted fans." Hendrick: "There's too much stuff going on. The world's changed" (L.A. TIMES, 3/23). Meanwhile, Peltz yesterday noted NASCAR "has a 10-month, 36-race season, and it's too early to predict a rebound this year." The weak economy and soaring gasoline prices "still weigh on attendance even if the recession is officially over," and sponsorships "remain a tough sell" (L.A. TIMES, 3/22).
BRISTOL A CONCERN: ESPN.com's David Newton wrote the "number of empty seats" at last weekend's Sprint Cup Series Jeff Byrd 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway (BMS), which a "few years ago was the toughest ticket in NASCAR, raised huge red flags." Official attendance figures indicated 120,000 fans were in attendance at the 160,000-seat track, but the stands "appeared not much more than half full." BMS in '09 "celebrated 55 consecutive sellouts dating to August 1982." The BMS Facebook site suggests many fans are "turned off by the two- and three-wide racing we've seen since the track was repaved and reconfigured from a one-groove track in 2007." Gas prices "approaching $4 a gallon had to have an impact," and "absurd hotel prices also are a problem." Ticket prices "were a factor for some," as one fan said that he "could get seats at Martinsville Speedway for nearly half of what Bristol was asking." Then there is the "market saturation." One fan indicated that some are "opting to attend the first Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway on July 9 instead because it's a shorter drive" (ESPN.com, 3/21). YAHOO SPORTS' Jay Busbee wrote, "There was an elephant in the room Sunday at Bristol. ... The stunning attendance woes at Bristol ... wasn't just a splash of cold water. This was a splash of cold water, followed by getting the empty bucket thrown right in your face. This is Bristol, man! Once revered as the toughest ticket in sports" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 3/21). In Charlotte, Jim Utter wrote Bristol's attendance was a "dose of reality." Utter: "In 14 years of covering NASCAR -- two races a season -- there were never fewer people in the stands for a Cup race than there were on Sunday. ... On top of that, overnight TV ratings were off nine percent" (THATSRACIN.com, 3/21).