By Craig Murto
The NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway ran under perfect conditions; the weather was comfortable with no chance of rain. The race itself was exciting, especially the finish in which Kevin Harvick charged from seventh to win on a green-white-checkered finish.
And the 60,000 people reportedly in the grandstands enjoyed themselves immensely.
But there's the problem: The track holds 105,000 in the stands. And at one time they considered expanding the seating even more. So why are fans not coming to the track?
Veteran journalist and writer Monte Dutton wrote a blog in the past few days about this very thing. He correctly observed that the decrease in attendance is about more than just a sour economy: At some point the sport expected fans to cater to the sport's needs, and stopped catering to the fans' needs.
From the early 1980s through the mid-'90s -- the years in which NASCAR experienced the most growth -- I attended 10 to 14 races each year, as a spectator. And like most NASCAR fans in those days, we traveled long distances to attend the races.
Ticket prices were a lot less. The costliest ticket at Richmond now is $105. It shouldn't be any more than $65. In the '80s and into the '90s -- before tracks began milking the sport's popularity -- the most expensive ticket was $35 to $50. And nearly every track had an affordable section for general-admission seating, some actually allowing young children to attend the race free of charge.
To afford 14 races each year, general admission seating was a necessity. Fans got in line at 4 a.m. and waited for the seating to open at 7 to grab a good vantage point from which to see the race, which usually started at noon. Thousands of people performed this ritual. Those sections -- and those fans -- no longer exist at most tracks.
At some tracks, we opted to park in the infield. Infield parking was an inexpensive way to see the race. And at all tracks we pitched a tent; we couldn't afford overpriced hotel rooms.
Camping was free back then. And the campgrounds were packed, jammed full of diehard race fans who didn't mind being dirty for two or three days to hang out at the track, cook on the grill, have a good time and see some racing. Many of these fans were families, enjoying the NASCAR events the only way they could afford.
But somewhere along the line, the sport decided it needed more money. Free camping went away and campsites became expensive. Many tracks got rid of tent camping altogether, requiring "self-contained" camping vehicles so the track didn't have the expense of portable toilets. As a result, the fans who could only afford to go because they pitched a tent had a choice; get an RV, get a hotel room, make the race a day trip, or don't go at all.
For many families, the free camping was the only way to attend a race. Once those families were driven out of the sport, the next generation of fans was unable to have the experiences that created fan loyalty. They don't attend 10 races a year with their father; instead, they might go to one or two that are close enough to make as a day trip. Without the same level of participation, NASCAR will never experience the level of fan loyalty it once enjoyed.
No more tent camping. Higher ticket prices. Add to that the much-publicized price of gas and hotel rooms. Is it any wonder 45,000 seats were empty at Richmond? Those 45,000 people are the people who would be pitching tents all weekend so they can attend the race on their $25-$35 ticket. Three nickels add up to more than a dime every day of the week. Maybe if NASCAR tracks were smart enough to again allow free tent camping and drastically lowered ticket prices, they could attract the fans who didn't mind getting a little dirty to enjoy a race weekend, the people who didn't mind driving eight to 10 hours to get to the track.
It won't get fixed overnight -- it's easier to chase people away than it is to attract them. But NASCAR needs those hardcore fans, just as it needed them all along. They sustained the sport, until they felt the sport abandoned them. It's time to cater to the fans once again.
Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.