Craig Murto: Why the empty grandstands?

CRAIG MURTO

Kyle Busch put on a clinic at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to win the Brickyard 400 from the pole last Sunday. But was anybody there to see it?

The speedway seats about 235,000 in grandstand seating, with infield general admissions pushing the total number of possible spectators to about 400,000. But estimates for the crowd at the Brickyard 400 ranged from 50,000 to 80,000.

Of course, one reason for the sea of empty aluminum seats may have been the extreme heat. Even with an expensive ticket in hand, some may opt to enjoy the comfort of their 72-degree living room rather than endure temperatures pushing 100 degrees. But this can’t attribute for the anemic attendance, as race fans are hearty and put themselves through a lot to enjoy their favorite sport.

The answer is partly the product, and partly the price.

The Brickyard 400 ticket prices for “penthouse reserved” seating in the upper level of the grandstands in 2016 was $175 per ticket.

A search of the speedway’s website indicated that if you’re a season ticket holder, you can renew your penthouse ticket for $159 for 2017. The price has gone down to $165 for other purchasers, but the lower level prices remain the same. And general admission – basically sitting on the lawn in the infield – is $30.

On top of this you have Indianapolis hotels, which are not cheap. In fact, race weekends and weekends of special events the prices go up. And let’s not forget you still have food for which to open your wallet.

In an economy with stagnant wages and 2-percent growth, these prices all seem high. Especially when you consider the fact that so many forms of entertainment are available free of charge these days, or at least at a reduced rate. There’s plenty of racing on TV (including the Brickyard 400), and local tracks don’t cost $175 for an afternoon of entertainment.

The novelty of NASCAR at Indy wore off a long time ago. Even with the new aerodynamic package and tires that fall off in performance during a race, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway rarely lends itself to “barn burners” as far as stock cars go. The racing groove is just too narrow, and it’s too hard to pass. Mostly the racing is single file at Indy. Although the racing product NASCAR puts on track in 2016 is generally vastly improved over recent years, fans know enough of what to expect at Indy.

And it’s not worth $175. In fact, all the prices for tickets at the Brickyard 400 are inflated.

I saw it reported that tracks now are making the most of their profits from TV money. What happens when those TV deals are gone?

The sport faces other challenges, such as a title sponsor. Sprint is leaving, and it may be that NASCAR is having a tough time finding a replacement. In fact, it’s been suggested that a number of companies will come onboard to sponsor the series for a partial season each. That’ll be confusing, to say the least.

But not nearly as confusing as the rules of the sport. Back in the late ’80s and into the ’90s, when the sport saw astronomical growth, the rules were consistent. Fans knew and understood the rules. Now it seems a new rules package is unveiled every other week. And nobody knows how the champion will be crowned from year to year.

My suggestion to NASCAR is simple. Hurry up and take away all the downforce you’re going to and come up with a set of rules you’re going to stick with for a number of years. Fans are tired of constant changes; it makes the sport hard to follow. The current trajectory is the proper one – low grip racecars that put the show back in the drivers’ hands. But just get there, already.

My suggestion to tracks is to adjust your prices, quickly. Not only are three nickels worth more than one dime, but four dimes are worth more than a quarter. Empty seats do nobody any good. Empty seats don’t buy concessions. Lower your prices and fill those empty seats.

Congratulations to Kyle Busch for not only winning the Xfinity race on Saturday and the Cup race on Sunday, but sweeping the poles for both events. He is the first driver in NASCAR history to score both poles and both wins in one weekend. My advice to Kyle Busch is to stop showing off.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.

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