Craig Murto: Racing is a niche sport

Craig Murto

Last week’s Sunday afternoon Monster Energy Cup race at Richmond International Raceway was absolutely fantastic.

The racing was great. Afternoon races always lead to a tricky and changing track surface, which in turn leads to a lot of action. The new down force package, along with the old track surface, the tire Goodyear brought for the race and the unusual hot April day led to multi-groove racing. It looked like the now-defunct track in Rockingham, N.C., the way cars fanned out three and four wide in the corners.

The afternoon race, as well as adjustments in ticket prices, meant more children were at the track. These children are our fans of tomorrow, and many can’t stay up until the wee hours in order to take in a night race. Even pre-race activities, such as the track walk, were family friendly.

Another benefit of the afternoon time slot was that local tracks could run their Saturday night shows without competition from the Richmond Cup race. Racing’s fan base begins at the local level, and the local short tracks fair better when they don’t have to compete with top NASCAR divisions on TV.

But if the racing’s great and the atmosphere is better and more cost-effective for families, why were the stands only about half full?

Social media was full of people criticizing the afternoon time slot. But many of those people either don’t attend the races anyway, or certainly don’t frequent their local short tracks. And my guess is they don’t have children to tuck in at night who they’d like to take to the races.

Some people posted photos of what appeared to be large crowds at Richmond in the early ’70s. But what were they, really?

The old Richmond Fairgrounds track in the early ’70s was probably lucky to seat 35,000 people. NASCAR doesn’t release attendance figures anymore, but best estimates are that Richmond can seat more than 80,000. Assuming it was half full on Sunday, that’s more people than were packed like sardines in the much smaller grandstands of the fairgrounds track in the ’70s.

Richmond International Raceway did everything right on Sunday; the empty seats in the grandstands had nothing to do with the track.

And we don’t even have to debate the constant changes race fans have had to endure, from stage racing to changes in what was formerly known as the Chase, but now is called the Playoffs. Fans are tired of change. But even that weariness to change isn’t the reason for the empty seats.

Motorsports are a niche. In the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s, most people you knew had little knowledge about racing. In the ’60s and most of the ’70s, the best any form of motorsports got for coverage was 20 minutes during a Wide World of Sports broadcast.

By the mid-’80s racing began to be trendy. It enjoyed incredible growth in the ’90s and 2000s. Tracks added seats at an unimaginable rate; it seemed the growth of the sport was limitless.

But the problem with trends is that they change. And the people who follow trends tend to find something else to do. Racing peaked about 15 years ago, and it’s been in decline ever since. What’s left now are the hardcore fans and some the sport hopes to convert.

The sport has made some mistakes. It never should have stepped all over the grassroots level; Cup racing, IndyCar racing, these are supposed to be the Sunday shows. Friday and Saturday nights are when local tracks get to create the race fans of the future.

Playoffs, stage racing, rules that change every year are a bit much for a lot of people. For many it seems to be nothing but gimmicks, such as the “push to pass” boost of speed available in IndyCar and Formula E; it’s like something out of a 1980s computer game.

Many of these changes will be here to stay; stage racing and playoffs aren’t going away. But in order to secure what’s left of the sport’s base, the changes – other than changes to the cars to make them more competitive – must stop.

What we need are more tracks willing to be like Richmond. Schedule races at times children can attend. Schedule races at times that don’t hurt the grassroots level of the sport. Then, for those fans remaining, the sport will continue to be fantastic, and may again begin to grow.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.