Craig Murto

Craig Murto

The NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series race at Bristol, Tennessee last weekend was the best Cup race of the year.

The race had everything you could want. There was action, there were cautions, there were positions swapped at the front of the field. It was a highly entertaining race.

It also seemed to be the best race that nobody attended.

It was reported that about 46,000 people attended the race at Bristol. Whereas this might be good for professional sports, when it’s in a stadium that holds 160,000, the stadium looks empty.

The big social media topic during and after the race was the lack of attendance. Picture hundreds of overweight middle-aged men sitting in the dark in their underwear gravitating to Facebook to declare “NASCAR is dead.” Those social-media warriors took glee in observing the decline of what once was America’s most popular sport.

The sport’s popularity is worth discussing. In the 1980s, prior to the explosive boom NASCAR experienced in the ‘90s, 20,000 to 35,000 in attendance was a good crowd for a NASCAR event. And that was before every race could be seen start to finish on your television.

In the 1990s and 2000s, tracks couldn’t build enough seats to accommodate all the new fans. But NASCAR has peaked. Part of that is the natural order of things; when a sport is trendy, people who follow trends follow that sport. NASCAR isn’t trendy anymore, so the “in crowd” has moved on. So be it; they weren’t true fans to begin with. But by attempting to chase those new fans, NASCAR alienated a lot of its core fan base.

A number of issues play into the lack of at-the-track attendance that are unrelated to the sport’s popularity. One issue is television. Television coverage is outstanding. Many people simply opt to watch the race live on TV or record it and watch it later. With Bristol’s 2 p.m. starting time, it’s just a little late by the time the race ends for some to be driving home and expect to get up and work the following Monday.

The later starting times are often dictated by the television partners. Tracks get a big share of TV money now. It seems they’re trading some of the fans in the stands in order to keep the TV partners happy.

Of course, there is the economic issue for the fans. In Bristol, a lot of hotels jacked up their $100-a-night room rates to more than $300 a night for race weekend. But they were also accepting walk-ins at the lower rates. If you’re a fan paying $300 to stay the night because you made a reservation months before, and you see a walk-in get a room for one-third the price because the hotel isn’t full, it could sour you to the experience. You may never visit that town again, which means you probably won’t be going back to that race.

The issue with hotel rooms happens all over the country on NASCAR race weekends. Hotels haven’t figured out that the ‘90s boom is over, and by gouging today’s fans they are actually hastening the sport’s decline. Hopefully some tracks on the circuit are actively working with local hotel chains to end the price-gouging madness.

Even airlines have been known to jack up ticket rates on flights headed to destinations hosting NASCAR races on race weekends. I’m all for the free market, but at some point these businesses have to realize that they’re strangling the goose that laid the golden egg. NASCAR is no longer a fad, and the fans refuse to be milked for every cent in their pockets. The more these businesses try to squeeze every dime out of every race fan, the fewer fans attend the races.

Everybody benefits when fans attend the races. Attending a race is the best way to see a race. The optic of full stands is good PR for the sport. Local hotels and restaurants make money when they’re full.

The tracks get it. You can get great tickets for a Cup race today for less than you paid 20 years ago. But $650 for two nights in a hotel, hundreds of dollars for transportation, etc., etc., just to use a race ticket, sure makes the TV in my living room look good. I can watch the best race of the year inexpensively, and not wait in line when I need a fresh beverage.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.