I’ve been receiving mail from my NASCAR fan readers and they all ask a similar question – what is wrong with NASCAR and why are there so many empty seats?
I’ll try and address this question and add my personal thoughts on the series and why things may or may not be as bad as they sometimes look.
First, if one judges everything from grandstand turnout, I’ll be the first to admit that many races on the NASCAR Cup schedule no longer sell out like they used to. There are many reasons for this, one of them being a majority of fans are in their baby boomer years (60 and older) and just can’t or choose not to sit in non-covered aluminum grandstands on a hot day.
However, that’s not the main reason the stands aren’t full. Yes, some fans have lost interest. It’s a normal part of any sport’s attendance/popularity cycles. There are always the “once and done” fans or those who just went along for the ride with friends. There are also new fans that love what they experience and come back for more.
Cost, however, is a huge factor. When you add in motels, food, etc. for those who come to a race for the entire weekend it can get very expensive. For those who utilize campers and motor homes, it’s still an expensive proposition considering over the road costs and so on. So, let’s all agree that taking the family to a NASCAR race is expensive, but no more so than an NFL football or MLB game. (Where many seats are also empty.)
Next up is television. When ESPN started covering most of the NASCAR races live back in 1982, the tracks had yet to go through their incredible facility upgrades. This growth came from live TV, more print publication coverage and the guidance of corporate NASCAR. Remember, the first ever flag-to-flag coverage of the Daytona 500 happened in 1979, so it took television many years to really start covering NASCAR, which in turn delivered way more spectators than the facilities could hold.
The result? Some tracks overbuilt, resulting in empty seats. Today, NASCAR still delivers solid TV ratings and has multi-billion dollar deals with the major networks (currently NBC and FOX), resulting in a very healthy cash flow. So, to sum this up, thousands of race fans are watching on TV or social media instead of being in the stands.
Corporate America is next. I’ll be the first to admit that the major sponsors are thinning out when it comes to full-time big league sponsorships. Being that it takes about $22-million per car full-time for a front running NASCAR team, you’ll see that today car owners offer spots on the car to many different sponsors, reducing the cost to play. Lowes (Jimmie Johnson) and M&Ms (Kyle Busch) are two major players that sponsor a team for all of the NASCAR Cup races.
Still, dollar for dollar, NASCAR racing is a solid consumer branding agreement that has one major end result – to sell product. Sponsorship is also used for corporate entertainment as a reward for doing business with a specific company. Clearly, when a retailer is invited by, say, M&M Mars to bring your entire family to their private suite to meet their drivers and watch the race, it’s hard to turn down. The result? More M&M candy orders and perhaps even an end display at the supermarket.
This brings us right back to the actual racing experience. I just returned from the Watkins Glen, N.Y. NASCAR weekend and it was a sold out affair. The camping sites were sold out the week after last year’s race, and I’ll bet the same happens this week for 2018. Track president Michael Printup is one happy guy, as Watkins Glen continues to be one of the NASCAR tracks showing solid growth curves in every category year after year.
Finally, I’ll touch on the fan side of an event. At every NASCAR race, all of the major sponsors including Ford, Chevy, Toyota and the many non-automotive sponsors were in the fan zone attracting major interest from fans ages five to 75. Booths selling t-shirts, musical groups performing, drivers signing autographs, lots of memorabilia, hero card handouts, free t-shirts and more kept the thousands interested and happy. It’s a huge part of the family friendly carnival atmosphere NASCAR races are noted for.
In ending, NASCAR is still alive and well. Granted, they’ve made a few missteps along the way, just like the NFL and MLB, too. And to the real race out there, thank goodness for NASCAR or stock car racing wouldn’t be where it is today.
(Greg Zyla is a syndicated auto columnist. He welcomes reader input on old cars and auto racing at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, Pa. 18840 or email at email@example.com).