By Pete Pistone
Forget Old Coke vs. New Coke, “Tastes Great” vs. “Less Filling” or the age-old battle between boxers and briefs.
The NASCAR argument that matters most today is “old” Bristol Motor Speedway vs. “new” Bristol Motor Speedway.
When track management decided to tear up the Tennessee half-mile track and reconfigure in 2007, little did they know just what a monumental can of worms was being opened.
After the construction work was finished gone was the narrow-grooved track layout that only allowed for single file racing and in its place a progressively banked configuration which created opportunities for side-by-side racing.
Almost instantly drivers began to praise Bristol 2.0 and the virtues of being able to actually pass another car for position without having to ram it out of the way as was the only option in the track’s previous incarnation.
But not so fast. Although the competitors have embraced the track’s change with many members of the media also echoing the praise all is not well with the most important voice in NASCAR – the fans.
There were early rumblings from some long-time fans of the sport when Bristol was reconfigured but a lot of those complaints were chalked up to the simple fact that most fans simply don’t like change at all.
But the vocal group has gained more and more followers in subsequent years and that discontent may have reached a pinnacle last Sunday when the cavernous coliseum of a race track was maybe half full.
The startling sight of a half empty Bristol was jarring to say the least especially in light of the track’s recent streak of 55 consecutive sellouts when 160,000 fans would jam into the second smallest track on the Sprint Cup schedule.
When that streak ended there were rightfully many theories as to why, many of which still hold true.
The economy hasn’t gotten any better for a number of fans and the cost of attending any NASCAR race just isn’t possible with dollars so tight. The rising cost of gas has hit all fans with the hearty souls who camp and drive RVs really taking it on the chin. The sea of motor homes that usually surround Bristol was non-existent last weekend and the prospect of spending maybe $1000 on fuel alone certainly had to be part of the equation.
Lodging of the hotel variety isn’t plentiful in the Tri-Cities area by any means and those who are lucky enough to procure a room are forced to pay double or triple the establishment’s regular rate as the unfortunate law of supply and demand is put to its most extreme use.
Bristol’s parent company Speedway Motorsports Inc. probably didn’t do itself any favors by purchasing Kentucky Speedway, which this summer will host its first Sprint Cup race. Less than 400 miles away, Bristol’s new sister track is most likely responsible for many fans staying closer to home in early July for their NASCAR fix and not incur the time, travel and expense to come to “Thunder Valley,” which certainly accentuates the original point NASCAR had about Cup racing at Kentucky and the fear of over saturating the area.
Some have also pointed to the downward trend in corporate ticket sales as taking a huge chunk out of Bristol’s ticket sales. Companies that have had to cut back sponsorships and marketing initiatives also don’t buy luxury suites or blocks of tickets for employees or customers any longer. That revenue has been lost and its impact on the number of people in the grandstands is significant.
And finally there’s the theory that NASCAR’s aging audience simply doesn’t have it in them any longer to go through the sometimes-arduous task of attending a race. Those who didn’t think twice about piling into a car or van with a group of pals for a NASCAR weekend in their care free younger days now find themselves with families, responsibilities and other duties as well as interests that make sitting on the sofa rather than in the grandstand Sunday afternoons a much more viable option.
That’s a pretty impressive laundry list of reasons why the bloom is currently off what was once considered the toughest ticket not just in NASCAR but also in the entire sports world.
But let’s go back to the discussion of the Bristol of old and today’s BMS. In recent days I’ve heard from hundreds of fans who swear that the racing just is not the same as it used to be and until it’s restored Bristol will never return to its glory.
The conveyor belt racing that created 500 wreck-filled laps, resulted in an average of 20 caution flags a race and a garage full of destroyed racecars is what these fans seem to want back. Drivers fighting with one another and high emotions on display is what “Boys Have at It” was all about and I can understand fans wanting to see that kind of passion. And apparently when it comes to Bristol, they want it done in demolition derby style.
Which still confuses me.
Whenever most people who don’t know anything about NASCAR or auto racing for that matter discuss the sport with me, they contend fans only watch because of the crashes. I’ve fought diligently over the years to argue there’s much more to racing and its speed, strategy and excitement are just some of the sport’s virtues that have helped it become popular.
While crashes and accidents are certainly a recognized by product of racing and there is no doubt a quotient of the audience attracted by that aspect, I would argue true race fans aren’t as interested in the carnage as they are of all the other interesting elements to the sport.
In Bristol’s case, I guess I was absolutely wrong.
|More NASCAR coverage|