There was so much said and written about what we call the empty-seat syndrome early in the NASCAR Winston Cup season that we wanted to take a closer look. The conclusion is that there is no indication that doomsday is near; there is no downward spiral of interest in Winston Cup racing as polls would have us believe; and the growth of the sport has yet to peak.
Granted, attendance at three early races was flatter than usual compared to last season. Blame it on whatever you want: dull competition, market saturation, weather, or lack of promotion from television networks in no hurry to spend money on events they will lose next season.
But based on attendance at the first dozen races, there appears to be little cause for alarm. Seven of the first 12 races were reserved-seat sellouts: Daytona, Bristol, Texas, Talladega, California, Richmond, and Lowe's at Charlotte. That's including the addition of 8,500 seats at Daytona, 12,000 at Bristol, 7,500 at Talladega, and 10,400 at Charlotte since last season.
Las Vegas didn't sell its 107,000 seats and did not add any, but General Manager Chris Powell reports a slight increase in attendance over last year. The crowd at Martinsville's first race was up by 3,000, although still 2,000 short of filling the new 5,000-seat addition at the 87,000-seat facility.
"The competition was dull the early part of the season," says Humpy Wheeler, president of Lowe's Motor Speedway and Speedway Motorsports Inc. (SMI). "Then NASCAR made a rule change that made the new Chevrolet competitive, and that turned everything around." Not incidentally, Wheeler reports record attendance at the Coca-Cola 600 and the 10 days of events surrounding it at Lowe's.
Feeling The BruntHit hardest in the wallet were North Carolina Speedway at Rockingham, Darlington Raceway, and Atlanta Motor Speedway. So what else is new? The spring races at those tracks never sell out, hence, there are always empty seats. All three tracks feature fall events that draw much greater fan interest. As they build additional seats to accommodate fan interest for the fall events, the spring events look like even greater failures-although they aren't.
Operators at the three tracks declined to be specific about how much attendance declined at their spring races. But according to Rockingham's general manager, Chris Browning, dropping attendance was more an illusion of new seats that were not sold. The seating capacity at Rockingham was increased by 12,000 to 60,000 in 1998 (still the second-smallest total in Winston Cup for an oval track behind only Darlington's 59,000). "Take away the 12,000 seats, and our attendance numbers are close to what they had been," says Browning, who emphasizes that iffy weather, market saturation, and an undesirable spring date are problems he has to live with.
"We actually had a few more people than we did last year," says Darlington Presi-dent Jim Hunter. "We added 7,500 seats for the Southern 500 last fall and probably didn't fill 2,000 of them in the spring. But we generated fewer dollars. The spring race has always been a hard sell. One race is bigger at practically every track that has two Winston Cup events."
In 1997 Atlanta Motor Speedway added 32,000 new seats, increasing capacity to 113,000 in the grandstands. The Atlanta market has never embraced the speedway as much as logic says it should, especially in the spring, and weather is a factor, too. Traffic congestion beyond the speedway's control has been a long-term plight. "If we had not added those 32,000 seats, we would have sold every ticket to the spring race," says Clark, adding that the November season finale has sold out the past two years and generally does when the champion-ship is at stake. "If I had my choice, I'd like to run our first race later in the year on a Saturday night, but we are pretty much set where we are."
Darlington's Hunter, who has worked on many sides of the sport, says Darlington, Charlotte, Atlanta, Rockingham, and Martinsville compete for many of the same fans because of their geographic proximity.
"The tracks have to be more innovative," he says. "We're trying to do that. For example, we're working on a promotional package with Myrtle Beach (South Carolina) for the Southern 500. We can't just sit back and expect our grandstands to fill. Humpy Wheeler has done a better job of promoting and advertising at Charlotte than anybody in the business. I might get fired for saying that, but it's the truth."
Standing Room OnlyBusiness was booming as usual at most speedways throughout the first round. Wheeler reports attendance of 432,961 for May NASCAR events at Lowe's: the Coke 600, 182,975; Busch Grand National, 82,750; the Winston all-star race, 130,000; and 600 pole night, 37,236.
"The numbers are real," says Wheeler, aware that tracks, including his, have been guilty of inflating figures. "It must be a record for any sports venue in that period of time (including the 31,000-plus attending World of Outlaws events at the new dirt track)." Because International Speedway Corp. (ISC), which controls Daytona Speedway, doesn't make attendance figures public, we can't compare Daytona 500 and Speedweeks numbers with Lowe's. All they allow us to know is that Daytona has 165,000 reserved seats. Lowe's has 166,830.
Eddie Gossage, general manager for Texas Motor Speedway, says more than 200,000 watched racing blue blood Dale Earnhardt Jr. win his first Winston Cup race. Reserved seating capacity of 157,800 was extended to 173,800 with temporary seats.
"Everything we've done is Texas sized," says Gossage. "Our Winston Cup crowd is the second largest (to Indianapolis), our Busch crowd is the largest, and our smallest crowd of 73,000 for an IRL race would be a sellout at some Winston Cup venues.
"I would argue that no speedway on the planet other than Indianapolis has had more success." Gossage cautions, however, that high ticket prices and escalating costs are keeping some fans away and that tracks must keep prices reasonable and offer the expected amenities. Free parking at Texas saves fans $3.4 million per year he says, but Texas won't get a second Winston Cup race in 2001. "It's frustrating," Gossage pines.
Intimidating OffersA neat gimmick helped raise awareness to the April race at Talladega and fill the track's 138,000 reserved seats. Dale Earnhardt rode with a state trooper and handed out race tickets-and autographs-to motorists stopped for safe driving. "We didn't promote and advertise any more than usual, but we tried some different things," says Public Relations Director Rick Humphrey.
Earnhardt did more to generate interest in Winston Cup early this season than hand out free tickets. He's vintage Earnhardt, once again a strong contender for the driving champion-ship, and his army of fans has rallied behind him. Earnhardt's photo-finish victory over Bobby Labonte at Atlanta may be the single biggest contributor to rejuvenating interest. And don't forget his son, Dale Jr. Little E has been incredible as a rookie, and fellow newcomer Matt Kenseth is no slouch, either. Who could have predicted Little E with three victories, including the non-points The Winston, would be the series' top winner after 12 races? Ten different winners in the first 10 races and 11 in 12 spread the wealth and the cheers.
Bristol and Richmond are phenomena. Bristol, where 147,000 seats surround the half-mile bowl, is a perennial sellout-probably the hottest ticket on the circuit. "Our waiting list got so long and difficult to maintain that we discontinued it," says Track Publicist Wayne Estes. "We sold 12,000 new seats for the spring race by noon the first day."
Richmond, currently up to 97,000 seats, has sold out its Winston Cup races since 1988. "I don't know about three or four years down the road, but all we have to do now to sell our Winston Cup races is announce the dates," says Vice President Wayne Sawyer.
Full-Speed AheadIn spite of the slow start, 2000 looks like it will turn out to be another banner year for Winston Cup. The prospects for 2001 are mind-boggling. Two new 75,000-seat venues come aboard: Chicagoland Speedway at Joliet, Illinois, July 15; and Kansas Speedway at Kansas City, Missouri, September 30; opening major markets and extending the schedule to 36 points races. Nobody loses a date. Moreover, the new television package kicks in, and Dodge returns to Winston Cup competition with at least seven teams.
Of course, there will be at least 150,000 new seats to fill. The 23 tracks on the 2001 Winston Cup schedule will have an estimated 2.3 million reserved seats, nearly 300,000 of them at Indianapolis. The 12 tracks owned, controlled, or partnered by ISC have topped one million reserved. SMI's six tracks have more than 700,000. Ideally, promoters will sell them all, many of them twice, and we'll have competition so exciting that the fans will spend the race on their feet and never use the seats they bought.