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NASCAR feeling the pain at the pump too
Infineon Raceway in Sonoma is selling discount ticket packages to its NASCAR Sprint Cup race Sunday, and at next week's race, New Hampshire Motor Speedway will choose one lucky fan and pay the rest of their 2008 mortgage.

The reason: NASCAR has run smack into OPEC.

The record surge in gasoline prices, along with the nation's housing crisis and a sluggish economy overall, are taking a toll on stock-car racing fans and tempering NASCAR's popularity.

With Americans digging deeper to pay at the pump, some NASCAR tracks are seeing more empty seats and empty sites at their campgrounds, where thousands of RV owners park their gas-guzzling rigs on race weekends.

Chunks of vacant seats were evident at recent races at Michigan International Speedway, Dover (Del.) International Speedway and Pocono (Pa.) Raceway. Even Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C., home of most NASCAR teams, saw declines at last month's Coca-Cola 600. 

It might get worse. Many fans buy their tickets and make travel arrangements well in advance of race dates, so the full impact of $4.50-a-gallon gasoline on attendance might not be felt until NASCAR's fall races.

Most track operators are reluctant to divulge specific attendance trends, but several acknowledged they're seeing declines of up to 10% from a year ago -- which translates into thousands of empty seats.

At Atlanta Motor Speedway, which already had struggled to fill its 124,000 seats before gas prices skyrocketed this spring, "I anticipate we certainly will be off" for its race in late October, said track president Ed Clark.

The fans' struggle is one reason why NASCAR President Mike Helton met privately last week with the Cup drivers -- many of them millionaires -- and effectively told them to quit griping so publicly about their race cars, track conditions and other matters.

Helton "reminded them to think about the fans, what they are facing, the rising cost of gas and the hardships," NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said.

Some speedways, meanwhile, rolled out promotions in hopes of preventing even steeper drops in attendance.

Infineon offered a $195 family package for Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 that included four race tickets, hot dogs, soft drinks and a $10 gasoline card -- now worth a tad more than two gallons of unleaded regular -- that represented a $100 savings off normal prices.

In the New Hampshire race, the Loudon track will pay one fan's mortgage or rent for the rest of the year, up to $2,500 a month, while 20 others will win $500 gas cards.

"In these challenging economic times, we need to recognize those who support the speedway," said NHMS General Manager Jerry Gappens. The contest also "is an incentive for those fans thinking about coming, but [who] are still on the fence." More at LA Times

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