Desperate NASCAR track owners are trying everything to bring fans back
The roar of 43 rumbling stock cars remains the main attraction. But to combat sagging attendance, NASCAR track operators are adding personal touches to make races more enjoyable for fans — and to keep them from staying home and watching on TV.
From concerts to paved parking lots to improved Wi-Fi, tracks are enhancing entertainment options to fill their increasingly empty grandstands.
"That's why we're here: the fans," said Roger Curtis, president of Michigan International Speedway. "If there's no fans, none of this is happening. Nothing. Zero. They have to know that we sincerely care and that we're not just cashing the checks and taking the money and walking off."
Curtis camps with NASCAR fans at his track to learn how he can improve their weekend. But he can't fix a sluggish economy and high gas prices — which have kept some fans at home, where they can follow races on Twitter and high-definition TVs.
Based on NASCAR crowd estimates, attendance for Sprint Cup points races fell 8.5% from 2009 to 2011. Attendance through the first 20 points races this season is down 2.4% from a year ago.
Michigan's estimated attendance has fallen about 30,000 since 2008 for its June race. Still, Michigan's estimated 82,000 fans for last month's Cup race — won by Dale Earnhardt Jr. — was more than a typical NFL game. (Curtis said ticket sales for that race were slightly above last year's event.)
Michigan, though, isn't the only track that has seen attendance wane.
Empty and partial-filled grandstands provided an arresting backdrop to Sunday's Brickyard 400. Although the estimated crowd of 125,000 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was NASCAR's sixth-largest this season, it marked the fourth consecutive year that attendance was down for Indy's annual Cup race.
Negative fan feedback and a steady drop in attendance led Bristol Motor Speedway officials to alter its track in time for this month's race there.
But upgrading amenities is a more common solution for track change.
International Speedway Corp. planned to install fiber-optic cable networks and an antenna system at all 12 of its Cup tracks, including Michigan and Talladega Superspeedway. The aim is to boost wireless capability, regardless of the service provider, in time for the season-opening Daytona 500. (Series sponsor Sprint already provides at least four mobile towers per track.)
"Over the last couple of years, We've certainly listened to our fans, and connectivity was one of their key concerns. And (they) expressed it very loudly," said Craig Neeb, vice president of multi-channel marketing and chief information officer for ISC. "The fact that we're able to enable this without any significant capital investment on our side … we can continue to fund those things like concessions and restrooms for our fans without having to make that trade-off."
Technology upgrades aren't the top priority for all fans, said Marcus Smith, president of Speedway Motorsports Inc., which operates eight Cup tracks, including Bristol and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Smith said fans want more access to drivers, more family-friendly experiences and more comfort. SMI tracks have responded with extended times for pit tours, additional driver appearances and more shuttles to take fans from the parking lots to their seats.
"What we have tried to do is respond to the feedback we see from our fans," Smith said. "Five years ago, we really went full throttle on our fan engagement and wanted to find out exactly what are the positives and negatives for our fans in coming to the races."
Smith said SMI has spent between $30 million and $80 million a year on track upgrades in recent years, including better restrooms and shower houses — and the world's largest HDTV (196 feet, 10 inches by 77 feet, 2 inches) at Charlotte's 1.5-mile oval.
"No fan asked for the biggest TV in the world," Smith said. "What we like to do is do things at our speedways that exceed anybody's expectation or anything they would even ask for."
Sometimes the improvements are smaller but can have an impact. Pocono Raceway, where the Cup Series races this weekend, has a scavenger hunt race morning for fans with the top prize ticket upgrades. Texas Motor Speedway has a party for its season ticketholders. The themes vary but have included sumo wrestling, trapeze artists and even a rodeo.
Deborah Lom of Long Island, N.Y., and has been a NASCAR fan for 15 years and was planning to be at Pocono this weekend. But, she said, sometimes watching on TV is better.
"Every race I go to involves an investment of time, money and effort," said Lom, assistant director of the cultural center at Hofstra University. "I have to get a hotel to stay over for every race. It costs gas. A lot of times I just opt to stay home because it saves me money, it saves me time and I don't have to deal with traffic."
But tracks figure the more they can add, the odds they can attract fans go up.
"We still believe — and the fans tell us — that attending a live NASCAR event remains one of the most unique, exhilarating, exciting experiences that a fan can have," said Jill Gregory, NASCAR vice president of industry services. "You can't replicate the noise and the flyover and the concert and just the shear size and scope — and then the closeness and proximity to our superstars when you are at home."
It's what Curtis tries to convey to fans, following a vision statement he has at Michigan: "To create lasting memories for every person every time." USA Today
[Editor's Note: NASCAR has had its day. It is in a downward spiral and the fans are not coming back. They oversaturated the USA with 'NASCAR this and NASCAR that' everywhere you turn to the point it nauseates people and they are turning away from the sport.]