Bristol is not Las Vegas, Phoenix, Fort Worth or Charlotte. There are reasons to go to the Virginia-Tennessee border. The country is beautiful. On Sunday, it appears a lot of people were taking in the scenery. They sure in hell were not at the race track.
NASCAR is in serious trouble. Sure, we have commented on the dropping ratings and crowds for years. The pretty people who once made it the thing to be part of have all disappeared and even the sponsors rarely do anything special in their commercials as they did a decade or more ago. We knew things were not great. Then we saw the grandstands at Bristol on Sunday.
They were “optimizing the stadium configuration for the spring race only” the track folks announced, taking “a more frontstretch and backstretch approach.” That was their way of explaining why not a single soul was sitting in the large stretches at either end of the facility. Not a soul. No doubt the buses arrived to take the sight seers out on their tour and off they went. Not a candy wrapper to be found.
“To create a more energetic atmosphere” was what was to be enjoyed by the token few left behind. I can smell the bovine excrement from here. In a stadium that is built for 146,000 fans, only an estimated 38,000 bothered to show up for the prizes and to be revved up during the cautions and stage breaks. When one of your most iconic tracks, one that can be counted on to serve up some great action, looks as abandoned as North Wilkesboro, you have a problem. An Apollo 13 kind of problem.
Sometimes a race can be highly entertaining. Daytona was. Bristol was. Everything in between was not. They actually sucked. I wager that the “action” presented in Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix, California, Martinsville, and Texas earned the sport not one single new fan. Not one. Instead, they probably sent a few more former fans packing. When they quit turning out at a track like Bristol, disaster looms on the horizon.
Want a quick easy fix? How about announcers who entertain you in a fashion the race is not. NBC finally got it, with the style of broadcasting delivered by Dale Earnhardt Jr, Jeff Burton, Steve Letarte, Rick Allen and company keeping us tuned in just to hear what those boys and girls might say. On FOX, their style depends on the race being worth to watch, as their commentary does not provide a diversion for when it is not. Thus far, six of the eight have not.
Now, take that NBC-style commentary with his broadcasters who might tell you what is happening, who might make you think, who certainly will make you laugh, and pipe it through as a channel on the scanners worn by those in the crowd. I am sure it would add to the experience a whole lot more than massive sections of empty seats and a few prizes. If they can not fix the racing, at least fix the experience.
After 15 years of watching the sport closely, of commenting on it weekly, it simply became a chore for me. I am not the only one. Next year, NASCAR once again attacks its own tradition. For 11 seasons (2004-2014) they moved the Southern 500 out of its usual Labor Day spot. They even dropped the Southern 500 moniker for a time. When they finally returned to tradition, we thought they might have learned something. They did not. Next season, the former Firecracker 400 July race at Daytona moves to the fall, to be replaced by the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. The track at Indy is iconic, the NASCAR racing there is always horrid. Almost unwatchable,
They keep saying the current schedule is stagnant. Who in hell are “they?” Are “they” people who actually go to the races, who are continuing family traditions with an annual trek to Daytona in the summer on their own dime? I sincerely doubt it. The tracks are not stagnant. The dates are not stagnant. The damn racing experience and the television commentary are what is stagnant. If you want to do something, fix that.
Next week it is Richmond. Not bad. Two weeks after that, it is Talladega. Always great. After the shock we got at Bristol, I just hope they have enough fans left to fill at least half of the seats. I am taking nothing for granted.