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Empty Seats - Where Have All the Race Fans Gone?
An Opinion

November 2, 2007
By Allen Madding

Allen Madding

Careful observation of the grandstands at Atlanta Motor Speedway this past Sunday -- from my various positions in the infield, revealed the attendance for the Pep Boys 500 was significantly down from previous years. The speedway’s clever attempt to mask the empty seats by painting seats red and blue randomly may have fooled the television viewing public, but standing behind pit road and looking up, the empty seats were obvious.

Granted there are about 16-20 rows of lower seats on the frontstretch that have limited viewing (even the track website accounts for the restricted viewing) making those seats less desirable, the track was far from a sellout crowd. My best estimation was that seating was two-thirds full. The Public Relations machine announced the crowd to be around 100,000 strong. Many estimated it was more like 75,000.

Remember when NASCAR abandoned Rockingham because it did not sell out? Remember when Darlington lost a date because it could not fill the stands for two events? Should Atlanta be concerned?

What gives? Atlanta has always produced some of the best finishes in the Cup Series with several side-by-side finishes over the last few years. Has the rising cost of tickets finally caught up with the sport? For seats where fans cannot see around the entire track, the facility is now charging $40-60. If a fan wants to actually see the whole race, the price jumps to $70-115. The backstretch grandstands were demolished after the tornado damaged, removing the last bastillion of the hardcore working class race fans. The backstretch stands were replaced with $8,000 a piece RV pads so that the fans with million-dollar motorcoaches can watch the race from the comforts of their private coaches.

But ticket prices cannot completely account for the drop in numbers. Many believe we are beginning to see a trend that has been brought on by NASCAR’s new face. The plethora of 1.5-mile cookie cutter tri-oval racetracks has nearly erased the appeal of the uniqueness of each racetrack for fans. Before the reconfiguration to a tri-oval, Atlanta was a unique 1-mile oval with short straight-aways and long quarter-mile turns, which dictated a good handling car. Now it is just another 1.5-mile intermediate track resembling Charlotte, Texas, and Las Vegas.

Does the lower crowd counts indicate that fans are leaving the sport? Has NASCAR and the racetracks catering to the almighty dollar and their intense focus on providing amenities for the corporate business class shut out the blue collar workers that have for years been the main stay for the tracks?

Obviously with the track selling $550 tickets to public suites and selling $8,000 RV spots, it has made up for the loss of the $35 a piece seats on the backstretch. But what about the empty seats in the new grandstands? We have been accustomed to seeing these empty seats at the Truck Series and Busch Series events, but when they are not full for the Cup Series, something is wrong. Perhaps NASCAR and the tracks need to consider why those seats are empty and who is missing from the crowds instead of worrying with randomly painting seats colors to disguise the problem from the television audience.

Discuss this and other racing matters in the Prodigys@Speed Forum

You can contact Allen Madding at .. Insider Racing News

The thoughts and ideas expressed by this writer or any other writer on Insider Racing News, are not necessarily the views of the staff and/or management of IRN.

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