BRISTOL, Tenn. - By every statistical measure, Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway was an artistic success.
The afternoon melodrama featured 21 lead changes among nine drivers, 11 cautions involving several wild crashes, and another classic victory charge by eight-time track winner Kyle Busch. The speedway was even bathed in sun over the final 50 laps.
Judging by the reaction of drivers, crew chiefs and media members, the extended NASCAR family was entertained.
Alas, there was one down note to the latest version of the Bristol boogie.
For whatever reason, only an estimated 38,000 fans showed up. The sky was overcast and the weather forecast did include rain, but the temperature was in the seventies.
Due to a decision by track officials months ago, no spectators were allowed in the turns either Sunday or Saturday. That sight of those empty sections compounded the rather shocking optics.
According to Cup Series veteran Clint Bowyer, Sunday’s showdown was a blast for drivers.
“Fun place to race,” Bowyer said. “You’re out there with a smile on your face, racing two-or-three-wide. We’ve finally got a good blend of [traction compound] down on the bottom.”
Of course a fun day for drivers rarely equates to an enjoyable viewing experience for fans.
Early in the week, several NASCAR diehards expressed frustration with the current style of racing at BMS. They long for the old roller derby days where multi-car crashes where common along with fussing, finger-pointing and foot stomping. That formula is the lifeblood for many weekly short tracks around the country.
More fans voiced dismay shortly after the final lap Sunday.
Wise or not, the old version of BMS has been relegated to a dusty closet. The crash-fests did generate cool highlight reels and elevate Bristol events into must-see status, but all that carnage was costly and dangerous.
You get the gist. Car owners and drivers hated the unpredictability and crumpled sheet metal. It was messy.
All those folks who praise the current version of BMS need to remember that at least some of the critics are former customers.
It may be tempting to discount and even mock the pro-wreck advocates, but imagine the plight of Bristol-area business owners who rely on the income from race fans who once arrived in town a week before events.
Attendance is not just a BMS problem. Last week’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway also featured a crowd in the 40,000 range. Empty seats and lackluster television ratings have become the new normal in the sport over the past couple years.
While most Cup races still outdraw major sporting events such as the World Series, the Super Bowl and the Final Four, NASCAR remains on a gradual decline into niche status.
The millennials are more interested in snazzy phones, massive televisions and craft brews than three-hour sporting events. They want instant gratification instead of cinematic works full of twist and turns.
Sunday’s Food City 500 contained all the elements of classic theater. There was even a good guy in 23-year-old country boy Chase Elliott pitted against a cocky villain in Las Vegas native Kyle Busch.
The fallout from Sunday’s Food City 500 highlights a quandary faced by NASCAR officials and track owners.
No doubt, the race was captivating in terms of aesthetics. But does that matter if fans decline to show up?
There’s a reason why more Americans prefer to watch simplistic car chase motion pictures than Shakespearean plays. Can you say old-fashioned, county fair fun? Is that so bad?
Judging by the recent release of the 2020 schedule, NASCAR officials realize that fans are craving more action in the form of short tracks.
In the case of Bristol Motor Speedway, the dilemma is finding some sort of balance between masterpiece theatre and bumper cars.