What is the answer?
How can Bristol Motor Speedway get the following back it once had? That was the hot topic among numerous fans and on social media following Sunday’s Food City 500.
A facility that holds more than 150,000 spectators didn’t have close to half that in what has long been voted the most popular track on the NASCAR circuit.
Yet, on Sunday when the weather was warm and overcast, but without rain, the Kulwicki Terrace and most of the Waltrip Terrace was closed off, with BMS officials saying that was done to “enhance the fan experience” by compressing fans closer together on each side of the track.
Reuben Moretz, a race fan from Mountain City, Tennessee, had plenty of opinions on the subject, and even had a sense of humor about the issue.
“You don’t want to pay for cleaning if you don’t have to,” he said, with a laugh.
Kyle Busch - that might be part of the problem – continued his dominance by winning an entertaining race that included plenty of lead changes, multiple cautions and tight racing for most of 500 laps, but Moretz felt like the normal energy Bristol is known for simply wasn’t there on this day.
“I don’t know anybody that you talk to that wants to have empty seats in here,” said Moretz, a lifelong fan who first attended a race in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina in the early 1990s, and has been to most of the races in Bristol over the last half-decade.
“They want to see it packed because when you see it packed this coliseum rocks. It is so loud and there is a lot more energy. When it is not packed you just don’t get it.”
Fans still traveled from across the country to experience racing at Bristol. That includes Kristin Benne, who drove more than 10 hours from Kingdom City, Missouri to attend her fifth race at the track known as “The Last Great Colosseum.”
A fan of Jimmie Johnson, her brother works for the Ricky Stenhouse Jr. team. She attends several races a year at various venues, but Bristol is still her favorite. She has noticed a decrease in attendance at most tracks, but was surprised by what she saw in Bristol.
“It was sparse,” said Benne, who isn’t sure what the answer is either.
“Boy I don’t know. It is kind of sad, really. I have never seen it this empty,” she said. “I don’t know if it is the [race] stages or the price of tickets. I don’t really know.”
Compressing the fans into a smaller area wasn’t a bad idea, according to Carl Raker, a resident of Mooresville, North Carolina, a haven for NASCAR teams.
“There is a ton more people [that last year],” Raker said. “The weather helped out with that. I felt like it filled up the stands more, more camaraderie among fans. I thought that was good.”
The spring race has seemingly been hampered by bad weather for much of the last decade. Even moving the race from March to April hasn’t seemed to help, with last year’s event completed on a Monday. Fortunately, it didn’t rain on Sunday, but it was certainly threatening prior to the race. A weather guarantee now offered by BMS for SMI tracks didn’t seem to help.
“I thought it was a lot better than last year’s race here,” said Raker, whose father works for David Ragan’s race team. “The weather was a lot better, I thought it was more exciting, especially through the first half. You got right off the bat excitement when the first lap had a wreck. I felt pretty good for the race here overall.”
Yet, that excitement hasn’t been enough to prevent sagging attendance. While the Bristol night race in August will undoubtedly draw more fans and interest, the spring race once drew at least six figures in attendance.
Moretz knows. He has been attending races in Bristol for years, and didn’t have a problem with compressing the fans into the front-and-backstretch bleachers.
“I have been here when the place was packed. I would rather have it consolidated like that and keep everybody together,” Moretz said. “I think it kind of helps where you keep the fans engaged.
“That is what the sport is about is to come together and having fun and enjoying yourself with your drivers. You can do that when you are in closer proximity. If you are spaced out, it doesn’t work too well.”
Much has changed in the sport since NASCAR reached its heyday early this century.
“I think any fan, especially in this area, you see the stands kind of empty and you are disappointed. They are trying, but does anybody have the answer,” Moretz said. “If you come to the races over time it not one of those things where it just happened overnight. You have seen it for years.”
Among the common complaints other than weather – which no one at BMS can do anything about - are changes made to the track, ticket (and hotel) prices, parking, traffic, the races having been broken into stages, the playoff format, rules changes and list just goes on.
“I think at some point you make changes and try to make racing itself more exciting and get a reason for why don’t people come out,” Moretz said. “Is it the racers? Is it the dynamics of the racers? You used to have a lot of rivalries and that really pulled people in.”
NASCAR faces the same problem other sports do, which revolves around more options for fans to simply stay home and watch events on television or various devices.
Yet, as any sports fan will tell anyone who will listen, there is nothing like being there, especially in Bristol, which has a well-earned reputation as a must-see destination in motor sports.
I don’t know. I still enjoy the races, I enjoy coming, but it is kind of a bummer to see that many empty seats, especially as a fan over the years,” Moretz said. “Sometimes it is so personal you don’t want it to grow too big, but you still want people to be here and enjoy it and empty seats don’t do that.”