Last week, I wrote a story about the challenges facing NASCAR and racetrack owners as attendance declines. Ticket sales have been falling for years for a host of reasons, including anemic wage growth among its core fan base, changes in the rules of the sport and fans’ penchant for digital engagement on their smart phones.
But judging by the number of emails, comments, tweets and other messages I received from fans – or rather, former fans – I can say with certainty that my story only touched the surface of the discontent many have with NASCAR these days.
One gentleman from Mooresville sent me a letter – handwritten in pencil on college-ruled loose leaf paper – saying that he doesn’t go to NASCAR races anymore because he believes the wins favor Toyota teams. The Japanese automaker, the Chevy driver posited, unfairly dumps cash into the industry. His sign-off: “Katherine, I’ll bet you drive a Toyota.”
Other fans wrote that NASCAR needs to return to its roots, with the old rules, the old car brands, the old outsized personalities.
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Here are some of the other reasons I’m hearing for the decline in attendance:
▪ Humpy Wheeler, former president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway, wrote me to say: “The American sporting public lives on a diet of big things whether it is a 350-pound NFL lineman or a 3,400-pound stock car, high drama, exciting personalities, sudden excitement and simplicity. Unfortunately, because of the standards of the sponsors we are missing a lot of fine drivers who run on the rough and tumble short tracks in the rural areas because they have bad teeth, talk wrong, don’t know how to hold a fork and their dress of the day is a pair of well worn jeans and a battered T-shirt and don’t forget their tattoos. While their personas don’t fit the sponsor image they simply are terrific race drivers in the persona of Petty, Earnhardt, Foyt, Jr. Johnson who left federal prison for bootlegging to become, as author Tom Wolfe penned, “The Last American Hero” and real characters who produced great drama.”
▪ Hayes Lewis, a lifelong NASCAR fan living in Virginia, called me to say he decided to dump the sport for good after NASCAR CEO Brian France endorsed Donald Trump for president in February.
28%Decline in revenue from admissions from 2010 to 2015 at Speedway Motorsports, which owns nine tracks including the one in Charlotte
51%Decline in admissions revenue at Dover Motorsports, which owns four tracks, from 2010 to 2015
▪ The ticket prices have gotten “out of hand,” Marty McDonald wrote me in an email. NASCAR would be wise, McDonald said, to try ticket giveaways to help encourage new young fans to participate. “My father took me, his uncle took him, I have taken at least 30 to 40 first timers to a NASCAR event, and my sons are die-hard fans,” McDonald said.
▪ Several users on Twitter bemoaned the “never-ending rules changes” as well as the Chase format, announced by NASCAR in 2014.
▪ Another reader named Dick said that races these days are flat-out boring. “Aside from Talladega, Daytona, Bristol, Darlington, and a couple of other small tracks, the races are just a ho-hum affair.” A race where a car takes the lead and is ahead for 185 of 200 laps, he said, sends him packing up to head to the movies instead.
▪ Dewey Middleton wrote in to speculate whether the drop in attendance goes back to a sentiment once voiced by NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton. In 2006, Helton caused a stir by suggesting that NASCAR has moved away from its “redneck heritage.” That implies a desire to be more “cosmopolitan,” Middleton said. “You leave the dance with who brung ya. They have only themselves to blame.”
So, NASCAR fans: What do you think?