When he was a kid, Marcus Smith would get out of school early on the Thursday before the 600-mile NASCAR race held at the racetrack his family owns in Concord. He and his brothers went to watch not only the qualifying races, but the boxing matches staged near the front stretch grandstands.
“Those were my favorite,” said Smith, now the CEO of Speedway Motorsports, the company that owns Charlotte Motor Speedway and eight others nationwide.
Smith’s boyhood experience shows that NASCAR has always worked to broaden its appeal beyond just the cars roaring around the track. But it’s especially important these days, as the sport works to woo fans amid declining ticket sales.
Like other sports, NASCAR knows that to stay relevant, it must ramp up the fan experience with new entertainment options, venue upgrades and even changes to the rules of racing. But it’s also a conundrum for an industry whose nostalgic fan base can be wary of change.
“Back then and still now, fans will always tell you it’s so much more than just a race,” Smith told the Observer. “We try to outdo ourselves every year.”
The Coca-Cola 600 this weekend marks the start of the second half of the NASCAR season. It follows the All-Star Race at the track last weekend, which featured, for the first time, an MMA fight series put on by NASCAR’s new sponsor, Monster Energy. Singer Justin Moore performed before the All-Star Race, and Lynyrd Skynyrd will perform before the 600.
Speedway Motorsports leaders have also worked to make their tracks a destination for casual and hardcore racing fans. Part of that modernizing effort includes creating more “hang out spaces,” like the new 42,000 square-foot sun deck at the Concord track, where fans can buy the speedway’s own craft beer, the 600 Ale, and meals from Charlotte food trucks.
“Consumers don’t all want to sit in theater-style folding seats that squish them in rows like 30 people long. They want to be able to stand and talk and walk around and enjoy a venue in different ways,” Smith said.
Boosting attendance at its nine tracks is a priority for SMI, a publicly traded company. In 2016, the company reported a profit of $39.5 million, a bounce back from a loss of $34.4 million the prior year, SMI said in a securities filing. But ticket sales fell nearly 10 percent to $90.6 million in 2016.
Another change at the 1.5-mile Concord track: This year’s All-Star Race was contested in four stages, of 20, 20, 20 and 10 laps. NASCAR fan Harry Hibbs of Charlotte said he likes how competitive the race got in the last 10 laps. “All these rule changes kind of make it more exciting,” Hibbs said.
Another fan, Matt Miller of Charlotte, said he liked this year’s All-Star format, but that he won’t be coming back for the 600 race. The reason? “Too long,” Miller said.
Races – and other games – that are seen as too long are problematic for many sports, not just NASCAR. Attention spans are getting shorter, so rule changes and other venue entertainment are necessary, experts say, to keep things interesting for fans.
NASCAR’s evolving Chase format has drawn mixed reviews from fans. Earlier this year, NASCAR also said the 600 in Concord will be run in four 100-lap stages, rather than the three used in all other races under the sport’s new points system.
“NASCAR has screwed things up the last few years they screw it up more and more and more. Pretty soon, they won’t have fans at the rate they’re going,” longtime fan Hope Stevens of Charlotte said of the perpetual changes to the rules.
Smith said ticket sales were up for the All-Star Race, but would not say by how much. “We’re seeing some positive numbers, and they’re indicating people are enjoying what they’re seeing,” Smith said.
NASCAR fans have also said the industry has become too corporate, forcing drivers to maintain squeaky clean images. Others have said they don’t like how the industry has cracked down on drivers fighting like they used to.
Andrea Foster of Winston-Salem is a race fan who can appreciate the way things used to be as well as the changing face of the sport. A NASCAR fan since she was in kindergarten, Foster was at the All-Star Race in Charlotte last weekend, and she said she now cheers for driver Chase Elliott. She appreciates his professionalism that she says others call too “politically correct.”
“In the old days, when I was a kid, and Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison and Richard Petty and all them duked it out, I loved it,” Foster said. “I still love it, I love all the old school people. But I love it like it is now, too.”