It wasn’t too many years ago that you couldn’t get close to Charlotte Motor Speedway — or any of the other tracks on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule — on race day.
Even if you already had tickets, you couldn’t count on getting to the seats on time unless you were there at oh-dark-thirty; and it was risky at that.
If you remember those days — and they weren’t that long ago — you couldn’t count on getting your tickets where you wanted, either. At Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, there was a waiting list for tickets, and more than a few orders were passed down as inheritance.
It’s also not the case anymore, and it hasn’t been for a few seasons now. When Bristol was redone and upgraded so it held more than 160,000 fans, it was the Eighth Wonder of the (Racing) World. The track configuration was changed as well and that changed the racing. The result was fewer fans, more holes in the seating chart and the perception that the event was suffering.
It wasn’t, but the perception was there. Suddenly, the hottest sport on the planet was now lukewarm, or not as hot as it was in the late 1990s. Some of it has to do with the economic downturn of late 2008 and ’09, to be sure. More televised races meant more people choosing not to experience the sport up-close and personal, opting for the comfort of their own homes or a local watering hole with a group of like-minded fans.
And, as a group, the generation that made NASCAR a household name is getting older. While that is a good thing from an income standpoint, it’s a bad thing as well, because the old guard is not being replenished at a sustainable rate.
Is it the racing? Probably not, because tweaking of the rules to increase competition is almost a spectator sport itself. NASCAR has implemented the wave-around to get more cars on the lead lap (when it eliminated racing back to the caution flag), the double-file, “shootout-style” restart to put more spice into the end of a caution period, and the restart zone to make sure nobody but the leader restarts the action.
NASCAR has experimented with different body and engine specs to produce better racing through less downforce and to put the onus of entertaining the masses on the drivers and not on who has the best technical program.
While the effort has produced a better on-track product, it has also offended the purists, the longtime NASCAR fan for whom the sport was more a way of life than a passing interest. The fast-graying old guard, in general terms, thinks the fastest car and driver should win and the rest of the bells and whistles are simply window dressing.
There has been a precipitous drop in television viewership as well, and that also has fans grumbling. In the “old” days, you had to really want to watch a NASCAR race. As late as 1999, NASCAR races appeared on CBS, ABC, ESPN, The Nashville Network and TBS/TNT. There was no NFL-like slate of races on limited networks at various points of the season; it was all a la carte.