Empty seats don't lie at NASCAR events, but what do they say?


by Associated Press


Posted on October 19, 2009 at 10:01 AM

I saw a picture on a wall at Lowe's Motor Speedway on Saturday night and had to stop and look. Pictured were the track's grandstands. What jumped out was that fans were sitting in them. They sat side by side. They filled almost all the space. They were everywhere.

I hope the speedway wasn't banking on a big crowd at the NASCAR Banking 500. The grandstands were nothing like the picture. Plenty of good seats were available. Plenty of bad seats were available, too.

I've seen most of the Sprint Cup races here since 1981, and I don't ever remember a race — a Sunday or Saturday race, not a race rescheduled because of a rainout — with fewer fans.

Is it the economy? Obviously we have less money to spend. Did we all simultaneously decide not to spend it on race tickets?

Is it the competition from football?

Is it the weather? The race was interrupted at 8:12 p.m. for 21 minutes because of a rain delay.

Yet the forecast was for bleak skies and possible showers, not a downpour that would push the 500 back a day. Race fans don't back down from a light shower, not if they want to see a race.

Is in the cold? At 10:30 p.m., the temperature was 48 degrees, one degree warmer than the temperature at Yankee Stadium, where New York was playing the Los Angeles Angels.

It was cold. The wind whipping the flags in the infield moved faster than the 88 car of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and made those 48 degrees considerably colder. If you didn't know where you were, and somebody said, "Winnipeg," you would have said, "Thought so."

Is it Earnhardt Jr.? Junior officially dropped out of contention not long after the drivers were introduced. He quickly fell 30 laps behind and fans quickly left. By 10:30 p.m. the roads leaving the track were jammed. The race's hoped-for exciting conclusion had yet to start. Are fans so hung up on Junior that when he goes bad fans stay home?

Is it Jimmie Johnson? Johnson excels at this track, which means that Lowe's has a lot in common with every other track. Perhaps sustained excellence is boring. But to watch one of the best drivers of all time and one of the best teams of all time go after a fourth straight title is not without merit.

Johnson, incidentally, says the new series he will film with HBO will show the real Jimmie Johnson, not the "vanilla" Johnson about whom the media writes. Maybe fans will like him more then. Wonder what flavor the real Jimmie is? Is beige a flavor?

Maybe NASCAR, which became so popular so quickly, has lost its way. Maybe the racing isn't close enough, the personalities not compelling enough, the sport not entertaining enough. Maybe the Car of Tomorrow should be parked, never to return.

Maybe the drivers inducted this week into the sport's first hall of fame class — Junior Johnson, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt — didn't do it this way. If they had, maybe they would have been bored, too.