Bristol faces challenge in rebuilding its fan base

On Friday afternoon, track owner Bruton Smith promised that Sunday’s Food City 500 Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway would draw a large crowd.

Not a sellout, mind you, but a large crowd.

It was a large crowd, but not for Bristol.

In the box score distributed after the event, attendance was listed at 102,000. That’s an estimate — not turnstile count — and a cosmetic estimate at that. Most of us who scanned the grandstands from the press box agreed that half-full was a more accurate assessment.

That translates to about 80,000 fans in an arena that holds 160,000. At Bristol, that also translates to appallingly empty.

Cars race during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 18, 2012 in Bristol, Tennessee.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Cars race during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 18, 2012 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Cup tickets at Bristol once were as coveted as precious jewels. According to the lore, they were at issue in divorces (“I’ll give you the house, but I get the Bristol tickets”) and left to future generations as legacies, much as tickets to The Masters still are.

For Bristol, those days are gone. Those days disappeared with $4 gas and uncooperative hoteliers who insist on gouging race fans on Bristol weekends, charging $300 for rooms with a rack rate of $50 or so the other 50 weeks of the year.

Those days disappeared with the award of a Cup date to Kentucky Speedway — another of Smith’s properties — which sits smack-dab in the middle of Bristol’s drive market to the north.

Those days disappeared in a flagging economy that forces fans to choose carefully which events they’ll attend.

In relative terms, Bristol is not a bargain. It’s demonstrably less expensive, for example, to buy a round-trip ticket from Charlotte to Las Vegas, rent a car, spend the week in a reasonably priced hotel room and attend a race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway — another of Smith’s properties — than it is to drive from Charlotte to Bristol, spend three days in a hotel room and attend the race there.

(An estimated 150,000 fans attended the race at Las Vegas the Sunday before Bristol, and that estimate was probably closer to reality than the Bristol number was.)

If you believe Sunday’s winner, Brad Keselowski, the halcyon days of Bristol disappeared with a paradigm shift in the way race fans consume races. More than any other driver perhaps, the media-savvy Keselowski embodies the explosion of social media in the sport.

“I just think you’re seeing a shift to where it’s harder to sell tickets, but there’s still a lot of interest in the sport,” Keselowski said. “I think you have to be very careful of how you read into that, because, obviously, each person is different. But I still think the sport is very strong and healthy.

“It’s tough, because everybody looks up at the grandstands and says, ‘Well, I remember five years ago there was this for ticket sales.’ Well, I remember when gas prices five years ago were a lot cheaper, too. It’s a different world.”

And it’s a different Bristol. Here’s the crux of the issue at Thunder Valley: in radically changing the racetrack in 2007 — a resurfacing and installation of graduated banking that opened up the outside lane — Bristol fundamentally changed its product, to the dismay of many die-hard fans, though Smith indicated to the Associated Press on Monday that fan input may determine whether the product changes back.

From a one-groove track where the only way to pass another car was the bump-and-run — and where the pace car typically led more than 100 laps — Bristol became a two-groove track that created hard, thrilling side-by-side racing lap after lap. That’s what fans saw on Sunday afternoon.

As of 2007, Bristol had a new product, but the track continued to promote the old product, which had ceased to exist. The spring race in 2006 had 18 cautions. Sunday’s race had five, with most of the action coming on a communal Lap 24 blunder that wiped out five top contenders.

The rest of the race saw drivers fighting for every inch of asphalt and ended with Matt Kenseth chasing Keselowski to the checkered flag, with both men driving their guts out trying to win the race.

“I don’t really get all the hate for new versus old Bristol, ’cause to me — I’m very biased, I know — but to me, this is one of the best Bristol races I’ve ever seen,” Keselowski said. “We ran side-by-side for 20 laps. There was some good beating and banging, some wrecking, a lot of side-by-side action, a lot of two- and three-wides.

“I don’t know what’s better than that.”

Sunday’s race may not have been the crashfest of yesteryear, but the bottom line is that there’s nothing wrong with the racing at Bristol. It’s never been better, and that’s the story the speedway needs to tell as a first step toward rebuilding its fan base.

It’s just the wrecking that isn’t as good.

 The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

Greg Engle
About Greg Engle 7421 Articles
Greg is a published award winning sportswriter who spent 23 years combined active and active reserve military service, much of that in and around the Special Operations community. Greg is the author of "The Nuts and Bolts of NASCAR: The Definitive Viewers' Guide to Big-Time Stock Car Auto Racing" and has been published in major publications across the country including the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He was also a contributor to Chicken Soup for the NASCAR Soul, published in 2010, and the Christmas edition in 2016. He wrote as the NASCAR, Formula 1, Auto Reviews and National Veterans Affairs Examiner for and has appeared on Fox News. He holds a BS degree in communications, a Masters degree in psychology and is currently a PhD candidate majoring in psychology. He is currently the weekend Motorsports Editor for Autoweek.