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Perception of sparse Brickyard 400 crowd not necessarily reality

Jul 26, 2014, 12:50 PM EDT

indy brickyard 400 2013 crowd AP

INDIANAPOLIS – When Sunday’s 21st running of the Brickyard 400 is in the rearview mirror, we’re once again likely to hear significant griping about “did you see all the empty seats at Indy?”

Like they’ve done after the last five editions of the Brickyard, critics and so-called experts will once again lament about the poor crowd, how it was a poor show, how passing is virtually non-existent and how NASCAR doesn’t belong at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – even though Sunday will be the 21st time it’s been there.

Admittedly, since the embarrassing Goodyear tire debacle in the 2008 race, the Brickyard 400 has never been the same, seeing substantial drops in attendance in each subsequent year.

There were probably close to 125,000 fans at that 2008 race when a bad batch of Goodyear tires caused NASCAR to call numerous mandatory competition cautions after every 10 laps or so, allowing teams to switch tires over and over and over.

No matter what NASCAR officials did that day, they were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. They could have cancelled the race, but that would have been a move of last resort, and likely would have been an even bigger mistake than what ultimately transpired. Could you imagine NASCAR and IMS refunding ticket costs to each and every race fan if the race was cancelled?

They could have postponed the race to the next day (Monday) and had a couple truckloads of new tires brought in from the company’s Akron, Ohio headquarters. But you can’t make Sprint Cup tires overnight, and to have enough of the type of compound and quality needed to run on the very gritty pavement at IMS would have taken time to produce – time that NASCAR didn’t have.

NASCAR could also have cut the race short, but that would have been just as bad as canceling it.

So the sanctioning body went ahead and got through the day as best as it could, knowing the outcome could have been a lot worse.

Thousands of fans screamed and booed at the conclusion of the technology-hampered race in 2008. Many, if not most, vowed to never return to Indy for another NASCAR race – and it would appear that the majority have indeed lived up to their word.

The following year, 2009, there were maybe 90,000 fans (IMS and NASCAR never announce exact attendance figures, so reporters are left to best-guess estimates).

And since then, the numbers – at least looking at the stands – have continued to decrease until they’ve leveled off around the 70,000 level the last couple of years.

In addition, the economic downturn over the last six-plus years has also had a major impact on why more fans don’t come to IMS to watch NASCAR. Airplane flights, hotels, rental cars and food costs have just become too prohibitive for many individuals, and even more difficult for families to want to pick up and head to central Indiana — even those who may live in-state.

But the critics and pundits seem to forget one very important thing:

One of the biggest reasons why the Brickyard’s attendance the last several years has been disappointing isn’t necessarily the crowd itself. When you have a facility that holds an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 seats, 70,000 makes the place look only a quarter-full … which is indeed the case.

Put 70,000 fans at Martinsville, and you’ll have standing room only.

Put 70,000 fans at nearby Chicagoland Speedway or Kentucky Speedway and you’ll have a near-sellout.

Put 70,000 fans at Sonoma and you’d likely set track records for road course race attendance.

Put 70,000 in Bristol and it will look half-full – which is still a lot better than IMS looking only a quarter-full.

Attendance at IMS has become a matter of perception over reality. It may look near-empty – when the fact of the matter remains that it’s a bigger crowd than on game day when the NFL’s Colts play a home game.

It’s a bigger crowd typically than the Final Four brings in, a bigger crowd than any World Series game.

So when “fans” start complaining about how empty IMS will be on Sunday, they should take pause and reconsider their assessment.

It’s not necessarily NASCAR’s fault that IMS doesn’t fill up.

Rather, it’s more that the place is just so darn big.

Face it, we’ll never see the 250,000 or so fans that streamed through the gates of IMS for the historic first Brickyard in 1994. It was a unique event at a legendary venue.

It was the place to be if you wanted to be part of NASCAR and motorsports history, the first “foreign” series to race at the fabled IMS in its history.

Sure, while 70,000 or so on Sunday won’t necessarily look all that good on TV, the fact remains that 70,000 filled seats at any professional sports venue is still a big success any way you slice it.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

  1. testover6370 - Jul 26, 2014 at 1:59 PM

    Great point. All of motorsports are dealing with attendance declines. It is much easier to see any race in HD on your tv than it was in the past, so actually attending a race has become less important to fans who want to see it. There are more alternative choices battling for our entertainment too. Most tracks have capacity for crowds that just aren’t there any more and the empty seats just exacerbate the problem by leading to a perception that no one cares about the races.IMS still needs most of that capacity but nearly all tracks would benefit from removing some seating. DIS has the right idea in sacrificing seat numbers to focus on a better experience.

  2. worknman24hours - Jul 26, 2014 at 2:09 PM

    The manufacturing segment of mid America is dying and being replaced by out of the nation jobs secure in Chinese industry.

    Most American Ceo’s have zero loyalty to their American workers and Washington politicians are very happy to take Chinese money to support trade legislation that protects China’s grip on our economy while killing off American industry.

    Unless you can convince Chinese fans to fly to Indy from China to see the race-the drop off will continue.

    A race is not as important as a place to live or food to feed your family.

    Maybe the ticket prices could come down to recognize that.

  3. chad4208 - Jul 26, 2014 at 3:50 PM

    or maybe people are dumb and should realize crap happens in the REAL world that can’t be controlled sometimes and they need to suck it up and stop being babies and saying they will never come back because it’s nothing NASCAR or the venue did to them personally.
    OF course Stock races can’t race there either so I wouldn’t go…

    BTW….if California was sold out with half the seats empty (very viable from overhead shots) then is the same person doing these calculations? Just wondering…

  4. indy71 - Jul 26, 2014 at 4:15 PM

    I agree that 70,000 fans for a nascar race is a great crowd. I’m just glad May still brings 200,000+ to IMS.

  5. kitnamania13 - Jul 26, 2014 at 4:23 PM

    I’m going Ockham’s razor on this one. The decline in attendance is due to the quality of the product on the track. End of story.

  6. blairlaw - Jul 27, 2014 at 5:03 PM

    This article is like comparing apples to oranges. To say that NASCAR is like the Indianapolis Colts playing a game in Indiana is in my opinion not accurate at all. Take for instance, if the Indianapolis Colts had 70,000 people at a game, for arguments sake, 80% would be for the Colts whereas an away team, such as the new England patriots, would have say 20% of the fans. That would mean that the Colts have 56,000 fans there and the New England patriots would have 14,000 fans at the game. They would call that a success.

    But by NASCAR standards, 70,000 people isn’t very many at all especially at a premier race like the Brickyard 400 at the framed Indianapolis motor Speedway.

    NASCAR is not a competition between two teams like a home team and an away team. It is a competition between 35 teams at an independent venue. They all compete to win the race but others may compete just to get a top 10 finish. Of course the more popular teams like Dale Earnhardt Junior, Jimmy Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kane and many others will draw a higher number of fans to the venue than say the bottom 15 drivers.

    But even doing simple math and dividing 70,000 fans by 35 teams equals only 2000 fans per team and we know that there are more than 2000 Dale Earnhardt jr. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson fans at the Brickyard 400. So even if you gave just those three drivers 40% of the attendance that is only 28,000 fans for 3 teams in a major competition. The NFL would call that a major disappointment. So that is the perspective.

    The reason 150,000 to 200,000 people attend NASCAR races is because there is simply a greater number of teams competing and therefore a greater number of fans that give the races a wide variety of fans across the board as compared to two NFL teams or 2 college football or basketball teams competing. So if there is a major drop off in NASCAR attendance then it goes to show that there aren’t as many fans interested in the product at the venue where ever it may be. It might be due to financial reasons or do to the completion or lack of it on the race track. But the bottom line for NASCAR is simply this: It is no longer a very popular sport.

  7. scott386 - Jul 30, 2014 at 9:33 PM

    Excuses…excuses….And empty seat is a empty seat…The problem as was stated above is the product….The raising ticket prices and constantly changing rules on top of cookie cutter cars with white bread personalities as drivers…..

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