By Joe Dunn
For 55 straight races the Bristol Motor Speedway has sold every seat for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races. That ended today as the ‘official’ NASCAR estimate of 138,000 fell far short of the 160,000 seats available.
The really sad part is that other estimates pegged the crowd at more in the area of 115,000 fans in attendance, that means up to 45,000 empty seats. For over 27 years, the Cup races sold out, during some of the past years the sellout occurred prior to the end of the previous race season. This was the track where folks would wait in the rain, or stay on phone lines for hours every November when what seats were left over, after ticket renewals, went on sale. The first year they did that sale on the website, the internet was crashed over a nine state region. Other years, the entire 423 area code went off line from an overload. Although BMS always had a policy against reselling of tickets, folks started selling worthless momentous on eBay for outrageous prices because the purchaser would get free Bristol Tickets. In some years, that even went to include season ticket renewal rights. Worthless pins, worn out t shirts and even ripped and stained race programs went for thousands of dollars, to those desperate to get a seat at the Mecca of NASCAR racing.
For the last two years, the track began extending the payment deadline and instituted payment plans to retain season ticket holders. In 2009, the track sent a van around to the parking lots of Food City grocery stores throughout a three state region in a last ditch effort to sell every ticket to the Food City 500. Food City themselves, as well as other local business bought up tickets and donated them all to insure the sellout continued. This year, those efforts were not undertaken, and I have not heard an explanation of why. Perhaps the fact that Track President Jeff Byrd was not around as he battles a medical issue, contributed. It was the first race he has missed since he has been there. Like Eddie Gossage at Texas Motor Speedway and Humpy Wheeler, who headed Charlotte Motor Speedway for decades, Jeff is an outstanding promoter. When Jeff announced that he would be absent this time, no replacement was appointed, as Jeff always said, he has the best folks in the world on his staff, and everything went off well for the races. So that may have been a factor, but I believe that it is bigger than that.
Obviously the economy has taken a huge hit over the past two years and the effect is evident at most of the races, but this was the wake up call. Last year, as the track struggled to squeeze every last ticket sale out, the other folks surrounding the track seemed to ignore the problem. Or perhaps, they just figured that it was only the tracks responsibility to suck it up in hard times. As I watched the race today and saw all the empty seats, when the occasional aerial views were shown, the massive green areas of empty campsites could also be seen, I could see the local impact. A review of the campgrounds, after all Bristol is mainly a camping track, showed no give on their part. No reduced rates, no extra specials, no huge improvements. I can remember back to 10 years ago and what it cost to camp at Bristol then, and look at the cost today shaking my head.
Here, to the best of my recollection is where the rates have gone. In 2001, Earhart Campground was about $60 for the week, this year the rate is $200 with virtually no changes. All American Campground was the big dollar site at $100, they have leveled many sites and made improvements, even added sites with water & electric, but the bare site for a camper is now $260 and sites with water and electric run $520. The Red Barn, another one next to the track was about $90, now it is $200 and one infuriated camper told me today that they suddenly started charging extra for showers in what used to be the free shower area. Across from the drag strip, Farmer Bob’s was $60 and now is up to $140 for a basic camper site. They have made improvements over the years and do have some cheaper tent sites. Bill Gaines Bristol Campground was $60 and is now $160, they have however made huge improvements over the years, adding hard surfaced roadbeds every year, installing lighting throughout the campground and bringing in a portable shower house that is probably the cleanest in the area.
A check of local hotels and motels shows that they don’t think the fans need a break at all. What were $100 a night rooms 10 years ago are now $350-$500 a night rooms. During non race weekend, these of course are about $50 a night rooms. This time as a last minute call to go, left me in a lurch, I considered myself lucky to get what should normally be a $25 room for $160 a night. And no, I would not have taken my wife to that place either.
I hope that some of the folks in the Tri-Cities area take the time to read this, perhaps with the weekends dismal attendance numbers it will serve as a wake up call to the area. Perhaps the city of Bristol should reconsider their pilfering of race fans with ’Hotel’ tax they added to campgrounds a few years ago. A $140 campsite has $20 in state and local taxes added to the price. Jeff Byrd has always emphasized that BMS is and should be Fan Friendly, perhaps it is time that the local government, business’ and folks tried doing the same.
NASCAR announced early this year that the race purses would be cut 10% because of the bad economy, according to some team owners, the actual cuts are much more than 10%. Maybe it’s time for the tracks to consider cutting ticket and concession prices at least 10% and for the local vendors to do the same. Were you there this weekend, or are you one of those regulars that skipped Bristol this time? If so, please add your comments and suggestions. I will make sure that the folks in Bristol hear what you have to say.