COLUMN: What happen to the campers?
BRISTOL, Tenn. – With echoes and acknowledgement to the late, great Slim Pickens in “Blazing Saddles”: What in the wide, wide world of sports is it going to take to fill up Bristol Motor Speedway again?
Five years ago, this place was filled to the light standards when NASCAR came to town. Every race sold out. The spring race, speckled as it is with sunshine and held on the Sabbath, was manageable. A man could still get a handful of tickets as long as he called the ticket office a month or so in advance. The August night race? Forget it. That race supposedly had a waiting list that required 4-5 years to reach the front of the queue.
Funny how track officials don’t talk about waiting lists anymore. Times have changed. When Brad Keselowski won at what used to be NASCAR’s most popular track on Sunday, about half as many cheered as there were in the days of yore. The hills surrounding the track, once alive with the sound of music and flow of beer, were half empty. When an official unofficial estimate was offered – the ink wasn’t invisible or anything -- the crowd was listed at l02,000, 18,000 fewer than the highly dubious estimate of a year earlier.
The track has 160,000 seats. Five years ago that didn’t seem like enough. As recently as two years ago, Speedway Motorsports CEO Bruton Smith, typically prone to hyperbole, claimed he was going to add more. This time Smith said he thought the crowd would be “respectable.” Respectable, as it turns out, apparently means anything over half full.
For what it’s worth, these eyes thought that’s what it was. These eyes thought this year’s estimate was roughly last year’s crowd, and this year’s crowd was probably, oh, 80,000 or so.
Some say it’s all economy, that Bristol, whose “Tri-Cities” media market (Bristol/Johnson City/Kingsport) isn’t exactly San Francisco/San Jose/Oakland, or, for that matter, Greenville/Spartanburg/Asheville, relies heavily on those who arrive from far away bearing tents, motorhomes and campers along with good tidings of great joy. The price of gasoline has shut those adventures down, and a cursory glance at the hillside behind the press box lends credence to the theory.
But it’s not all. The fans in the area and the pilgrims from afar grouse a lot about how management here “ruined” the track by making it easier for NASCAR’s finest to pass one another, whereupon they used to knock one another out of the way. Some of these folks claim they don’t come to Bristol for the wrecks, but their remarks suggest that they do.
Saturday’s Nationwide race only produced four caution flags. Five years ago, it wasn’t unusual to see that many in the first 25 laps.
I still like the place just fine.
Then again, I don’t pay to get in.
Monte Dutton; 704-869-1841; twitter.com/montedutton