After years of jam-packed races, sky-high television ratings and record merchandise sales, Nascar has seen attendance at nearly every track slip this year as recession-weary fans continue to cut costs.
The Behler family could see that firsthand while sitting atop their old school bus in the infield at Pocono Raceway for last week’s race in Long Pond, Pa. From that perch, they saw empty patches of grass with untrampled dandelions that in years past were covered by other spectators’ cars, campers and trailers.
Fans like the Behlers who are showing up to races are spending less, too.
“Everybody’s still coming, but no one’s spending,” said Susan Behler, who arrived last Sunday, race day, instead of Friday night to save money. “Three years ago, I used to spend $200 or $300 every time I came here. Now, it’s a question: do I need it?”
Other sports leagues have been hurt the past two years. But Nascar — with its heavier reliance on working-class fans, low fuel prices and the beleaguered auto industry — has suffered disproportionately, racing industry executives say. Ratings on television, sales of licensed goods and sponsorships, the lifeblood of the sport, are also suffering. Several racing teams have merged in the last three years.
Nascar compounded matters, the executives say, by changing its rules in ways that made the racing safer but stripped the sport of some of the spontaneity that made it compelling. Under pressure, Nascar has reversed some of those moves, helping to rejuvenate competition on the track this season. With the economy on the mend, Nascar and its teams, sponsors, track owners and broadcasters seem confident that the worst is over.
The larger question, though, is whether in the coming years, the sport will return to its glory of the early 2000s as a money-printing juggernaut, a barometer of Middle American tastes and a political bellwether, or whether it will become a more modest, streamlined version of itself.
“It was a good candy bar when it was right,” said H. A. Wheeler, the former president of Lowe’s Motor Speedway (now Charlotte Motor Speedway) and Speedway Motorsports Inc. “It’s still a good candy bar, but people are tinkering with the mix. A lot of sports lose momentum, and they can get it back, but it takes a lot of work.”
Some in the sport say that the family dynasty that controls Nascar is also to blame for its recent woes. The France family has been criticized as imperialistic and secretive. Big Bill France, who founded Nascar in 1947, drove Nascar with a firm hand, as did his son, Bill, who died in 2007. The younger Bill’s son, Brian, who is now the chairman, oversaw recent changes like the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow, which was designed to improve safety but ended up stifling some of the rough-and-tumble feel of the races.
Nascar, track owners, drivers and others have worked to reverse the tide. To lure fans back, track owners have cut ticket prices, worked with hotels to waive minimum-stay requirements and added dining options. Carfax and the Michigan International Speedway will sell gas for 99 cents a gallon at a station near the track. Nascar created a 12,000-member fan council that is regularly consulted.
In response to the council, races on Sundays now begin consistently at 1 p.m. so fans can attend church without missing any of the action. There is discussion about ways to shorten races.
On the track, Nascar required drivers to put spoilers back on their cars to improve the racing and make them look more like older stock cars; passed rules to encourage more bumper-to-bumper driving; and urged drivers to voice their opinions to spice up the rivalries and offset criticism that the sport had become too sanitized. A few drivers have sparked feuds, which make for great theater. But others have bashed the sport and its organizers, which has led to fines.
“We made it clear that we want drivers to express their personalities,” said Andrew Giangola, Nascar’s director of business communications. “We’re competing against Disney and the local amusement parks.”
Many involved in Nascar say these changes have helped revitalize the races. In past years, drivers from the top multicar teams — like Hendrick Motorsports, which fields the four-time champion Jimmie Johnson — have dominated the races. So far this season, there have been averages of 12 leaders per race and of 26 lead changes, both records. Nearly 50 drivers have held the lead for at least one lap.
The renewed excitement on the track, however, has not fully translated into success at the gate. Through the first 22 races this season, attendance declined at 16 races compared with a year ago. About 140,000 fans attended the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis this year, half as many as in 2007.
On Thursday, Atlanta Motor Speedway said it would lose one of its two Sprint Cup races next year, in the first realignment of Nascar’s crowded schedule, in an effort to boost attendance. Nascar is also considering changes to add drama to the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the 10 races at the end of the season that determine the series winner.
Television ratings have faltered as well. In February, 13.3 million viewers watched the iconic Daytona 500, compared with 15.9 million viewers last year; viewership for the Brickyard 400 on ESPN fell 12 percent.
“The racing so far has been terrific this year, as competitive as it’s been in years,” said John Wildhack, an executive vice president at ESPN, which is packing Nascar content into broadcasts of “SportsCenter” that follow the races. But “it’ll take time for the changes to resonate.”
National television coverage raised billions of dollars and turned the sport into a household name, but it also gave fans another reason to avoid going to the track and spending on lodging, food, tickets and merchandise.
“Why pay for a seat in the stands when you can see everything on TV?” said Tom Hayes of Torrington, Conn., who attended the race at Pocono.
Nascar certainly is still a behemoth. Races routinely draw more than 100,000 fans, and television viewership is second only to that of N.F.L. games among major sports.
Yet the days of easy money may have passed. A four-time champion, Jeff Gordon, does not have a full-time sponsor for next year because DuPont, which has had its logo on Gordon’s car for 17 years, has not committed to remaining with him. Kevin Harvick, who is leading in the standings this season, does not have a major sponsor for 2011, either. Fans, too, may be slow to open their wallets. About $1 billion worth of Nascar merchandise was sold last year, 23 percent below the peak set in 2006, and sales are expected to dip again this year, according to The Licensing Letter, an industry newsletter.
“Once you change your habits, it’s going to make it tough for us to get them back in the mode” of spending, said Richard Petty, who was one of Nascar’s most famous drivers and now owns a team. “Nascar, the sponsors we have, the car owners, we’re sitting here scratching our head. But I don’t think we know what the answers are.”
Richard Sandomir contributed reporting. Dave Caldwell reported from Long Pond, Pa.