Bristol Motor Speedway is racing's most jaw-dropping venue, a Colosseum of speed that dwarfs even the most impressive football stadiums.
And for years, fans from all over the world flocked to Middle of Nowhere, Tennessee to see the awesome display of NASCAR racing in the place they call Thunder Valley. Seeing the stands filled with so many people was as amazing as the track itself.
Since August 1982 – a span of 55 races – Bristol had sold out every Sprint Cup Series event. Its summer night race in particular was known as one of the toughest tickets in all of sports.
That's what made Sunday's race there so disappointing.
The jarring sight of tens of thousands of empty seats in the 158,000-seat venue was both deflating and alarming – a kick in the gut for those who make their living in the sport.
Bristol's failure to sell out – or even come close – may very well become the new poster child for NASCAR's decline. People will now start sentences with "Even Bristol..." when they're talking about the health of the sport.
And while it's easy to place all the blame on the economy, that's a cop out. There are other factors at work here.
NASCAR had seen poor crowds in California and Atlanta. But those were expected, given the recent history of events at those tracks.
Leading up to last weekend, it was generally accepted that Bristol wouldn't sell out for the first time in more than 27 years. The scary part, though, was just how bad it was.
NASCAR's official attendance estimate was 138,000 (20,000 short of a sellout). Those numbers are often appear inflated by 10,000 to 15,000, so it was likely that there were at least 30,000 unoccupied seats at Bristol.
Who would have ever heard of such a thing at Bristol? This was the speedway that became famous for its card stunts, where the crowd holds up colored signs to spell words.
And now? Most of the bright colors in the stands were from the empty red bleachers.
There's no doubt the economy is the primary culprit. In tough times, people have to make choices: And right now, they're not always choosing NASCAR.
But in order to figure out why, let's ask ourselves these questions:
1) Would Bristol have sold out if it had kept a one-groove racetrack when it repaved its surface in 2007 – therefore keeping its temper-flaring, wreck-inducing image – instead of giving the drivers a track where they could race and pass without touching?
2) If the sport in general was still as hot and interesting as it was in 2004 – around the time TV ratings peaked and before the Jimmie Johnson Era really got rolling – would Bristol have sold out on Sunday despite the hard times?
Here are my answers:
1) Yes. Like it or not – and I firmly believe many in the NASCAR garage refuse to admit this – people went to Bristol for the crashes and the drama. Yesterday, NASCAR boasted that Bristol had the most green-flag lead changes in the track's history. But while that stat may be worth trumpeting at 1.5-mile tracks, that's not what people come to see at Bristol. If you give people what they want, they'll find a way to show up or tune in – regardless of anything else that's going on. And let's face it: "Real racing" isn't why people filled Bristol for 55 straight races.
2) Maybe not, but close. Without dwelling on this topic yet again, the sport has lost a lot of luster thanks to a well-documented combination of bad decisions that only began to be addressed in the middle of last season (the double-file restart rule was the first step back in the right direction). In the meantime, attendance slipped, ratings declined (which can't be blamed on the economy) and hundreds of jobs were lost. NASCAR is making fan-friendly changes and listening now, but in many ways it was too late.
Only time will tell if changes like "Have at it, boys" and the return to the spoiler will help reverse the slide. It had better, or else the "what-ifs" will haunt this sport for a generation.
In five years from now, if we look back at Sunday's Bristol attendance and say, "That was the low point for the sport," then things will be OK. In the grand scheme of things, the current conditions aren't that bad if the sport rebounds.
But if we look back and say, "Things got even worse," then NASCAR's decision-makers from the latter half of last decade will have a legacy of killing the golden goose.