Hours after Sunday's Bristol Motor Speedway race, Jeff Gordon couldn't shake the startling sight of empty seats from his mind.
The Colosseum of NASCAR, once a must-have ticket that resulted in 55 consecutive sellouts from 1982-2009, was half-full at best during the Food City 500. NASCAR officially estimated the attendance at 102,000 – down 18,000 from last year's spring race – but there were far fewer than that.
And Gordon wanted to know why.
Answer this 4 me. Bristol is the most awesome track on the schedule. Why were the stands so empty today? I don't get it!— Jeff Gordon (@JeffGordonWeb) March 19, 2012
Gordon received a flood of tweets back from his 182,000 followers, and the responses focused heavily on two issues: The struggling economy and the track's 2007 reconfiguration that neutered the once-rough racing.
In reality, it's not one or the other. Rather, those two factors are intertwined and have created a precipitous drop that may never be reversed as long as the half-mile oval remains in its current format.
When the economy was good, hardcore race fans went to a handful of races each year. They'd pick a couple tracks close to them and then maybe take a trip to a must-visit venue like Daytona, Talladega or Bristol.
Things went bad, though, and fans had to make tough choices. Many still found room in the budget to attend a race, but cut back to one or two per season – and the more expensive trips became a logical target for elimination.
Bristol had two things working against it that made the 160,000-seat track easier to skip than others.
First of all, it's one of the most costly races on the circuit – not for tickets, necessarily, but for travel. Fans who want to spend less than $150 per night on hotels must stay in places like Asheville, N.C. and endure an hour-and-a-half drive each way to the track.
Plus, with Bristol's relatively remote location, the majority of fans travel a long distance to get to the region in the first place. With gas prices nearing $4 per gallon, how many people are really willing to make those financial sacrifices? And even if fans do make one Bristol trip, wouldn't they prefer to attend the famous night race over the spring race?
Second, Bristol is no longer a must-attend event. When the track had one groove and drivers had to bump their way past competitors to gain track position, the Bristol race was like watching a NASCAR bullfight.
Fans came to see cars rubbing fenders and tempers and crashes, and the drama required everyone to be glued to their seats to see what would happen next. If you liked NASCAR, you had to be there; if you weren't there, you were jealous of those who scored a coveted ticket.
Not anymore. Bristol now has side-by-side racing, but it also has long, green-flag runs and few crashes. The official race report listed just one multi-car crash in Sunday's race.
That's not the Bristol racing most fans really want, but many people in the industry are still having trouble accepting it.
The purists continue to talk about "real racing" and try to guilt those of us who enjoyed the old Bristol drama into feeling bad about it. Their oft-repeated stance is if fans can't find a way to enjoy the new Bristol racing – the cleaner, tamer kind – then they're not real NASCAR fans.
I disagree. The purists are missing a key point: "Real racing" occurs at nearly every other track in every other week. The places fans want to see side-by-side excitement is at 1.5-mile intermediate tracks, not a half-mile short track where drivers should have to root and gouge for every position.
Bristol was once a must-see because it was unique. But since the reconfiguration, the racing seems to be about the same as at every other track.
So when race fans take a hard look at their travel and entertainment budgets, the once-great Bristol has become an easy one to skip.