Empty seats at NASCAR races look bad on television. (Patrick Smith / Getty Images)
Concord, N.C. ó Kyle Larson lingered near his car waiting for the race to begin at Dover International Speedway when British television presenter Cherry Healey joined him on the concrete. Kneeling next to a rear tire, Healey snapped a selfie with NASCARís newest star.
Selfies are all the rage in every age group, and in NASCAR, where fans can rub elbows with their favorite driver minutes before the start of the race, the ability to snap a shot with the stars is just another perk in the fan-friendly sport.
A snapshot of attendance shows a wider problem that social media canít fix.
Dover had swaths of empty seats on Sunday, continuing the trend of declining attendance at the Delaware race track that primarily serves Baltimore, Philadelphia, Richmond, Virginia and Washington. Longtime observers said the crowd was the smallest in years, something CEO Dennis McGlynn seemed to hint was coming in the pre-race driver meeting.
McGlynn told the drivers that fans simply canít afford to attend races at Dover, and warned ďyouíre going to see some holes in the grandstands.Ē
McGlynn and his staff are targeting a younger audience, trying to build a new generation of race fans, and offered kids 14 and under a $10 ticket on Sunday. In an effort to appeal to those kids, who love Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and Snapchat, McGlynn urged drivers to take a moment and pose for selfies with the new fans. Autographs mean little to anyone but collectors and the guy trying to make a buck, so the selfie goes a long way.
Far enough to fix attendance woes?
It still costs roughly $65 to get in the gate at Dover, and all those kids targeted with the $10 seats canít get them without the purchase of an adult ticket, too. Throw in parking, food and drink ó even if you bring your own ó and itís a big spend.
At least half of Doverís targeted audience could have attended the race at Richmond in April. A huge portion of the fans can go to Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania this Sunday. And the luckiest fans at Pocono can skip the drivers and aim for selfies with the grand marshals, actors Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.
NASCAR desperately wants to appeal to East Coast fans, but itís a bloated market. There are too many entertainment options already, and NASCAR is cramming in four Sprint Cup races from April 26 through Aug. 3 in one region.
Some will argue attendance doesnít matter because the tracks donít need attendance revenue like they did years ago. All tracks receive a cut of the television package, and the deal that begins next year is worth $8.2 billion, so thereís plenty of wealth to trickle down to every facility.
ďItís a media-based revenue now, thatís a fact,Ē said McGlynn. ďBut Iím not sure thatís a desire for us. We still want those people in the grandstands.Ē
Dover seats 113,000. Maybe it will hit that number this year if it combines attendance from Sundayís race with its September race.
Empty seats are ugly. They look bad for the racetrack, bad to the sponsors and are bad for the health of NASCAR, regardless of the TV deal.
Could tracks fill the seats by lowering ticket prices? Probably. But hotel prices remain an issue in many markets, and the lodging costs are simply too high for fans even if the tickets are free.
So, aside from giving each driver a daily selfie minimum to meet, whatís the solution?
Thereís only one answer: blowing up the schedule.
Iowa Speedway desperately wants a Sprint Cup race and seems to have the fan base to deserve consideration, but it canít get on the 38-race schedule. Las Vegas Motor Speedway wants a second date, but canít have one unless track owner Bruton Smith is willing to move a race at one of his other tracks.
This isnít pick-on-Dover day, but when a track is struggling to fill half the grandstands, it shouldnít get two races a year. Atlanta is a big market and a storied racetrack, but when attendance dwindled, it lost one of its two races.
Thereís no logic at all in having Dover and Pocono back-to-back unless the marketing priority is the RV crowd that has the free time to travel to consecutive events.
NASCAR wants every race to matter, for every win to be a huge event. But thereís a winner every week and if you missed it this Sunday, you can catch it next Sunday or the one after that.
Selfies canít fix this. Something far more drastic has to be done.
Team Penske penalized
IndyCar penalized Team Penske and a crew member for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports on Wednesday for violations that occurred at Detroit last weekend.
Team Penske has been fined $5,000 for violating the rule regarding the weight of the car on the No. 2 driven by Juan Pablo Montoya.
IndyCar also placed Schmidt crew member Don Oldenburg on probation for violating the seriesí social media policy. Itís not clear what Oldenburg posted to warrant a punishment.
The Schmidt team was upset after Simon Pagenaud was called for interference on Montoya during Saturdayís qualifying session. The team argued against the penalty with IndyCar, to no avail.