Jeff Gordon’s retirement and injured driver Tony Stewart’s absence are among factors International Speedway Corp. officials cited Tuesday for advance ticket sales being down about 10 percent from a year ago for some upcoming races.
ISC officials also said the focus on the Chase for the Sprint Cup may be playing a role in fans purchasing tickets for those events instead of races earlier in the season.
The absence of Gordon and Stewart raises questions about what NASCAR could face when more of its stars retire. Stewart, who turns 45 in May, will retire from the Sprint Cup series after this season.
Other fan favorites 40 or older include:
- Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson turns 41 in September.
- 13-time most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. turns 42 in October.
- Former champion Kevin Harvick turns 41 in December.
- Former champion Matt Kenseth turned 44 in March.
“Star power is very impactful in our sport as it is in any sport,’’ said John Saunders, president of International Speedway Corp. on a conference call with investor analysts.
Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway, which is owned by Speedway Motorsports, Inc., told NBC Sports that ticket sales for Saturday night’s Sprint Cup race there are flat.
“When you lose a prominent figure like Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, being flat is a pretty strong thing to see,’’ Gossage said on NBC Sports’ podcast with Nate Ryan (full podcast available Wednesday).
Saunders told investor analysts Tuesday that there’s work ahead to make the transition to the younger drivers easier for fans.
“We’ve got to be better going forward and think strategically about retiring drivers,’’ Saunders said, “and how you connect their retirement to the rising stars, the young stars, such as the Chase Elliotts and Ryan Blaney drivers.’’
Said Dan Houser, ISC executive vice president and chief financial officer: “In retrospect, we probably would have liked to have done a little more drama in the transition, the passing of the torch from Jeff Gordon in the 24 car to Chase Elliott. We’ll continue to work hard on those and get the ship turned around.’’
Even with some of the sport’s favorite drivers closer to retirement, this period also has seen a rise in young talent in the Sprint Cup Series with the 20-year-old Elliott, who won the Daytona 500 pole, 22-year-old Ryan Blaney driving for the Wood Brothers, 25-year-old Austin Dillon off to his best start in Cup, and 25-year-old Joey Logano, who has won 11 races since 2014.
There are a number of drivers in the NASCAR Xfinity Series who likely will be in Cup full-time soon, including Erik Jones, who turns 20 in May, 23-year-old Darrell Wallace Jr., 24-year-old Ty Dillon and 24-year-old Daniel Suarez.
Gossage said these young drivers will help fill the sport’s void.
“I can remember a time there was a great gnashing of teeth because we were losing over a short window of time … (David) Pearson and (Richard) Petty and Cale Yarborough,’’ Gossage said. “Great stories, names really important to the sport. What are we going to do? There was tremendous concern and Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace helped bridge that gap. There’s a constant ebb and flow of talent, and there’s tremendous young talent now in the pipeline.”
Those young drivers will compete for the championship in a Chase format this year with NASCAR adding that to the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series.
The emphasis on those season-ending races in the Cup series and the drama created — NASCAR suspending Kenseth two races for retaliating against Logano last year at Martinsville, the controversial ending to last year’s Talladega race and Brad Keselowski and Gordon tussling on pit road in 2014 at Texas — has swayed ticket purchases.
ISC has three Sprint Cup races left this quarter — April 24 at Richmond International Raceway, May 1 at Talladega Superspeedway and May 7 at Kansas Speedway.
ISC would not detail specifics of advance ticket sales for each track on the call, but officials noted a “softness” in sales while advance ticket sales for events later in the season are “trending flat to slightly up” compared to last year.
“We may have been as an industry so successful in focusing on the drama of the Chase that we have sucked a little of the sizzle out of the beginning of the season,’’ Houser said. “That’s one of the things that the whole industry, NASCAR, is very focused on. We’ll continue to do everything we can do.’’
Also, discussed on the call with investor analysts:
— Saunders said on the digital platform they’ve seen consumption from the 18- to 34-year old demographic double year over year but didn’t provide details.
— Advanced ticket sales for the July Daytona race are pacing ahead of last year.
— ISC has one of their available Sprint Cup series race sponsorships either open or not announced and two for Xfinity events this season.
— Average ticket price for NASCAR Sprint Cup events at Daytona International Speedway was about $160.07, an increase of more than 19 percent from last year primarily related to new seats sold at higher prices with the Daytona Rising project that reduced capacity from 147,000 to 101,000.
— To read ISC’s press release on its first quarter results, go here.