KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The contrast was jarring Sunday.
More than 140,000 people attended the Formula One race at Circuit of the Americas, while the crowd for Kansas Speedway’s Cup playoff race appeared to be no more than a third that size.
Look beyond those numbers to a deeper divide. COTA hosted an event. Kansas Speedway held a race.
“I feel like why are people at COTA for Formula One?” Kyle Busch said before Sunday’s Cup race at Kansas. “Is it because they only come here once a year, and we’ve got 38 shows, and so we’re a little redundant, maybe?”
Sunday’s Formula One race was the first time that series has competed in the U.S. since 2019. It had a full weekend of practice and qualifying that drew more than 400,000 people, making it among the largest three-day weekend crowds in F1 history, if not the largest.
Celebrities were abundant. Among those in attendance were Serena Williams, Megan Thee Stallion, Logan Paul, and Shaquille O’Neal. Billy Joel performed a concert Saturday night, joining Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake and Sir Elton John as among those who have played at COTA on race weekend.
Sunday’s Cup race at Kansas featured no practice or qualifying leading to the event, a standard for many races during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Cup race was the 72nd in the U.S. since Formula One last competed in the country.
Denny Hamlin has talked about NASCAR adapting “more of an F1-style approach to a race weekend and how we host hospitalities, parties, just all of those things.”
He said before the Kansas race that more should be done by the tracks.
“Certainly I think the tracks have not been held enough to a high enough standard when it comes to promotion,” Hamlin said. “I think they’ve just really dropped the ball on that. Certainly, a lot of it was because it was such a small part of the revenue it’s just not a needle mover for them.”
Since the pandemic, PR and track marketing staffs have been cut and consolidated.
Hamlin said he spoke with NASCAR President Steve Phelps last week about a variety of issues, including track attendance.
“I had some great conversations with Phelps on Wednesday. … I certainly think he saw Texas (Motor Speedway) last week and was like that’s absolutely unacceptable,” Hamlin said. “Whether we’ve got to work with them or audit them, whatever it might be, we’ve got to fix the promotion side of things.
“Certainly, I think that everyone could be held to a higher standard, especially the tracks given the revenue they have.”
Tracks also could be incentivized by minimum attendance clauses that have been added to NASCAR sanctioning agreements in recent years. It’s just a matter of how NASCAR is willing to enforce that during a pandemic.
According to a Dover Motorsports filing, promoters are required at Cup races “to use best efforts to ensure minimum spectator attendance … of at least (70) percent of capacity of the facility.”
Kyle Busch also raised questions about what tracks are doing to attract fans.
“I had a friend of mine who I’d been friends with for 10 or so years reach out to me last weekend and said, “‘Oh, I had no idea you guys were in town for the Texas race. I live 6 minutes from the speedway,” Busch said. “You tell me how we’re going to fix it.”
Making more NASCAR races into events should lead to more promotion, so more people know when a track’s race weekend is.
Events make a splash. It’s why NASCAR will start next season inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum instead of at Daytona International Speedway – as the sport has traditionally done.
“I think that’s something we can look at in the future is what other venues like this would you realistically be able to do something like that,” Ben Kennedy, NASCAR vice president of strategic initiatives, told NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan in September about the race at the Coliseum.
“But that said, really our core focus right now is really putting on a special event at the Coliseum for our fans and something new and fresh.”
One hope for NASCAR is the event at the Coliseum also will have a celebrity component that is being worked out.
NASCAR has made adjustments to the schedule. COTA hosted its first Cup weekend in May to a good crowd despite rain on race day. Nashville Superspeedway had a sellout crowd of about 38,000 for its first Cup race in June. Road America had a large crowd for its Cup weekend.
Inaugural races often do well. The key is maintaining that excitement and enthusiasm. If not, a track can go away like Kentucky Speedway did. It debuted in 2011 to a record crowd besieged by nightmarish traffic issues and was off the schedule by 2021 as attendance eroded.
NASCAR is making its Championship 4 weekend into an event. The Cup season finale Nov. 7 at Phoenix Raceway already is sold out. Multiplatinum entertainer Dierks Bentley will perform a concert before the race. Emmy and Tony Award winner Kristin Chenoweth will perform the national anthem.
But there’s also been talk of if the championship race should be held at one track annually or moved around. Phoenix will host the season finale for a third consecutive year in 2022.
Former Cup champion Brad Keselowski notes the difference in broadcast and admission revenue when looking at F1 and NASCAR and their approach.
“(Formula One) seems to, at least for the United States, be more interested in the event than broadcast, where (NASCAR) seems to be the opposite and more interested in broadcast than any event,” Keselowski said.
“That’s flipped over years. Twenty years ago I would have said (NASCAR was) probably the opposite. We were where they are. Generally speaking, when you can’t get the broadcast money, you go after the event money. You try for the broadcast money first because it’s much bigger, so much larger pot. In that sense I would say we are ahead, undoubtedly compared to them here in the United States.
“There’s no reason why we can’t have both. I think that’s something that we should certainly aspire to and there’s a lot of reasons we can do that. Ultimately I think there’s enough smart people in the sport we could pull it off pretty easily if they were properly motivated to do so, but, at this point in time, have never been motivated to do it.
“If that changes, we could get there. At this moment it hasn’t. I guess we’ll see how that plays out. It’s really more a question for those that have the power and control to do it than it is probably for the drivers.”
While NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports do not disclose track financials, Dover Motorsports, a publicly traded company, does.
In 2019, the last season before the COVID-19 pandemic, track records show that Dover recorded $4.9 million in admission revenue, while collecting $34.2 million broadcast revenue. Contracts with tracks stipulate that tracks keep 65% percent of its broadcast revenue and put 25% of that revenue into the race purse for teams. NASCAR keeps 10% of the broadcast money.
“I think when I first started coming to the races before the broadcast was so important, it was more about the events,” Keselowski said. “The thing that stood out the most to me was you could go to the midway and it felt like you were at a fair. It doesn’t feel that way now. That’s changed so much. Not that that’s good or bad. I think there’s a lot of ways we can spice it up.
“My No. 1 contention is simple things like driver interaction. I would love to interact more with the fans. Any time I go to do it, I get charged. Why would I pay to interact with fans? That seems absurd.”
Asked what he meant, Keselowski explained:
“If I want to go do an event somewhere, or if I want to just even park a souvenir trailer outside and sign autographs for fans, it’s “That will cost you 20 grand.’
‘No, I’m doing this for the fans.’
‘Nope, we want our 20 grand. In fact it’s 40 grand.’
‘I’m not going to pay 40 grand (to) you to sign autographs for you to collect the ticket money. That makes no sense.’
“Until those things change, there’s at least, from my side, a complete demotivation to do those things. Whether they will or whether they won’t, I don’t know. I don’t have the ability to control those things. Certainly understand the affects of them.”
With NASCAR owning a majority of the tracks, Keselowski was asked about possible change.
“I’d like to see it change,” he said. “It’s very possible. Do we want to get there or do we not.”
Reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott goes to Martinsville Speedway 34 points above the cutline in his quest to race for the championship Nov. 7 at Phoenix Raceway.
Elliott also hopes to see the Atlanta Braves play in the World Series. The Braves play Houston for Major League Baseball’s championship. The series starts Tuesday in Houston. Games 3 and 4 are Friday and Saturday in Atlanta.
“I really want to go,” Elliott said. “I’m a huge Braves fan. If it works out and I’m able to figure out a way to go, I definitely will.
“I wasn’t alive the last time they won it (Elliott was born a month after Atlanta won the 1995 title). I was like 3 or 4 when they went back. Really kind of the first time to watch your favorite team go to the World Series, which is a really big deal in America. Hope I can. I’ll try to go. Love to go. It might be a once-in-a-lifetime thing, you never know.”
Last year, Kevin Harvick entered the Martinsville race 42 points above the cutline and failed to advance to the championship race.
No driver this year is more than 34 points above the cutline. That is Chase Elliott.
A year ago, Elliott entered this race 25 points below the cutline, but he won to earn a spot in the title race. That left two positions for points. Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski took those spots, leaving Harvick, who won nine races, failing to advance.
It’s why Elliott won’t let himself be comfortable even with his lead.
“As you saw today, I am not sure that any amount of points is safe,” he said after the Kansas race. “I think anyone in this round can win next week. So, we are really going to have to be on it, but looking forward to the opportunity and excited for the challenge.”