Friday 5: NASCAR tracks welcoming more fans this season

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Cup races have seen increased attendance this year and some events have had their largest crowds in at least five years, officials from NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports tell NBC Sports. 

Such growth has been spurred by a variety of factors, including the racing, NASCAR’s changes on and off the track and new fans. 

The growth also ties in with the sport’s increased TV numbers. 

The nine Cup races that have aired on Fox this season have drawn an average of 4.755 million viewers, a 14% increase from last year’s average. That would tie Fox’s greatest percentage increase in viewership from one season to another (2005 from 2004). NBC begins broadcasting its portion of the Cup schedule June 26 at Nashville Superspeedway.

While Speedway Motorsports and NASCAR do not reveal attendance figures, both companies noted the growth they’ve seen at their events. 

Speedway Motorsports has experienced an increase of more than 20% in attendance for its four races this season — Las Vegas, Atlanta, Circuit of the Americas and Bristol — according to Chief Operating Officer Mike Burch.

Among the tracks that have enjoyed attendance upticks this season: 

  • Talladega Superspeedway’s crowd for last weekend’s Cup race was the track’s largest for its spring event since 2017.
  • Bristol’s dirt race had the largest crowd for the track’s spring event since 2017.
  • Martinsville Speedway’s race this month had the largest crowd for its spring event since 2015.
  • Atlanta Motor Speedway’s crowd for its March Cup race was the event’s largest since 2014.
  • Phoenix Raceway’s spring event sold out for the first time in more than a decade.
  • The Daytona 500 was announced as a sellout six days before the event, the earliest it has sold out in recent years.
AUTO: MAR 20 NASCAR Cup Series - Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500
Atlanta Motor Speedway’s crowd in March was its largest for a spring Cup race since 2014. The track was revamped before this season and featured pack racing. (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“We’re seeing lots of new fans … and the really encouraging thing is it’s largely driven by consumer tickets,” Burch said. “Companies are starting to come back in and buy tickets and hosting more events, but it’s really been the consumer number that has driven the growth. That, to us, is a real core interest in the sport.”

NASCAR-owned tracks are seeing double digit increases in attendance, camping and group sales, said Daryl Wolfe, NASCAR executive vice president and chief revenue officer.

“The Busch Light Clash at the (Los Angeles) Coliseum really set the tone for the sport making some really bold, aggressive decisions,” Wolfe said of the decision to hold the exhibition race in a stadium. “It paid off.”

NASCAR Clash Coliseum winner
A crowd estimated at more than 50,000 attended the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in February. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Wolfe noted that about 70% of those at the Clash were first-time attendees. NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports both define a first-time attendee as someone who had not bought tickets from them and were not in their ticketing system. Those fans, however, could have attended multiple NASCAR events in the past. They just didn’t get their tickets from tracks owned by those companies.

“I think it’s important to realize that sometimes it’s about exposing your sport to new people and trying to create new fans and having cool events at cool venues or different racetracks and creating that story that doesn’t depend on the race,” Kevin Harvick told NBC Sports before the season.

Burch estimated that close to 50% of the fans at the Bristol dirt race were classified as first-time attendees. 

“We’re seeing increases really everywhere,” Wolfe said of new fans. “Increases in the Hispanic market, African-America market, Gen Z. I think most of that is driven to … (by) some pretty bold and aggressive decisions by the sport. I’d also say we’re seeing continued investment in the sport.”

NASCAR was ranked by Morning Consult as the ninth fastest growing brand in 2020 among Gen Z, defined as those born between 1997-2012. Among the other brands on that list were TikTok, Twitch and Zoom.

The growth also is coming from other avenues.

“The new car is delivering from an on-track product standpoint,” Wolfe said. “That was a major investment by the sport. I think you’re seeing a lot of investment in the fan experience. You’re seeing investment in regards to more marketing techniques. 

“You’re seeing investment in growth strategies like eSports and sports betting and places where maybe younger, more diverse consumer segments are residing. We’ve got to make sure the NASCAR brand, our sport, is exposed to them there. I think the stance on diversity and inclusion (also has been a factor). 

“All of these things combined is exposing our sport. … to additional potential fans that are taking notice. They’re giving our sport a try. They’re liking what they’re seeing, and they’re showing up.”

 The fan experience has been reshaped since the pandemic.

There’s a red carpet that leads to the stage for pre-race introductions and gives fans an up-close look at the drivers. Activities for children have increased. Concerts have been added. A Trackside Live stage serves as a focal point. 

A human cannonball was among the happenings at Circuit of the Americas for fans. (Photo: HHP/Patrick Savage)

Speedway Motorsports had a human cannonball performer at COTA and the Atlanta Braves World Series trophy at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Blake Shelton will perform a concert before the NASCAR All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway.

The Clash at the Coliseum featured a concert by Pitbull before the race and a performance by Ice Cube during a break in the event. Luke Combs played before the Daytona 500. Collective Soul performed before the Cup race at Auto Club Speedway. 

Once the race starts, fans have been treated to some memorable events this season. 

There have eight different winners in the first 10 races. Rookie Austin Cindric held off the field to win the Daytona 500. Ross Chastain survived the beating and banging on the last lap to win at COTA. Chase Briscoe spun and took out Tyler Reddick on the last lap at Bristol, allowing Kyle Busch to win.

Among those still seeking their first win of the season include former Cup champions Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick.

“I can’t recall a time that the enthusiasm and excitement and the momentum that the sport — and really I think across all the stakeholders — you can feel it,” Wolfe said. “You can see it.

But Wolfe notes the work is not done for the sport.

“We can’t stall out here,” he said. “You’ve got to continue to build the momentum. It’s probably one of the most exciting times I can recall in my multi-decade involvement in this sport. I think the best days of NASCAR are ahead.”

2. Playoff field near set?

Sixteen races remain in the Cup regular season, but history shows that much of the 16-driver playoff field is in place by the season’s 10th race. Last weekend’s race at Talladega was the 10th this season.

In the last five years, 85% of drivers in a playoff spot after the season’s 10th race, made the Cup playoffs. That averages to 2.4 drivers in a playoff spot at this point in the season who won’t make the playoffs.

In the last five years, a driver who is 20th or worse in the points after 10 races has gone on to make the playoffs in four of those years. 

Here is a look at drivers in a playoff spot entering this weekend’s race at Dover Motor Speedway:

Eight drivers with wins in a playoff spot: Ross Chastain (2 wins), William Byron (2), Kyle Busch (1), Alex Bowman (1), Kyle Larson (1), Chase Briscoe (1), Austin Cindric (1), Denny Hamlin (1).

Eight winless drivers in a playoff spot via points: Chase Elliott (368 points), Ryan Blaney (347), Joey Logano (308), Martin Truex Jr. 298), Aric Almirola (265), Kevin Harvick (252), Austin Dillon (245), Christopher Bell (243).

Those below the playoff cutline:

Tyler Reddick (-1 point from cutline)

Erik Jones (-12)

Kurt Busch (-25)

Daniel Suarez (-25)

Chris Buescher (-47)

Bubba Wallace (-50)

Justin Haley (-60)

Michael McDowell (-62)

Ty Dillon (-73)

Cole Custer (-76)

Todd Gilliland (-101)

Corey LaJoie (-103)

Brad Keselowski (-111)

Harrison Burton (-113)

3. NASCAR’s variety package  

Think about this for a moment. In the last three weeks, the Cup Series raced at a short track (Martinsville), a dirt track (Bristol) and the largest oval on the circuit (Talladega)

Now, the series heads to a 1-mile high-banked track in Dover Motor Speedway.

All that in a month’s time in a season that goes from February to November. And that’s without racing on any of the six road courses that are on the Cup schedule. 

“NASCAR drivers are more diverse, and they have to be more diverse,” two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch said. 

Austin Cindric, who raced several different types of cars working his way to Cup, enjoys the variety with the schedule.

“I love it because I think it’s what makes race fans excited every week,” he said. “I think if we can exploit that part of our sport, I think the better, especially as long as the season (is), the better and more entertaining product we have.”

For Tyler Reddick, the variety doesn’t make much difference. He’s experienced similar challenges throughout his racing career.

“It may seem kind of crazy when you think about or when you pose the question, but my background, racing all sorts of different dirt tracks, racing all sorts of different cars, it’s just another day, get ready for the next race,” he said. 

“You don’t really think of the size of the track playing into that. They’re different styles of racing. You just lock in and get ready for the next one.”

4. Championship contender?

AJ Allmendinger shared on this week’s NASCAR on NBC podcast an interesting thought as he closed on Ross Chastain on the final lap of last month’s race at Circuit of the Americas.

“When I tried to chase him down at COTA, I thought, ‘Man, I might be trying to chase down a champion,” Allmendinger told Nate Ryan. “That’s how strong he is. I wouldn’t call him a dark horse anymore.”

Chastain and William Byron are the only drivers with two Cup wins this season. Chastain also has finished in the top five in six of the last eight races, including his last-lap win last weekend at Talladega.

Car owner Justin Marks, though, doesn’t want his team looking at the playoffs, which are still more than four months away. 

“I think when you start talking about playoff strategy, how you’re going to mount a run for the championship, that kind of mental bandwidth is reserved, I think at this point, for the teams that have been there a long time, right?” Marks said after Chastain’s Talladega win. “That’s something that Gibbs talks about, Hendrick, and Penske talk about.

“Trackhouse is so new, we can’t start thinking that way. We just have to focus on what we’re doing every week, just the execution of what we’re doing every week, that’s putting us in that position.

“Obviously we’re contending for wins week in and week out. We just have to commit to that. I don’t think there’s going to be any conversation about playoff strategy for the foreseeable future.”

5. Back-to-back

Michael McDowell heads to Dover after back-to-back top-10 finishes. It’s the first time the Front Row Motorsports driver has had consecutive top 10s since opening last season with three in a row, including his Daytona 500 victory.

“I think there’s a lot of potential with this Next Gen car for us to have more good results and be in contention,” McDowell said. “We were optimistic about that going into this season that this could be a year for us to really have an opportunity to shine and get better results, and so I think there’s still a lot to come this year.

“I’m looking forward to some of the tracks that we have circled and seeing where we can stack up against the competition. There’s a tremendous amount of development going on right now, and there seems to be teams that are sorting it out pretty quickly, so we have to make sure that we keep up with the rapid pace of development of a brand new car.”