Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 25, 2019

Empty Seats And An Uncertain Future

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? That old philosophical thought experiment has been posed to untold numbers of earnest freshmen in Philosophy 101 courses at colleges across the land for decades. Perhaps it’s time to update the question, so henceforth let’s go with this: if NASCAR runs a race in New Hampshire and no one is around to hear it, do the cars make a sound? If attendance wasn’t quite that bad last weekend at N.H. Motor Speedway when the premier stock car racing circuit made its annual visit to the one mile oval set in the woods of central New Hampshire, the swaths of empty seats in all three grandstands were more than enough to create doubt about future visits by the drivers of NASCAR’s top Monster Energy Cup series.

The track’s marketing department would surely point to the weather forecast for the weekend, which predicted stifling temperatures well into the 90s combined with oppressive humidity that would make it feel even hotter. But this is New England, where forecasts are fickle, and to the extent some fans stayed home because of the predicted heat, especially for Sunday’s main event, they missed a summer day with the thermometer several degrees below expectations, and a steady breeze that kept the air moving.

Even if the spin doctors’ point has some merit, blaming the forecast alone for all the empty seats suggests that a huge number of New England race fans were suddenly possessed of an astonishingly high wimp factor. It also ignores the unpleasant reality that last weekend’s attendance continued a years-long trend of steadily declining attendance at NHMS. Veteran fans readily recall the time when the track’s capacity was more than 105,000, and the two 300-mile races of NASCAR’s top series meant full houses in both July and September.

Last decade’s recession dealt a harsh blow to stock car racing, both for the teams competing in a very expensive sport and the fans who often turned a trip to the races into a multi-day excursion. Then, like certain areas of the country, NASCAR was especially slow to recover. The number of teams fielding competitive cars declined even as conditions improved, and at tracks across the country seats that had emptied during the economy’s weakest days were not refilled. The New Hampshire speedway responded as many tracks did, by reducing capacity. Roughly half of the northern grandstand around turns three and four was removed, reducing the official capacity of NHMS to 88,000.

That’s still the official number, though as rows of empty seats have continued to spread track management has taken further steps, making the posted capacity no longer accurate. This year a new seating option, with a table surface in front of each row of bleachers, was offered in many sections at both ends of the main grandstand along the front straightaway. But that amenity was made possible by removing every other row of seating in those sections, further reducing the number that would constitute a full house by several thousand more.

Even with that Sunday’s race, the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301, drew the smallest crowd in memory. In a futile attempt to paper over the sport’s declining popularity, NASCAR stopped releasing attendance figures in 2013. But officials of local emergency departments told local media that they were advised to expect a crowd of around 40,000. While the marketing folks would be quick to point out that number means NASCAR’s visit remains the highest attended single sporting event in the Granite State, one suspects that deep down they know it is no reason to celebrate. Quite the opposite, because while attendance at many other tracks has stabilized, the downward trend in New Hampshire is continuing.

What the many fans who once filled those empty seats missed was one of the best races at NHMS in years. Kyle Busch, a driver most of the NASCAR faithful love to hate, dominated the early going, giving those in the stands plenty of reason to root a driver on whenever another car came within striking distance of Busch’s Toyota. The 2015 series champion and winner of the regular season points race last year faded in the second half of Sunday’s event, giving several others a chance to run in first during a race in which six different drivers bonus earned points for leading laps. Erik Jones and Matt DiBenedetto, two of the younger drivers in the field posted top-five finishes, giving fans a taste of the future of the sport.

But it was a couple of familiar faces, veterans Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin, who dueled both figuratively and literally down the stretch. Both are popular drivers in a sport that has been hurt by a bevy of retirements of stars in the last few years. Although Harvick had the lead in the late going Sunday, most fans expected Hamlin to overtake him because he was running on four new tires. Despite the worn rubber Harvick held on. As the two raced into turn one in the final lap, Hamlin ducked his car to the inside and took the lead by half a car length. But surprisingly Harvick was able to accelerate better down the back stretch, reclaiming the lead and, half a lap later, the checkered flag. The victory margin was just 0.21 seconds, the third closest finish ever at NHMS.

Still the sparse crowd meant that even as fans headed for home one had to wonder about the future of NASCAR in New Hampshire. Speedway Motorsports, the publicly traded company that bought NHMS from founder Bob Bahre in 2007, has already moved the track’s fall race to Las Vegas, after that city committed to pay SMS $2.5 million a year to add a September event to its entertainment calendar. SMS facilities in Georgia, Kentucky and California all currently have just one Monster Energy Series race, and ultimately the SMS leadership has a responsibility to the company’s shareholders. If the empty seats don’t start to fill up soon, the day may come when race day really will be silent in New Hampshire.

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Responses

  1. Wow, $2.5M a year not to have an event is up there with paying farmers not to grow certain crops. It’s a morass that will probably only get worse in the coming years. Thanks for keeping us up to date, Mike.
    Ω

    • Thanks Allan. I can’t really blame Speedway Motorsports, the company that now owns the track. It’s a publicly traded corporation, so it has to pay attention to the bottom line. But neither the local communities around Loudon nor the NH state government are able in the first instance nor willing in the second to compete when the next such offer from somewhere else comes along.

      M-

      • It sounds like they are making the best choice they can under those circumstances. Live and learn.
        Ω


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