Twenty years ago I stood and cheered as Jeff Gordon crossed the finish line – the winner of the first Indianapolis Motor Speedway “Brickyard 400.”
Depending on which estimate you believe, somewhere between 250,000 and 400,000 other NASCAR fans stood as Gordon flashed past the finish line. The cheers of the crowd almost drowned out the roar of the engines.
There were some boos – but mostly unbridled cheers.
I thought about that moment last Sunday when I watched Jeff Gordon cross the finish line first for the fifth time in the history of the “Brickyard 400.”
But, there was a major difference.
This year, I and 200,000 to 300,000 other fans who stood and cheered Jeff Gordon as he crossed the finish line in 1994 sat in the recliner and watched the last few laps on television – or not at all.
I was amazed as I watched the race on television (in between innings of the Cubs game). As the cars zoomed into the turns you could clearly see the stands. I would like to say you could clearly see the crowd – but there wasn’t a crowd to see.
In fact, estimates that I have seen put the attendance at between 65,000 and 85,000. While this seems like a large crowd, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway it means most of the bleachers appear to be empty.
Unfortunately, the same attendance problem seems to occur at most NASCAR venues – including at the Kentucky Speedway near Sparta, Kentucky. As with the first Brickyard 400, I had the opportunity to attend the first NASCAR Nationwide race held at Kentucky Speedway.
And, like the first Brickyard 400, the crowd at that first Nationwide race was large and loud. As the 43 Nationwide cars, several driven by Sprint Cup level drivers, took to the track, there wasn’t an empty seat when the green flag waved.
Actually, there were a lot of empty seats – in fact, almost all the seats were empty – for the whole race.
The reason – the entire crowd stood for the entire race. After all, this was the opportunity to show NASCAR that the Kentucky Speedway and its fans deserved a Sprint Cup race.
In the movie “Field of Dreams,” the quote most repeated is “If you build it – they will come.” This was never more true than when the Kentucky Speedway was built.
The fans came.
They just didn’t leave after that first race.
Not because they didn’t want to leave, but because the parking situation was a disaster. It took us nearly five hours to get out of the parking lot – and we weren’t the last to get out.
I thought about this last Thursday while driving to Louisville to pick Jade up from the airport. Normally, Patriot to the Louisville airport is an hour and a half drive.
Last Thursday it was a four hour drive. Or, more accurately, it was a four hour “park and sit.”
I sat on Interstate 71 without moving for nearly 30 minutes. Then, I – and seemingly several hundred others – started moving through the “long delays possible” construction area.
This wasn’t a real problem. I knew Jade’s flight was delayed. (That is a different story in itself.) Once the work zone was cleared, the 70-mph speed limit seemed to be a minimum limit – not a maximum limit.
For 20 miles.
Then we stopped again. Then, Interstate 71 became a parking lot – again. Only this time, we did not move for 63 minutes.
One hour and three minutes!
While sitting in the I-71 parking lot, my first thought was that Jade, even though her flight was extremely late, would probably have to wait for me.
My second thought was about the Kentucky Speedway.
Even with the parking lot disaster after the first Nationwide race, the subsequent Nationwide races continued to be sold out.
As a result (along with the resolution of some legal issues) the Kentucky Speedway was finally awarded a Sprint Cup race.
The mecca of car racing in America.
While many NASCAR venues were seeing declining attendance, the first Kentucky Speedway Sprint Cup race was sold out – even after thousands of additional seats were added.
When the first Kentucky Speedway Sprint Cup race filled the countryside with the noise, the fumes, and the excitement that can be generated by 43 Sprint Cup cars being driven by 43 of the best race car drivers in the world – many seats remained empty.
Not because everyone was standing – but, because several thousand race fans were sitting on the Interstate 71 parking lot. While some of those thousands finally got to the track after the race had started, thousands more never did get to the track.
Immediately after the race, the Kentucky Speedway made every effort possible to calm the storm created by the I-71 parking lot. The Speedway spent millions of dollars to make arrival, parking, and exiting easy.
So now, as I, and many others, watch a few laps of the Kentucky Speedway’s Sprint Cup race on television, I can’t help but notice the tens of thousands of empty seats.
I don’t know how much of the attendance problems in Kentucky are related to the I-71 parking lot. All I know, is that sitting in that same parking lot last Thursday, I had a lot of time to reflect on a lot of things.
And going to a NASCAR race in Indianapolis or Sparta was not one of them – which when watching the races on television, seems also not to be in the thoughts of tens of thousands of former NASCAR fans.
Whatever – when television views pit stops as more exciting than the race itself, it is no wonder that NASCAR is losing fans.
None-the-less, I was happy to see Jeff Gordon win this years “Golden Corral presents the Brickyard 400.”
Oh – I did get to the airport before Jade – she was seven hours late.
But, as I said earlier, that is a different story.
- Mike Cooney