By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
As NASCAR heads into the final few weeks of its regular season, and with pandemic restrictions having eased up over the last few months, NASCAR executives are reporting some positive momentum as far as attendance and fan demographics.
NASCAR hopes that momentum continues while also regularly evaluating pandemic protocols. It started a mask mandate for indoor areas last weekend at The Glen, but at the moment, all 13 remaining races plan on selling as many tickets as full seating capacity and camping allows.
“It’s been a while since we’ve been here, so hopefully we put on a good show for you,” Watkins Glen winner Kyle Larson told the fans after his win Sunday at a track that did not play host to a race last year.
Evaluating NASCAR’s business operations and economic health became more difficult over the last couple of years. With most of the tracks now owned by privately held companies, there is much less data in the public domain when it comes to attendance and the sport’s economic health.
In late 2019, the NASCAR-owning France family bought out the public shares of International Speedway Corp. and the Smith family bought out the public shares of Speedway Motorsports Inc., leaving Dover Motorsports as the only publicly-traded company – and the only one left that was required to report earnings.
Dover owns both Dover International Speedway and Nashville Superspeedway and moved one of its two Cup weekends to Nashville this year (and at least for the next three). Its recent financial report indicates the move created a boost. It sold out all 38,000 seats at Nashville, where it added temporary seating to its 25,000 permanent grandstands.
Its admissions revenue for the Dover and Nashville weekends totaled $5.7 million, an improvement in admissions revenue over Dover’s two weekends in 2019 ($4.9 million) and 2018 ($5.6 million). What makes that more encouraging is that the Dover race in May this year was limited to 20,000 people and without that limit, it would have generated more revenue.
Dover’s other event-related, non-broadcasting revenue (sponsorships, merchandise and concession sales, etc.) was $7.1 million for its two weekends, compared with $6.7 million in 2019 and $8.4 million in 2018. Those 2018 and 2019 totals include the rental and concessions for the Firefly Music Festival, which is later this year at Dover and likely will put it on par, if not ahead, of 2018.
While NASCAR won’t talk about its financials, it is talking about seeing attendance shift to a younger fan base, a pivotal and key element to any potential NASCAR growth.
NASCAR had hoped that with the banning of the Confederate flag last season (at the urging of Bubba Wallace, the sport’s only full-time national series Black driver), as well as more outreach focusing on diversity, that it could attract a younger, more diverse audience.
Executives believe they see signs of that happening.
NASCAR owns 11 of the 23 venues on the 2021 NASCAR Cup schedule. At its tracks this year, its database shows that 30% of attendees are new and new attendees are twice as likely to be below age 35 when compared to returning fans. Attendees under 35 are nearly twice as likely to be Black or Hispanic when compared to the rest of the NASCAR attendees.
For its camping sales, 41% of campers are new fans, compared with 27% in 2019.
NASCAR’s research through its fan council indicates those who are 18-34 are more enthused about the new owners in the sport this year – Cup driver Denny Hamlin co-owns a team with Michael Jordan and former driver Justin Marks co-owns a team with entertainer Pitbull.
That survey builds on a study done in February 2021, which indicated that fans who said they became NASCAR fans in the last three years were 22% Hispanic, 19% Black and 9% Asian, which is half of all new fans in that survey.
“The health and relevance of the sport, in general, is trending positively,” said NASCAR Chief Marketing Officer Pete Jung. “You’ve got young talent that is starting to build fandom. … In general, there is pent-up demand for experiences and probably people putting more value on experiences and more unique, authentic experiences.”
A common saying in NASCAR for decades had been once NASCAR can get a fan to the track, that person becomes a fan for life. But attendance at race tracks and television ratings have not backed up that anecdotal theory. Admissions revenue for most tracks was public through 2018, and the sport had seen drops in admissions revenue for 11 consecutive years.
So NASCAR has a challenge that those new fans remain fans.
Some of NASCAR’s initiatives have been quite visible, such as the hiring of NFL star and NASCAR fan Alvin Kamara to help promote the sport. Some of it also is behind the scenes, working with marketing agency Cashmere, which specializes in marketing to diverse audiences. NASCAR also is working on launching a new STEM curriculum through the National Science Teaching Association.
“We doubled our resources on multicultural – that’s people, marketing budgets, content, media – and if you think of a year where we had to tighten our belts, that was a true commitment that the board was doubling down,” Jung said.
“We’ve made strides the past several years with the U.S. Hispanic market and we’re investing more to build relevance and connection with the African-American market.”
Thinking Out Loud
Whenever NASCAR races at Watkins Glen, there is the question of whether NASCAR would consider running “the boot,” a section of the road course that NASCAR doesn’t use.
Using the boot would turn the course from a 2.454-mile course to a 3.4-mile course.
NASCAR’s main concern about using that extra section is that it potentially could have limited passing zones and that the extra mile added to the course would mean fewer laps – and that fans in attendance would not see the cars as often.
With the Next Gen car designed to be more nimble on road courses, NASCAR should test the boot to see if it could add to The Glen product. And if it gets a universal – or as universal as possible – approval that it could improve the show, then go for it. Fans I have talked to at the track don’t seem overly concerned whether the boot is part of the track for NASCAR.
But the Watkins Glen race is already solid and there definitely is a feeling of it’s not broke, don’t fix it. And it would be stupid to just mess with something just to make a change. So if NASCAR wants to use the boot, it needs to be sure it would significantly improve the product.
Stat of Note
Hendrick Motorsports has finished 1-2 in 48 races. But the Kyle Larson-Chase Elliott 1-2 at Watkins Glen was the first time Hendrick has ever finished 1-2 at the track.
They Said It
“I don’t lose sleep over anything really – other than just my kids waking up too early or something like that.” – Kyle Larson
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!
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