A Voice For The Fans ~ Improving The Fan Experience
I bid you welcome gentle readers, and as always, a cordial welcome as well to he or she whose job it is to monitor what we print and advise someone in a higher echelon of NASCAR if we are found to be disrespectful to that sanctioning body, which fancies itself the greatest thing since personal deodorant. Please note, I said “fancies”, which indicates that it really is nothing of the sort. In fact, there is a lot about that sanctioning body that could definitely use some of that deodorant, as from the aroma thereabouts, one might say, “There is something rotten in Denmark.” Or maybe that should be Charlotte… or Daytona Beach.
For the record, this column had been in the R&D stage for some three days before another column appeared on our pages. That’s one thing I love about RFF; we all can agree to disagree without calling names or throwing stones. J.L. Steele and I sharply disagree on this subject, but I’ll go down fighting for his right to his opinion.
With that said, it well might be that my age is a factor, but I find absolutely no rosy side to the sharp decrease in seating at almost every track on the circuit. All manner of figures abound, depending upon where you read, and almost all of them contradict another. So, whom are we to believe? Let’s bring it down to a manageable scale for now, and discuss the Richmond track, where yet another huge bank of seating is being ripped out. The following is from an article from WAVY-TV:
RICHMOND (WAVY) — Richmond International Raceway, which once boasted a capacity of 112,000 and a 33-race sellout streak, will remove the entire backstretch stands, which will reduce the track’s capacity to 60,000.
WWBT in Richmond was the first to report this story. This will be the second reduction in two years at the Action Track. The three-quarter mile track, which was once owned by the late Paul Sawyer from Norfolk, is now owned by International Speedway Corporation. ISC is run by the France family, which controls NASCAR.
The removal of the backstretch grandstands is expected to be completed in time for the spring race in April.
Please let me assure you that the figures quoted in this article are the correct ones, give or take a few seats. How can I be so sure? Because RFF’s own Dave Fulton was the Media Relations Director for Richmond International Raceway for 10 years, and it was under his watch, through the entire decade of the 1990s that the seating capacity of Richmond International Raceway grew to 112,029.
Gentle readers, most of you know this isn’t my first rodeo, and I’m on my third generation of the France family as CEO of NASCAR. If there’s one thing I hope I’ve proved over many years to each and every one of you is that I’m honest, and I strive to have any information presented in my columns be accurate to the nth degree. However, and Mr. France please take note, honesty is in no way the equivalent of stupidity.
Mr. France gave an hour of his time last week to do a Q&A with Eli Gold on NASCAR Live, Sirius XM Radio. There is a listening link on that page should you so desire. There were many topics touched upon in that hour, but one statement struck a nerve in this old fan much like a dentist with an errant drill. In answer to a question of how he thought his father and grandfather would feel about the state of the sport today, his answer was, “I think they would be over the moon with how things look for the sport."
Really? Mr. France, have you ever actually talked to a fan, or more importantly actually listened to a fan? I have. I talk with hundreds of them weekly, and with all due respect, most tend to think that your immediate ancestors might be howling at the moon in displeasure, but not over it with some sort of elation. Indeed, what the vast majority of fans think is that you have taken something that each of those good men worked a lifetime to build, and without raising a finger to improve or even maintain what they built, you seem duty-bound on destroying it.
The massive reduction of seating across the sport, and the way it’s being presented… pardon me, “marketed” to the fans is today’s case in point. In the political field, it’s called “Spin.” Adolph Hitler called it what it was, “Lies.” His theory was that if you told a big enough lie for a long enough time, the people would come to accept it as truth.
We the fans, sit here in our mostly modest homes and watch the reduction of seating capacity, and hear excuses, excuses and more excuses for why it’s happening. The one I like best is that the tracks are decreasing seating capacity to increase the “Fan experience.” You know what Mr. France? Every race fan I’ve ever met thought the RACE was the fan experience. They went to a track, or maybe even several of them each year to experience a live race. I don’t know a single soul that has ever gone to a racetrack for the express purpose of playing video games, watching the race on a bigger TV than he has at home or attending a rock concert. I have yet to meet the fan that goes to any track just to pay the “Over the moon” prices at the concession stands for what is in many cases sub-standard food and drink at premium prices.
Stepping back to the Richmond track for just a moment, the following is taken from another article on the track’s seating reduction, this one from WWBT-TV, Richmond’s NBC affiliate.
RIR officials haven't confirmed yet what they'll be doing with that space but promise it will improve the fan experience. This is phase two of the track's plan. In October of 2013, the venue removed its Henrico Tower, a portion of backstretch seating.
"It's going to be a lot better than just people looking and seeing empty seats and wondering what's going on here,” said Arena Racing founder and CEO Ricky Dennis.
So, from the exact wording above, they have no idea what they will do with the space on the now empty backstretch, but it will be better than having people see empty seats. Oh, and did you catch in that article that over the last two years, the track has been widening the seats they are now ripping out? Sure sounds like a plan to me. They are “improving the fan experience.” In politics, phrases such as that are called “talking points.” Just as Adolph Hitler said, keep repeating it over and over, and sooner or later they’ll start to believe it.
Something even funnier by way of an excuse, and this is by no means only applicable to Richmond, but nationwide, is the idea that fans are not going to the tracks because “a lot of fans are choosing to watch it from the comfort of their own homes.” Oh, please allow an old lady to call BS on that one and scream it from a mountain top! One has only to follow the TV ratings to know that fans have turned away from stock car racing in vast numbers. The fans that remain are being used in an attempt to boost the ratings of a couple of Cable channels, FOX Sports 1 and NBCSN. While it’s true that airing races on those channels places them where many fans can’t even get the channel or don’t choose to pay exorbitant Cable prices for the privilege, it has still increased the channels’ viewership to a great degree. NBCSN is quite new in that format. It used to be VERSUS, and before that it lived a lonely life as the Outdoor Life Network. FOX FS1 did not exist until SPEED Channel disappeared from our TV sets, which makes it fairly easy to understand that their ratings as cable channels had nowhere to go but up.
So, we now have NASCAR playing to almost empty houses both at the track and in the living room. Your scribe is going out on the same limb as she has in the past and make a prediction. (That limb hasn’t broken yet) Those TV contracts, all $8.2 Billion with a “B” of them, won’t stand for the agreed upon 10 years. NBC and FOX do not have fools for attorneys. Somewhere in those contracts there have to be escape clauses for non-performance. NASCAR racing is not growing in popularity; it is shrinking at an alarming rate, and well inside of ten years, that rate will be reflected in the ratings drop for the channels it was meant to build.
Mr. France, I know that many of the fans that I speak with are probably not of your preferred demographic, but they are the fans that made this sport the success it was before you took over and started it going downhill like a snowball headed for Hell. Don’t mistake me for someone wanting to live in the past or “bring back the good ol’ days.” That is not me. I am, and have been since my teen years, a race fan. The “fan” part is shortened from “fanatic”, a person filled with excessive and single-minded zeal.
Like so many others in my demographic, I could tell you tales of love for stock car racing that would amuse and delight you only because that love made me an essential part of what made you rich… that being the success of your father and grandfather. No, I have never been one to live in the past, but I have never run headlong away from it just to affect change either.
I still have my writing and my gentle readers, which is why I’m still here today and not gone like so many I’ve known that just gave up in disgust. Those are their seats being torn out at every track on the circuit. Daytona may be rising, but she’s doing it with only 101,500 seats, where in 2003 she could accommodate almost twice that many. (Attendance quoted by NASCAR at the 2003 Daytona 500 was 200,000).
One more thing and then we’ll move on for today, but if any of you have other topics you’d like to address from that radio broadcast, or anywhere else for that matter, you have only to ask. This page is here for you, the fans.
The picture below is of the fans at Richmond helping commemorate the 9/11 attacks. I’m told the year is 2011, the 10th anniversary of that horrific day. Those seats that create the blue field where the crowd has spelled out “God Bless America” will be entirely gone when we go back in April of this year. Progress? Improving the Fan Experience? Perhaps America isn’t the only thing that could use God’s blessing…
Did we learn anything here today? Probably not, but our purpose here is to reach the ears and eyes of NASCAR, and at that we succeed rather well. None of us mere fans can put the egg back into the broken shell, and it’s not a shell that we broke. Brian, that honor is all yours. Along with that eggshell, my poor old heart is broken when I hear my close friend speak of Richmond thusly, “From 112,029 seats to 60,000 and they still can't sell them. What am I missing?”
Dear friend, what you, and all the rest of us are missing is good competition on the track. Yes, the Gen-6 looks a bit better out there than did the squat COT, especially if you are Ford, GM or Toyota. At least they have name plates by which one can identify the cars and the headlight decals are of varied shapes according to make, but the racing has not improved. It may some, with the new “package” NASCAR has set up for this year, but that accursed splitter is still there, and the cars are still quite literally scraping the ground as they circle the track. That alone kills most of the passing efforts made. If both cars and engines are all identical, and that is what we’re moving toward and have almost achieved, then passing will remain impossible. How can you change the quality of the racing if the same identical change is made to each identical car on the track?
Would a return to great racing bring back fannies to those seats that once were occupied? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Today’s kids do not share the love affair with the automobile that my demographic did when we were that younger generation. Still, making the racing more exciting would bring a lot more folks to the track than ‘Improving the fan experience.” The only thing that will accomplish that is better racing, because what it all boils down to is that racing IS the fan experience! The end and Amen!
Time now for our Classic Country Closeout, and we’ll be reaching back for some true classics this time, as performed by the original singer and/or group. First up is a real “oldie” called “Faded Love”, written by Bob Wills and John Wills, and performed as always by them with the Texas Playboys. This particular recording was made just days before Bob passed away, which makes it a treasure to hear and share.
Next up, let’s hear one from the “Singing Brakeman” or if you prefer, the “Mississippi Blue Yodeler”, Jimmie Rodgers. Here’s Jimmie with a very original rendition of “Frankie and Johnny.” Please enjoy!
If you’ve ever heard Ernest Tubb sing “Filipino Baby” and it didn’t sound quite right to you, then the one you’re recalling from many years ago is this version by Cowboy Copas. This was the original and Ernest changed the wording just a bit, which spoiled both the rhythm and the rhyme for this purist.
A lot of folks have tried their hand at this one, but absolutely no one sings it like the original offering by Tex Ritter. This is a cut from the movie, “Song of the Gringo”, in which Tex sings “Rye Whiskey” for I believe the first time. (1936)
This collection just wouldn’t be complete without that priceless song written and sung by Mama’s all-time favorite, Red Foley. This version though, might well be one you have never heard. To my knowledge, it has only appeared on one album, and of course, its 78 rpm vinyl version back in the 30s. I was too young to care about the old 78, as it predated me by a few years, but I do have the album by the same name… “Old Shep.” Those of you that love Classic Country, listen close. Red was so young here that it’s almost hard to tell that it’s him, but also, pay attention to the wording. There is one subtle but very important change that appears in every other recording but this one. Guess there were PC Police even that long ago. (A thousand thanks to my “adopted” son Darrell for getting this one on YouTube for me. I’d be lost without you Son… or I’d have to learn to do it by myself. ~Hugs)
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!