Story and photo by Patrick Reynolds
A chilling wind cut through my sweatshirt and thermal layers. The day yielded a clear blue, spring sky but unusually cold temperatures. Mother Natureâ€™s breeze added a little bite to the shiver. The high altitude did not help me feel any less frigid.
My perch was the top walkway of Charlotteâ€™s zMAX Dragway aluminum grandstands during the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals. I stood for an excellent look at the Nitromethane Saturday qualifying runs. As high up as I was, and with no protection from the wind, the chilly day felt a bit colder.
My view was great. In front of me, the Top Fuel class sent 40,000 horsepower all at once to the 1,000 feet mark. Over my shoulder was the Dirt Track at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Across the street from that was Charlotte Motor Speedway. How times seem to change for all three facilities on Speedway Motorsportsâ€™ property.
My friend and race fan Paul Blaufuss was alongside and also bundled up watching the runs. We overlooked, what was reported over the trackâ€™s public address system as, a sellout crowd for NHRA qualifying. There were some empty seats, but with NHRA fans the headcount is difficult to judge since every ticket is also a pit pass. Many fans take the opportunity to wander the pits and spend time near the transporters of their favorite teams. The grandstands are really never completely full all of the time even if the seats are sold.
Driving into the track that morning certainly reflected the larger audience. Traffic was as heavy as I have seen for an NHRA event in Charlotte. The crowds for zMAX Dragway races are frequently healthy but traffic jamming volume from the drag strip up Bruton Smith Boulevard is less common.
On my ride, I wished I had left my house earlier as I watched several traffic lights blink through cycles without me moving.
After meeting up with Blaufuss, our conversation turned to all three tracks within our chilly view.
He recalled his experience of attending the World of Outlaws World Finals a few years ago. One of Blaufussâ€™ vivid memories was regretting not purchasing his tickets far enough in advance. As a walk-up fan, his seat fell squarely on row three.
â€œThatâ€™s what happens when you buy tickets, last-minute,â€ said Blaufuss.
I covered the World Finals from the Dirt Track last fall. I spend the three-day event in the pit area off the backstretch with a straight-on view of the large grandstands. If there were any empty seats to be filled, they were not easily visible. The crowd for every night was extremely healthy.
â€œI was telling a friend of mine they were taking out seats in Charlotteâ€ said Blaufuss, as our talk drifted across the street to the paved speedway oval.
He recalled his friend asking, â€œHow Many? Five thousand? Ten thousand?â€
Blaufuss said â€œI told him â€˜The entire turn two grandstands,â€™ â€¦ Itâ€™s not like it was anymore.â€
He and I have witnessed the standing room only crowds of the ZMAX Dragway and the Dirt Track at Charlotte, as well as the dismantling of grandstands at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
To be fair, perception can appear to be reality.
Charlotte Motor Speedwayâ€™s removal of their turn-two Diamond Tower Grandstands is the loss of 41,000 seats. That reduces the facilityâ€™s capacity to 93,000, most of which will be filled for May Raceweeks and the October Cup event. The seating count of The Dirt Track is just over 14,000 and the Dragway around 30,000.
By the numbers, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series still is the most popular form of auto racing in the United States. However the attendance and following have dropped from its peak in the Mid-2000s. Outward appearances from Charlotte, show that WoO and NHRA races are as popular as ever and holding steady at the very least.
What does the future hold?
In the 1990s when we saw the boom and skyrocketing of professional NASCAR popularity, did any of us foresee a day when the growth stopped? When the upward spiral would cease? When all of those seats that were being added at all of those tracks â€“and could not keep up with demand- would be unused or even torn down like they were at Charlotte? When seat reductions disguised as Named-Fancy-Renovation-Projects would occur at several NASCAR Sprint Cup tracks?
Where will NASCAR Sprint Cup racing be in five years? Ten? So many changes to the sport over the past 12 years -by corporate suits and not racers- in an effort to attract new fans have turned off the original base that gave NASCAR their boom.
I understand the need of corporate influence and dollars to further a sport. I donâ€™t understand corporate non-racers making racing decisions about a racing series. Especially when those decisions are the cause of what the non-racers claim they are trying to fix.
The World of Outlaws fan base has shown to be loyal and solid for decades. The tour has raced in front of sold out crowds for many years.
On this NHRA weekend, Jack Beckman ended a 54-race winless streak by racing to the Funny Car victory. Antron Brownâ€™s win in the Top Fuel class, and Larry Morgan and Andrew Hines wins in Pro Stock car and Motorcycle classes respectively, were all witnessed by a sellout crowd.
The NHRA and the World of Outlaws, as well as grassroots forms of oval and drag racing, make decisions based on wise business moves. However they seem to have not abandoned so much of what got them successful to begin with.
In the shadow of the John Force grandstands Blaufuss and I felt another blast of air more like late winter than early spring. We Bench Raced about motorsports attendance and the multiple causes for the rise and fall in different series. An economy that has not recovered since the 2008 recession, the ticket prices compared to disposable income, drivers disconnecting with the fans, and too many gimmicks trying to manufacture excitement that erode racingâ€™s fundamental credibility, came up.
At the end of the afternoon, we parted enjoying a good friendship and afternoon of drag racing. For a couple of guys with over 80 collective years at East Coast speedways we feel we have ideas to offer that would improve the sport. The thought of auto racing losing more fans, much like the dayâ€™s weather, made us shiver.
Charlotteâ€™s World of Outlaws and NHRA events appear well-intact. However, thousands of unused seats are gone from the NASCAR oval.
Hereâ€™s to the cold air staying confined to keeping NHRA pass times low and not blowing through deserted former grandstand areas- at any track, anywhere, anymore.
Patrick Reynolds is a former professional NASCAR mechanic who hosts Motor Week LIVE! Mondays 7pm ET/ 4pm PT onwww.racersreunionradio.com