Talladega officials estimated that a crowd of 88,000 for Sunday’s Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500, the smallest crowd for a Sprint Cup race at Talladega since figures have been provided.
The estimated crowd was 20,000 less than the previous low of 108,000 announced for this year’s spring race, the Aaron’s 499.
The track drew a combined 315,000 fans for its two annual Cup races as recently as 2007, but that number has steadily declined since.
It’s a trend that NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, Sunday’s runner-up, can’t understand.
“From an entertainment standpoint, they should be lined up out to the highway out there,” he said. “That I don’t get at all. That makes no sense to me.”
Talladega is NASCAR’s biggest and fastest track. It’s known for three- and four-wide racing through high-banked turns and big crashes.
A last-lap crash involving 20 cars punctuated an exciting finish to Sunday’s race, won by Matt Kenseth.
Talladega’s fall race falls during the Chase for the Cup, NASCAR’s version of a playoff among the top 12 drivers, covering the circuit’s final 10 races of the year.
But Talladega’s trend of falling attendance matches that of NASCAR’s. Attendance for Cup races is down 2.4 percent from a year ago and 8.5 percent from 2009, according to USA Today.
The main culprit, NASCAR and track officials have said, is the global economic downturn that started in the fall of 2008. It’s especially tough for a track in the heart of the Southeast.
“There’s enough NASCAR fans in the Southeast that would come to Talladega, but right now, all the states that touch Alabama, as well as South Carolina … they’re in six of the 10 top most economically depressed states in the nation,” Talladega Superspeedway chairman Grant Lynch.
He also cited gas prices and race-weekend hotel rate spikes in surrounding areas as aggravating factors.
“It’s not a great thing that’s keeping people from coming, but it’s one that’s always kind of irked me,” he said. “… That’s why we’re working so hard on sending people to Birmingham, where there’s some great rates over there for them to come and stay in a hotel, because not everybody wants to camp.”
While identifying the main cause of falling attendance at Talladega is simple, Lynch seemed at a loss about how to reverse the trend without an economic resurgence.
“All we can do is to continue to try to improve our facility and put on the best show we can for the fans and hope that they think the values we’re offering out there and the products that we’re presenting to them make good sense to them as a way to spend their hard-earned dollars and come and have a weekend of great entertainment,” he said.
Lynch cited deals available in the Allison Grandstand, which was less than half full Sunday. A two-day ticket covering Saturday’s lower-circuit races and Sunday’s Cup races is $49, and kids 12-under get in free.
“Talladega is one of the few race tracks where you can camp for free, and you can bring your own food and beverage in,” he said. “So, we’re doing our part to offer affordable opportunities for race fans to see, probably, maybe the most exciting race that will be on the Chase this year.”
Lynch sees non-economic factors that could be impacting Talladega, as well.
He said the fall race, in particular, could be suffering from going head to head with college football at a time when Alabama and Auburn have won the past three national championships. This year’s Alabama team holds the No. 1 ranking in both major national polls.
Talladega races also suffered negative publicity because of NASCAR aerodynamic quirks that effectively encouraged drivers to stay in two-car tandems for extended periods during races from 2009 through 2011. The racing was less exciting.
NASCAR made rules changes after 2011 designed to bring back pack racing, and the pack made noticeable returns in both Talladega races this year.
Lynch also pointed to Wednesday tests of a new car designs slated for 2013. A three-car draft with spacing went faster than a nose-to-bumper, two-car tandem.
“There’s a lot of things they’ve done with the car, taking away spoilers and a lot of different things,” Lynch said. “The front ends and the rear of the cars don’t provide such a big, broad, flat base to do the pushing with.
“There’s a little bit of rounding to the front, and no noses are the same with the new, kind of individual makes of the body styles from different manufacturers. They have a little bit different nose, so they’re not going to match up as good as the current car does.”