Ingram's Flat Spot On: Chase dander up?

Flat Spot On by Jonathan Ingram CHASE DANDER UP IN CHARLOTTE Against a gray October sky, the grandstands looked a dreary blue (as in empty) too many places at the Lowe's Motor Speedway. But as the cool, breezy night wore on, the Chase heated...


Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram


CHASE DANDER UP IN CHARLOTTE

Against a gray October sky, the grandstands looked a dreary blue (as in empty) too many places at the Lowe's Motor Speedway. But as the cool, breezy night wore on, the Chase heated up when the pesky Jeff Burton added friction and the orange light of his sponsor's colors to what is now a four-man Sprint Cup championship bid.

He did it the old-fashioned way by keeping his powder dry much of the first 400 miles and using pit stops to gain track position. Once in front, the Charlotte track's odds-on favorite, Jimmie Johnson, was shepherded through the corners by old master Burton. It seems Burton forced the two-time defending champion into lines that were too hard to handle, eventually wearing out the champ's fresh tires so badly he faded to sixth.

"I was dead sideways in Turns One and Turn Four," said Johnson, who declared himself to be, um, hacked off after losing the scuffle for the lead to Burton with the race on the line. And how often do you see good ol' Jimmie's dander really up?

Good clean racing fun on a track not exactly well known for side-by-side racing.

Alas, there's also that pesky issue of track attendance -- as well as fans pouring out with over 100 laps to go, who were destined to miss the fine duel between Burton and Johnson.

It is a tribute to the throw weight of NASCAR's premier series that checking its pulse is a corporate marketing department staple as well as an on-line science among bloggers and race goers.

Maybe it was the breezy weather. It certainly was not the racing or reduced ticket prices. It was more likely the crashing economy that resulted in a relatively "thin" crowd of a mere 140,000 or so on a Saturday night.

Perhaps, too, there was the Humpy Effect, given that longtime impressario and ticket huckster H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler was missing in action for the first time in three decades. The replacement for the retired Wheeler, who happens to be the son of track owner Bruton Smith, was at least shrewd enough to keep a low profile during the weekend to avoid any comparisons.

But the problems began long before Wheeler split with track owner Smith. Back when NASCAR did its first multi-billion dollar blockbuster TV deal in 2001, there was a little-known clause that eliminated the blackouts which tracks had previously negotiated. Some of those blackouts extended for 300 miles in any direction from the track. In places like Charlotte, you had to wait until the race was over to see it on TV.

Given that the tracks get 65 percent of the TV billions (25 percent goes to the purse and 10 percent to NASCAR), what's to worry? Ticket sales, souvenir and concession revenue, parking etc. became additions to the profit margin instead of the fundamental means to stay in business.

Absent the TV blackout, some overbuilt tracks were immediately affected by the ease and low expense of staying home to watch. That included Charlotte and Atlanta, in particular, where aging fan bases made them especially vulnerable to regular fans who decided to stay home to avoid the hassle and expense.

There seems to be an Earnhardt effect at work, as well. In the aftermath of Earnhardt Sr.'s fatal crash at Daytona, a sport already big enough to command a blockbuster TV deal caught the inevitable draft of grief among regular fans and heightened interest among the uninitiated. So ticket sales may have leveled off, but TV ratings kept climbing.

These days, it's working the other way. Now packed to the gills with advertising, TV's ratings have dropped as those who stay home lose touch with a sport that no longer belongs to American car companies or guys like Earnhardt Sr. Some of those who never knew the man have trouble figuring out what the ruckus was about now that the celebrity mourning period has faded. The absence of blackouts and the absence of the man in black are like a one-two punch on both ticket sales and TV numbers.

Change is inevitable and NASCAR's fan base remains relatively young, populous and vibrant. But I don't put much stock in the idea that younger fans' viewing habits are so different these days as an explanation for the reduced TV numbers, which are still better than all but the NFL.

The proposal that fans are watching but can't be counted sounds more like a convenient spin. It's based on hopes that a future wi-fi market for portable, hand-held devices or lap tops will take up the current slack. Or, that everybody is Tevo-ing live sports events like an action drama that somehow gets better with age.

If you've seen guys like Burton and Johnson side-by-side at 160 mph on the edge of control at the track, small screens do not do this sort of gladiatorial splendor much justice. If you care about such duels, you'll be sorry you missed one in real time.

So what about those who actually came and then left the race early, one admittedly that had a lot of cautions on a chilly Saturday night? Call me crazy, but when local hero Dale Earnhardt Jr. drops out with a blown tire that blows all chances of victory, there are bew-coo fans in these parts who head straight for the exits.

Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jonathan@jingrambooks.com.

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About this article
Series General , NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Burton , Jimmie Johnson