Commentary

Is this as bad as it gets for NASCAR? It ain't so bad ...

The bad news? There might be 30,000 empty seats for Sunday's Cup race at Michigan International Speedway. The good news? There'll still be more than 100,000 fans packed into the place, writes Ed Hinton.

Updated: August 17, 2008, 10:15 AM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Michigan International SpeedwayAP Photo/Carlos OsorioReports estimated roughly 30,000 tickets went unsold for the June race at MIS.

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Cue the orchestra for a funeral dirge. Beat the drum slowly. Welcome to the abyss.

It doesn't get any worse for NASCAR than here, they say.

Nowhere in America have times gotten harder -- faster -- than in Michigan, with its 8.5 percent unemployment rate.

And its NASCAR track, in the Irish Hills area 70 miles west of Detroit, reflects the gloom.

There might be 30,000 empty seats Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, a track that sold out 30 consecutive Cup races in a 15-year period until 2006, the beginning of the crash of the U.S. automotive industry.

Only 44 Sprint Cup cars showed up Friday to try to make the 43-car field. Only Johnny Sauter was sent packing after qualifying.

[+] EnlargeMichigan stadium
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioThe Wolverines may be the toast of Ann Arbor, but the "Big House" can't pack 'em in like Michigan International Speedway.

So if NASCAR is going down the drain, this is the vortex.

Nobody views NASCAR with a more critical, jaundiced eye than I do. If this were the beginning of the end, I would report it.

But the cold, hard truth is …

If this is as bad as it gets for NASCAR, then NASCAR is healthy indeed.

Likely, they'll still put 115,000 to 120,000 into this place Sunday -- more than "The Big House," Michigan Stadium, 45 miles east in Ann Arbor, even holds for football.

The gaps that will be visible Sunday are "so relative," MIS president Roger Curtis said Friday. "We have 130,000 seats."

An Ohio State-Michigan crowd would look puny in this joint.

Meanwhile, back in Detroit this past NHL season, the beloved Red Wings couldn't sell out until they got to the brink of the Stanley Cup. And for the first time ever, the NFL Lions are splitting season tickets into smaller packages.

"It's not the 10, 15 or 20 thousand who aren't here," Curtis said. "It's the ones who still are here, with all the things going on."

When NASCAR attendance slipped circuitwide this year, mainly because of rising gasoline prices -- the overwhelming majority of fans drive to races, in big pickups and SUVs -- "people wanted to focus on Michigan as the bellwether for gas prices," Curtis said. "I'm like, 'No, no, no. Gas prices? That's a news story. We've had a recession going on in Michigan for three years now. And now you throw in mortgages and gas prices.'"

Before '06, MIS had been holding its own by replacing in-state fans with out-of-state and Canadian ticket sales.

Indeed, Canadians now account for 10 percent of ticket sales here, even though, "Shame on us promoters, we haven't done a whole lot over there," Curtis admitted. "But I can tell you right now, that's going to change next year."

The speedway is unlikely to fall behind Michigan Stadium for the biggest sports crowds in the state anytime soon.

The track is doing better than the state at large, and indeed is helping prop up the economy, to the tune of about $400 million stimulated annually.

"I feel bad that we've lost a lot of folks from Michigan, because I know why we've lost them -- they've lost their jobs," Curtis said. "But the silver lining, I guess, from the tourism perspective, is that our out-of-state fans have gone from about 30 percent to about 60 percent. The economic impact is really helping the state right now, when they need it."

So NASCAR motors on. Even through the mire of Michigan's economy. What does that tell you?

These, perceived as the worst of times by younger, newer NASCAR fans, are far better than the best of times in the old thinking.

The first time I came to MIS, 30 years ago this month, it had 25,983 seats. Ancient history? Fast-forward. The last time Dale Earnhardt won here, in 1990, the speedway had just expanded to 51,341 seats. It didn't even top 100,000 until 1997.

Then came the period that has so confused so much of the American public, and made Wall Street too greedy toward all things NASCAR … and thence made NASCAR itself and its member tracks too greedy: the steep-curved NASCAR boom of the late 1990s.

That growth rate was unsustainable by any industry. Virtually every track overbuilt, but Michigan was just right … until the economy around it collapsed.

"Back in the '90s, they couldn't build enough seats," said former MIS publicist Bill Janitz, now with Joe Gibbs Racing. "All they had to do was announce a race and it was sold out.

"In the early 2000s, it wasn't that easy -- we'd sell out maybe on Tuesday, or Thursday, of race week. Bill France Jr. [the NASCAR czar who reigned through the growth spurt] used to say that if you sold out on race morning, you had the perfect number of seats."

Another function of the NASCAR overreach is that 44 cars showing up now translates to "only 44." Not until 1998, at the peak of the boom, did NASCAR expand Cup fields to 43 cars.

That's too many -- 33 to 35 cars have put on many a spectacular show in NASCAR. But there was even more overkill -- too many teams trying to qualify, often more than 50. For this year's Daytona 500, 53 cars showed up, and 10 went home, a waste of funding and effort.

"We don't need 45, 48, 49 teams," Jeff Burton said. "It only creates insecurity for sponsors, car owners, crew members.

"We need 43 teams to put on a race."

If that.

NASCAR went on a binge, got a little crazy, took the American public and Wall Street along on the joyride, and now is paying the image price: Settling into normalcy, with normal vulnerability to economic cycles, is perceived by some as going in the tank.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

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