- David Newton, ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter
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RICHMOND, Va. -- The large sign outside Richmond International Raceway off Laburnum Avenue on Friday said it all.
"Tickets Available Now!"
This has been a common sight at tracks that host Sprint Cup events this season, but it is alarming when it occurs at RIR.
The track has sold out every Cup race, 32 in all, over the past 16 years. Most of the sellouts are announced a week before the event, the Thursday before at the latest.
That tickets remain 24 hours before Saturday's race reinforces what track presidents and NASCAR officials have said and feared for the past few months: rising gas prices and tough economic times are keeping fans away.
"It's not the sport. It's not the competition. It's the economy," team owner Richard Childress said. "It's like that in every business right now."
Points leader Jeff Burton agreed.
"There's no question that our economy is tough right now," he said. "Fuel prices are way up. There are a lot of things going on that make it hard for the heart and soul of our sport, which is the average, everyday, middle class.
"That is what our sport has always been supported by. When they're feeling it and struggling with finances, then we're feeling it, too."
The good news is television ratings are up, but tracks do not survive on TV revenue alone. They need ticket and concession sales.
So when Richmond doesn't put a body in all 112,209 seats, this sends up a red flag, one that already should have been flying when there were plenty of empty seats at Bristol despite what was announced as a sellout.
"It's definitely tough economic times," driver Mark Martin said. "We feel it at the dealerships. I see it when I pull up to the gas pump."
Aimee Turner, the director of public relations at RIR, agreed the economy has hurt ticket sales.
"In general, NASCAR fans are the first to feel the effects of a bad economy and the last to come out of it," she said.
But Turner isn't in panic mode. She remains confident the race will sell out with a strong walk-up crowd, noting fewer than 1,000 tickets remain.
"The other thing that hurts us is we've done such a good job of promoting we've-sold-out-for-so-long that people assume we just don't have tickets," she said.
But there are still concerns.
"I'm not concerned about the health of our sport," Burton said. "Our racing is good. Our fans are still excited and fired up about it. I'm not concerned for that. The thing is if somebody can't buy a ticket there's other things they can't do as well.
"It'll come back. And when it comes back the fans will come back."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
That tickets for the Sprint Cup race in Richmond remain available 24 hours before Saturday's race reinforces fears that rising gas prices and tough economic times are keeping fans away.