Lack of Attendance at Clash Not the Fault of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
by Clayton Caldwell On Mon, Feb. 20, 2017
That’s it! I’ve had enough! I cannot count the times I have heard how NASCAR or the people involved with the sport have placed blame on the lack of attendance, ratings and overall disinterest in NASCAR on drivers retiring or not racing. This week a well-respected publication stated that since Dale Earnhardt Jr. decided to sit out the Advanced Auto Parts Clash on Sunday, that led to a decrease in attendance.
Really? Dale Earnhardt Jr. is to blame for that?
The fact that Dale Earnhardt Jr. decided to sit the race out, may have altered the attendance a hair but there is much more to the fact that only an estimated 15,000 people showed up to what was once a premier event. Look at Sunday’s race. It was a great finish but the majority of the 75 laps ran were lackluster. Teams ran single-file for a good chunk of the event and the only thing that made the race interesting in the middle stages was that defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson spun coming off Turn 4, twice.
There’s been a constant problem at Daytona the last few years and the powers at be need to wake up to the real problem. Here’s some reality for you – Dale Earnhardt Jr. will not race forever. Heck, there’s a chance he may not race past 2017.
Yet NASCAR continues to place the blame on falling attendance and lack of ratings on drivers retiring. A January report in the Sports Business Journal reported that ISC, the parent company of Daytona International Speedway, stated that the election and the lack of star power contributed to decreased admissions.
Here’s another dose of reality – Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards have all called it quits in recent years and soon others will follow. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is in his final year of a three-year contract at Hendrick Motorsports, has yet to discuss a contract extension.
“I told (team owner) Rick (Hendrick) I’d like to get a couple of months under my belt to get confidence in my health,” he said. “When I got hurt last year and what I saw it put the company through, how I saw it frustrate certain aspects of the company, it put a strain on our relationships. Our (sponsors) were worried about my future.
“Rick and everybody was worried. I don’t want to do that again. So I want to get some races under my belt and get confidence in my health before I can commit to him. I don’t want to make any promises I can’t deliver on, and so once I feel like I think I’m good.”
Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has more years behind him than he has in front of him. That problem will only get worse.
The Advanced Auto Parts Clash’s problem wasn’t just Dale Earnhardt Jr being in the broadcast booth. It’s a microcosm of a combination of silly things NASCAR has done over the last five years that has made the Busch Clash/Bud Shootout/Sprint Unlimited- whatever you want to call it, an absolute joke of a race.
This year was the first year since Anheuser-Busch stopped sponsoring the race where winning a pole in the previous season actually mattered, sort of. If you won a pole you were guaranteed a spot in the field but you didn’t have to win a pole to make the race. Just ask Danica Patrick, who, somehow, got into the “All-Star type” event because of a pole she won in the Daytona 500 four years ago. Oh, and there were countless fans confused as to why Mexico’s Daniel Suarez was eligible for the race while Clint Bowyer wasn’t. Suarez was eligible by one of the worst excuses I have ever heard – because Joe Gibbs Racing had already begun preparing the car for the Clash prior to Carl Edwards’ sudden retirement. Are we serious? And yet they can’t figure out why fans don’t take the race seriously.
Also over the last few seasons, everyone can see the product at the restrictor plate tracks is getting worse and worse as the races go on. It’s nearly impossible to pass the leader. The leader blocks attacks from both the high and the low lanes by seeing which lane gets momentum and cutting it off as soon as it starts. It’s not entertaining.
Yet, for reasons still unknown, the restrictor plate package has not changed much over the last three of four seasons and fans have responded, obviously, by not showing up to a race that was once revered by fans. There was a time when the package would change frequently and while it cost the teams money the fans got to see great racing the entire time.
The lack of attendance Sunday can also be placed on the Daytona Beach, Florida area itself and the insane hotel and lodging prices. A recent report by the Sports Business Journal stated that Daytona has the highest hotel prices of any sporting event, including the Super Bowl. Prices for hotels can reach upwards of $1,500 at night. That is insanity, no matter which way you slice it. It’s out of the speedway’s and NASCAR’s hands but having the race on a separate weekend with three days of no on-track activity prior to the next event doesn’t entice the fans to come to the racetrack four days early. The majority of the crowd comes to Daytona for the Thursday races and can’t or won’t take a full week off of work for a lackluster race and single-car qualifying runs. They’d be better off condensing the weekend.
In the end, I feel like a broken record. The product has to be the most important thing. I think that’s the biggest but most fair criticism of the people who currently run NASCAR. They believe that fans care about the other stuff more than they do about the racing. Your customers are race fans. When I go to Daytona I don’t see signs that say, “Welcome fans of popularity and diversity,” it’s always, “Welcome Race Fans.” NASCAR needs to take a hard look at that sign and realize there’s more to it than just words on a poster. It should be a motto and it should be how they operate.