Sunday’s Brickyard 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Indianapolis was a heartbreaker for Juan Pablo Montoya. For the second year in a row Montoya dominated the race, only to crash in the closing laps after a fateful mistake to take on four tyres rather than two in the last round of pitstops. Stuck in the pack, Montoya tried too hard and hit the wall.
While Juan drove his wrecked car into Gasoline Alley his Earnhardt-Ganassi team-mate Jamie McMurray came through to win, just as he did in February’s Daytona 500. Heartbreak for Montoya resulted in celebration for the team as Chip Ganassi became the first team owner to win the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400 in the same year. “My heart goes out to Juan,” said Ganassi. “He had a great day. But this is a big, big day for Jamie, our sponsors and our team. It’s incredible. I need oxygen. I don’t know what to say.”
At one stage near the end of the race, before the final pitstops, Montoya and McMurray were running one-two. “Juan obviously had the dominant car and it’s horrible the luck that he’s having,” said McMurray. “I’m a big believer in fate, and when Juan was leading and I was second I thought, ‘This is just the way it’s meant to be. I won the Daytona 500, Dario won the Indy 500 and Juan’s going to win this race.’ I really thought it was his day.”
McMurray and Ganassi’s joy aside, the big story at Indianapolis was the many empty grandstand seats. Ticket sales for the Brickyard 400 have been in decline for many years, but this year witnessed a sharp drop, with between 80,000-100,000 of the Speedway’s 257,000 seats remaining empty on a hot, humid race day.
The decline in attendance is not unique to Indianapolis, of course. Most NASCAR races have suffered a steady fall in ticket sales over the past four or five years. NASCAR peaked in 2005 with more than 4.6 million spectators for all 36 races. Three years later NASCAR’s annual draw totalled 4.2 million, followed by a more precipitous fall last year to 3,892,000. Based on this year’s first 19 races a further decline of 300,000 is projected, down almost 30 per cent from 2005. TV ratings are down in equal proportions. TV viewership has been in decline for three or four years, and has lost another 10 per cent of the audience this year.
Responding to feedback from a 12,000-member fan council NASCAR has made a series of rule changes over the past 18 months. They’ve thrown out the little rear wing in favour of a more traditional spoiler, introduced double-file restarts and the guarantee of green-white-checker finishes rather than ending races under a yellow. The move has produced plenty of wild finishes and multi-car wrecks, as has NASCAR’s recently-minted ‘Have at it boys’ philosophy.
Some tracks have begun to cut ticket prices this year, yet the decline in attendance and TV ratings continues. Everyone is wondering what’s it all about. Is it the economy, or the bland, spec car-like ‘Car of Tomorrow’? Or is it the poor performance in recent years of Dale Earnhardt Jr, by far NASCAR’s most popular driver?
Everyone is searching for a silver bullet to recapture NASCAR’s magic formula. In fact, NASCAR’s third-generation boss Brian France says he’s prepared to try almost anything, including knock-out eliminations with a final, one-race play-off for the championship. Would that the solution was so simple.