I sat down to write this column and I promise I wanted to write something positive. I tried. I tried very hard. After a week of dealing with the vitriol that accompanied the Matt Kenseth issue and his suspension, I needed something good.
Then I turned on my TV and started to watch the AAA Texas 500 on Sunday (as I do while writing) and something struck me: there were no people in the stands. Like Jimmie Johnson’s win was witnessed by tens of people in person.
And it made me mad.
Then I went to the Daily Journal’s website and saw William Toler’s story on Rockingham Speedway.
And it made me even madder.
There is a connection and it requires a brief history lesson. In 2003, NASCAR announced its 2004 schedule and Rockingham only had one date. The track had hosted two races a year since 1966. In 2004, NASCAR announced its 2005 schedule and Rockingham was not on it.
The official reason NASCAR abandoned the 1.017-mile oval was that attendance had waned and they claimed that the venerable track was in a “saturated market.” One of the tracks that got Rockingham’s date: Texas. The real reason was a bit more complicated. A Speedway Motorsports Incorporated (SMI, the company that owns Texas Motor Speedway) shareholder was suing NASCAR over a supposedly promised second date for the facility. Rockingham was owned by International Speedway Corporation (ISC), a company controlled by the France family, who also own NASCAR. There was anti-trust talk as the sanctioning body and the company that owned the majority of the tracks on the circuit were run by the same people.
To make the lawsuit go away, Rockingham was sold to SMI and its date was moved to Texas. We all know what happened to the track after that. It sat vacant for almost four years. SMI sold it at auction. Andy Hillenburg bought it and tried to make a go of it running smaller series (disclaimer: I worked there as the public relations director from 2009 to 2013). It did not quite work out and the track has been silent since 2013. It is a mess now with buildings falling into disrepair and the grass uncut in many months.
So there are tons of tracks that are still hosting NASCAR Cup races to paltry crowds, but what does NASCAR do? They renew all of their sanctioning agreements for tracks that host Sprint Cup races for five years, a major break in the way they have done business. Traditionally, sanctioning agreements for tracks are done on a year-to-year basis. I get that no one is building tracks right now (for good reason) and there are not many tracks that aren’t hosting races that could accommodate a NASCAR Sprint Cup race, but why would you lock in your tracks for five years in the face of dwindling crowds and TV ratings? NASCAR had a great hyped-up week with the Kenseth/Joey Logano feud and Texas Motor Speedway has a great marketing staff and promoter president.
But the people stayed away. And NASCAR locked them in for two dates for the next five years. Under NASCAR logic when they unceremoniously dumped Rockingham and cut Darlington to one race, these tracks that are suffering from low attendance should be in danger of losing dates.
But maybe NASCAR locked these tracks in for five years for their sake, not the track’s.
Andy Cagle writes a weekly column about NASCAR. Follow him on Twitter @Andy_Cagle.