The bloody gash on Kyle Busch’s forehead wasn’t the only cut at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last week. The track appears poised to ax more seats that were largely empty at the Kobalt 400, and TV ratings for the March 12 NASCAR race were down 17 percent.
What, if anything, does it mean for the viability of a second NASCAR race in Las Vegas?
The Kobalt 400 produced a late pass for the lead and a pit road fight pitting hometown hero Busch against Joey Logano and members of Logano’s pit crew. It seemed to be the shot in the rocker arm LVMS was seeking.
It was announced March 8 that Las Vegas also will host a fall playoff race starting in 2018. LVMS President Chris Powell said he was “thrilled” with the early demand for tickets.
But fans who sought to renew seats in Sections 1 and 3 — the lower grandstands fronting the Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Terraces — were told they could not purchase them for 2018.
“We are not prepared to sell tickets in those areas,” Powell said.
Does that mean Sections 1 and 3 will be eliminated?
“A final decision hasn’t been made.”
A 2018 seating chart on the speedway’s website shows the lower grandstands in front of the terraces grayed out.
SUPER-SIZED NO MORE
With NASCAR attendance and TV ratings in freefall, no fewer than 11 tracks have reduced seating capacity since 2007 — some by as much as 40 percent.
Seats at LVMS were widened on the front straightaway before the sweeping grandstand between Turns 3 and 4 was shoveled under in 2015, reducing capacity to around 108,000.
Attendance for last Sunday’s Kobalt 400 was estimated at 70,000. (NASCAR stopped releasing attendance figures in 2013.)
If the sections in front of the terraces are eliminated, it would trim LVMS capacity to around 80,000.
Many in NASCAR are excited about racing in Las Vegas twice. Some are skeptical. One driver was both, basing his comments on Auto Club Speedway in California having received a second Cup Series race in 2004. The second race detracted from the first, and Auto Club Speedway returned to a one-date NASCAR track in 2011.
“I love Vegas. I think it is a great atmosphere and it would be good, but sometimes you can turn one great (race) into two mediocre,” 2014 Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick said.
“I think that is something you have to be careful of and look at and really evaluate. Vegas is a great place to race and I enjoy going there … but I would be cautious to look at a California-type situation, where we have the one great event there and when we had two it wasn’t so great. You just have to be careful of not doing that.”
According to a report released earlier this month, admission revenues at NASCAR’s major tracks dropped 7.4 percent in 2016, marking the ninth consecutive year of declines that started about the time of the Great Recession.
NASCAR has a new title sponsor, but its deal with Monster Energy, which replaced telecommunications giant Sprint, is only for two years (with a two-year option). It is said to be worth only around half of the $50 million Sprint paid annually.
Before attendance and TV ratings began to decline, the Cup Series attracted crowds of 140,000 or more to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Races sold out by Christmas. An auxiliary grandstand was set up to accommodate the huge demand for tickets. LVMS spent very little advertising NASCAR Weekend because marketing wasn’t necessary.
Powell said a lot of money was spent promoting this year’s race. There still were significant pockets of empty seats in the sprawling grandstands.
A lot of people still watch NASCAR races live and on TV. Just not as many as before.
Could it be the grandstands are too sprawling?
Some believe NASCAR’s problem is more perception than reality — that if the speedways had been built smaller, the race day crowds would appear larger on TV. A comparison can be made to Major League Baseball. The cavernous stadiums of yesteryear have been replaced with ballparks that are much more quaint. Eight hold fewer than 40,000 spectators.
Daytona International Speedway has been downsized from a capacity of 168,000 to 102,000, having eliminated more than 40 percent of its seats. For the second consecutive year, a sellout was announced at this year’s Daytona 500.
“That’s all everybody was talking about,” Powell said of the impressive sight of full grandstands, adding that sometimes it’s not just about attendance, especially in Las Vegas.
Sometimes it’s about filling hotel rooms and restaurants, about what essentially is a TV commercial for Las Vegas that lasts three hours or more.
Both 2018 NASCAR Weekends will be triple-headers. With the Truck Series joining the Xfinity and Cup Series, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority will have many more pit stops during which to promote its brand.
So NASCAR’s shrinking grandstands, TV ratings and sponsorships might not be the black flag many envision, at least not in Las Vegas.
“It’s still the largest single-day sporting event (in Nevada); that’s why we decided to sponsor a second race,” LVCVA Communications Director Jeremy Handel said about the tourism bureau having committed $15 million over seven years to promote two NASCAR races — and a prizefight after the checkered flag.
What remains to be seen: Will more blood be spilled next year? And will it be on or off the track?