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Pondering some big questions, in the wake of the Dover 400

 Dover: impressive grandstands, blue skies finally, and a surprise ending. And yet.... (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)


    By Mike Mulhern


    DOVER, Del.
    Standing in the now nearly empty infield, as the last of the big-rig haulers and motorcoaches leave to join post-race traffic, and stock car roadies break down the last of the sets….and talking with a couple of fans also watching the final moments of a NASCAR race weekend draining away, and pondering just what to make of the weekend:

    Tens of millions of people live within two or three hours of here.
    Indeed the road down from Philadelphia, and the airport is on the south of town, is just a lightning-fast one-hour on the Interstate, four-plus lanes all the way (and no more U.S. 13 bottlenecks).
    The slightly longer run over from Washington, D.C., and Baltimore is maybe 1:45, but it's over the picturesque Chesapeake Bay and through some calming farm land. (Just watch out for the speed traps.)
    And New York City, which has at times seemed like the holy grail of markets for NASCAR, is but 2-1/2 hours up I-95.
    To be precise, this is not a race track in the Appalachian Blue Ridge, or in the middle of Alabama cattle country, or in coastal Carolina.
    Dover International Speedway, a long-time standard bearer for this sport up here in the northeast, since it opened back in 1969, is smack in the heart of one of the country's biggest markets. Two of them in fact. Heck, really three.
    It was only a few years ago that if you wanted to beat traffic to a NASCAR race here, you'd better plan to be at the front gate by 6 a.m., or risk sitting in hours of maddening traffic. That's demand. That's tickets.
    So maybe this track has over-built in grandstands. And it is an impressive site, to be sure, with 140,000 or so seats towering up into the sky.
    That's optimism. Yet once reachable.
    And the NASCAR product itself – not just the Sunday racing, but the Friday and Saturday action (Ouch, and double-Ouch over last weekend) too, and the entire weekend package, from the county-fair souvenir midway and mobile exhibit park, to table games and thousands of slots over in the casino on the backstretch – is really quite stunning.
   If someone were teleported here from North Wilkesboro Speedway circa 1975, they would be flat amazed.
   The NASCAR product today is more sophisticated than ever. If you haven't been to a NASCAR track like this lately, well, you've missed some big changes. The sport has been marketing more than just the racing but the entire experience, which usually includes concert headliners too, like Phish, at Watkins Glen this summer (warming up for the summer tour next week with a three-day play at Woodstock itself).
   NASCAR's marketing is more in-your-face than ever, and as downright humorously shameless as ever too -- in that never-afraid-to-go-over-the-top approach for which this sport is renowned. Hail, hail, Humpy Wheeler and Bruton Smith and Eddie Gossage and all this sport's whiz kids.

   Let me guess: a Charlotte Motor Speedway promotion? Ah, yes, with Marcus Smith leading the horses.....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    So what's the problem here?
    Why aren't these stands full?
    NASCAR called the crowd 82,000 Sunday.
    Now that's not a bad crowd, relatively. But this sport has become comfortable with a lot more.   
    The stands, impressive structures surrounding this one-mile oval, can seat nearly twice that many. And just three years ago, or so, these stands were nearly full. For years it was almost clockwork, sellouts or near sellouts here, so the track kept adding seats….
   But now….
   Yes, times are tough all over.
   And Denis McGlynn, the veteran boss of this track and well respected in the sport, says the issue is simple: Jobs.
   Still, why isn't this still one of the toughest tickets in NASCAR?
   It certainly boasts some of the sport's most brutal racing. Bang for the buck isn't an issue here; ask Clint Bowyer or Joey Logano or Ricky Carmichael. (Yes, there are long stretches of green, and maybe executives could try some 'competition cautions' that are just longer than a standard fuel run, sort of like adding 'quarters' to the 400-mile race. Or, dare we say it, softer tires…..)
   And it's not just an issue for the stock holders of this track. It's an issue that bears on the sport itself – because of the market.
   Now some might argue the heck with markets, this should be all about the racing.
   But the sport's big buck sponsors, who pay the freight, like butts in the stands.
   Hey, maybe lights -- a night race -- would spark things.



   Dover boss Denis McGlynn (L) and the King: remember the day Richard Petty rallied from seven laps down to win at this monster track? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    Yes, the economy is still ragged.
    Maybe it's just another example of the effects of $4 gas, on a sport which people tend to do some driving to get to.
    And the country's lingering jobless numbers may hurt the NASCAR demographic harder than some others.
    But then track boss McGlynn is even offering $8 tickets and $14 tickets, to keep fans loyal…
    Should fellow promoters, who have a vested interest in Dover's success, whether they may realize it or not, rally together and come up with a new game plan? Can some tracks be priced – like milk in supermarkets – as loss-leaders, priced more to bring fans in than to try to generate huge profits? Twice as many fans in the stands at half the ticket price…..

    Dover, like some other tracks, is hampered by the relatively small hotel infrastructure, which may take a toll on three-day weekends, hurting Truck and Nationwide crowds.
    But then RV camping last weekend was curiously off too, not a good sign.


   Rachel Gilbert celebrates being 100 with a drive-around New Hampshire Motor Speedway, under the watchful eyes of promoter Jerry Gappens (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    A bigger issue perhaps – how well is tour sponsor Sprint doing its job of promoting the sport? The Kansas City-based company has not had the same strong, vivid presence or clearcut impact in the sport that its predecessor R. J. Reynolds did, and there have been questions about why Sprint, for example, hasn't used the grassroots marketing game plan that RJR did so effectively, taking the big-league Cup series down to a hundred or so smaller markets through linked promotions (remember the Winston Racing Series, economical at twice the price). Sprint, after all, has point-of-contact stores in every community around the country; is it leveraging that to maximum advantage for its NASCAR investment?
    -- This week, for example, Sprint will kick off its All-Star weekend with a Thursday night pit crew competition in downtown Charlotte, a promotion that has fallen painfully short in marketing impact.
   Yes, the Charlotte production is slick and professional, a well-run deal. But pushing cars down a runway, without engines roaring and drivers at the wheel, is hardly a satisfying way to determine 'the fastest pit crew in NASCAR.'
    To be blunt, it's pretty much a wasted effort, which should be revamped completely -- and moved to Charlotte Motor Speedway, where the engines can roar and drivers do some wild burnouts. The downtown effort is pretty much for an audience of crewmen's families and friends. Move the whole thing to the track and incorporate it more directly in the All-Star weekend.
    That's one big-picture angle which bears on the Dover situation, and the Charlotte situation as well.


   Sprint's All-Star week pit crew challenge championship: spiffy production, yes, with fireworks and all. But pushing a car to the finish line somehow doesn't have much dazzle or NASCAR pazazz, does it? Maybe Sprint's sports bosses need to rethink some of their NASCAR marketing and promotions. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    (Another pit road angle -- maybe NASCAR officials ought to step in here and eliminate these Sunday morning 'specialty pit crews,' and require Cup teams to use regular crewmen for the job, real crewmen who actually work on the cars at the track Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
    (One problem in marketing NASCAR pit stops in general these days is that these 'hired-gun' pit crews, while they may be fast and strong and all that, are essentially 'nameless,' and provide the sport with no 'personalities.' Do you know any of this year's Sprint Cup pit crew men? Do you know who the fastest right-front tire changer is, or even what team he works for?
    (For a sport that puts such emphasis on pit road work, it is curious that these 'stars' are so anonymous. Bad marketing.)

    Another issue – do this sport's rival promoters really care how successful Dover events are? Why is there the perception that the sport's two biggest promoters – Daytona-based ISC and Charlotte-based SMI – seem to care less about Dover?

    Another issue – the precipitous decline in news coverage by daily newspapers, which have all but given up NASCAR, preferring now to use wire reports from AP. Philadelphia newspapers used to provide major coverage of NASCAR races, but no more; the same with the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun.



    Dover's Denis McGlynn: the simple answer is jobs. When the jobless rate falls, the fans will come storming back, and McGlynn plans to be ready (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Maybe last weekend's threatening weather hurt the crowd. Tracks this season report that fans in general are waiting much later than ever before buying tickets.
    So maybe Dover deserves a better spot on the calendar. May is still a school month for many, and June offers a more vacation-oriented crowd. However can't argue with Sunday's weather, after the clouds finally broke.

    Maybe it's the lingering effect of all those changes that so upset the sport's loyal base the past few years….
    Maybe today's drivers are just too rich, and too fancy-free with their personal jets (and no TSAs to have to deal with), to be able to relate to the people who are the heart of this sport. After Sunday's race, as it typically is, drivers rushed from the track to their jets, and some were already home before the track itself even cleared of fans.
    Yes, drivers do a lot of personal appearances, sponsorship hospitality performances, and all around the country too, promoting upcoming races: check this out: http://bit.ly/k7WKx0
    But – and this may simply be inevitable fallout from the sport's massive expansion in recent years, but then maybe not – drivers seem much too distant from the fans.
    Maybe drivers can't just sit on pit wall after the race signing autographs, as Richard Petty did for so many years.
    But Twitter may provide a good substitute. And why NASCAR threw those misguided 'secret penalties' on Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman last year…..
    At least Brad Keselowski – check out his Dover Tweets and Darlington Tweets – has not been afraid to put his fingers on the buttons.
    But then maybe NASCAR executives and the sport's other promoters have both just been taking Dover for granted for too long now.
    One thing seems clear -- and you can see this for yourself by just signing on to Twitter during a race weekend and follow the internet traffic lines -- there is a huge reservoir of NASCAR fans out there still following this sport, though perhaps not quite as eagerly as they once did.
    Turning those fans into ticket buyers once again, that's the job.
    And it's not just Denis McGlynn's. It's everybody's.


Having gone to the Dover fall

Having gone to the Dover fall race from 1996 to 2007 and sitting in temporary scaffolding seats on the backstretch and watching many a good race (including the very patriotic-feeling Jr win after 9-11 in 2001),I quit going not because of gas or lodging prices (my sister-in-law lives 50 minutes from the track)--but because NASCAR has made so many rule changes that it just isnt an enjoyable race anymore. Yes,traffic was bad at times, but it always "felt" worth it. When that no longer became the case, my wife and I quit going. Get back to stock cars and no more lucky dog crap, and for crying out loud,the chase doesnt work. Until then,the seats will get emptier and emptier.

Up until last year, we had 4

Up until last year, we had 4 tickets for the September race at Dover. Fact is, luckily for us it is not the economy that made us give up the tickets. It's the boring racing with only a handfull of drivers having a chance to win at any of the races. Big teams and their budgets killed the competition. We don't even watch most of the oval races anymore, with the exception of Martinsville and Darlington. Mile and a half tracks? Boring. How can you watch a race with maybe 15 cars on the lead lap. The same 15 cars every week? We still and always will attend Watkins Glen for the full weekend in the motorhome. It still sells out.
NASCAR are you there??

Ron Karl - would you have

Ron Karl - would you have enjoyed your Dover trips if the race were still 500 miles? I think that's an underappreciated factor in the drop in popularity - the reality that shorter races are NOT better races.

Big teams and big budgets have indeed killed competition. The technology arms race has killed it even more between costs, absurd performance levels, and unavailability of parts.

"Mile and a half tracks?" There's nothing particularly wrong with them. People need to quit blaming the intermediate ovals for problems that the technology arms race created.

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I've been going to Dover for

I've been going to Dover for 20yrs. Its never been that bad. Mike you touched on alot of good pts. Here is my perspective. Its one of the best tracks out there. BUT.... they keep screwing with the dates. What used to be a first weekend in June is now early May...so there goes taking the kids. And now the fall race is up to October. How about the hotels???? I paid $975 for a three night stay this weekend right in Dover, $65 diecast cars? Give me a break! I make nearly $150k a year and I went from doing 6 races a year down to 2. I had hot 4asses, drivers act like its painful to give you an autograph let alone freeze for a second for a picture. The bigger names like Johnson and Gordon, do a B-Line from their cars in the garage and never break stride. Heck, I watched Jr. jump over the fence in front of his hauler to get to his motorhome instead of possibly confronting some fans for a few mins. NASCAR needs more Kenny Wallace type drivers. Remember the rain delay for the Nationwide race? Kinda boring huh? Did anyone notice that Morgan Shepard and Swindell went up into the stands on the front stretch to sign for fans? I'm sure the drivers were bored, why not become more fan friendly? Its because THEY DONT CARE. And after the races, they are hustled out, complain about the traffic and onto their jets. Sure they tweet, but thats because its a safe distance from fans. And the racing....now,its like the NBA, just watch the last 20 laps and you're good. Green flag pit stops and fuel mileage racing at Richmond, Darlington, and Dover? Huh? I'm still a fan but its not as fun as it was once before.

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