Ten years ago, the two races at the track drew a combined 360,000 fans. In the middle of the previous decade, crowd estimates were in the 155-160,000 range every race.
But track officials have seen those numbers steadily decline for both the spring and fall races each of the last five years. Last October’s Sprint Cup race barely outdrew a full house at the expanded Bryant-Denney Stadium.
The estimated attendance for the Aaron’s 499 Sunday was placed at 108,500 — the lowest for the spring race since figures have been provided. None of the last four races have drawn more than 115,000.
“Obviously we’ve got a facility that holds more people than we’re holding, so it is disappointing we don’t have the numbers we used to have, but there is a big crowd out there,” said Grant Lynch, the chairman of Talladega Superspeedway. “It’s not what we used to have (but) a lot of tracks would love to have that many people at their race.”
Talladega’s grandstands capacity is 108,003, but upper-level sections of it for recent races have been blocked off and there were visible blocks of open seating in those that were open.
There are no turnstiles to provide an accurate head count and track officials don’t have a record of ticket sales. Attendance figures in the past have been wire service estimates and are now done in consultation with law enforcement, track officials and, occasionally, the media to produce what NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp calls “the best approximate estimate” of the number of people on the property — campgrounds, infield and stands.
Chris Kuhaneck, a native Texan stationed at Moody Air Force Base, was taking in his fifth Talladega race, and he noticed the difference in several areas.
“It is pretty thin this year, even the vendors are thinned out,” he said as he walked past Jimmie Johnson’s busy stall in the garage. “I’m kind of disappointed not more people are here. I figured this place would be packed.”
Scott Sharp and his father Richard, visiting from Wichita, left Atlanta at 7 o’clock hoping to get a jump on the traffic around the speedway complex, but as it turned out, they had an easy drive in.
“There weren’t as many people as I thought there’d be,” Scott said.
Blame it on the economy, although the Sharps pegged some of Sunday’s slump on the rainy weather that ruled the early part of the day.
As one of the biggest and fastest tracks on the circuit, Talladega is a sports destination, with many of its fans traveling hundreds of miles and across several states to watch the show. That kind of travel costs money.
“Certainly the economic times have had an impact on the big tracks — the big tracks with the big seating capacities,” Tharp said.
“I think this track maybe more than any that we race at is impacted by that, because I know a vast majority of their fans come from 300 miles or more to this race.”
It’s not that those fans have lost interest. While the on-site attendance may have dropped, the TV viewers for the race have increased, so those eyes are staying tuned. In the three previous Talladega races, the telecasts drew 6.978 million, 6.971 million and 6.671 million viewers, respectively.
John Doerr, a Poughkeepsie, N.Y., utility worker, was making his first trip to Talladega and had a pit-row view of the progress of eventual race winner Brad Keselowski. He has been to races at Dover — where he says the ticket prices are much higher than Talladega — and has seen the impact there as well.
“I see a lot of empty seats,” he said pointing across the track. “I know last year at Dover it was real empty there. There are a lot of people who are hurting right now. Judging from what I do for a living, I see a lot of people’s power get shut off because they can’t pay their bills and there’s a lot of assistance programs out there trying to help people.”
In 2003, Talladega attracted an estimated 190,000 for the spring race. That was followed by a crowd of 170,000 in the fall. The figure didn’t drop below 150,000 until the fall of 2008 and now is close to dipping below the 100,000 threshold. Last fall’s race drew only 105,000.
Track and NASCAR officials aren’t certain if they’ll ever get back to those halcyon days again.
“I truly believe you really have to have a robust economy to drive a lot of that, and I don’t see that coming any time soon,” Lynch said. “I don’t think the policies are in place to make that happen.”
Al Muskewitz is a sports writer for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.