TALLADEGA -- OK, so it was weird to look out from the Talladega Superspeedway press box and see nothing where the Allison Grandstand used to stand.
Then again, it was refreshing to see fans where tarp used to cover segments of the main grandstand.
On a day when Sprint Cup points leader Jeff Gordon got drawn into a wreck and local favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 26th, the biggest winner in the Aaron’s 499 was a track that’s taken a beating over bad attendance news in recent years.
Weather was ideal, the economy is better and efforts to enhance the fan experience since last fall translated into a crowd of “well north of 100,000,” according to Grant Lynch, vice president of International Speedway Corporation and chairman of Talladega Superspeedway.
The crowd didn’t go unnoticed.
“This was the biggest crowd I’ve seen here in many, many years,” race winner Denny Hamlin said during an interview from Victory Lane.
It would seem that way.
Attendance news had trended in the wrong direction for some time, and NASCAR stopped providing attendance estimates two years ago. The last announced Talladega crowd was 88,000 for the fall race of 2012.
A total of 196,500 attended the track’s two Cup races in 2012, according to figures available on Jayski, and that was well down from 315,000 in 2007. The steady decline showed in the intervening years: 301,000 in 2008; 269,500 in 2009; 233,500 in 2010; and 220,000 in 2011.
Talladega’s listed permanent seating capacity shrank from 147,000 in 2007 to 109,000 in 2013.
It shrank more for 2014. Track officials dismantled the 18,000-seat Allison Grandstand, which stood at the start of the backstretch from the fall 1999 race through the fall race of last year. The move focused seating in the main, two-deck grandstand, which lines the tri-oval.
Recent years had seen Talladega officials tarp over unused portions of the main grandstand, but not Sunday.
It helped that a mild, sunny May Sunday greeted race goers, and nice weather was a nice change. A three-and-a-half-hour rain delay marred the spring race a year ago.
“We’ve been hammered for our spring race --- which is our biggest race --- for a long time with really unusual, tornadic and then just wet weather,” Lynch said. “This year, we had the best weather we’ve had in a long, long time, and we benefited from that.”
An improved economy likely helped, as well. Officials have cited economic factors tied to the September 2008 crash as impacting Talladega attendance in recent years, but the Dow Jones Industrial average hit an record high of 16,580 at the end of April. The national unemployment dipped to 6.3 percent, the lowest since the 2008 crash.
Economic factors can impact Talladega because of how many fans travel to see races there.
“The most amazing thing about Talladega is that 71 percent of our fans are coming from out of state,” Lynch said. “We rank as the number one and two events out of 21 for ISC on bringing people into their state from out of state, percentage wise.”
Talladega had other factors working in its favor this weekend, including ISC’s rollout of giant, portable TV screens to provide close-ups and replays for fans in attendance. There were beefed-up infield activities, including Friday’s “Big One on the Boulevard” party, complete with Mardi Gras style parade down Speedway Boulevard and barbecue sauce wrestling.
Ultimately, Talladega and other tracks have to overcome NASCAR’s recent trends for falling attendance and TV ratings. The product has to be the draw, and this weekend saw the restrictor-plate debut of NASCAR’s new “Knockout” qualifying format, which was designed to turn qualifying into fan-friendly, timed mini-races.
As for the main event, Talladega is known for wrecks, and Sunday’s race produced five. One of them was the 14-car melee that took Gordon out of contention.
There were firsts, including Danica Patrick becoming the first female to lead a lap at Talladega.
The race ended under a caution flag but had a Cup-season-high 48 lead changes with 23 different leaders.
“Any race track person would want to have a race that ends under checker (checkered flag),” Lynch said. “But when you watch what happened at Talladega, the fans got their money’s worth.
“Danica got to the front. Junior (Earnhardt) got to the front. It was three-wide a lot of times and two-wide most of the time. No other race track can do that, and that’s what we have here.”
This time, a noticeably improved crowd came to see it all.