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Dave Ongie In the Rearview: Michigan

Dave Ongie • Nov 19, 2013 at 3:35 PM

Is it the price of gas, or maybe just the economy in general? It could be follow-the-leader racing or drivers who seem to have no interest in connecting with the fans.

Maybe it’s the hotel owners' intent on gouging race fans, forcing many of them to stay home and watch on high-definition television instead of coming out to the track. Or perhaps the problem is a core fanbase that has had its fill of being neglected by a racing organization more interested in chasing casual fans than rewarding the loyalty of the people who grew the sport into such a juggernaut in the first place.

At this point, the debate over the Case of the Disappearing Fanbase is more well worn then Kyle Busch’s right-front tire after a long green-flag run.

Here’s what we know: Greg Biffle beat Kevin Harvick by three seconds in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday, a race held in front of a crowd roughly 40 percent smaller than the crowd that showed up to watch the Sprint Cup race at the track back in 2007.

It’s not a scenario unique to Michigan. The shock and awe of gaping stretches of empty seats is old news by now, even at Bristol Motor Speedway, once the toughest ticket in all of NASCAR.

I’ll never forget watching members of the national media holding up their cell phone cameras in the press box at BMS a few years back snapping pictures of a sight they had never seen before — empty seats in Bristol during a Cup race.

Thus began the wailing and gnashing of teeth, the hand wringing and the great search for answers. Not by NASCAR, of course — by the media. To this day NASCAR is still assuring people that if they squint just the right way, the grandstands will appear to be full and the racing will look just as good as it ever did, if not better.

That being said, you’ll understand how refreshing it was to cover a race this weekend where attendance wasn’t part of the story. Bristol Dragway was packed, as usual, for the Ford NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals.

I’m not going to get into a futile attempt to compare and contrast the on-track action NASCAR and the NHRA put on each week, because the two forms of racing are worlds apart. It’s like comparing apples to oranges, as they say.

Besides, the key difference between the two organizations has nothing to do with racing and everything to do with the overall fan experience. When I read my email following a NASCAR race held in Bristol, the sentiment I’m hearing more often is “I’m never going back.”

The complaints usually don’t have anything to do with the staff at BMS, a group of folks I consider to be the best in the business after visiting other tracks. Instead, the complaints center on shelling out an obscene amount of cash only to be brushed off by drivers who don’t have the time to chat or sign autographs.

On the flip side, my inbox Monday told a different story, one that says: “It was my first time at that drags and it won’t be my last.”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the draw of the NHRA. The tickets are relatively cheap and the drivers are accessible. NASCAR walls off the fans while the NHRA invites you down to the pits so you can watch the crews work on the cars up close.

Walking through the pits yesterday, I watched reigning Top Fuel driver Antron Brown signing autographs and posing for photos a couple hours after he was eliminated in the first round. When’s the last time you saw Kyle Busch signing autographs and posing for snapshots after wrecking out of a Cup race in the first 100 laps?

The other problem NASCAR is facing these days is a lack of interesting personalities. Once you get past Brad Keselowski, the Busch brothers, Kevin Harvick and a handful of others, the Cup garage is a black hole of charisma. Not a problem in the NHRA. While Biffle did his part to fight insomnia during his post-race interview in Michigan, John Force was in Bristol telling a tale of the time he flipped a rental car at a Bojangles somewhere in North Carolina back in the '80s.

To be fair, the crowds at Cup races are still larger than the crowds the NHRA has to accommodate. It’s easier to give up-close access to 20,000 fans than it is to provide 100,000 fans with an intimate experience.

But if NASCAR wants to quit wrestling with questions and start coming up with answers, reconnecting with fans has to be the No. 1 priority. That means the sport needs to quit fining drivers for what they say and start encouraging them to grow a personality for the sake of the sport.

Handing out 200 wristbands for an autograph session with a Cup driver isn’t going to turn the tide — it will take an institutional commitment to taking time to have meaningful interactions with the people who spend their hard-earned money to show up and support the sport.

Right now, promoters at the individual tracks are the only ones affected by the lack of fan interest. The individual race teams and NASCAR itself are still fixated on keeping the corporate sponsors happy. But if the fans keep walking away, that corporate sponsorship cash will eventually dry up.

And then, as the kids say, things will get real in a hurry.

Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at dongie@timesnews.net. You can hear him Monday mornings at 9:05 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.

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