After more than a decade of rapid growth, NASCAR is no longer living life in the fast lane. Since 2005, attendance has dropped approximately 25 percent for Sprint Cup racing, which is NASCAR’s premier series. As a result, 14 of the 23 tracks on the circuit have reduced their seating capacity in recent years.
That includes Talladega Superspeedway, which has long been one of the most popular tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit, thanks to the high speeds and tight racing that the 2.66-mile track routinely produces. Grandstand seating at the facility has been sliced nearly in half since 2007, dropping from approximately 147, 000 to 80, 000 — though tens of thousands more routinely crowd the massive infield on NASCAR weekends.
Several factors have led to this drop in attendance, most notably the economic downturn that began in 2008. NASCAR has more of a blue-collar fan base than most professional sports, and that segment of the population was hit particularly hard by the recession. In addition, attendance at Talladega Superspeedway has been impacted by the increase in gasoline prices, since approximately 70 percent of fans that attend races at the track come from out of state and travel an average of nearly 300 miles, according to track officials.
“It’s been a tough time, ” Talladega Superspeedway Chairman Grant Lynch says. “But what you do in tough times is you look at your business model and decide what you need to do to make things better.”
So over the past five years, every seat at the track has been widened, every restroom has been remodeled and the giant portable Sprint Vision screens have been upgraded, giving fans better views of the close-ups and replays provided by the television broadcast of the race. It is all part of nearly $55 million in capital improvements made to the facility over the past 10 years, a figure that does not include a $13.5 million track repave in 2006.
“There is this tension in all of sports between the couch and the facility, ” says Rick Horrow, a facility-development consultant. “And whether you’re a NASCAR fan or a football fan, everybody is tempted to sit at home and watch events on your high-def television or your mobile devices and not go to the track or the stadium. That causes tremendous challenges for the facility.
“There are several iconic sports venues around the country — Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, the Rose Bowl, Madison Square Garden, Lambeau Field — that have all undergone substantial renovations just to keep pace. I view Talladega Superspeedway as one of those iconic venues.”
All told, Lynch says Talladega Superspeedway has spent about $434 million over the past 10 years, which is an average of $21.7 million for each race weekend. That figure includes the sanctioning fee with NASCAR, the prize money payout to drivers (which was a track record $5.58 million for the race this past May) and the salaries of track employees. Lynch says Talladega Superspeedway has 43 full-time employees but hires approximately 2, 500 additional people to work each race weekend.
These expenses cannot be covered simply by selling tickets. While Talladega Superspeedway certainly benefits from the multibillion-dollar television contracts that NASCAR has with several networks, the track also draws revenue from a variety of sponsorship deals and corporate support, ranging from global giants such as Coca-Cola to small companies whose footprint doesn’t leave the state of Alabama.
For example, Birmingham-based America’s First Federal Credit Union has been a track sponsor since 2002. The company has a box at Talladega Superspeedway for each race and is allowed to use the track logo in its promotions. Through this deal, the company has been able to offer rides around the speedway to people who financed a vehicle through America’s First, and the company even gave away a customized Mustang at the track the day before a recent Sprint Cup race.
“We use it primarily for entertainment purposes, ” says Phil Boozer, vice president of public relations and sales at America’s First. “We bring clients and dealers to the race. It’s a good investment for us.
“The people at the track do a wonderful job of over-delivering. You never go there and worry about your clients being disappointed. It’s really exciting to take somebody there for the first time, walk them through the garage area and take them out for a lap around the track before the race starts. Those things, combined with the race itself, are a real draw to our clients.”
Lynch says the track offers a wide array of opportunities for companies to have a presence during race week. Some are as basic as buying as few as eight tickets to a small corporate suite. There is a display area called Horsepower Plaza, located near the main entrance to the track, where businesses can set up a tent and promote their products. For companies that can’t afford to purchase an official sponsorship sign, Lynch says they can buy a flag that has the company name on it and fly that at the track instead.
“Anybody can come out and be a part of our action here, ” Lynch says. “What most people want is exposure for their brand and their name, and we have a myriad of ways for companies to do that. And fans of NASCAR have a propensity to buy sponsor products that are around the sport. So by getting out here and getting their name in front of these people, it’s a way for companies to take their brand and tie it to a sport that has a high return on investment as far as the willingness of the fan to seek out the business and purchase their products.”
The track may talk about attendance woes, but still the Talladega Superspeedway Sprint Cup races are among the top sports draws in the state, equaled only by Alabama and Auburn football games. More than 100, 000 people attended the May race, including those in the infield, says Lynch. And that crowd would have been phenomenal just 20 years ago, before the track expansion in the late 1990s, when attendance over 80, 000 was considered to be a rousing success.
Since nearly three-fourths of the people who attend Talladega races are from outside Alabama, Lynch says the economic impact actually is greater than other sporting events in the state — estimated as high as $380 million annually for the track’s two race weekends.
“Don’t take Talladega Superspeedway for granted, because it is a major player in the sports entertainment world, ” NASCAR President Mike Helton says. “Twice a year it provides the economic impact of a Super Bowl.
“Our ultimate product is a good race on the track, and Talladega delivers that routinely. You know it’s going to be an exciting race. It’s a standard and a benchmark in the motorsports industry. You’d be amazed at the other track operators across the country who say, ‘What can you do to the cars to make our races look like Talladega?’ Well, you can’t do that. It’s only going to happen at Talladega. So it’s a very significant stop on the schedule for us.”
Cary Estes is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.
Text by Cary Estes • Photos by Art Meripol