Three days after witnessing the smallest Brickyard 400 crowd in the race's 17-year history, Indianapolis Motor Speedway
CEO Jeff Belskus said he intends to cut ticket prices for about 75 percent of fans at next year's race.
"I can't deny that having as many empty seats as we had (Sunday) is a disappointment to me," he said. "But we have a lot of people here and a lot of opportunity here to rebuild this event and bring it back. It's going to take the full effort of everyone here at the speedway and at NASCAR."
Belskus' immediate plan calls for tiered pricing, which will cut prices up to $20 for seats closer to the track where sight lines are not as good. The coveted higher seats will cost more. He also plans to cut general admission prices, used for the first time this year, from $40 to $30 for advance purchase, and he will retain the new policy of allowing fans 12 and younger into the infield for free with a paying adult.
The changes are a major shift for a venue long on tradition and steeped in history.
The track that once had the toughest ticket in town and that still bills its signature race, the Indianapolis 500, as the highest-drawing single-day sporting event in the world, is now adapting to the reality of a steady decline in attendance.
Empty seats have become a regular feature of the Indy 500 and some team owners have complained track and series officials didn't do enough to promote this year's race. Track officials have never said how many seats the speedway holds, though estimated attendance for the 500 is traditionally 250,000 to 275,000.
Formula One also saw its numbers dwindle following a tire debacle in 2005 and left Indy for good in 2007.
Now, NASCAR has joined the downward trend.
After drawing approximately 270,000 fans to the 2008 race, the year of NASCAR's own tire fiasco, attendance dropped to an estimated 180,000 last year and 140,000 on Sunday. Race organizers point out this year's Brickyard numbers still rank among the three highest-attended races on the Cup circuit in 2010, and it could be higher.
"We had a lot of people here and I'm telling you that when I see the graphic on whatever newscast I'm looking at that the Daytona 500 had 175,000 people there, I'd like to debate that one with anybody," Belskus said. "I know how many seats they have. We have almost double the capacity."
But 13 months after Belskus replaced longtime track CEO Tony George, are things getting any better for one of the world's greatest and most versatile race tracks?
"Between 2008 and 2009, we saw a pretty good revenue decline here, and so far, in 2010, we've been steady with 2009 so I think we've seen a bottom here," Belskus said before Sunday's race.
On Wednesday, Belskus revised the estimate, saying revenue is now projected to be "down a tick" from last year.
Even the possibility of history being made by Helio Castroneves and Chip Ganassi at the 500, and Ganassi, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon at the 400 couldn't fill the grandstands.
So Belskus and his team are still facing major challenges.
Belskus implemented the 12-and-under-free policy in hopes of attracting a new generation of race fans.
"I think we need to get young people into the sport," team owner Roger Penske said last weekend. "They're playing soccer and hockey and lacrosse and we've got to get kids here. My dad brought me to my first race here (Indy) in '51, and I'm not sure if that hooked me or not. But we've got to get kids here, that's for sure."
And Belskus would consider adding a fourth race to the track schedule.
The Indy 500 isn't going anywhere, and Belskus has no doubt NASCAR will return in 2011. In fact, tickets are already being sold for the Cup race.
Next month, the Indianapolis MotoGP will return to the speedway for the third time, and the two sides are already working on an extension to the three-year contract that expires this year. Track officials also have done away with the three-day ticket package requirements from the past two years in favor of single-day tickets.
That may not be all, either.
"We've had conversations with the Grand Am folks, F1 is always on everybody's mind though at this point they're heading to Texas," Belskus said. "We've not had any conversations about a second NASCAR race, but if we can find events that fans will attend, we'll look at them."
But the biggest concern is whether the track has been left behind by a 21st century perfect storm — more races in the Midwest, the economy crisis and HD television, which allows fans to see more racing on television than it does at the speedway.
Penske says no.
But Belskus' challenge is winning back the fans who have made Indy one of the most prestigious tracks in racing.
"I think to blame it all on the economy is not appropriate, but the economy is certainly part of it," he said. "I don't know if we had become complacent with things, that may be the word, but we have to ramp up our efforts."