Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles said this year’s Brickyard 400 weekend is shaping up “very well.”
But that doesn’t mean attendance for Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race is headed up.
Though the Speedway doesn’t divulge attendance figures, last year’s race drew an estimated 75,000 to 85,000 fans, according to multiple sources, some inside NASCAR. That’s a far cry from the 250,000-plus the race attracted in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“Ticket sales are pretty much where they were the last couple of years,” Boles said. “They’re pretty flattened out.”
I got the feeling talking to Boles on Tuesday afternoon that a Brickyard 400 race-day crowd of about 80,000 or so is the new normal.
“It’s still one of the best-attended races in NASCAR,” Boles said.
Boles pointed out that “about a dozen tracks” that host NASCAR races have decreased seating capacity. Even the famed Daytona International Speedway is downsizing from 147,000 seats to 101,000 as it is renovated.
The IMS doesn’t have the option to remove seats because many are permanent and needed for the Indy 500 in May. Consequently, the place has looked somewhat empty during recent Brickyard 400s.
It’s not that IMS officials aren’t pushing for attendance gains. In fact, the Speedway and NASCAR have pumped more into advertising this year’s event than they have in the last four years, Boles said.
But track executives don’t seem to hold out much hope for returning to the Brickyard 400’s zenith.
“We’re less focused on getting to 250,000 attendance and more focused on having an event that our fans that do attend enjoy,” Boles said. “Right now, we’re really focused on the fan experience.”
To that end, IMS is offering more and better music entertainment this year, Boles said, and this week the Speedway unveiled a new, modern scoring tower. It has a much more colorful display and is easier to read, especially from a distance.
In addition, improvements to concession stands have continued since May’s Indy 500, and more food vendors are expected at this year’s Brickyard 400 than in previous years. NASCAR and IMS officials also are trying to make drivers and other team officials more accessible to fans.
“In a lot of cases it’s like if you had a pit pass in the past,” Boles said. “We’re trying to give fans as much access as we can to the drivers and teams they follow.”
The racing at this year’s Brickyard 400, too, should be better, motorsports insiders said, due to NASCAR’s new knockout qualifications format, which mimics race-like conditions. Before this year, NASCAR cars qualified one at a time in a lengthy—and some would say boring—process.
In addition to that, Boles thinks the new NASCAR championship points format—which puts a premium on winning races—will add excitement to this year’s Brickyard 400.
Boles points to Crown Royal’s active sponsorship, a strong relationship with Kroger, and the addition of Eli Lilly and Co. Inc. as the new title sponsor of Saturday’s Nationwide race—now known as the Lilly Diabetes 250—as proof that “from a commercial standpoint things are great.”
“All and all the health of the event is very strong,” Boles said. “Now it’s just a matter of getting butts in seats.”