Auto racing is the ultimate in gas-guzzling entertainment. But the prospect of paying $4 a gallon to get to the track has some fans reluctant to start their engines.
Ticket sales have slipped just as May, the biggest month in motorsports, approaches. So track promoters are shifting into high gear to keep the grandstands full, offering all-you-can-eat packages and staging rock concerts.
"This is a working man's sport, no matter what picture some people try to paint," said H.A. "Humpy"” Wheeler, president of Lowe's Motor Speedway outside Charlotte, N.C. "The people most affected by these obnoxious oil prices are the working man."
About half the fans who attend the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race, set for May 25 at Wheeler's track, drive from more than 250 miles away, many of them in RVs that can cost $300 or more to fill up.
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Fans often camp out for several days at races, too, making a weekend at the track a much larger financial commitment than taking in a baseball game – and suggesting motorsports is more vulnerable to an economy under the yellow flag.
Dean Strom, a financial planner from Muskego, Wis., usually gets to 20 to 30 races a year, mostly at grassroots-level short tracks in the Midwest. These days he has more incentive to stay home.
"Now there's the gas price issue," said Strom, who also works as the public address announcer at the Milwaukee Mile track. "I think twice now before I go and do something, whereas I never thought twice before."
Race tracks generally don't release attendance numbers. But in a recent conference call with financial analysts, officials with one major track ownership group, International Speedway Corp., said the company had seen a high-single-digit percentage drop in ticket sales over last year.
Wheeler is hoping unlimited hamburgers, hot dogs and snacks will help his track, which is run by a rival company, Speedway Motorsports Inc. He's selling $89 all-you-can-eat tickets to his race, an idea he says he lifted from baseball's Atlanta Braves.
He's also promoting NASCAR's all-star race, set for May 17 at Lowe's. To rev up fans for that, he's added entertainment – a "burnout" competition in which drivers will perform wheel-spinning, tire-smoking pirouettes in their cars, just like they do after winning a race.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is hoping the positive publicity generated by Danica Patrick's recent victory, the first by a female driver in the IndyCar series, and a recent reunification of two rival racing series will boost interest for the May 25 Indianapolis 500.
The track also is bringing in rock music acts in the weeks leading up to the race, hoping to turn qualifying and practice sessions into fan festivals.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Joie Chitwood said ticket sales for the track's July 27 NASCAR race, the Brickyard 400, are looking "a little bit tougher these days" and might be a sign that the economy is having an impact on racing.
So far, Wheeler said, ticket sales for the all-star race, an event that costs less and usually draws more local fans than the 600-miler, are "substantially ahead" of last year.
Sales for the Coca-Cola 600 are "not ahead," he said – although the all-you-can-eat section is selling well.
Virginia Commonwealth University professor Jon Ackley, who teaches a course on the business of NASCAR, always sees plenty of out-of-state license plates at Richmond International Raceway.
ut with a NASCAR Sprint Cup series race coming up in Richmond this weekend, Ackley couldn't help noticing that the track still had tickets on sale this week.
"Clearly, the gas prices are having an impact on travel plans," Ackley said.
Still, NASCAR's crowds remain impressive.
Texas Motor Speedway didn't sell out its April 6 Sprint Cup race, but it did draw more than 180,000 fans – "three times the Super Bowl," track president Eddie Gossage crows.
At Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas, sales of a $159 package for a family of four to sit in the tougher-to-sell backstretch are up 600 percent in the past three years.
"In our view, attendance has done well given the economy," NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said. "Let's put attendance into perspective – we are averaging 120,000 fans per race day. That's a crowd that any sport in America would be ecstatic about."
Racing has weathered tough times before.
During the energy crisis of the 1970s, Wheeler found a way around gas shortages that might have prevented fans from making it to the track: He hired a former oil company executive to drive up the interstates leading to Charlotte and pay gas station owners $500 each to guarantee a fill-up to any fan holding race tickets.
"I don't know if it was legal or not," he said, chuckling. "I think, it was good, old American capitalism."