For another sign of how surging gas prices and the slumping economy shape consumer spending, consider a tale of two races this month at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
Ticket sales are ahead of last year's pace for Saturday's Sprint All-Star Race, a shorter, cheaper event that usually draws fans from the Carolinas.
Demand is down, however, for the more expensive Coca-Cola 600, which brings people from across the U.S. to the speedway each Sunday of Memorial Day weekend.
Without question, NASCAR remains a big draw, with some Sprint Cup races selling out this season. But while NASCAR doesn't typically release attendance figures, the owners of tracks that have hosted races recently have seen drop-offs in crowds and ticket sales.
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Speedway Motorsports, which owns Lowe's Motor Speedway, reported a dip in admissions revenue in the first three months of this year. Although bad weather was partly to blame, the company founded by billionaire Bruton Smith said high gas prices and the credit crunch have made race fans watch their spending more closely.
"There's a little bit of anger about the price of gasoline, and rightfully so," Smith said recently. "... We're concerned, and we want it to get better."
Also, some fans who still make it to this month's races may not pump as much money into the local economy, hoping to offset the higher cost of getting to North Carolina.
Mike Meyers pulled his Dodge pickup and 32-foot Montana trailer into a camping space near the speedway on Monday, driving more than 1,000 miles from Attica, N.Y., by way of Asheville, where he and his wife, Gabe, visited family last week.
The couple have come to Concord every May since 1999, Meyers said, but has never watched costs more than this year.
With diesel prices adding another dollar per gallon to his gas bill, Meyers, 57, said he already has cut back on other camping trips and NASCAR races and expects to spend less at restaurants and gift shops.
"You've got to save somewhere," said Meyers, a substitute school bus driver who recently retired from Eastman Kodak after 31 years.
"We're bringing more food, eating out less," he said, and T-shirts and caps also are out. "You start saying, `Not this time.' "
400-mile round trip
Lowe's Motor Speedway can hold 165,000 fans, making it one of NASCAR's largest venues. Due in part to that massive size, the Coca-Cola 600 in recent years hasn't been a sell-out despite strong crowds, said Scott Cooper, a speedway spokesman.Speedway officials and people in the RV industry say the recent spike in gas prices, while painful, isn't enough for most people to cancel trips and drastically cut race attendance.
The average NASCAR fan drives about 400 miles round-trip for a race, Cooper said. With a car or sport utility vehicle, the difference in gas costs from last year is maybe $50, he said.
Mileage is a bigger issue with RVs, most of which average 8 to 12 miles per gallon, said Kevin Broom, a spokesman for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, a trade group for RV manufacturers.
NASCAR has endured other economic downturns, said H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, president and general manager of Lowe's Motor Speedway. In general, Wheeler said, people still want to pay for entertainment, if only to take their mind off their troubles.
It helps when a sport lets fans park for free and bring their own food and drinks to races. Even so, "there's a price sensitivity we haven't seen before," Wheeler said, adding, "I see no real let-up the rest of the year."
That's why speedway employees keep calling former customers and pitching ticket packages, he said. They've done that for a few years, Wheeler said, but "it's been more valuable this year."
At other speedways, the ripple effect of the downturn varies.
Last Saturday's Sprint Cup race at Darlington Raceway, which holds 63,000, was a sellout with buyers from all 50 states, said Chris Browning, the track's president. But tickets were available as late as Friday, he said, and normally they're gone by the Monday before the race.
"In talking with some of our fans," he said, "the economy and gas prices and all those things that would cut into your discretionary income were mentioned."
At Michigan Speedway, which can hold about 137,000, ticket sales for the June 15 race are down from last year, and more than 10 percent of campground spaces are still available, said Sammie Lukaskiewicz, a speedway spokeswoman.
"The economy is hitting us," she said. "We're typically sold out of campsites by this time."
The speedway is getting ready to launch a new regional marketing effort to attract more area residents to the June race. Still, Lukaskiewicz said, it's likely that some seats will be empty.
"We're not close to being sold out," she said. "... This is a facility that sold out for 17 or 18 years running."
Marketing close to home may help because most people who buy an RV or trailer -- whether they spent $50,000 or $1 million -- don't want it to sit in the driveway. That means they might just take shorter trips than before, Broom said.
"The NASCAR fan from Iowa may not drive to North Carolina for a race," he said. "They may go to Chicago."
In some cases, though, fans have committed to a certain race months in advance.
After attending the October races in Concord the last few years, Jody and Susan Ewing of Southampton, N.Y., joined the private Speedway Club and bought tickets in January for all of this year's Sprint Cup races at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
Jody Ewing owns a tree care business, and the economy so far hasn't derailed their travel plans, Susan Ewing said Monday, as she sat outside their 44-foot Monaco Dynasty RV parked near the speedway.
"I've already been to Hendrick (Motorsports) and spent $200," said Ewing, 42, a Jimmie Johnson fan.
Others are being more cautious. Meyers also committed to coming to Concord several months ago. Now that he's here, he said he's not only watching his spending but taking extra steps to get the most out of a gallon of gas, such as not using his truck's air conditioner and defroster, which drain the engine's power.
"You've got to stop and think about everything," he said.
Another gas record
The national average price of a gallon of regular unleaded gas on Tuesday was $3.73, a new record. That's up from $3.07 a year ago.
The average price of diesel also was a record at $4.39, up more than 50 percent from $2.90 a year ago.