Roger Diez: More empty seats at NASCAR races
Concern about NASCAR’s diminishing fan base was brought home to me on Sunday. Wide aerial camera shots of the grandstands at Sonoma, especially those on the hill overlooking turns two and three, revealed sparsely populated stands.
In years past, those same stands were packed. On the other hand, the IndyCar series, which had experienced an anemic fan base since the split in 1996, drew a near capacity crowd to the Road America round last weekend. The fields for IndyCar are also growing, while NASCAR’s are shrinking.
Not too many years ago, NASCAR’s top series regularly filled the 43-car grid, with more entries than could qualify. Now, with the maximum field reduced to 40, NASCAR usually falls short of even that, starting 38 or 39 cars for most races this season. IndyCar has gone from 17-18 cars 10 years ago to 23 or 24 at every race. Are we seeing a sea change in race fans’ preferences? I’m keeping a close eye on the numbers.
Despite the lack of fans on the ground, Sonoma was an entertaining race. Strategy definitely played a part, and Martin Truex Jr.’s crew chief Cole Pearn earned the title of “evil genius” for a misdirection move that snookered Kevin Harvick into pitting early. Truex stayed out, and Pearn’s strategy turned out to be the winning one. Truex and Harvick were the class of the field at Sonoma, and while it would’ve been fun to see them race head to head in the final laps, you have to admire Pearn’s tricky move. Evil genius indeed! I was pulling for A.J. Allmendinger to show his road course prowess, but a missed shift and an over-revved engine ended his day early.
Engine woes also sidelined one of the favorites at Road America. Penske drivers Josef Newgarden and Will Power started on the front row, but Power’s Chevy engine developed a problem at the green flag. He eventually retired, and Newgarden went onto win it wire to wire. But it speaks to the competitiveness of the series drivers from three different teams took the top three spots: Newgarden for Penske, Ryan Hunter-Reay for Andretti, and Scott Dixon for Ganassi.
Formula One’s return to France on Sunday was marred by early crashes. One of the first-lap melees involved point leader Sebastian Vettel, who had to pit his Ferrari for a new front wing. Later, he served a five-second penalty during a pit stop and finished fifth. Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton won from the pole and re-took the championship lead, now 14 points clear of Vettel. France was the first of an unprecedented three-weekend run that sees the series racing at Spielberg in Austria this week and at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix on July 8.
The IndyCar series has a bye week before heading to the 7/8 mile oval in Iowa, but all three of NASCAR’s top series are racing at Chicagoland Speedway. I’ll be keeping an eye on the grandstands and counting empty seats.