Sports

CUP: Hall Of Fame Learns Fans Are Fickle

Attendance continues to fall far below projections at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, leaving the facility drowning in a sea of red ink.

The HOF reportedly lost $409,000 between July and October, and losses are projected to exceed $1 million by next summer.

What went wrong? What made the “experts” put their faith in a $195 million project that so far has been a colossal bust?

For starters, attendance projections were vastly over-inflated.

I doubt that many folks consider a racing Hall of Fame a long-range travel destination, especially in dire economic times. That means that the bulk of visitors are race fans from around the Charlotte area, or out-of-towners who come in for one of the three big racing weekends.

Most HOF of visitors are likely one-time attendees. How many times is someone going keep coming back and buying a ticket to see Richard Petty’s old racing uniform?

I know: in theory every year new inductees and new exhibits are added. But I’m not sure that theory will hold true. It will take a whole lot of new exhibits to keep bringing back repeat visitors.

The big mistake that the HOF of made from the outset was limiting its annual class to five inductees. In the initial class there were only three drivers – Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Junior Johnson – along with administrators Bill France Sr. and Jr. That’s a pretty slim class.

I suspect a lot of fans were miffed that a driver the caliber of David Pearson didn’t make it. Pearson got in in the second round, but such notables as Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough were snubbed.

Would having Pearson in this year and Waltrip and Yarborough in next year solve the HOF of fame’s attendance problem? Probably not. But it couldn’t hurt, especially if there were another 25 or so other deserving inductees in there with them.

Instead, the HOF made membership so exclusive that it ended up with an echo chamber.

This is not the first time that industry experts have mis-read a racing landscape. Eleven years ago Dover Motorsports came to Nashville to build a superspeedway. They selected a site in Gladeville, 35 miles southeast of the city, and pumped a reported $100 million into a state-of-the-art facility.

The track had 50,000 seats for its NASCAR Nationwide Series opener. Barely half of them were filled when the green flag waved. By the next race some 20,000 of the seats had been dismantled. Today the track seats around 25,000-30,000 and in its 10-year history has yet to have a sellout.

What went wrong? How could a racing hotbed like Nashville fail to fill such a small facility? My guess is that area fans are interested primarily in Cup races and when the big-leaguers left in 1984, fans weren’t overly excited about second- and third-tier races.

I still believe they’d turn out for a Cup race, but not for any others. And so the huge crowds that the experts predicted have not showed up at the track.

They built it but – like the Hall of Fame – they didn’t come.

Larry Woody is a veteran, award-winning sports journalist. Woody began working at the Nashville Tennessean in the 1960s and took over the auto racing beat full time in the early 1970s. Larry can be reached at lwoody@racintoday.com