BRISTOL, Tenn. – Rob Stiens won two tickets to Bristol Motor Speedway as his company's employee of the month. Unable to find affordable lodging close to the track, and unwilling to stay in a hotel three hours away, his seats will go empty Saturday night.
Once the toughest ticket in NASCAR, Bristol is now just like every other track that's struggling to attract fans in a tough economy. The track's streak of 55 consecutive sellouts was snapped during its March race, and Saturday night's event — one of the most beloved on the schedule — will also fall short of capacity.
"My last race at Bristol was the spring race (in 2009) and we decided that it's just too much money to continue going," said Stiens, a Fayetteville, Ohio, milkman who gave up his season tickets to Bristol Motor Speedway last year after 14 years.
"I got these tickets from my company two weeks ago, tried to find somewhere reasonable to stay, and the nearest place was $189 a night," Stiens said. "Anything cheaper was in Knoxville, and that's about three hours away. It's easier to just watch it on TV at home."
There won't be a full house at Thunder Valley on Saturday night when the speedway celebrates its 100th Sprint Cup race, and anything less than capacity was unheard of during a massive growth spurt in the 1990s, when track officials had a lengthy waitlist and ran ticket sales much like the NCAA does for its annual basketball tournament. Fans signed up for a package of four, and if something came available, names were picked through a lottery.
Now, with 160,000 seats and only about 6,000 hotel rooms in the immediate Tri-Cities area, Bristol officials are having to launch creative marketing strategies for the first time in over two decades. The sellout streak began in 1982 when the track had just 30,000 seats.
"I don't think anyone is immune," said five-time Bristol winner Jeff Gordon. "It's just like a top team is not immune to sponsorship negotiations, and a race track is not immune to the economy and whatever decision-making is going on out there among fans as to what races they choose to go to and what obstacles lie in their way to get to those tracks.
"I still think people, everywhere I go, love Bristol and love Talladega and love NASCAR. But I think when there are tough times, they have to make tough decisions."
Bristol officials this year gave tickets to four drivers active on Twitter, as well as Red Bull Racing, to give away through social media efforts. Red Bull gave its 10 sets out through weekly trivia sessions, but even some of those will go unused Saturday night.
Josh Guilford has been out of work since April, and even after winning tickets from Red Bull, he couldn't swing the trip from Connecticut. He's already been to races this season at New Hampshire, Pocono and the All-Star race in Charlotte, all paid for before he lost his job.
Having never been to the bullring at Bristol, a track that produces the short-track Saturday night bumping and banging NASCAR fans crave, Guilford had hoped to pull off the trip.
"I figured it would cost around $500 for travel and accommodations," he said. "That does not include food, drink and spending money. It definitely (stinks) because its Bristol."
Staying home on Saturday night means fans won't get to sit in the Coliseum-like setting and see live the myriad of raging driver feuds potentially play out on one of the tightest tracks in NASCAR. The beloved bump-and-run tactic was made for tracks like Bristol.
With the top 11 drivers in the standings pretty much locked into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, they also won't have to play it safe as many contenders have done since the format began in 2004. Needing to ensure strong finishes, drivers would tone down the aggression that so often reared itself at Bristol.
Now, those 11 can race hard for wins and coveted bonus points to be used in Chase seeding.
With only four drivers in contention for the 12th and final Chase berth — and really only Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin legitimately in contention — fans not in attendance will have to watch the battle unfold from their living room.
Kevin Triplett, vice president of Bristol's public affairs, has heard from many heartbroken fans who, after years of attending the Saturday night race, simply can't come this year.
"As challenging and disappointing as it was to finally see the sellout string come to an end, we looked at why and how do we fix it?" Triplett said. "We found that 62 percent of the people surveyed said the economy, and that's the harsh reality of it."
Speedway officials recently acquired 20 acres of land outside the track for camping, at $99 for a spot. The campground doesn't have electricity or running water, but does provide fans an option besides expensive hotel rooms. And despite trying to work with local leaders and hotel owners on pricing, Triplett said the demand outweighs the supply and rates simply can't be negotiated the way they are in many other NASCAR markets.
"It's challenging for some of our fans to pay as much for lodging for a race weekend as they would for a couple nights in New York City," Triplett said. "But even with these challenges, we recognize that we have an enormously large facility that is almost double the capacity of the Dallas Cowboys, who led the NFL in attendance last season.
"Even short of a sellout," Triplett said, "we will still have more people here — many more people — than any NFL game in the country."