The few campers and RVs at campgrounds around Bristol Motor Speedway (BMS) in Tennessee in preparation for the spring races might be among a smaller crowd, according to several campground owners who say their reservation rates are down from this time last year.
“It’s going very slow,” said Hilltop Camping owner Mickey Baker of reservations this month. “I look to be down over last year.”
He said he’s probably got about 30% fewer reservations for the March 20 race than he had last spring, and those numbers were down from the year before, the Bristol Herald Courier reported.
“I’m a good 30% to 40% down from two years ago,” he said. “I did well in the fall, but spring wasn’t good.”
Part of the problem, he said, is the economy, while the weather is another factor.
“Bristol in the spring is kind of notorious for last-minute decisions,” Baker said. “People kind of wait to see what the week’s forecast looks like. We’ve had some really cold, really windy, really rainy races in the spring.”
He said he has five spaces around his office building with electric hookups, and he usually has three or four of those spots reserved for the spring race.
This year, he said, “it’s about nil.”
The guests he does have lined up are returning race fans, he said.
“Probably of the reservations I do have, 60% to 75% is return crowd,” he said. “I guess that’s where it pays to have some long-term relationships — it helps pay the bills.”
Baker said he lost money during last spring’s race, and to prevent that this year, he’s ordered fewer amenities like portable toilets.
“I’m preparing ahead,” he said.
He said his observation of last year’s stands during the spring races is that they weren’t full.
“I’m not even sure where the track is with tickets,” he said.
Ticket sales for the spring BMS races are “up in some areas, down in some others,” according to Kevin Triplett, vice president of public affairs at BMS.
But Triplett said it’s too early to speculate on whether BMS will sell out.
“We’re selling far better than most racetracks are (on the NASCAR circuit), but that’s not the way we gauge ourselves,” he said. “We’ve always set our standards very, very high. And by those standards, we’re not yet where we want to be.”
In addition to the timing of the race, Baker said he thinks Bristol’s format may have pushed some people away.
“People find Bristol boring now,” he said. “They miss the bump and run. People come to see the wrecks, and they get kind of bored when (the race) is so long.”
Another idea for the lack of reservations this spring is that people aren’t as interested in the new NASCAR drivers.
“A lot of the old drivers are retiring, and a lot of your old diehard race fans can’t connect with the new drivers,” said Eddie Honeycutt, owner of Bristol Race Rentals.
His business is receiving fewer rental requests this season as well.
“We’re not doing as well as last year,” he said.
Stan Lady, owner of Lady’s Equipment Camping and Parking just a few miles down the road, said spring reservations at his campsites are pretty slim this year, too.
Usually, he said he has between 30 and 40 reservations for the sites by his house, and between 60 and 70 for the sites at the office. There are about 130 total sites at the office, he said.
“We probably have five at the house and 30 at the office now,” he said.
He said reservations are typically a little slow in the spring, and he expects to get some more in the week before the race.
Lady’s theory is that the weather affects race attendance in the spring.
“If they would move that race up, it would really help them,” he said.
Editor’s Note: NASCAR writer Joe Dunn shows how NASCAR and the RV industry are intertwined in this report on Sunday’s NASCAR race at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee. It first appeared on www.onpitroad.com. Dunn is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. He reports on NASCAR and provides action photos for OnPitRoad.com as well as Speedwaymedia.com and various electronic and print media. In addition to Speedwaymedia.com, his racing stories have appeared in regional newspapers as well as on Fox Sports.
For 55 straight races the Bristol Motor Speedway has sold every seat for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races. That ended today as the ‘official’ NASCAR estimate of 138,000 fell far short of the 160,000 seats available.
The really sad part is that other estimates pegged the crowd at more in the area of 115,000 fans in attendance, that means up to 45,000 empty seats. For over 27 years, the Cup races sold out, during some of the past years the sellout occurred prior to the end of the previous race season. This was the track where folks would wait in the rain, or stay on phone lines for hours every November when what seats were left over, after ticket renewals, went on sale. The first year they did that sale on the website, the Internet was crashed over a nine-state region. Other years, the entire 423 area code went off line from an overload. Although BMS always had a policy against reselling of tickets, folks started selling worthless momentous on eBay for outrageous prices because the purchaser would get free Bristol Tickets. In some years, that even went to include season ticket renewal rights. Worthless pins, worn out T-shirts and even ripped and stained race programs went for thousands of dollars, to those desperate to get a seat at the Mecca of NASCAR racing.
For the last two years, the track began extending the payment deadline and instituted payment plans to retain season ticket holders. In 2009, the track sent a van around to the parking lots of Food City grocery stores throughout a three-state region in a last ditch effort to sell every ticket to the Food City 500. Food City themselves, as well as other local business bought up tickets and donated them all to insure the sellout continued. This year, those efforts were not undertaken, and I have not heard an explanation of why. Perhaps the fact that Track President Jeff Byrd was not around as he battles a medical issue, contributed. It was the first race he has missed since he has been there. Like Eddie Gossage at Texas Motor Speedway and Humpy Wheeler, who headed Charlotte Motor Speedway for decades, Jeff is an outstanding promoter. When Jeff announced that he would be absent this time, no replacement was appointed, as Jeff always said, he has the best folks in the world on his staff, and everything went off well for the races. So that may have been a factor, but I believe that it is bigger than that.
Obviously the economy has taken a huge hit over the past two years and the effect is evident at most of the races, but this was the wake-up call. Last year, as the track struggled to squeeze every last ticket sale out, the other folks surrounding the track seemed to ignore the problem. Or perhaps, they just figured that it was only the tracks responsibility to suck it up in hard times. As I watched the race today and saw all the empty seats, when the occasional aerial views were shown, the massive green areas of empty campsites could also be seen, I could see the local impact. A review of the campgrounds, after all Bristol is mainly a camping track, showed no give on their part. No reduced rates, no extra specials, no huge improvements. I can remember back to 10 years ago and what it cost to camp at Bristol then, and look at the cost today shaking my head.
Here, to the best of my recollection is where the rates have gone. In 2001, Earhart Campground was about $60 for the week, this year the rate is $200 with virtually no changes. All American Campground was the big dollar site at $100, they have leveled many sites and made improvements, even added sites with water & electric, but the bare site for a camper is now $260 and sites with water and electric run $520. The Red Barn, another one next to the track was about $90, now it is $200 and one infuriated camper told me today that they suddenly started charging extra for showers in what used to be the free shower area. Across from the drag strip, Farmer Bob’s was $60 and now is up to $140 for a basic camper site. They have made improvements over the years and do have some cheaper tent sites. Bill Gaines Bristol Campground was $60 and is now $160, they have however made huge improvements over the years, adding hard surfaced roadbeds every year, installing lighting throughout the campground and bringing in a portable shower house that is probably the cleanest in the area.
A check of local hotels and motels shows that they don’t think the fans need a break at all. What were $100 a night rooms 10 years ago are now $350-$500 a night rooms. During non race weekend, these of course are about $50 a night rooms. This time as a last minute call to go, left me in a lurch, I considered myself lucky to get what should normally be a $25 room for $160 a night. And no, I would not have taken my wife to that place either.
I hope that some of the folks in the Tri-Cities area take the time to read this, perhaps with the weekends dismal attendance numbers it will serve as a wake up call to the area. Perhaps the city of Bristol should reconsider their pilfering of race fans with ’Hotel’ tax they added to campgrounds a few years ago. A $140 campsite has $20 in state and local taxes added to the price. Jeff Byrd has always emphasized that BMS is and should be Fan Friendly, perhaps it is time that the local government, business’ and folks tried doing the same.
NASCAR announced early this year that the race purses would be cut 10% because of the bad economy, according to some team owners, the actual cuts are much more than 10%. Maybe it’s time for the tracks to consider cutting ticket and concession prices at least 10% and for the local vendors to do the same. Were you there this weekend, or are you one of those regulars that skipped Bristol this time? If so, please add your comments and suggestions. I will make sure that the folks in Bristol hear what you have to say.
Usually, the campgrounds surrounding the Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tenn., are wall-to-wall celebration in the days leading to the spring NASCAR race, according to the Bristol Herald Courier.
Not this time.
By Thursday afternoon (March 18), most of the grassy lots that should by now be in the shadow of RVs and camping tents were just soaking in the sun.
“This is usually (filled on) both sides as far as the eye can see,” retired truck driver Gerald Wilder said as he waved both hands at the Twin-City Drive-In Theatre lot, on U.S. Highway 11E within sight of the speedway.
The theater’s billboard-sized screen towered above a dozen RVs, two tents and acres of empty space.
Wilder’s camper stood off to the side of the drive-in entrance, in the very spot he’d rented three weeks ago in anticipation of a packed lot. Why? Because it’s been that way with each spring trek from his home in the Northern Tennessee city of Speedwell.
“People are losing jobs,” he said of the sour economy. “This was their vacation.”
He’s betting more fans will arrive today. They’ve probably decided to trade an expensive, week-long camping trip for a cheaper weekend stay.
Drive-in owner Danny Warden hopes that is the case.
“Some of them will just drive in for the race and drive back out,” he said. Even if cars and trucks arrive without campers, he could still turn a profit by renting out parking space.
Track officials also have pointed to the poor national economy to explain why they can no longer sell out 160,000 seats weeks before the race. Tickets were still available Thursday. It’s also why much of the corporate sector has stopped buying seats in blocks.
Waving goodbye to the corporate sector might have a positive, yet still bitter, benefit, said Danny Gentry, owner of Gentry’s Camping and Parking.
“You’re back to the true race fans … like it was 15 years ago,” Gentry said while patiently awaiting more arrivals at the entrance of his near-empty 15-acre lot.
There could be trouble for BMS if only the diehard fans are left. Many fans grumbled after the 2007 resurfacing project that widened the track. Getting ahead on the previously slim BMS track meant drivers had to smash their way to the front. It’s what fans said they expected to see at Bristol.
Those spectacular pileups had fans returning for more every March and August.
Now, drivers have enough room to slip past slower cars without risking a spectacular finish on the day.
“It made a big difference” to fans, Gentry said.
Wilder, from the drive-in, hopes recent track upgrades will pump some adrenaline back into the show.
BMS officials have extended the crash barriers at the exits for two turns by more than 160 feet, thereby reducing the racing groove by nearly three feet.
“I think it’s going to be like it used to be,” Wilder said.
Still, some campers wondered if forces more powerful than economics and track width are to blame for the weak early turnout.
Canadians Isobel and Wilf Cobb looked down on the speedway from their lot atop a hill on Gentry’s campground. They arrived in Bristol on Saturday, after motoring hundreds of miles from their home in Ontario. It’s a trip they’ve made annually for 10 years.
Clouds have blanketed the sky for most of the week, parting for the first time Thursday, Isobel Cobb said.
At that, she motioned a hand to the heavens: “Maybe they’re waiting for the weather (to clear). You just don’t know.”
The owner of Cedars Golf Course announced a project Thursday (Feb. 25) to gradually turn the Volunteer Parkway facility into a massive camping, parking, hotel and retail complex that would work in tandem with the nearby Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tenn.
Bob Slagle, owner of Cedars Golf Course, said the project – called Bristol’s Thunder Mountain – would be built on 469 acres over a five-year period. He said it would create some 10,000 new parking spots and 5,000 camping spaces near the speedway – greatly easing traffic pressure during the two annual NASCAR race weekends – and also produce more hotel rooms for spectators and tourists, according to tricities.com.
“It would be a huge benefit for the city and the speedway,” Slagle said. “I will have partners involved in this project, and it would be done in a gradual, organized way. But I’m excited about what this could mean for this area. And I believe we can get the city and speedway to work with us.”
Slagle said his company, Thunder Mountain LLC, was still developing an engineering and design plan for the entire project. But he said he was already prepared to invest $2 million to $3 million in the project’s first phase – creating the camping and parking spaces – once Bristol and BMS had agreed to support it.
“I haven’t ruled out starting work sometime this year, if we can get everyone on board,” Slagle said.
While Slagle suggested he was hoping to attract a specific hotel chain, he wouldn’t name it. He also did not offer specifics on possible partners in the project.
Reaction from BMS and Bristol officials Thursday ranged from intrigued to puzzled.
BMS spokesman Kevin Triplett said Thursday that while the speedway hadn’t seen Slagle’s specific plans, it has an open mind about the Thunder Mountain project.
“It’s certainly an interesting concept,” Triplett said. “We’re aware of how our facility can allow lots of other economic opportunities to develop around us.”
Triplett said new camping and parking areas near BMS could greatly help the speedway, if they were well-designed and offered easy access for race fans. And, Triplett said, the possibility of more nearby hotel rooms might also appeal to BMS, which competes for spectators and dollars with NASCAR tracks in bigger cities, such as Las Vegas, Chicago, Atlanta and Phoenix.
“Anytime our business can benefit a surrounding business, which in turn can help us, it’s potentially something to look into,” Triplett said.
Bristol Deputy City Manager Michael Sparks said the city hasn’t held any discussions with Slagle about his project. “This is pretty much news to us,” Sparks said. “We haven’t seen his plan at all or heard anything about it.”
Sparks said another developer had briefly approached the city about a possible Cedars Golf project, but those talks took place more than a year ago.
“I can’t even tell you if that project was anything similar to what Mr. Slagle wants to do,” Sparks said. “Because we didn’t have any [advance] word on what he’s looking to do.”
Slagle said that under his plan, the Cedars Golf course would keep operating for the near future – but would gradually be closed down and phased out as the Thunder Mountain project expanded.
“We could start working now and our golfers wouldn’t even know it,” Slagle said, noting that the course is on 130 acres, less than one-third of his full property.
“Believe me, golfers will be able to golf here for a bit,” Slagle said.