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.”