A Tale of Two Crowds

Though both are held on Memorial Day weekend, there is a lot that separates the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600. The two events are separated geographically by at least 580 miles, by the margin of several hours from the checkered flag at Indianapolis to the green flag in Charlotte, and culturally by the memes that have drawn distinctions between fans of American open-wheel racing and their stock car counterparts.

On Sunday, the  101st Indianapolis 500 and the 58th Coca-Cola 600 were separated by something else: Noise. Not so much from the whine of an open wheel car versus the roar of a stock car, but from those who came to see the two events. There is no sugarcoating what was painfully apparent to anyone who watched the two races: The crowd at the Indianapolis 500 outmatched and out-enthused any crowd that has been drawn to a NASCAR race this year.

While IndyCar racing has been hit even harder than NASCAR by the spell of declining ratings and attendance that has defined auto racing in the past decade, one could forgive an outside observer if they were to say that things were never better for the sanctioning body of the Indianapolis 500. A large crowd descended upon The Greatest Spectacle in Racing, and they made their presence felt at every moment from the drop of the green flag.

There was loud applause when Scott Dixon emerged relatively unscathed from a terrifying accident between Turns 1 & 2. There were oohs and aahs as the field went five-wide down the backstraightaway for a time. As the on-track frenzy intensified in the closing laps, so too did the nature of the crowd. They roared their approval as Brazilian Helio Castroneves took the lead in the closing laps, and then again when Takuma Sato seized the top spot. And it would be Sato, the first Japanese driver to win the Indianapolis 500, who would be hailed by some 300,000 strong as the conquering hero of Speedway, Indiana.

Fast-forward several hours to Charlotte Motor Speedway, and the mood of the crowd was distinctly different. It seemed that the cloud of negativity that has followed NASCAR for the past decade manifested in physical form. The race was delayed an hour and 40 minutes for rain in its second stage, and the wet throng of on-lookers never made their presence felt. Although there was the late-intrigue of a fuel mileage race that resulted in a first-time winner, there was little throughout NASCAR’s longest race that stirred the hearts of those who came to see it. For the most part, they were treated to the dominance of Martin Truex Jr., who led 233 of the race’s 400 laps, without much action or drama to justify the price of admission.

Though it is encouraging to see that auto racing is still capable of captivating hundreds of thousands of people as it did at Indianapolis, NASCAR must consider the relative indifference of its own crowd and ask itself questions. The first and foremost being: How many times in the past decade has a NASCAR race elicited a response that can be heard over the horsepower? How often have spectators emoted for a great race, or let out a collective roar for someone not named Earnhardt or Gordon, Johnson or Stewart?

NASCAR fans are not to blame for this. Rather, the racing that has taken place in the 2010s has given them little reason to rise up and raise the decibel level. When the situation calls for it, they still will – When Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott wailed on each other in a side-by-side duel to the checkered flag in the All-Star Open last year, all who were there that Saturday morning let their approval be known. It is disconcerting that there have been only a handful of these instances in the past several years. Rather, NASCAR crowds have resembled those of a losing football team: Sparse and silent.

There is a million-dollar fix to what ails NASCAR as a spectator sport. The quality of the racing, particularly at the 1.5-mile tracks that dominate the schedule, must be improved. NASCAR has worked tirelessly towards this end in the past several years, but they have been working concurrently with the unrelenting pursuit of downforce by race teams and simple physics. The gremlin of “Clean Air” has become a white whale that the sanctioning body cannot seem to slay. Perhaps a remedy for this is in the near future. Perhaps it isn’t.

Presented with the quandary of overall interest in its races, NASCAR has unleashed a myriad of 21st-century measures as a means of quantification. Analytics and impressions, qualitative and quantitative research methods, and their like are all being employed to gauge whether or not the average person, let alone race fans, care about what NASCAR has to offer.

Considering what was heard at Indianapolis on Sunday versus what wasn’t at Charlotte, there is a simpler methodology: If NASCAR wants to figure out whether or not people care about auto racing, they should listen to the crowd.