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JEREMY HOBSON: When the NASCAR season gets under way in Daytona next month racing officials will be crossing their fingers for a big turnout. NASCAR was once the fastest growing sport in the county, but its popularity has stalled in recent years.
From St. Louis Public Radio, Adam Allington reports.
Adam Allington: Tennessee's Bristol Motor Speedway, one of most hallowed of all NASCAR tracks, had a streak of sell-out races dating back to the Reagan administration. In 2010, that came to a screeching halt.
Jim Pedley is the managing editor of the online publication Racin' Today. He says the empty seats at Bristol are far from unique.
Jim Pedley: The last Talladega race looked 60 to 70 percent full. It's still 100,000 people, but there used to be a time when you couldn't get a ticket to a race like that, say a Daytona or Talladega.
And it's not just fewer fans at the tracks. Since signing a $4.5 billion deal with Fox and ESPN four years ago, NASCAR has lost nearly one out of four TV viewers. During the 1990s when NASCAR made its push for the mainstream, it opened tracks in places like Las Vegas, L.A. and Chicago. In 1997, racer Al Unser Jr. attended the first race at Gateway International Raceway outside of St. Louis.
Al Unser Jr.: The type of investment that has been made here will sustain the top form of auto racing for many years to come.
Unfortunately that wasn't the case. Gateway saw its last race in October, and is currently up for sale.
Terry Harmeson: The NASCAR events just haven't been profitable for us.
Terry Harmeson manages the track for Dover Motorsports. He says blames Gateway's demise on the continued down economy.
Harmeson: If I knew all the reasons why people didn't come, I hopefully would have solved those and found some way to get them to come. But some people don't have any of that extra money to spend, or they've got to make decisions as to where they spend it.
Eager to put the past behind them, NASCAR points to increased sponsorship revenue, including a multi-year partnership with American Ethanol. But as Jim Pedley notes, NASCAR is not out of the pit yet.
Pedley: I think at this point, they'd be pretty satisfied if they could stop the bleeding. If you look at the TV numbers next year and they are about the same as they were this year, I think they'd be pretty happy about that.
On the bright side, if you are a fan, you're in a buyer's market. Tracks across the country are slashing prices hoping to fill seats.
In St. Louis, I'm Adam Allington for Marketplace.