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Richmond removing seats not all doom and gloom

With the removal of the backstretch grandstands, Richmond International Raceway will seat just over 60,000. Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

Don't worry about tracks removing seats. It is simply an adjustment of the times, the way people consume live sporting events amid the current economic climate. Most racetracks -- and even some other sports venues -- have eliminated seats and will continue until they find the right capacity.

That's the storyline that track operators sing over and over. Some even cling to the hope that once a fan comes to a race, that fan will remain a fan for life.

Although that theory sounds nice, it's hard to believe it as the great racetrack seating reduction continues. It's hard not to worry when seeing that Richmond International Raceway, after it takes out its entire 9,000-seat backstretch, will have a capacity of a little more than 60,000. A track that once boasted sellout after sellout and grew to 110,000 in capacity will have a 45 percent reduction in seats in the past nine years.

Richmond is not alone. Michigan and Talladega have shrunk 45 percent from their peaks in the past decade. Daytona has dropped 40 percent with its recent backstretch removal. Dover has dropped 37 percent; Charlotte Motor Speedway wiped out 34 percent of its seats.

Valid reasons exist to rip out grandstands if no one buys the tickets. Grandstands get old and tracks find it easier (and cheaper) to sometimes just tear them down. The grandstands taken out typically sit farther from any concession stands. All the prerace shows occur on the frontstretch, so the seats in general just don't provide a great experience. If a track can turn those areas into high-end motorhome parking or corporate hospitality, tracks can probably make more money with much less staffing than having those stands two-thirds empty.

Plus, with having no threat of a sellout, fans can wait until the last minute to buy tickets and then decide not to go based on weather or their current financial situation. The fewer the seats, the more likely they will bite the bullet and buy tickets instead of waiting.

But to see Richmond eliminate more seats rips into the guts of the sport. One of the most historic tracks in one of NASCAR's biggest bases, Richmond has major markets surrounding it with Washington-Baltimore (more than 6 million people) less than three hours away and another 6 million near Philadelphia just four. Richmond itself has 1.3 million people. The track also has a healthy ticket base throughout Pennsylvania.

The region has 18,000 hotel rooms, so prices remain reasonable. We hear fans clamor for more short tracks (although now two of the three short tracks on the circuit will seat 60,000 or fewer). Richmond also has one of the premier events in the Chase cutoff race -- a race that could have a test this year, as it will go up against the Virginia Tech-Tennessee football game at Bristol Motor Speedway the same day.

The Richmond area has some of the strongest television ratings, said RIR president Dennis Bickmeier. This removal of more seats, he said, is part of an overall analysis of the facility that started a couple of years ago. Bickmeier said he has had demand for more corporate hospitality trackside in some of the areas where RIR had previously taken out seats, but he has made no final determination of what will go in place of the removed grandstands.

"The core [fan] remains very strong here, no question," Bickmeier said. "There aren't any red flags in that regard. ... We feel good about where we are."

Overall, International Speedway Corp.'s 12 Sprint Cup tracks, including Richmond, will have a combined 695,000 seats -- down 37 percent from its 2007 peak of 1.1 million seats. The other big track owner, Speedway Motorsports, according to the November 2014 figures, has total capacity down 7 percent (from 870,000 to 808,000) from 2009 and 12 percent when not including Kentucky, which, after SMI's purchase, expanded by 38,000 seats.

Yet the stats don't show all doom and gloom. Final financials for 2015 won't come in for another few weeks, but the fall financial reports released by SMI and ISC (which combined have 20 of the 23 Sprint Cup venues) show admission revenues flat from 2014, indicating the sky isn't falling.

Track management at both companies also hasn't been sitting still while ripping out seats. Richmond's "track takeover" that allowed ticketholders to walk on the track along with other activities resonated with fans, with surveys indicating fan satisfaction with ticket value up 10 percent, Bickmeier said. Michigan has experimented with concert festivals to coincide with race weekends -- the festival ticket comes as part of the race ticket. It seems to have promise.

Talladega's infield parade with drivers on a big float builds on the party atmosphere of "the boulevard." Auto Club Speedway in California and Texas Motor Speedway have extremely successful reading programs that have had community impacts as well as engaged potential young fans. Dover tested, in a few sections, with app developer Tap.in2 a way for fans to order food from their mobile phones. It worked well and they hope to expand the program, track VP Mark Rossi said.

And yet, with all these experiments, with all these things that appear good for fans, seating reductions continue. With more than a half-million seats eliminated across ISC, SMI and Dover (that doesn't even include declines at Indianapolis), frustration could set in amid those wondering what NASCAR and its tracks must do to stem the tide.

NASCAR in reality has three products that must thrive in order to have a healthy sport. It has a race-day experience, the race itself and a marketing/sponsor value element. The new Daytona Rising grandstand project with escalator access to seats, better Wi-Fi, spacious concourses and significantly improved corporate suites could provide a blueprint for future grandstand renovations.

On the track, NASCAR will continue to bank on its elimination-style Chase format, and after a disappointing 2015 aero package, the 2016 reduced-downforce package appears to have potential. Hopefully it puts the cars back in the hands of the drivers as much as in the hands of the engineers. Only then will fans feel like they see something genuine, something where talent truly shines through instead of drivers having to wreck one another to make a pass or prove a point.

NASCAR needs the changes to work. Some of the seats taken out at Richmond cost just $35 a race. (Turn 2 will have seats at $35 as part of the changes.) Great racing and a great experience should entice fans to pay that $35 -- and much more.

Until then, every seat ripped out represents another sign that NASCAR and its tracks still have an uphill battle to truly make the sport a place where a first-time fan becomes a fan for life.