BRISTOL — Bruton Smith knew changes had to be made at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Since the decision to resurface the track in 2007, there has always been a big elephant in the room. What was the toughest ticket in NASCAR twice a year — a guaranteed sell-out for years — dwindled to the generous attendance number of 100,000 at March’s Food City 500.
Sure the racing had become monotonous, but it’s driver friendly. They could maneuver and pass and stay out of trouble. The problem is, that wasn’t Bristol, many fans were unhappy and changes will be made before August’s Irwin Tools Night Race in what Smith hopes will fill the seats to capacity once again.
Lost in the shuffle of the declining ticket sales was the face that the track itself wasn’t the lone problem at Bristol. The economy has dealt a tough hand to the track which has relied on a large number of out-of-town race fans.
On top of rising gas prices and the cost of a ticket, the price of a local hotel room hasn’t helped matters any.
Smith, the Chairman/CEO of Speedway Motorsports, said he received “a lot” of negative feedback from fans in regards to race weekend hotel prices in the Tri-Cities area following March’s Food City 500 when gauging feedback on changes at the half-mile.
The owner says he has discussed the issue with elected officials in the area and is pushing to make that another issue of change.
“We’ve had a lot of negative on that,” Smith said Wednesday. “We’ve talked with the elected officials here and I’m hoping that they will try to persuade these hotel owners because they are gouging the race fan and we don’t like that.
“We can’t price those hotel rooms for them, but we can beg and plead and hope they will change that.”
Bristol Motor Speedway general manager Jerry Caldwell said the track has continued to have discussions with local hospitality industry representatives.
“We have before and we continue to do that,” said Caldwell. “We’ve upped our effort some and pushed even harder because we have concrete evidence that it isn’t just us saying it.”
Caldwell said the problem isn’t an increase in price in hotel rooms on the weekend, but the fact that a number of hotels within the Tri-Cities area are charging as much as four and five times the normal rate in an attempt to profit from out-of-towners.
“We’re as much for a free market as anyone out there,” said Caldwell. “But when you have a captive audience and a bit of a monopoly on it — because they have to have places to stay — we need to stay within reason and we need to understand that we all have a piece of the pie here. And every hotel in this region has a piece of the pie.
“It can be nice and you can get a little bit for a long time, or you can take it too far and there are some out there that have taken it too far.”
Both Smith and Caldwell agree that hotels should profit on perhaps their biggest two weekends of the year, but, in an economy such as this, local hotels can help persuade whether a fan attends a race.
For instance, it was reported following the Food City 500 that it would be cheaper for a fan to purchase plane ticket from Charlotte to Las Vegas, get three nights of hotel stay in Las Vegas, rent a car and buy tickets to the races there than it would to drive from Charlotte to Bristol, purchase tickets at BMS during the spring race weekend and stay three nights in the area if you factor in the average hotel price.
“They need to remember that if we want to make this thing sustainable and keep it going for a long period of time, they’ve got to take that into consideration,” Caldwell added. “It’s fine to make a profit. No one has a problem with that. But we’ve got to keep it within reason so the race fans can afford to come here.”
Smith said as long as hotel rooms stay the same, he will continue to increase camping and motorhome options so a weekend trip can remain affordable to fans.
“They accelerate the price here,” Smith said. “It’s not good. I’ve seen more and more, and we’ve provided more and more camping because more and more people they will lease a motorhome and live it in. They found they can do that and enjoy it and not go to the hotel.”
The owner added he will continue to push for a lodging price gouging law via the Tennessee legislature.
“I think it’s come to that,” he said.
WITTEN CAMP SET
Jason Witten’s annual youth football camp is turning 10.
In line with what will be his 10th National Football League season with the Dallas Cowboys, Witten will host the SCORE Foundation 10th Annual Football Camp on Saturday, June 23 at Dave Rider Field.
The camp, which is one of the nation’s largest free football camps, has featured appearances by Witten and NFL and collegiate players with personal football instruction.
Witten’s camp will maintain the same format with a 9 a.m.-Noon morning session for ages 7-12 and an afternoon session from 1:30 p.m.-4:30 p.m. for ages 13-18.
Each camper receives a t-shirt and autographs from the players and coaches in attendance.
Registration, open through June 16, is available on Witten’s Web site (www.jasonwitten82.com) and is free of charge.
VOLS COMPLETE SPRING
There weren’t many surprises on the post-spring depth chart coming out of the University of Tennessee last week.
The Volunteers have the potential for an improved season based on the talent returning, specifically in junior quarterback Tyler Bray and wide receivers Da’Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter, all three of whom are potential NFL players.
But there are many question marks revolving around the running game and new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri’s change of system. While both looked improved in the annual Orange and White game, they have yet to face the test of opposing competition.
Head Coach Derek Dooley was pleased with what he saw as his team came out of drills.
“Overall, real pleased with the spring,” Dooley said last Saturday. “Real pleased with the attitudes the players have had and the work ethic and now we turn the page and get ready for real ball.”
Dooley and new Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart will be among the coaches participating in the annual Big Orange Caravan as it makes its way through the southeast.
Locally, the Washington County UT Alumni Chapter will be hosting the Tri-Cities event on May 15 at Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church in Johnson City.
Fans can register for the event, which costs $15 per person, online.
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Wes Holtsclaw is a sportswriter for the Elizabethton Star. He may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org