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by Larry Roberts

January 30, 1998

Of all the tire makers, Goodyear is without a doubt the favorite of us motorsports writers - and not because it gives the best press parties or gives out free samples. Truth be told, I don't remember the company doing either one.

The reason for Goodyear's journalistic popularity is the fact that it gathers and keeps scrupulous and accurate records on the attendance figures for all the major racing series' in the United States. Its annual report covers what it considers the 12 most popular and prestigious motorsports competition venues in this country and breaks down those figures into manageable numbers. The report gives the number of races held each year by each sanctioning body, the number of spectators at each event, the total number of spectators for all its races and the percentage of increase (or decrease) over the year before.

For the past decade, the public relations pundits for the motor racing industry have been lauding the axiom that professional motorsports its the fastest growing spectator sport in the country if not the world. The figures that Goodyear gives for NASCAR (the National Association for Stock Car Racing) Winston Cup series backs up that statement with some very impressive numbers. In 1997, over six million spectators watched the big boomers battle it out on 32 different tracks around the country. This averaged out to over 190,000 spectators at each event and that number includes the television audience. It was an increase of almost a half-million over the 1996 figure and the attendance gain was exactly nine percent. This year NASCAR is celebrating it 50th birthday, so we can look for an even bigger push by the organization to pull in more paying customers and television viewers.

The second largest number of motorsports spectators (2.4 million) in 1997 went to watch CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) Indy-type single-seaters race on ovals, closed road circuits and city street courses at 17 different locations here and in several foreign countries. The increase in CART spectatorship rose by five percent. This is in spite of the fact that it was (and still is) locked in a political and marketing battle with the two year-old IRL (Indy Racing League, current sanctioning body for the Indianapolis 500) which itself accounted for 1.3 million spectators at only eight events.

But to me, the most astonishing figures in the Goodyear spectator attendance survey are the statics attached to World Of Outlaws (WOO) sprint cars. An average of 22 thousand enthusiasts watched these bombastic single-seaters fight it out at each of the 73 different events, on tracks that ranged from quarter-mile dirt ovals in rural areas to big paved mile circuits in more cosmopolitan locations. This means that the WOO racers bumped heads with each other statistically more than once every week.

Another bright spot in auto racing is the NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) professional drag racing circuit. These 300 MPH land-based rockets showed their stuff to 2.2 million racing fans at 22 different national events and the average spectatorship was 98,000 per meet.

But every racing organization didn't enjoy such glowing numbers. The bedeviled SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) Trans Am sports cars series dropped one of its events and lost almost 30 percent of its followers, a loss of over 22 thousand spectators per event. Likewise, the struggling IHRA (International Hot Rod Association) lost 10 percent of its drag race enthusiasts in 1997.

But despite these individual setbacks, auto racing enjoyed a growth rate of over nine percent last year. The total number of spectators that watched auto racing last year was 16.9 million - and that's a lot of sports fans through anybody's turnstile.