DAYTONA BEACH — Robin Braig would love to see Shirley Buttacavoli in the Daytona International Speedway grandstands Saturday night, but the Holiday resident will stay home from the Coke Zero 400 for the first time in years.
And it's not that she's happy about it, either.
With an economy possibly on the brink of recession, record-high gasoline and food prices, and the expense of tickets and parking, a NASCAR weekend at Daytona or other tracks is becoming beyond the means of many. There are certainly plenty of good seats available for the race Saturday: scores of 20-ticket blocks remained in all price levels in various locations around the track late Thursday afternoon.
It's not as if Braig, the track president, isn't trying, offering a wide range of ticket prices and several different types of packages that include buffets and other amenities. But it hasn't been this hard to promote a NASCAR race since the gasoline crisis of the 1970s.
"While I was not at Daytona, (former track president) John Graham tells me it was hard to get folks to drive this far and experience a race," he said. "We're prepared and ready to host them. We have campgrounds, all kinds of opportunities to save them money."
But some of the problem is simply beyond NASCAR's control.
A government study released in June indicated that Americans drove fewer miles in April for the sixth consecutive month, the biggest decline since 1980. And a lot of driving is necessary to reach most NASCAR races.
"The cost of fuel is most definitely keeping me at home this week," Buttacavoli said. "I had planned on going over to Daytona early Thursday morning and returning midday, but since I have an '87 Monte Carlo SS, it will cost me at least $100 there and back, not to mention the ticket."
Although track owners do not release attendance figures, the season-opening Daytona 500 is apparently the only race of the first 17 contests this season to draw more fans this year than last. NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter told the New York Times that an estimated 30,000 shortfall at Michigan International Speedway recently was "an eye-opener" because of the state's connection with the auto industry.
Buttacavoli said she normally attends NASCAR testing at Daytona in January, Speedweeks and the summer race but she said she has likely made her only trip this year.
But even retaining her Daytona 500 tickets in the Depalma Tower has become difficult, she said.
"My tickets in Depalma for 2009 — which I had to renew by April 28, and that is another gripe I have altogether — my tickets are $180 each," she said. "It took me three years to get those seats, but I've had them since 2001, when they cost me $65 each. I remember parking for $10 at the Dodge dealer across the street. … I understand now the going rate to park is well over $50. I can feed myself and my cats for a week on $50."
Though long-term sponsorship agreements and the fact that television revenue is far more lucrative than ticket sales insulates NASCAR as a corporation from some of the current economic pain, fans and promoters are exposed. Many other major-league sports — most notably baseball — continue to post historic attendance figures, but a NASCAR race is not an impulse buy, a subway stop or even a suburban commute for its fan base. Races are held in far-flung locales and are promoted more like college football bowl games, drawing fans from hundreds of miles away.
"I think the tracks are going to have to step up (with) better Jumbotrons, anything we can do," Braig said. "Even here in Central Florida, people expect the Disney experience. We have to make sure our parking is the best, our traffic routes are perfect."
And even that might not be sufficient right now.