BROOKLYN, Mich. The NASCAR Sprint Cup LifeLock 400 at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday, won by fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. in stunning fashion, was a dream product in terms of pure entertainment value.
The Elvis of stock car racing gave his legion of followers drama, and his high-risk, nerve-racking, eleventh-hour gamble paid big dividends with his first Cup win in more than two years.
MIS president Roger Curtis, who had been braced for a discernible drop in ticket sales due to the double-whammy of high gas prices and a lingering economic slowdown, said Earnhardt's win was the premium Sunday's race fans deserved, even though less than a full house was on hand to witness it.
"I can't be biased and cheer for any one driver, but I always try and tie everything back to the fans, and I know what Junior means to a lot of our fans," Curtis said.
"With the environment we're in, I know all of the sacrifices the fans make just to get here, and it is incredibly rewarding to have him win and get the Junior Nation fired back up again."
Curtis said the stagnant regional economy and soaring gasoline prices prompted a drop in attendance, but as of Monday he estimated that about 115,000 of the 132,000 permanent bleacher seats at MIS were filled for the race. The total crowd, which includes the many fans camped in the infield, the NASCAR officials and crews, and the army of volunteers, was estimated at around 130,000.
"Clearly we weren't sold out, and we weren't going to try and hide that or cover up sections of stands," Curtis said, "but the crowd we did have definitely exceeded our expectations. With the economy, gas prices, and just all of the negativity fans had heard on why they shouldn't be here, we're grateful more than 100,000 were in those stands, and they provided a very enthusiastic backdrop for the exciting race we had."
Curtis said his focus was on maximizing the experience of the fans that did attend, not worrying about those who did not.
"We don't take what people have to go through to get here lightly," he said. "If the economy is tough and some folks can't make it, that's OK, and we are going to take care of the people who are here and let them have a great time. And they were having a great time, even before Junior won."
Cup driver Carl Edwards, who was seventh in Sunday's race, said he is very aware that racing fans have to spend quite a bit to buy tickets, fill up the recreational vehicle, take time off work, and drive to the race track.
"I was following a couple of motor homes in here the other day, and it means a lot to me. These are hard-working people taking their money and deciding to come here," Edwards said. "That's huge. My family never did anything like that. It costs a lot."
Edwards said the reality of today's economy hit him when one of his close friends was laid off recently back in Edwards' home state of Missouri."That's the story. It's tough. It's tough to put gas in your tanks. So, yeah, it concerns me," Edwards said. "It concerns me just as much as it should concern any American. It's a tough economic time. It's just the reality. I think the sport will go on, but we just have to understand that we are going to suffer just like everyone else."
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.