As popularity, and seating, wane, NASCAR explores capacity to change

International Speedway Corp., which owns several tracks including one in Fontana, mulls more seating reduction

The largest operator of NASCAR race tracks might not be done removing grandstand seats at its 13 speedways due to the decline in NASCAR's popularity, the company's chief executive said.

International Speedway Corp., whose tracks include Daytona International Speedway and Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, already has slashed the number of seats at its venues — in some cases by up to 46% — in the last 18 months.

ISC Chief Executive Lesa France Kennedy, in an interview with The Times, was asked whether ISC might not be done cutting back. "Maybe not," she replied. "We'll see how that goes.

"I think that over time that there will be" more seat reductions, France Kennedy said, "but that will be dependent on the market" of each track.

"Over time we'll take a look at it in specific markets," she said.

After reaching unprecedented highs in the mid-2000s, NASCAR's on-site attendance and television ratings dropped for various reasons, including the economy's collapse in 2008-09, unhappiness with the quality of NASCAR's racing and shifting consumer demand for sports entertainment.

ISC, which had aggressively expanded as NASCAR's popularity climbed, found it had far too many empty seats at NASCAR races. That not only hurt admissions revenue but limited ISC's ability to raise ticket prices.

It was a "quagmire" that prompted ISC to start shedding seats, ISC President John Saunders said a year ago.

Among ISC's cuts compared with 2009 levels: Auto Club Speedway's seating capacity was trimmed 26% to 68,000 from 92,000, Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama was reduced 45% to 78,000 seats from 143,000 and Michigan International Speedway's seating was slashed 46% to 71,000 from 131,000.

The nation's other major operator of NASCAR tracks, Speedway Motorsports Inc., also has struggled with excess seating capacity. Its tracks include Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Sonoma Raceway in Northern California.

France Kennedy noted that in some cases, ISC has converted the areas where seats were removed into fan zones or sponsor areas with food, exhibits and entertainment aimed at enhancing the racing event for the fans, "so it's not just a matter of taking seats out and calling it a day."

ISC's stock is publicly traded but the company is controlled by France Kennedy and the rest of the billionaire France family, which also owns NASCAR. France Kennedy, 53, is the sister of NASCAR Chairman Brian France, and she's also NASCAR's vice chairwoman and executive vice president.

Forbes in 2009 called France Kennedy "the most powerful woman in sports." She was honored in Los Angeles this weekend by the National Women's History Museum as part of its "Women Making History" event.

France Kennedy said ISC tracks' seating capacity of a few years ago "was right for the time but we've made an adjustment across the board."

Asked if that peak in NASCAR's popularity a few years ago was a one-time surge and current attendance is more the norm for NASCAR races, she replied, "I don't know that this is the new norm. I wouldn't say that, and if I were saying that I wouldn't be in the right job.

"We just have to continue changing and working harder and making those adjustments quicker" to draw more spectators, she said.

France Kennedy said that when she turns on a NASCAR race on TV and still sees chunks of empty seats at an ISC track, "it feels like you better get up and get to work. But we've always felt that way."

And despite the cuts in seating so far, ISC — with $612 million in revenue for its fiscal year ended last Nov. 30 — is still struggling to raise ticket prices without risking more empty seats. "Overall they've been in line with what we've had in the past," she said of prices. "I think over time [higher prices] can happen."

ISC plans to spend $600 million on improvements at its tracks through 2017, with $400 million devoted to its crown jewel, Daytona International, which is undergoing a massive renovation.

France Kennedy's son, 22-year-old Ben Kennedy, currently races in NASCAR's truck series but there is speculation he might one day succeed Brian France as NASCAR's chief.

"At this point in time that's not on his radar screen and, as a mom, I kind of like that," France Kennedy said.

"We talk about business all the time around the table, just casual conversation." But, she added, "He ought to be living in this moment and really enjoying that and not, I'd say, feeling any of that pressure of having to decide" whether he wants to run NASCAR one day.

Follow Jim Peltz on Twitter @PeltzLATimes

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
56°