Decreasing attendance during Dover's most recent NASCAR weekend meant slower business, except at Dover Downs Hotel & Casino, where race fans took advantage of table games.
Fans at Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway had more legroom than usual. NASCAR estimates put about 82,000 fans in the 140,000 seats Sunday, a dip from five years ago when attendance was estimated to be above capacity.
Many tracks are facing flagging attendance, so Dover is not alone. Speculators point to factors including aging fans, high gas prices and the affordability of high-definition TV, with the decline.
Unlike some other tracks, local officials are not concerned that attendance may lead to the loss of one of its two annual races.
“We’re very confident that we’ll be on the NASCAR schedule with our two weekends for a long, long time,” said Director of Communications Gary Camp, Dover International Speedway and Nashville Superspeedway.
Local businesses hope that is the case, and for a return to capacity attendance.
Cindy Calloway, manager of Shuckers Pier 13, said savvy businesses know they can’t count on the twice-annual races for all their business.
“Is there cause for concern? Yes. Race weekends are the two biggest weekends for Dover, but you have to be successful all year. You can’t rely on two weekends,” she said.
Calloway said the slow economy means more NASCAR fans are cutting back on travel expenses, some of them by using campers instead of hotels.
“With the economy the way it is, they’re saving money on lodging. Some folks are staying for one day instead of the whole weekend and not eating out as much,” she said.
Sonic manager Darlise Bordley said their sales dropped “big time” during this race weekend, due largely to skyrocketing gas prices.
Dipa Patel, owner of Raceway Liquors, agreed that the economy is hurting, but not seriously maiming her business.
“[Business] was okay, not too high. Expectations were high, but it wasn’t that high. I’m still happy with the numbers,” she said.
Not all news was negative this weekend.
The track and FanZone were flooded with families thanks to lowering prices for fans 14 and younger, offering discounted family ticket packages, and creating smoke- and alcohol-free sections in the stands. Although Camp said they couldn’t release exact numbers, anecdotal evidence in the form of more kids on the property pointed to a success.
The Monster FunZone also expanded to Saturday and Sunday instead of just Saturday, and provided free fun for children.
Camp said the track hopes these initiatives will gain traction. They’ll also be offered during the Sept. 20 to Oct. 2 race weekend.
“It definitely takes time, and we’re ready to be patient with it,” Camp said.
For adults, what worked was having table games ready to go inside Dover Downs Hotel & Casino. This was the first spring NASCAR race with table games available, and it paid off, according to CEO Ed Sutor.
Usually Sunday morning is a slower time, with tables filling up by afternoon. The casino had a full house of dealers working Sunday before the race, and were glad they did.
“We had all the games going at 8 a.m.,” Sutor said.
The hotel was filled to capacity, too, many of the 500-plus rooms with race-affiliated people.
“We could easily sell out a 10,000 room hotel if we had it,” Sutor said.
Besides table games, the casino performed as it usually does, he added. Some regular slots players will stay away during the races and come back in the evening, with the casino losing some business to Harrington Raceway. That played out as it usually does, Sutor said.
Perhaps the biggest news of the weekend indoors was when a Fairfax, Va., man won a $4.8 million Ca$hola slot machine jackpot at about 1 a.m. Sunday morning.
“We’re very happy from the casino side,” Sutor said. “No big surprises besides the jackpot.”
Another success was giving the hotel’s Frankie’s restaurant an outdoor venue. Nearly $100,000 was put into paving and preparing an outdoor space for it, Sutor said, and Frankie’s Monster Mile Cafe paid off. It was largely standing room only, especially at the bar. Now it will be rented out and used for other events as well.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
Unfortunately, not everything went swimmingly.
One of the culprits – and one that has hurt attendance in years past – was the weather.
“Mother nature is one thing we can never control,” Camp said.
In fact, rain squashed one of the track’s efforts to give ticket holders more bang for their buck. They moved qualifying for Sunday’s Sprint Cup race to Saturday to bring fans to the track twice in the weekend, but the rained-out event dampened their effort.
And regardless of what turned out to be a gorgeous day, save for a few sprinkles, Sunday’s poor forecast likely turned fans away, Camp said.
Uno Chicago Grill, which is in walking distance from the track, saw its business dip as well.
“Business only went down a little. My guess is the weather forecast, from the people I spoke to,” said Manager John Stant.
“The thing that we can most control is the experience that they have when they arrive on the property,” Camp said.
That means that for the autumn race and moving forward, the Saturday qualifying race, lower-priced family packages and Frankie’s Monster Mile Cafe will all be in effect.
Sutor said before then, the cafe will be tweaked to add more bar space.
Another improvement will be a more user-friendly website for Dover International Speedway.
The more interactive and updated site will hopefully be ready by mid-August, according to Camp.
Besides those initiatives, Camp said they’re not sure yet what they’ll offer moving forward. It’s a full time job planning for two races, so they’re always looking for ideas and researching what works at other tracks to bring that to Dover.
“You never really know what we might come up with,” he said.
Staff reporters Sarika Jagtiani and Chris Stevens contributed to this article.