BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Mike Helton has seen Talladega Superspeedway's capacity expand in boom times and shrink along with the crowds at one of NASCAR's signature tracks, moving in tandem with the sport's ebbs and flows.
The speedway cut its seating capacity nearly in half in recent years, going from 140,000-plus to 78,000 as the sport dealt with a recession and the challenge of getting fans back in the stands when they can watch at home on flat-screen TVs.
"We want to be relevant, and Talladega wants to be relevant," said Helton, NASCAR's president, who ran Talladega Superspeedway from 1989 through 1993. "When I left Talladega, we had 47,000 seats. The sport has grown. We've gone through a cycle, and now we're going through another cycle to get back to where we want the sport. I think Talladega has done a very nice job trying to figure all that out."
Helton, team owner Richard Childress, Talladega chairman Grant Lynch and Coca-Cola marketing executive Brenda Staton pitched the virtues of the sport and the famed track to area business representatives on Thursday. Helton said corporate interest these days is "strong and actually in some cases growing."
Talladega, meanwhile, is adapting to the times — and the dwindling, if still impressive, crowds.
Lynch said more than 100,000 people showed up for the spring Sprint Cup race, including those camping out in the infield. It's still a marked decline considering unofficial race attendance used to approach 175,000 before the 2008 recession.
Talladega tore down the Allison Grandstand after last season. Track officials don't release attendance numbers.
"It's been real tough," Lynch said. "Any time there's a downturn in the economy — we have a blue-collar fan base at Talladega. The lift that the country has seen has been slow to get to the Southeast around Alabama. Most of our crowd are in the manufacturing and automotive and those types of sectors, which are dragging behind some of the others.