Attendance at 15 major North American auto racing series increased by nearly a half million spectators last year, and no one was more pleased than Bill King, the man responsible for counting the crowds for Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.
"It has been going up every year," he said after releasing the annual attendance figures. "Every year, despite the economy, tracks add seats, and every year they fill them and I'm always surprised. But I'm dreading the year they stay the same or go down. I don't want to be the guy who has to write that report."
If attendance keeps pace with the early events, he won't have to worry about the figures for this season. The Daytona 500 attracted 145,000, and since then, Winston Cup races at North Carolina Motor Speedway, Richmond and Atlanta have drawn record crowds.
This weekend, the IndyCar Series begins on Australia's Gold Coast with the Daikyo IndyCar Grand Prix at Surfers Paradise, and another large crowd is anticipated. ESPN will televise the 65-lap race on a three-hour delay at midnight today.
The 15 professional series monitored by Goodyear last season showed an increase of 449,901 spectators, 3.7 percent over 1990. A record total of 12,496,094 attended 272 events in 1991, up from 12,046,193 for 268 events in 1990.
Average event attendance rose 2.2 percent to 45,942 from 44,948.
The only major sport in the country to top the auto racing numbers is major-league baseball, which drew a single-season record 56,813,759 fans to 4,212 regular-season games, for an average attendance of 13,489.
NASCAR's Winston Cup circuit remains the leader in total attendance, attracting 3,377,050 fans to 29 events in 1991, up 1.2 percent over 1990. Individual race attendance rose to 116,450. Despite the addition of more than 160,000 new permanent seats last year, 1991 marks the third straight year NASCAR race tracks, as a group, have operated at more than 90 percent capacity on race days.
The PPG IndyCar World Series, including the 16-race CART schedule and the United States Auto Racing Club-sanctioned Indianapolis 500, attracted a record 2,806,801 fans in 1991, up 7.3 percent.
"Despite a nationwide belt-tightening, it's tough to downplay the commercial value of auto racing, when attendance continues to increase and the television industry continues to expand its motor sports programming," said Leo Mehl, director of worldwide racing for Goodyear.
While the study may seem self-serving for the tire company, King says it is not to its advantage to mislead its marketing people or other advertisers.
"We gather most of our own statistics," King said. "We do not, for example, take NASCAR or CART's word for attendance figures. We have our own field representatives at every track, and we have a massive file in the computer with precise track seating records. If our guys look around on race day and see the place is half or three-quarters full, I know exactly how many people the place holds and how many people actually came."