By Ben Berkowitz and Bill Berkrot
(Reuters) - Horrific race car crashes - like the one at Daytona last week that injured about 30 spectators - are a black eye for the sport. But it's the U.S. economy that is dragging down racetrack operators like International Speedway Corp.
International Speedway hosts about half of the annual Nascar Sprint Cup races at its dozen tracks across the country, meaning its fortunes are intricately linked to the sport's success.
After a boom in popularity a decade ago that prompted political candidates to appeal to a constituency dubbed "Nascar Dads," admissions revenue started to swoon along with the economy.
The latest crash, in which tires and other debris sailed over a safety fence and into the stands, will only add to the company's costs, as it faces legal settlements, repair work and expenses for investigating what happened and how to prevent a repeat.
But that bill will be modest compared to the loss of revenue from fans deserting the sport.
Attendance for that particular Saturday race routinely topped 100,000 people before the financial crisis, but in the last five years it has struggled to top 80,000, according to race data compiled by the website racing-reference.info. (The race was part of Nascar's "Nationwide Series," which is considered a stepping stone to the more prominent Sprint Cup).
The figure for this year's race hasn't been disclosed by Daytona International Speedway, which is part of ISC. That is in line with a new Nascar practice begun in February. The viewing stands that were showered with debris were far from full, film footage showed.
"A lot of people don't feel comfortable spending all the gas money and their vacation time going to these races. It's very different. The popularity isn't what it used to be," said Morningstar analyst Jaime Katz.
Nascar's declining popularity has two unrelated causes that, unfortunately for the sport, hit simultaneously: a weakening economy that disproportionately affected its fan base, and a lack of compelling "storylines" as races became safer and driver personalities grew more restrained.
The economic decline in particular has hit the hardest - with many better-paid manufacturing and construction jobs disappearing - as fans were left without the disposable income to attend races.
"You don't just get on the subway, go to Yankee Stadium, watch a game and go home," said Kyle Petty, a host and analyst on TV's Speed Channel, who won a number of Nascar races in a 30-year career on the track.
"It's a commitment to come to a Nascar race," said Petty, whose father, Richard, is one of the sport's greatest legends, and whose son, Adam, was killed in 2000 in a practice crash ahead of a race. "They drive 200 miles or more, they get hotel rooms...It's a big deal and an expensive proposition."
A 2009 poll sponsored by ESPN found that 55 percent of Nascar fans had a household income of under $50,000, a percentage slightly higher than the general population and the group hardest hit by the squeeze on discretionary spending.
"The recession seemed to have a much bigger impact on Nascar than it did on the other sports," said Victor Matheson, an associate professor of economics at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts and an officer of the North American Association of Sports Economists.
By way of comparison, Matheson noted that Major League Baseball's attendance fell 8 percent from 2007 to 2010 and National Basketball Association attendance fell 4 percent over the same period.
Admissions revenue at International Speedway -- not a precise proxy, but close given more or less steady ticket prices -- fell 37 percent over that time period.
STALLING FOR TIME
Shares of International Speedway touched their highest levels since July 2011 last week, but are still down about one third from the summer of 2008, having failed to regain most of what they lost during the financial crisis. By comparison, major stock indices have pulled back their losses and are close to record highs.
International Speedway did not return multiple calls for comment.
Analysts say International Speedway has to look at different propositions, like casinos attached to racetracks, to try and draw people back, or to at least stall for more time until the economy improves. Unfortunately, their lower-middle class base of support is getting hammered anew - this time by a combination of an increase in payroll taxes, higher gasoline prices, and rising healthcare costs.
"The consumer income base that they cater to is likely still struggling, so it may be another three years or so before that turns," Morningstar's Katz said. "Corporate spend is coming back, broadcasting contracts are looking decent. If corporate spending can carry it for the next few years, it will be OK, and if not, we might be running in place."
International Speedway's problems have been compounded by simple economics - as Nascar grew near the end of the housing boom, its more popular events became more expensive to attend, just as fans started feeling a lot of economic pain.
In its last annual report, the company cautioned it was experiencing "compressed sales cycles" for events, as people held off longer to buy tickets. That ran directly into the strategy of increasing prices as events drew nearer.
The trend shows up in admissions revenue, which fell in each of the last five fiscal years, dropping a total of 46 percent over that time. Food, beverage and merchandise revenue fell in the last six fiscal years, declining 47 percent over that period.
In February, Nascar said it would stop providing attendance estimates in its race reports, leaving that choice to track operators, who generally do not release such figures.
"If you take away 10 percent of the income of a low-income household, that really makes that household have to make some tough choices about entertainment and things like that," Holy Cross's Matheson said.
LESS POPULAR TOO
There is also the broader question of whether Nascar is simply becoming less popular generally, particularly as some say the sport's personalities have become more restrained.
Speed Channel's Petty said in the old days, drivers like Dale Earnhardt Sr. were seen as more "blue collar," the kind of people who had the same pastimes and the same roots as the fans in the stands. (A winner of seven Nascar championships, Earnhardt died in a crash at Daytona in 2001).
But as the sport got bigger and more lucrative, drivers were forced to present a more clean-cut image acceptable to their corporate sponsors. Nascar has been seen as carrying some of the responsibility for that shift, given its closer policing of what drivers say and how they say it in recent years, even maintaining a practice of secret fines for a time.
"It's harder for the fans to relate to the driver," Petty said in an interview.
According to TV ratings data from Nielsen, viewership for the Sprint Cup (Nascar's championship series) on the broadcast networks fell 15 percent from 2008 to 2010, spiked dramatically in 2011 and then fell 15 percent again in 2012. Even the rise of a prominent female driver like Danica Patrick, known as much for her fashion model looks as for her skill behind the wheel, has done little to boost audiences.
Reuters contacted owners of eight of the most prominent Nascar teams this week to ask their position on the decline in attendance; they all either declined comment or did not respond to the requests.
But analysts and economists say that in some ways, Nascar has simply become less exciting.
The personalities are more tame, the races are more predictable and - ironically - the sport is generally safer as well, reducing the spectacular crashes.
"You've got to offer people a good product...and the sport has lost some of its pizzazz," said Barry Lucas, an analyst at Gabelli & Co who has a "buy" rating on International Speedway.
"There seem to be fewer characters than there were in the past. They need people getting mad and tossing helmets and demonstrating that there's some real fire out there."
(Editing by Edward Tobin and Leslie Gevirtz)