DAYTONA BEACH — Daytona International Speedway is not immune to the downward spiral which has gripped NASCAR events across the country in recent years.

While a News-Journal estimated 60,000 spectators is hardly a failure, it’s not an unqualified success either, and the smaller head count at last weekend's race had a ripple effect through the community. The Speedway does not release attendance figures.

Race back to 20 years ago and the Speedway had a sellout for its Fourth of July weekend racing bash.

The track sold some 170,000 tickets in 1998 as NASCAR was gaining national popularity and attracting new fans from every corner of the country, especially urban areas.

Last Saturday night's crowd estimate included race fans scattered in the 101,500-seat stadium and those hardy infield faithful who watched atop their RVs and motorhomes and scaffolds.

NBC’s broadcast numbers were down from a year ago. The telecast attracted 4.4 million viewers, down 18 percent from 2017.

Bloomberg.com reported that NASCAR’s annual television numbers have been cut in half since its TV peak in 2005.

It's no secret that NASCAR’s numbers have been falling across the board for a decade, starting with the “Great Recession” that began in 2009.

NASCAR’s base has always relied on blue collar participation. When the recession hit, that group took the hardest fall.

Several big tracks, including Charlotte Motor Speedway, Dover Motor Speedway and Richmond International Raceway, have removed entire sections of grandstand because of ticket demand decline. Here in Daytona, the Speedway removed a 60,000-seat backstretch grandstand near Turn 2 as part of the Daytona Rising project.

Those vested in the business say the sport is in a bottoming out period and predict the crowds will eventually return, just not in the same numbers as 1998.

“I have never really been too concerned with the numbers, the drop in attendance, viewership and so forth,” former Cup Series driver turned broadcaster Dale Earnhardt Jr. said last week.

“I have always believed everything in the universe cycles, and we are just going through a cycle. We’ll get back on top and have great days again. I want to be here to enjoy that.”

The Daytona fan count and having July 4 fall on Wednesday did not lean in favor of area businesses. Many of the city’s hotels were left with vacancy signs glowing.

“The mainland hotels by the Speedway did not fare well due to a number of factors,” said Manoj Bhoola, Elite Hospitality’s CEO. “The midweek holiday only benefited the beachside hotels due to their location, but there was no demand for mainland hotels for that time period.

“The national trend of declining (NASCAR) attendance also negatively affected the Speedway hotels and is expected to continue to do so,” Bhoola said. “The increase in room supply around the Speedway was also a factor and will continue to be, as we take on another two new hotels in the coming months.”

Attendance/viewer declines are not strictly a Daytona-specific issue. NASCAR has seen a decline in attendance and television numbers at many of its events in the past 10 years.

It’s obvious the sport is in a transition period from the recent exodus of star-power drivers to building a younger audience.

“The sport is ever evolving,” Speedway president Chip Wile said. “From 1948 to today it has evolved and looks different.”

International Speedway Corp., which owns the Speedway, has a number of strategies, including massive capital investments to upgrade properties to make them more fan friendly. ISC spent $400 million to demolish the old grandstand and replace it with a prototype motorsports stadium.

The process took nearly three years. The stadium, which offers free Wi-Fi and other amenities, was fully functional for the 2016 Daytona 500. In order to build at-track attendance, NASCAR has started a family-friendly initiative where children 12 and under are not charged admission to Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series races.

Daytona takes it a step further with reduced admissions for its prime racing events.

Wile, who was named Speedway president on April 25, 2016 after holding the same title at Darlington Raceway, had no complaints about the recent race weekend at Daytona.

“We had two really exciting races,” he said. “If I rated the weekend, I’d say it’s one of the better executed events we’ve done in a long time.”

The Speedway hosts two Cup Series events each year, and they are as different as night and day.

The Daytona 500 draws a national audience as the season kickoff to NASCAR’s marquee series and falls in February. The Coke Zero Sugar 400 has been staged on or near July 4 since 1959 and draws a regional audience.

The 500 enjoyed a stadium sellout, announced the day before the event, while the 400 drew about half as many customers.

So what is the answer to the sagging numbers? Some have suggested the Speedway move its summer date to fall, when temperatures are more moderate and the weather (sans hurricanes) is more predictable.

Wile said changing the 400’s race date to autumn would likely have little impact. He even hinted it could have negative results.

“Moving our race date? It’s a hard question to answer because there are so many variables,” Wile said. “I can tell you I was part of Darlington Raceway’s date change to a holiday weekend (Labor Day) and that was a positive change.

“Holiday weekends in racing are premium dates. I can tell you we are happy with having our summer race on a holiday weekend.”

NASCAR COO Steve Phelps gave Daytona’s summer race a vote of confidence when asked about the 400 and its numbers across the board.

“The Coke Zero Sugar 400 weekend at Daytona International Speedway provides a grand stage to celebrate our nation’s independence,” he said in an email.

“Add the thrilling race finishes our fans crave to that mix, and we have an enduring recipe for success.”

News-Journal staff writer Jim Abbott contributed to this story

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