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Let Us Count All The Ways That Reserved Seating Sucks


n the decade or so since reserved seats became commonplace at drag strips and open-wheel venues, I’ve often wondered whether sanctioning officials are looking at the long-term damage done by reserved seating. (I also wonder how many of them look longer ahead than the next quarter, but that’s another column.)

Sure, a space that’s been “upgraded” to reserved status generates more revenue than general admission, and that surcharge is pure gravy to promoters. Now, multiply that upgrade by two, three or more days of qualifying and competition — times the total number of reserved seats. With all that extra dough rolling in, a bean counter who’s new to motorsports might wonder how reserved seating could be anything but beneficial.

Every racing organization wants to be “The Next NASCAR,” understandably. Maybe that’s why the other ones emulate NASCAR in so many ways. All well and good, except for one thing: No other form of motorsports enjoys the kind of ticket demand that enables them to dictate where fans will sit next year, and how much more fans are going to pay to watch (and park, and eat, and drink). To balk at the cost and/or location of such a seat at most Nextel Cup venues is to risk losing it to some “TV fan” who will pay to get in at any price.

At a drag race or Indy-car show where unsold reserved seats are abundant — but general-admission space is scarce — paying extra for a seat that no one else wants can feel like extortion. Consider the track formerly known as Sears Point International Raceway. During NHRA’s annual national event, if you choose to sit on the side with the pro-car pits, but not to purchase an upgrade to stadium seating, the only space still open to you is slabs of concrete at and beyond the finish line. After walking up a small mountain to reach these distant spots, you may have no view of the scoreboards. There are no PA speakers, and no concession stands. Yet this where I find the hardest-core fans I know.

Such informal reunions of old friends and interactions with like-minded strangers are big reasons why we’ve all been going to the drags since the 1950s, ’60s or ’70s. We all got hooked not only on the racing action, but also on the freedom to sit at different points on the track, mingling with different groups of pals. Now, I find fewer familiar faces in Sonoma with each passing summer. Inevitably, the conversation among us survivors gets around to who’s missing this year, and why. Reserved seating is a reason cited often.

Granted, some of the old guys have capitulated and purchased reserved seats, thereby restricting themselves to whatever section and seatmates that a computer assigns them. Many more are simply gone, and unlikely to return. Even allowing for death and divorce, the attrition rate of these lifelong fans is downright alarming.

This is the type of fan who never missed a qualifying session, nor left before the final round of Top Fuel. These are dues-paying NHRA and/or IHRA members. They have served as evangelists for our sport, turning on countless coworkers, and relatives, and neighborhood kids. How sad that these folks who built their annual vacations — and their lives — around multiple national events no longer attend the national event closest to home. I could name lots of them, and I’d bet that you can, too.


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