• Canadian Grand Prix

Grand Prix Attendance Figures in Montreal Cut in Half

But there’s likely an explanation for 360,000 suddenly becoming 180,000 - and a solution is at hand

Norris McDonald By: Norris McDonald February 4, 2019
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Forbes.com auto racing business reporter Christian Sylt dropped a bombshell shortly after the new year when he revealed that attendance figures for the 2017 Canadian Grand Prix had been revised and 180,000 gate admissions had disappeared.

Instead of 360,000 spectators attending the Grand Prix in Montreal over three days, the actual number was closer to 180,000 over three days, according to Liberty Media, which now owns the Formula One series.

What gives? 

First, although there could be suspicions, I don’t think anybody was lying. Oh, there might have been a little fib, or exaggeration, in the beginning, or a misunderstanding, but in the end, I suspect everybody has been pretty much on the up-and-up.

Let me tell you a story.

One time in the early 1970s, I was at Mosport covering the Grand Prix, when it was held at what is now known as Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. As I was finishing my story (this was when newspapers were newspapers and you had to “file to deadline,”) I turned to the track’s PR man and said, “How many were here today? What was the attendance?” And he said, without hesitation: “80,000.” So I finished my story by saying that 80,000 spectators were at Mosport for the race.

The next morning, the late Harvey Hudes, one of two people who owned the place at the time, called me and was apoplectic with rage.  “Who told you we had 80,000 here yesterday,” he screamed into the phone. And then he said these immortal words: “We maybe – maybe – had half that number. Do you want to get me in trouble with the tax department?”

(He then did me a huge favour by teaching me how to estimate a crowd, a skill that comes in handy every time I hear fiction like a “million” people attended this parade or this gathering in Toronto, which is mathematically impossible. But I digress.)

The key thing is that he said he was afraid of the tax department, which – these days – employs more than 40,000 people from coast-to-coast who are working to squeeze every last cent in taxes they can out of those of us who work for a living. Hudes was worried he would file tax dollars on admission paid by 40,000 people and yet, in the Globe and Mail, it said 80,000 had been there and that one of those thousands of tax collectors would call him up and say, “What up, Bub?”

Which is probably what happened in this latest case in Montreal. For the record, race organizers there have never publicly issued attendance. Nor does CTMP, or the Honda Indy, or the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, or NASCAR, or . . . . In short, most motor racing numbers are estimates usually made up by reporters.

Back in the day, it was reported, year-after-year, that 300,000 attended the Indy 500. Then it started to creep up. At some point, the AP reported that 400,000 were at the Speedway for the annual “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Then, the late Paul Newman hired a couple of university students to actually count the seats. And Curt Cavin, then a reporter with the Indianapolis Star, did the same thing, but all by himself. They came up with different totals but they were close enough to be accepted as gospel.

In fact, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had (at the time of those counts), fewer than 200,000 seats. Of course, several thousands of people go into the infield and stand up beside the fence for the race but fewer and fewer are doing that these days because they’ve since built a road course and there are golf holes in there so the available space has shrunk. The annual attendance, then, is probably (there’s that word again . . . ) closer to 200,000, about half of what was reported only a few years ago.

(Which is still a helluva lot of people, but nowhere near what was once accepted as truth.)

So what happened in Montreal, if you extrapolate from that scenario, is that at some point, some reporter asked, just like me at Mosport back in the ‘70s, how many people attended the Grand Prix and some PR person said “100,000,” and the reporter took that to mean on race day when the flak meant over three days, and it’s just grown naturally from there.

Remember, Bernie Ecclestone was in charge of F1 at that time. He had two guys in his marketing department because he did everything himself and made all the deals himself and whenever they were allowed to speak they were just Bernie’s ventriloquist dummies anyway. Liberty is a huge communications and concert promoting company with a proper marketing department and so, at some point, they started to check, and double-check, and undoubtedly found some discrepancies.

Which more-or-less explains how 360,000 was cut in half and total attendance at the GP in 2017 was found to be 180,000 instead of 360,000. Yes, the tax people might have asked some questions but I’m more inclined today to go with this last scenario.

So, how to avoid these misunderstandings in future, which can only bring embarrassment? I say, release the official attendance figures. The Maple Leafs do, the Blue Jays do, the Argos do, Toronto FC does. All the major league sports in Canada and the U.S. do.

If auto racing considers itself major league, then it should make the numbers public.

Canadian Grand Prix

HOT LAPS: I got all excited when I saw on the Internet a story that said, “Verstappen knows how to beat Hamilton, Vettel,” so I called it up and this is what it said (in so many words): Red Bull has to start the season fast in order to stay even with those two guys.” What a letdown . . . . . . Tony Stewart, co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing and a retired Monster Energy Cup driver, won the All-Star Circuit of Champions sprint car race in Florida the other night. Stewart, who owns the sprint car racing series as well as the Eldora Speedway in Ohio, was seriously injured in a sprint car crash several years ago but vowed to return to the dirt tracks once his NASCAR on-track career was over. He’s done it and his success shows he hasn’t lost much of a step, either . . . . Eli Tomac (Kawasaki) won his first race of the Monster Energy AMA Supercross season on Saturday night in San Diego. Ken Roczen (Honda) was second and Justin Bogle was third.

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