Where Do the Fans Fit in Tomorrow's NASCAR?
Pittsburgh International Race Complex isn’t my normal weekend racing destination, but thanks to the nice folks who were putting on the Formula Racing weekend there recently, I was sitting on a hillside overlooking the 2.8-mile road course while various classes of race cars – Formula Atlantic/1000, Formula 1600, Formula 2000, Formula Vee and Formula Ford – zipped around. Interesting stuff.
Formula 2000 racers at Pittsburgh
A major difference – besides the cars and the course – was that I could watch from just about anywhere I wanted, because there were only a handful of fans at each vantage point, and that was because this racing was not open to the public. Nearly everybody other than me was connected to one of the teams. As a result, when one particularly impressive pass took place, I heard a very young female voice exclaim, “Daddy’s got the lead!”
This kind of thing isn’t uncommon in road racing. Places like Virginia International Raceway actually are private clubs, and if you’re a member, there are options for you to race. Other situations are like this one, where driver entry fees fund a professional organization to stage the events and pay for the track time.
The drivers do it for the love of competition, perhaps more against the track itself than against other cars. The sanctioning group for one class says on its website that its races offer neither purse nor points, just a chance for racers who love to race to get out there and do it.
OK, you know where this is leading: Could this happen with stock car racing?
To a very limited extent, it has. There was a sportsman’s club in Pennsylvania that had a small race track, where members could run. Most had older street or pure stocks, and the races seldom involved more than a handful of entries, but it was racing for them that owned the track, so who else should care?
Pit passes from teams like these (the “back gate” at a race track) frequently add up to more than is paid back to the class in purse money, but these are racers doing it for love of the sport, not help with the mortgage.
More common is the small short track that exists from “back gate” revenue, the pit passes and entry fees collected from race teams. Some fans show up, but I’ve seen races where the “front gate” crowd – the fans who aren’t there as part of a team – was in the double digits, sometimes less than 50.
Back to “What does this have to do with NASCAR?” Well, as I have maintained before, current NASCAR rules – especially the preoccupation with battles for the lead -are clearly aimed at the TV audience and not the fans in the stands.
Does that mean we could have Cup races with no crowds? Probably not, because even in today’s reduced-numbers world, the spectator gate receipts add up. Let’s say a track draws 40,000 fans. At an average of $40 a head, that $1.6 million, before food, programs, parking and all the other stuff you can spend money on at the track. At $50 average, we’re talking $2 million, hardly chump change.
We’re probably not headed toward races in front of intentionally empty grandstands, but who knows what the future might bring.
The only way to make up for that money would be with increased TV or other media revenue, and that seems hardly likely. So, the status quo isn’t likely to change, at least not in NASCAR.
However, remember that road racing has its professional series for which you have to buy tickets, and they can be expensive. What you have is a world where some races are designed to draw fans, and some aren’t, and in road racing, it works. I’m not enough of a visionary to see how it would work with stocks, but I think we’re going to see changes far beyond those NASCAR is currently contemplating, and I wouldn’t eliminate the possibility of something like this down the line.
In the meantime, I wish NASCAR would devote more attention to the at-the-track spectating fans as RACE FANS, not just people to be entertained. That would mean paying more attention to what’s happening on the track away from the battle for the lead.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
Went to my “local” weekly dirt track, Lincoln Speedway, the other night and saw some forward-thinking action by that track’s management. Lincoln was the only 410 (big-time) sprint track running that weekend, because the Knoxville Nationals were taking place out in Iowa, and between top local competitors heading out west to try their luck and fans watching the event on TV, other tracks took the weekend off, kind of like it used to me when NASCAR was racing anywhere nearby.
So here’s what Lincoln did: the track has a “jumbotron” video board, and management made a deal with the streaming TV folks televising Knoxville to show the feature race, which was likely to begin not long after the final feature at Lincoln ended.
The Lincoln Speedway jumbotron
All that happened well after 11:00 p.m., yet hundreds, maybe 1,000 fans stuck around on a cool night to watch the big race. We left the speedway about 1:00 a.m.
The crowd got into it, too, cheering World of Outlaws or All-Star Circuit of Champions racers and cheering even more for any area drivers who made the show. When local racer Logan Schuchart came from 22nd starting position to take second place on the final lap of the 50-lapper, the place got pretty noisy.
I’m sure Lincoln had to pay to add that broadcast to the night’s races, but I’m also sure those folks who watched Knoxville told a lot of other people what Lincoln had done for them – at no cost – and were pretty positive about our little race track.
I’m not saying NASCAR tracks are lacking in promotional ability, but maybe it would be good for them to look around for inspiration elsewhere, too. Every little step helps keep our struggling sport alive.
Thanks to the creativity of Lincoln Speedway’s management, in one evening fans got to see local racer Ashley Cappetta (above) win her first sprint car feature in the 358 class, then watch David Gravel (below) capture the Knoxville Nationals, the Daytona 500 of sprint car racing.