This thundering herd shows the strength of having good weekly racing. The paying customer
We started the ball rolling last issue with the thoughts of a trio of promoters, and they have more thoughts on more issues. The complete picture required more than the 3,000 words that were written last month (May 2006).
Our promoters represent a dirt track, a paved track, and a track operator who is also a series promoter. Their views are their own, relating their experiences and their opinions. Their suggestions may not work for a paved track in Washington or a dirt track in New Mexico. That decision would rest with that particular promoter and his or her interpretation of what it takes to keep the gates open. The problems facing short-track racing are the same, only different. There may be a common concern, but there is not a common solution.
While promoters have the responsibility of providing a place for the racers to compete and fans to watch, the success of short-track racing rests with anyone who chooses to be involved. Drivers play a very critical role.
At Oakshade Raceway in Wauseon, Ohio, some of the drivers seem to get the message. "We hear about our drivers telling people about the races, about what they did on the weekend, and we see some of these people in the grandstands," says Pam Henricks. "We've had drivers come up and buy tickets for their family, their friends, and their sponsors."
It's a mixed bag at Dixie Motor Speedway (near Flint, Michigan) when it comes to driver help. "Some are very good, and some don't care or don't think about it," says Mike Kern. "There's a handful who are true ambassadors for Dixie. You'll find a lot of enthusiasm from guys who are new to it. They realize how good it is, and they want to help spread the word.
"You'll see it when you have a class that's growing. Someone is telling the new racers about the opportunity. If they experience and like it, you've got that momentum from the drivers. The quality of the product is very important. If you get someone into the stands because a driver talked to them about it, you better have the quality of product they expect. You might be able to buffalo somebody once, but not twice. Even some of the touring drivers have been very supportive, talking to the series organizers about bringing a show to us."
Tom Curley has been involved in promoting for 30 years. Along the way, he has picked up aw
With his 30 years in the business, Tom Curley has seen quite a bit when it comes to racing. As promoter of the Thunder Road International Speedbowl in Barre, Vermont, Curley runs Thursday night programs for a weekly operation. He also oversees the competition of the American Canadian Tour and has been hailed as a forward-thinking force in racing. He knows you can't do it yourself and sees drivers as a way to help the sport grow. He just doesn't get the cooperation he would like.
"It's sad," he says. "The greatest missionaries are our drivers. They can be icons in the community, but in the last 15 years, the drivers have been too busy with their own agendas to worry about it. It's really sad how few are cognizant that they need the track to be successful if they want to be successful. When tracks start to close, maybe that's when they'll start to realize it.
"People are on the go all the time these days. The series used to schedule 33 races, then down to 24. This year, we're looking at 12 races because the drivers don't want to travel. You have to look for the positive. Where is the pony in the pile? We can't dilute the product. We have to worry about quality and not quantity in this case."
There's another aspect of the driver role that seems to be missing, and it may hold a key to some of the struggles faced by the sport. The world has changed. There are no service stations on the corner with the local mechanic keeping his race car beside the shop for the world to see. If there are heroes in the sport, they're the ones who are racing on Sunday afternoons (and Saturday nights) on television. It's not the guys at the local track anymore.
"The heroes on Sunday have replaced the local and regional heroes," says Curley. "Today, when you're a driver at a short track, your immediate aspiration is to get good enough to move to North Carolina and become a hero. The reality is that the margin is so thin for that to happen. You have a better chance of winning the lottery. If you have a young kid who wants to go to that level, he could go south and become mediocre. There are thousands who can drive, but it takes more than that at that level. It's pretty much internal, based on who you know. There are a lot of racers who have that dream, and the dream doesn't include being a local or regional hero. Not long ago, everyone knew of the regional heroes. I knew about Mike Eddy, Dick Anderson, and guys like that, even though I was living in New England. Every region had its stars. Stafford [Motor Speedway in Stafford Springs, Connecticut] was a place that gave the regional guys a chance to race each other. Television has taken over, and there is no need for regional competition. We're working hard to create those regional heroes again. They will draw people to the special events. There's still an attraction for the regional hero to race against the local hero.
Any track can offer racing, but what can your track do to get the fans to come back for mo
"Without the heroes, all we have to sell is a product. We have no names to draw people. If the product is no good, there's nothing to sell. Promoters have to accept that if they don't have the names, they have to make the product the best it can be with exciting racing and everything that makes the experience positive for the customer."
As we found in our comparison of the National Speedway Directory from 25 years ago, there are actually more tracks today than there were in 1980. It is not inconceivable that some of the growth came about when someone thought they could build a better mousetrap (i.e., a track that was better than the one 20 miles away). That idea seldom works. It results in more tracks, but not necessarily more racers. If the number of racers stays the same, the size of the class is basically cut in half, which seriously dilutes the product. Promoters have to take a realistic look at the racetracks in the region. It's not always competition.
"We work the best we can with the other tracks in the area," says Kern. "They are competitors. We're offering a similar product, and we're targeting the same audience. There are cases where we can work together for rules and work hand in hand. The problems often come when a track gets new owners. The new owners have new ideas, and those may not be consistent with yours. The best thing we can do is have similar rules to give the drivers a chance to compete, and we can share cars. With the economy the way it is and family obligations, a guy may only race once a week or even less. There has to be some balance. If a guy is going to race once a week, I'd like to have him here.
"We address common issues. The Michigan Speedway Promoters Association helps tracks in the state to address their concerns. Next year, Krista and I will be going into our 11th season. We're not the new kids. A new kid is one who comes in and upsets the delicate balance. In the old days, if you didn't have 20 years experience, you weren't a veteran. Now, the turnover makes it more of a challenge."
Local heroes are created in Victory Lane at the weekly racing track. For many, there are n
Oakshade Raceway is close to Michigan International Speedway, which hosts two Nextel Cup races and a number of other major-league events. It can be a blessing and a curse to have "Big Brother" so close.
"Before 2005, we could tell when they were racing," says Henricks. "It had an effect on the number of people we were seeing in the stands. This year, it didn't have much of an impact. Some of the people who were here said that our racing is better than NASCAR's.
"We still have some who aren't here because they are camping up there. Because it's so close, some don't go until Sunday morning and they still come to the races on Saturday night. The IROC race hurts us more it seems. The June [Nextel Cup] race didn't hurt us at all."
The big track is not the only racing attraction. Less than 100 miles downstate, there's a track called Eldora Speedway, which draws short-track fans galore. "A race at Eldora doesn't just take fans, it takes cars," Henricks continues. "Anytime we lose one car, it hurts because it takes the fans of that car, too. We'll have that when the ALMS (American Late Model Series) runs at Attica and we have a couple of our drivers go there. You'll notice they're gone. For the ALMS race in Canada, we lost five of our top Late Models. Aaron Scott was high in the track points, but he had to go to protect his series points. We rained out anyway, so it worked out."
Ah, yes, rainouts. While we would like to stay on aspects of promoting that can be controlled, let's deviate for just a minute. Even the best-planned show with the highest car count and a world-record payout can be wiped out by the weather. No one in racing wins when the rains come in. You know weather is going to be a factor, you just don't know when. Still, you can plan that it will happen.
Regional heroes are developed through racing in weekly programs and regional tours. The re
"We sometimes use weather as an excuse," says Curley. "It's very easy to blame it if you're not on top of your game. You have to blame something. It's a blessing if you didn't have your work done.
"We factor in a 20 percent loss for the weather when we plan at the start of the year. We know we'll have it, but to blame it is making it a scapegoat. We have a policy that we will race if we can. If we get beaten up on the crowd because of the weather, it's a risk we have to take because it will pay off in the long run. The people know we're going to try to get a show in, so we know people won't be gun-shy and they'll support us. It has paid off over the long term."
"We all have to deal with it," says Kern. "In the last year, we had three rainouts, but we had many shows affected by it. We lost 11 shows in 1997 to the weather. It's a tough deal, but we just have to deal with it."
Let's get back to that which is under the control of the promoters. Last month, we talked about the ideal length in terms of time, but what about the number of classes? Some places offer as many as six classes in a night while another might have as few as three. Can both sides be right?
"With our car count, we couldn't run more than three classes," says Henricks. "We averaged 60 Bombers, 40 Late Models, and 25 Sportsman. There's no interest in a four-cylinder class. We tried a truck class, and it didn't work because we didn't get enough to put on a show. We're fine with three classes."
"Three is perfect-four can be done in a tight show," says Curley. "If you've got a class that only has seven cars, it makes your show stink. You need to run your classes every week. I'm against letting them off for a week. If you have a great product, put it in front of the people. For example, you can't leave the Street Stocks off in a late season special. That's like taking a team of 25 players to the World Series and telling them that only 20 can play. If promoters pay attention to the lower divisions, and I hate to call them lower divisions, they'll find them to be an important part of a business plan. They have a certain amount of loyalty, and promoters can lose sight of that."
The weather can be a thorn in the side of some promoters, but the committed ones do what t
Many tracks have grasped the promotional opportunities available with the Internet. "Computers make a big difference," says Henricks. "We have a forum on our Web site. People want to know now, and they're going to ask to find out. Our Web site is very important to us. We want it to be the place where the drivers and fans can find out what's going on, where they can get the results if they want to know what they missed. People used to call the track to find out what they wanted to know. Now, they can get it from the Web site, so it's easier for everyone."
"Our Web site is critical," agrees Kern. "I post schedules, rules, purses-everything so the drivers don't have to wonder. We use our Web site to educate, and it has such a broad reach. You can read about us from anywhere. When people come to the area, they can find out about us and hopefully they can include us in their plans."
The promoters have challenges, but they have tools to combat those challenges. The time to step up the battle may be right now.
We're in a renaissance," says Curley. "[Nextel] Cup has plateaued. We have to take our destiny into our own hands now. We're the last of the American cowboys. We're the final bastion of affordable family entertainment. We offer a $140 season ticket for 20 events. Our gate is $9. You pay $8 for a 90-minute movie. As promoters, we have lots of ways to succeed. We have to be more positive. We were overshadowed. We need to come out of that shadow. We are not the bastard children of racing. We need to steward the sport better. We need to get it healthy. We need to teach the young the right way, or that way will die off. It's not about asset value-because the land may be more valuable as a shopping mall or development-not if you're trying to steward the sport. You have to be positive. That's the only way it's going to make sense."