$4.50 per gallon for diesel, $9.75 per gallon for race gas...where is all of this going and how is it affecting, and going to affect, short-track racing? To get a bead on the true state of the industry we talked to five major sanctions in the United States. We chose these groups based on their broad reach and direct involvement in local racing. In a departure from typical interview Q&A style, we asked the leaders of these respective sanctions to give us their opinion on how their business is doing given the current economy. The answers were in most cases somewhat surprising and even enlightening. Here's what they said:
World Racing Group is comprised of the two national tours (World of Outlaws Dirt Late Model Series and World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series), a regional tour (Super DIRTCar Series) and weekly racing in the form of the UMP DIRTCar Racing. World Racing Group also owns seven dirt tracks; 5 in New York, 1 in Pennsylvania, and 1 in Florida.
It seems like each year the weather becomes a convenient excuse for poor performance, but 2008 has been one of those years where it is legitimate. Weather has seriously impacted certain areas. Unfortunately, you can't get back the dates that you lose in this business. It's very frustrating. The Firecracker 100 (June 27 at Lernerville Speedway in Pennsylvania) heat races were incredible, but the Saturday night show got rained out and had to be rescheduled. For the tracks we own (such as Lerner-ville) the weather has been a very big factor in our success this year, in gaining the momentum that you need in operating a weekly short-track.
The good news is, even with the weather, the car count has been the biggest surprise for the weekly series. It has been very consistent in light of all the economic concern of our customers. However, while car counts have been on par with the last couple of years, the spectator attendance has been down a tick. A track I talked to last week said they were down 400 fans and that seems to be a consistent number, whether you were getting 2,000 and now you're getting 1,600, or you were getting 800 and now you're getting 400. It seems that those 400 fans are the ones who have disappeared and what, why, and how we get them back is something that we all have to discover.
Prices like these make towing to the track tough. Photo by Rob Fisher
Our sense is that group is not the vested fan. Maybe they used to go twice a month to their local track ,and now they are going just once a month. While gas prices might be part of it, I'm not sure we're to that point yet. I haven't seen it (fuel prices as a deterrent to racing) consistently enough. There are a lot of track operators that you'll talk to who remember the gas crunch of the '70s. The lesson that taught us is that we have to look back and focus on what we do in our little community, specifically the community that the racetrack is in. We also must foster and aid the entry-level classes. What really saved us in the '70s and early '80s was the participation level in the entry-level classes.
Now this is a little different economic concern that's out there right now. It's certainly nowhere near what it was then. We don't have 22 percent unemployment, gas lines, and all that. The concern that is in the pit of the stomach of the consumer right now seems to be what is affecting their decisions. It's not taking them out of the game, but they are being more careful and cautious about spending their dollar.
I've seen the first dip in the participation levels in our regional touring side of the business. The one or two or five guys that may have gone all the time either just don't go now or they may go just once a month or they may go to every other show. That seems to be the feeling that's out there.
Our national series are enjoying very robust car counts and great fan counts, so it again proves, at least in dirt racing where you have a significant special event that you can bring to a weekly short-track, it still has the appeal that it always had.