$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...
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.
When the World of Outlaws...
When the World of Outlaws come to town the fans line up for autographs. Photo by Joey Millard
With more than 40 years of history, the American Speed Association is one of the leading sanctions in creating new and innovative programs for the weekly short-track fans, competitors, and promoters. In addition to a comprehensive insurance program, ASA sanctions a multitude of tracks, events, and series across the country culminating in its ASA Short Track National Championship.
I'm seeing pockets throughout the country where track operators are having different issues. Some tracks are doing very well, while other tracks are not having the greatest of years. If I were to give a "snapshot" of what I'm hearing from the majority I'd say that the general consensus is that the crowds are the same or slightly better than the last few years. However, people are staying closer to home given the economy/price of fuel. The upper division car counts are remaining stable or are just slightly under what they were in previous years. On the other hand, the lower divisions (Street Stock/Hobby Stock) are feeling the pinch more than others. These are the divisions populated by the blue collar worker who has to choose between putting food on the table or heading out to the racetrack. Where you might find a large segment of the racer population complaining about high fuel prices, the traveling series, only about 10 percent of that group, by our estimates, are really being impacted by the "high cost of travel."
But it goes deeper than just gas prices, weather, or the general state of the economy. Factors such as promotional styles of the track owner or the specific region of the country impact how well one track does versus another. The track owner that understands that we're all in this together will be one who flourishes in bad economic times.
World Racing Group chief Tom...
World Racing Group chief Tom Deery says that his World of Outlaws touring Late Models are the hot ticket with robust car counts and great crowds, despite a soft economy. Photo by Joey Millard
The International Motor Contest Association, or IMCA, sanctions approximately 130 tracks in 27 states and boasts around 5,000 active members. Racing on dirt IMCA lists divisions covering Modified, Late Models, Hobby Stocks, Sprint Cars, Sport Mods, and more with both crate and open motor categories.
As widespread as we are we've always had bad weather to deal with, but this year the Midwest was hit really hard, harder than normal. In Nebraska, we haven't run but three or four shows. So the weather problem is a little more drastic this year, we're even seeing drought in some areas. Some tracks have gotten so much rain that the show gets canceled because they can't get the track to dry out. The dirt-track racing industry is extremely sensitive to weather. Weather is the number one issue that promoters seem to talk about these days.
Fuel prices are a big concern, too. In general it's having an effect, but our membership is very consistent to last year. Remember IMCA's primary focus is the local racer who travels less than 40 miles to the track. Where tracks are more spread out (90 miles or more to the track) we see (car counts) affected a little bit, but not enough to where the tracks can't put on a good show. For example, we just concluded the Wild West Modified Tour's Northern swing up into Nevada. Out there it is a healthy distance for the racers to travel but even so we had a strong car count of 51, 48, and 40 over three consecutive nights of racing.
Is racing in a desperate situation? No, those track promoters who understand what they're doing and what this market is are doing OK. The successful promoters are not trying to make it (Saturday night racing) into something that it is not, they focus on doing things the right way.
This industry gets into trouble when times change (good or bad) and they stray from the proven formula. This year, despite the economy, I'm seeing the same number of tracks saying they're having a good year and the same number saying their having a bad year.
Not even NASCAR is immune...
Not even NASCAR is immune from the weather. Violent storms moved across Chicagoland Speedway last month forcing the cancellation of Thursday activities, a scene replayed countless times this year at short-tracks across the country. Photo by Rusty Jarrett/NASCAR
The Automobile Race Club of America, better known as ARCA, sanctions full-bodied stock car racing, trucks, Late Models, Street Stocks, and four-cylinder cars across properties that include the ARCA RE/Max Series, Lincoln Welders Trucks Series, and two short-tracks, Flat Rock and Toledo Speedways.
You're going to have these economic cycles. ARCA has been doing this since 1953, and since 1981 I've seen us have both high car counts and low car counts. You have to be in it for the long haul. It's not fair to throw your hands up and say the economy is bad so that's why were doing bad.
We're getting a perspective from Michigan and Pocono (where ARCA runs with NASCAR) as well as Flat Rock and Toledo. The RE/Max Series is doing very well, we've got Jack Roush running every race and that's gratifying for us to have him in the sport. Yet it's challenging for the Andy Belmonts who have run our series for so many years to compete with Roush's financial assets.
Like the RE/Max Series ARCA's Lincoln Welders Truck Series is gaining both in truck count and in the quality of the events. I don't see that backtracking.
As far as our short-tracks, we are in this little geographic area very close to Motor City (Detroit). If we're holding our own, we're staying in the fight. Flat Rock and Toledo are two different tracks. Flat Rock has a good regular Friday night show. Toledo actually has two tracks, a 1/4-mile and a 1/2-mile. The quarter is healthy while the half-mile faces more challenges. It runs more specialized shows with bigger, more expensive Late Models.
Overall, 2008 would be a year where if you were budgeting for double digit growth you are going to be disappointed. Still I don't see anybody putting the for sale sign on the racecar. What we are seeing is guys and gals are getting more choosy. Some are choosing just to race the bigger shows with the bigger payouts while others are skipping the big shows all together and focusing their efforts more locally.
IMCA Modifieds like these...
IMCA Modifieds like these running at New York's Brewerton Speedway have remained healthy year in and year out. Brett Root, IMCA's vice president of operations, attributes the success to their philosophy of affordable racing coupled with a fair and consistent rules package. Photo by Joe Alexander
We've been fighting this for years and it won't get any easier. For consumers today there is a wider range of options of what to do on a Friday or Saturday night. To be a successful promoter the fans have to want to come and be with you. People are being more selective in terms of what they do with their money and it ratchets up the degree of difficulty to convince consumers that what you have is something compelling. You have to make your product, in our case cars going in circles, so compelling that they want to get up out of their easy chair.
NASCAR consists of three national series (the Sprint Cup Series, Nationwide Series, and Craftsman Truck Series), four regional series, and one local grassroots series, as well as two international series.
Let's acknowledge up front that even in the best of times it takes special people to run a racetrack. What we find is that the big stories of 2008 are weather and the general economy. We have had an inordinate amount of rainouts, making it hard to gauge the true nature of the market, but in talking with our promoters we've found that high fuel prices being detrimental to the industry is the minority opinion.
Despite the challenges, we believe there is an opportunity for short-track owners to cater to race fans who are now less likely to travel longer distances and less likely to pay for big ticket events. A number of promoters are seeing an upswing in ticket sales because of this. Of our roughly 60 NASCAR sanctioned local racetracks, 20 of them have seen an increase in car counts and attendance, 15 have seen a decrease, while the remainder are on par with what they did in 2007. The dramatic drop in car counts has not come.
Our traveling series hasn't seen an impact at all; the four US tours (Camping World Series and Whelan Northern and Southern Series) are very healthy right now.
The key is a philosophical change the sanction underwent in the last several years. In past times the focus was on quantity of tracks now it's on the quality of the track. The NASCAR sanction program is not for everyone. Part of our philosophy is to try to nurture...avoid telling the promoter how to run their business. We provide the tools for the local promoters to use if they choose.
The ARCA RE/Max Series cars...
The ARCA RE/Max Series cars of Frank Kimmel (No. 44) and Tayler Malsam (No. 4) represent the two types of teams in ARCA competition these days. Long standing competitors operating on a shoestring budget, Kimmel, and young hot shoes sitting pretty in NASCAR Sprint Cup team funded development program, Malsam. Photo by Jim Smith
All of our five sanction heads agree that the high fuel prices are having some affect on the racers, but not nearly to the degree we expected before the interviews. That is somewhat of a pleasant surprise given the seemingly endless string of bad economic reports when you turn on the TV to watch the six o'clock news.
Weather, of course, plays the biggest role in the current state of short-track racing, especially in the mid section of our country. But there was something more that came out in each conversation when we started talking about the future.
Listen to what ASA's Dennis Huth had to say: "Over the years the outside influences that impact the short-track owner have changed significantly, the competition for entertainment dollars has greatly increased, fuel prices have gone up, the economy has gone soft, more and more NASCAR and IndyCar races are being televised on Saturday night. When combined, these factors can present some pretty significant challenges for the short-track operator."
Given that, the important thing to note is that virtually all of the weekly racetracks operate solely with private funding. Each week, America's short-tracks total attendance can reach five times, or higher, than the attendance of a NASCAR Sprint Cup race and stacks-up favorably against the combined attendance of the NFL, MLB, and virtually all other professional sports. Yet from 1953 to 1970 a total of 30 professional sports stadiums were built with all but three receiving taxpayer support (to the tune of $450 million, nearly 70 percent of the total cost of the 30 facilities). The number is increasing today with several new stadiums under construction, renovation, or topics of discussion.
Brian Ickler (No. 15) is about...
Brian Ickler (No. 15) is about to get passed by eventual winner Eddie MacDonald (No. 71) in a NASCAR Camping World Series East event at New Hampshire International Speedway. The Camping World Series is a healthy regional touring series for the Daytona Beach sanction. Photo by Howie Hodge/NASCAR
"If you sit back and think about it, what the weekly short-tracks across the country have done over their history is incredible, and all on their own dime so to speak," says Huth. "They open their gates week-in and week-out, upgrade their facilities, promote their show, and develop the heroes of tomorrow all without any support whatsoever other than what their own wallet allows. And even more of a travesty, most of the time they do this without any thanks. The short-tracks are an iconic part of the American sports landscape and have been the first introduction to racing for millions of fans and created their passion for the sport."
It would be interesting to see what a short-track racing world would be like if taxpayer subsidies could build or at least help build 30 short-tracks around the country that mirror the facilities of Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri (see the lead photo). But alas, in today's world that is nothing more than fantasy.
The reality is that the track operators are left to fend for themselves. So what exactly are they supposed to do?
IMCA's Brett Root says that in order for a promoter to excel in a down economy he/she must see "the complete picture." Everything must be addressed from conducting the show properly at the back gate to delivering a family friendly product at the front gate. Promoters must also consider special events and offering good community support. But it all starts in the tech shed.
"We do our best to stick to our philosophy of uniform and consistent rules and having good officials who can separate the emotion of the situation. Do you want 80 cars or eight cars? The only way you get 80 is to offer a fair program with rules that are strictly enforced. That way the competitors know that you're running an honest show."
Interestingly, the average IMCA racer only competes for three years. That translates into about a 20 percent annual membership loss that Root and his team have to replace. They've been successful at it. Root says that his membership is consistent and healthy, always staying within 50 people of their annual total of about 5,000 members.
The real key is to not let the long term racers run off the short termers, or worse yet put up road blocks to new racers coming into the sport.
Texas Asphalt Modified racer...
Texas Asphalt Modified racer Marc Madison says that there has been a wall built between promoters and racers that is bad for the sport. Photo by Marc Madison
Like Root, Ron Drager at ARCA believes that the complete picture is critical to success and it ties in directly to the product you deliver. "We focus on providing something you can't get at home. Step one, the person has to choose to leave the house. If our product is racecars going in a circle I'm not so sure that you need to leave your house to see that. We need to deliver a complete package, everything from clean restrooms to on track autograph sessions to the sensory perception when the cars hit the track. At Toledo, for example, we'll even bring the winning car and driver straight from the track into the main grandstand concourse for the fans to join in the victory celebration."
Drager subscribes to the notion that everybody (driver, car owner, crew, and fan) is a customer.
George Silberman at NASCAR says that the key to the future of the short-track racing industry is the promoters ability to transform. "The drive-in theatre morphed into the multi-plex, people didn't stop going to the movies and I think the successful tracks will follow that model."
While every one of our sanction heads was completely correct in their statements, the future growth of the short-track racing industry lies just a little bit beyond what was said.
"I've been driving for 34 years, I used to be able to go to the track and make money but nobody is making money now," says Texas Asphalt Modified racer Marc Madison.
"We're getting paid the same amount or less than we did in the 1980s. Back then we raced for $600 to $1,000 to win depending on the track. But it also cost just $7 to get in the pits. Today it cost $25 per person, plus a $50 car fee, then you have to rent the transponder, buy a Raceiver, and methanol is now $7.50 per gallon."
These packed grandstands are...
These packed grandstands are at the Syracuse (NY) Fairgrounds, a.k.a. the Moody Mile. Apparently, it's not as bad as some would have you believe. We just need to pull together for the future good of the sport. Photo by Joe Alexander
Madison says that the attitude of his fellows racers today is that we're going to the track to lose money.
"There's been a wall built between the promoters and the racer because the racer perceives the promoters are pocketing all the money," says Madison. "Many local racers don't believe that they are the show."
Throw the red flag says Huth. "That's exactly the problem," he says. "The wall between drivers/teams and promoters hurts our sport. For just one fan, or worse one journalist, to hear 'I ain't never going back to that so-and-so track because (insert driver complaint here)' is seriously detrimental to the sport as a whole. You may think that one comment like that isn't harmful, but if the fan or journalist who hears it forms an opinion about that track they will pass it on."
"The same holds true when track owners/promoters single out a racer or group of racers," says Huth. "As a promoter, you must without a doubt and without question treat each and every racer as your customer." There has been more than one example of a track with a robust car count changing management only to see that car count gradually dwindle when the promoter begins to favor racers with the local car dealer sponsorship, the local celebrity who races when his schedule permits, or the worst case, the promoter's own family member who races at that track. Left unchecked the track's fate becomes that of our cover photo this month.
In order for our sport to prosper we must eliminate that wall between the promoter and the racer.
"What we are seeing is in the weekly headliner division, the financial side of putting that car on the track continues to nudge up despite everyone's efforts to fight it," says Drager. "Where do the revenues come from to offset that? The answer is not to increase grandstand prices and certainly it's a self defeating practice to increase pit entry prices. Promoters must work hard to provide a better facility, better exposure for the team, and a better set of circumstances for the team to take to a marketing partner. On the flip side the teams have got to be prepared to use the tools the promoter gives them to help a sponsor achieve a goal."
"The primary focus is getting racers to the track," says Brett Root. Everybody agrees that good car counts translate into healthy competition. Healthy competition breeds exciting racing, exciting racing brings fans to the grandstands.
"Track operators as well as competitors are some of the most loyal and hardest working people in sports today," says Dennis Huth. "The trick is that we need them to be working together for the betterment of the sport. Everybody needs to be working in unison and change the process of thinking away from "open the gates and they will come."