Our Tour bus with its 28-foot...
Our Tour bus with its 28-foot double stacker trailer sits atop the hill at the entrance to Lanier Speedway in preparation for the start of the 2010 version of the AMSOIL Great American Circle Track Tour. In reference to the flame wrap, one trucker on I-81 near Christiansburg, Virginia, said on his CB radio, "Hey, your truck caught your trailer on fire."
The AMSOIL Great American Circle Track Tour is on the road and we have visited three racetracks in two weeks. It's important to state, up front, our goals with this tour. We are, first of all, a technical magazine dedicated to helping racers set up their cars for both chassis and motor technology. That being said, we don't "cover" races as such. There are plenty of regional publications that you can refer to that will tell you the winners, finishing orders and how the races were run. The technical aspect of CT is what differentiates us from the others.
What we also do is keep our fingers on the pulse and monitor the health of the industry. This is important in the overall scheme of things because it has a bearing on the success of the sport as well as the long-term survivability for all of us. It's this area that we'll be concentrating on in addition to reporting on the technical trends we see as we traverse the Southeast and ultimately the entire country.
So, what we hope to end up with is an overall look at the technical aspects of racing and a measure of how it stands up in the promotional areas, how the different classes are arranged, and a note about the progression of the class structure compared to years past.
We, being my wife, Karen, and I, recently visited Lanier National Speedway in Braselton, Georgia; Tri-County Speedway in Hudson, North Carolina; and then on up to Lonesome Pine Raceway in Coeburn, Virginia. All three of these tracks are asphalt, and we will be getting to more dirt tracks as we proceed along on this tour. I think overall, the dirt tracks are generally healthier than the asphalt tracks in a lot of ways. We shall see.
Along those lines, on the Lanier website, there was a questionnaire asking should the track be turned into a dirt track? It was, by the admission of the owner, a hoax of sorts, but came complete with a large piece of earth-moving equipment parked next to the entrance sign as a message. The intent was to spark a reaction from both the fans and competitors to motivate them to action. The message: Support this track or see it go away.
I'm not convinced that this type of "encouragement" is going to work to improve attendance or support, but there are ways to bring attention to the tracks that will bring the masses. And that is part of why we do this. Here are some areas we will be looking at and have already studied. I'll lump together the three tracks somewhat in these discussions.
Attendance-Front Gate At Lanier, we had Easter Sunday the next day and many families opted to stay home. So, as could be expected, the stands were mostly empty with approximately 300-350 fans in attendance. But the owner did the best that could be expected and entertained the kids with an Easter egg hunt, divided into two age groups to separate the pre-teens from the smaller kids for safety's sake.
Tri-County did somewhat better at the front gate, but not by much. We saw maybe 400-500 in attendance, but not nearly the level of interaction with the crowd as we had seen at Lanier. Lonesome Pine had more fans attending, but not nearly a full crowd by any means, and this is something we see across the board for the most part.
As the rural areas become more urbanized, there become more choices for family entertainment for the residents, whereas when the tracks were situated away from densely populated areas, racing was the only show around. It's still this way in some areas.
Car Counts On a combined level, the car counts were fairly high. There was a reason for this that will be discussed next. What a track likes to see are four or five divisions with 15 to 20 cars per. For these three tracks, some divisions were low in attendance and some were high.
Promotional ideas varied among...
Promotional ideas varied among the early tracks we visited. Here we see the Food City large grocery cart at Lonesome Pine Raceway that is also a part of the Bristol Motor Speedway promotion during the Cup races there. This is just one of the promotional tools that track promoter Harold Crook uses. Catering to the families seems to be a good way to develop a loyal fan base for any racetrack.
Lanier National Speedway polled...
Lanier National Speedway polled its fans about their idea for turning the track into a dirt track. The hoax came complete with the display of an earthmover parked adjacent to the entrance sign. No, they're not converting the track to a dirt track, but many dirt tracks are doing quite well these days.
Our Tour sponsor, AMSOIL,...
Our Tour sponsor, AMSOIL, is giving away a case of its high-end racing gear oil to the top division winners on this Tour. The teams display a sticker and are eligible for the offer. Many of the teams we talked to were very familiar with AMSOIL and the benefits. Tales of lower rearend and transmission temperatures were common.
Yes, we did see the big rigs...
Yes, we did see the big rigs here at Lanier, and the trend of putting young teens in the driver seat of Late Model cars is continuing. I will say that for the most part, these young racers hold their own with the older and more experienced drivers. I was pleasantly surprised in many cases.
The traditional upper classes were short on attendance and noting the struggling economy, we can make an educated guess why. Late Model racing is expensive. A team will normally spend upwards of $50,000 to $100,000 or more per season. In days past, those numbers were manageable by teams owned or supported by successful businesses with large cash flows where money was diverted for "advertising" to the team.
Many of these racing support businesses were, and are, related to construction. Now that the whole of the construction industry business is down across the country, we see a dip in the participation in these high-end classes, as could be expected.
Class Makeup The classes we have seen running are not "normal" as we look back at the last 10 years or so. As stated above, the higher-end classes are down, but the numbers have been replaced by what used to be called entry-level classes. We seldom, if ever, saw classes such as the Legends cars and Bandolaros run on a Friday or Saturday night along with the stock cars. Well, they do now.
We see more and varied four-cylinder classes, Legends cars, upwards of 20 or more per event, and some truck classes. Where we saw three different fullsized stock car divisions we now see one or two, at best.
Combined classes are becoming more common. Tracks are letting the Limited Late Model cars run with the Full Late Models cars in the traditional NASCAR-style Late Model stock divisions. And the engine rules have been combined to where the crate motor cars can run with the built motor cars. This move, in and of itself, has helped to maintain decent numbers of entries for the top division and serves to solve the crate verses built debate.
It's interesting to note that the competition among the Legends cars is at least as good as any other class, and in some cases better. As I watched these guys compete, I was impressed with their level of driving skills. It's the intent of the track owners that someday these teams will move on to the stock cars, and some do.
Promotions It's hard to evaluate the level of promotion outside the event in the week and weeks prior to the race. Most of the tracks had local radio stations in attendance, and there is a cross promotion going on. The tracks support the station and in return, the station promotes the races with announcements during the week prior to the race.
Many of the track announcers are radio personalities and they do a very good job of keeping the fans interested and entertained. All of them announced our attendance repeatedly and spoke of the details of the Tour.
Overall, we see families come to the races with kids in tow. Sure, Dad drives this effort, but if we can provide things to do for the other members of the family, then everyone will want to come back next week. Mothers love it when their kids are happy. Lanier had a large and modern playground for the kids. When they tired of watching the cars go round, they went and played. Without this diversion, it would be necessary to leave and go home.
This track also had a shorty school bus all fixed up with flashing lights and an "ah-oo-ga" horn. It loaded up the kids and drove around the track prior to the start of each race. You could see the excitement on the faces of the kids, both girls and boys, as they rode around. It was great for the youngsters and it gave Mom and Dad a few moments to rest and be together. That's gold.
Technical Aspects Many tracks are going with 8-inch tires for their top divisions. This is both an economical move as well as a tool for equalizing the teams when combining engine rules. Having a higher horsepower engine does one little good if the tires won't support the power.
The truck division is strong...
The truck division is strong at some tracks. This winner is shown as we see a Bandolaro car being pushed off the track in the background. Lower division cars such as Legends, Bandolaros, and Mini-Cup cars are being included in the program to boost the numbers of race cars for a typical Friday or Saturday night event.
The track photographer for...
The track photographer for Tri-County talks with Ty Dillon, whose dad, Mike, runs the operations at Richard Childress Racing. Many sons and daughters of families involved in Cup racing compete in and around this neighborhood in central North Carolina. Mike himself was a prominent short-track racer back in the '90s in North Carolina and Virginia.
The kids just loved our bus....
The kids just loved our bus. Here one tot was thrilled just to touch it. I guess he thought it would be hot, and it is! Coincidentally, his bike was painted like the bus complete with flames. His dad rescued Karen and me from being locked out of the bus when we accidentally pushed the lock lever before going for an evening walk at the Tom Johnson Camping center in Marion, North Carolina, where we purchased the beast.
The Drive For Diversity is...
The Drive For Diversity is one program designed to promote and encourage minorities and women to participate in racing and look forward to becoming professional race car drivers and crew members. Revolution Racing was in attendance at Tri-County Speedway with drivers Katie Hagar, shown above looking over the practice session, and Jason Romero from All American Speedway in Sacramento, California.
On the setup side, we saw tracks where the surface bumps necessitated using stiffer springs on what would otherwise have been soft springs and big sway bar setups. I've seen this before at Watermelon Speedway in Georgia. Teams showed up with super soft springs running on bumpers only to find that the bumps in the track upset the cars so much that they became undriveable.
At Lanier, we watched as the fast qualifier ran off from the field only to fade later on after 35 laps and watch as the most consistent car in the field caught and passed him for the win. We preach consistency and we were rewarded with a demonstration of just that.
There were development teams at both Lanier and Tri-County Speedways. These areas are in NASCAR country and generate interest for Cup wannabes. Tri-County had Revolution Racing, part of the Drive for Diversity campaign, in attendance. We met two female racers and a young man from All American Speedway in Sacramento, California, who was of Hispanic background.
Trends Overall, we see a transition of the classes into more affordable racing. Not only the advent of 8-inch tires and combined engine rules, but the addition of Legends cars in the program drives the back gate attendance and that is much different than we've seen in the past.
The young drivers are a big part of short-track racing and it seems like they get younger every year. We did run into one dad who had a novel approach to his son's racing. They were competing at Lanier in the very competitive Super Late Model division.
At each race, a team of AMSOIL...
At each race, a team of AMSOIL dealers and distributors sets up a display so that the racers and fans can become more familiar with the product. Greg Finnican, far left, and friends pose for a photo before starting their night at Tri-County.
Dad explained that ever since his son had competed in karts, the requirement was for him to maintain straight A's in school or not race. If not, he would have to sit out the next six weeks until the next report card came out. Well, he hasn't missed any races so far. What a plan!
Tracks are trying to become more a part of the growing community around them rather than apart. The running of mufflers to quiet the cars, and getting the program underway early and finishing earlier helps attract the families who need to get the kids to bed at a decent hour and helps bring larger numbers of fans.
Keeping a tight schedule helps move the program along. Complaints that come from non-attending neighbors are usually reduced when the sound level drops and the races can be finished by 10 p.m.
One trend we saw and have had reports about at the end of last season is the giving away of vouchers instead of money at the awards banquets at season's end. We talked to numerous teams that really were disgusted with this practice.
It's hard enough to fund a team and when you're given paper instead of the expected money, that limits where you can buy what you need. It's a cheesy way to save a little money and it ends up costing much more when many teams either quit racing or go to another racetrack where the management stands by its word.
Conclusion It's the changing times that drive the changes in how short-track racing is promoted, developed, and operated. This Tour is looking to be very timely indeed. We are on the cusp of big changes in our sport and hopefully we can share information that will help all of the promoters and participants to improve their game for the success of all.
We want to especially thank AMSOIL for its support and the whole of the industry will come to realize what that support will mean to us all in the long run. Also lending their support are CV Products and Holley Performance Products. Sometimes things just come together when the timing is right, and now is the perfect time for this historic Tour. We look forward to sharing even more information as time goes on.