Last month we brought you a commentary on the current status of Dirt Late Model racing. This month, we are taking the same look at the health of stock car racing, only now, it's all about asphalt. We spoke with people in the know, high-ranking officials, and the heads of state at ARCA, ASA, CARS Pro Cup, CRA Super Series, SRL Southwest, and NASCAR to get an in-depth look at asphalt racing as a whole, and the whole thing looks good! There is no question the economy has affected racing in general, but the outcome may not be such a bad thing. In most cases, costs to operate a race team had become so inflated that it was hard to be competitive without some serious sponsor reinforcement. This made it almost impossible for the little guy, or an up-and-coming racer who didn't have the financial support of a bigger team. Now that everyone is struggling, many of the sanctioning bodies have implemented rules to significantly reduce the operating costs of its teams. This, in turn, levels the playing field, allowing smaller, less funded teams to compete more frequently in a more competitive fashion.
Promoters have also altered rulebooks, adding some commonality between tracks in close proximity. This allows racers to run more than one track with the same equipment. Cost control matters, coupled with promoters not afraid to think outside the box has keep racing alive. These changes could be the catalyst needed to revitalize short-track racing in some parts of the country where the economy has hit the hardest. With a new way of thinking in place, the future looks extraordinarily bright for when the economy comes back around.
Mark Gundrum: Vice President--Business Development and Corporate Partnerships
Founded in 1953 by John Marcum, the Midwest Association for Race Cars (MARC) was a regional stock car racing series. The series name was changed to the "Automobile Racing Club of America" (ARCA) when it took to racing on superspeedways. ARCA started racing at Daytona International Speedway in 1964, during the Daytona Speedweeks, at the request of Bill France Sr., who had raced against Marcum in the '40s. Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) was founded in 1953 by John Marcum. In ARCA Series competition, racers drive stock cars formally used in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. A mix of seasoned professional racers, as well as up-and-coming stars of tomorrow, take to tracks all over the country. ARCA has been a breeding ground for top talent, as many top-level teams use the series for driver development with its younger drivers.
We caught up with Mark Gundrum, the series Vice President to get his thoughts on how the downturn in the economy has affected the series. "We've had to adjust in a number of ways," explains Gundrum. "But probably in the same sentence, consistency has also helped us maintain a healthy business. Consistency, meaning the rules package. It's a long-term forecast about the equipment they've invested in. We've assured them that those were good investments in the current cars, tires, and the type of tracks we are going to run. We did our homework when we introduced this equipment. It was a commitment for three to five years in most cases, which gave our team owners some comfort that they were investing in equipment that was not going to become obsolete anytime in the near future." Rules can define a series. But they can also choke race teams that don't have large amounts of funding, especially in a national series.
"We've certainly had to make adjustments as a business specific to the economic challenges we've all faced." He continues, "We've had to lighten up on some procedural rules, one of them being the required purchase of sticker tires at each event. Things we could do to create a cost containment environment have been helpful. We've tried to work with [our teams] on licensing for the over-the-wall crewmembers just to keep their costs in check as we've gone through these tough times." Through the tough and not-so-tough times, the ARCA series has maintained its spot as a high level series that feeds the top tier NASCAR ranks. Smart decisions with its teams in mind has proven to be a smart strategy, and the ARCA Series is in it for the long haul.
The American Speed Association (ASA) started as a single racing series in 1968, and has grown into one of the leading short track organizations today, sanctioning more than 10 different series across the U.S. and Canada. In addition, ASA is known for its Member Track program which sanctions numerous dirt and asphalt short tracks along with road courses. While the ASA has been on the leading edge of innovative race promotion such as their National Championship which allows racers at different tracks to compete against one another via a mathematical formula, their bread and butter is intense wheel-to-wheel Late Model racing. Finding current and retired Sprint Cup drivers behind the wheel at an ASA event has become commonplace, as they are attracted to the high level of competition. Dennis Huth is the ASA President, and we sat down with him to get his take on the current status of Late Model racing and how important the entertainment factor is.
"The economy has had an impact without question, but not as great of an impact as many would think. I think the entire entertainment industry has seen an impact of some degree. It still comes down to providing an entertaining show for the fans, along with having fair and competitive events for the racers. Our tracks and series work as hard as anyone to provide that quality entertainment. When you think about it, short track racing is still one of the more affordable family entertainment venues all across the United States. Our ASA Member Track and series promoters have had to rethink their marketing strategies and race programs just like all of us had to re-think our personal budgets. Some car counts have gone down slightly compared to five years ago, but we are still seeing stable numbers at many of our tracks and series and rules are an important part of that equation." The ASA understands the costs associated with racing, and according to Huth, is working very hard to minimize those costs, as well as how important scheduling is for the promoters. "For our ASA Member Tracks, many of the competitors come within a 30-mile radius to compete each week at the track," Huth explains. "The economy hits them when they get involved in a wreck or blown motor, which of course costs money to repair. Many ASA Member Tracks are stabilizing their rules to help save costs on building and rebuilding a car to compete for more than one season. For our different traveling series, the promoters are making sure that the events are held to as minimum travel as feasible, and many events taking place within a day to allow for same day travel, which equates to cost savings."
Short tracks are still an affordable venue for family budgets. Some tracks and series events have seen up and down attendance all year long. So many factors can affect so many different areas of the country such as weather, graduations or large local events, as examples. Tracks and series have become increasingly aware of those local and national factors, and become much smarter at scheduling. A couple of examples; because of intelligent scheduling the ASA Midwest Tour had 11,500 fans for its event at the Milwaukee Mile back in June and Meridian Speedway, an ASA Member Track in Meridian, Idaho, had more than 5,000 fans at its recent Saturday night event," he adds. "We see more stabilization within our ASA Member Tracks and series. Hopefully the economic factors that affect everyone in this country are starting to turn around which will breathe new life into the entertainment industry as a whole. Yes, the car counts may be lower at some ASA Member Tracks and series events, but fans are still seeing quality racing. They are being entertained, which is critical. We all just have to continue to work a little harder to be successful, and for many, the hard work is paying off."
CARS Pro Cup
Jack McNelly--Series Director
The CARS (Championship Auto Racing Series) Pro Cup series began its 16th year of racing with the 2012 season. Over the previous 15 years, the Pro Cup Series has completed 331 races and fans have witnessed more than 600 different drivers compete at 50 different track throughout the U.S. and Canada. It is a true stock car touring series, dedicated to providing a place for up and coming drivers to cut their teeth and for veteran drivers to continue to perfect their craft. Although veterans still make up a large portion of the fields each week, many younger drivers use CARS as a stepping-stone to the larger touring series. In recent years, the Pro Cup Series has seen many of the current stars in NASCAR work their way up by racing in the Pro Cup Series. Drivers such as Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith, Brian Vickers, Clay Rogers, Scott Wimmer, Benny Gordon, Jeff Agnew, and Joey Logano and others have raced and won in CARS Pro Cup before going on to race in NASCAR. Some still continue compete in Pro Cup from time to time. Over the years, the grassroots appeal has attracted a virtual "Who's Who" list of short-track greats.
"We're certainly not immune to anything," explained Jack McNelly, Series Director. "Our attendance has dwindled, but being fair about it, our series has gone through some pretty tough time here in the past 2 or 21/2 years. Like many other sanctioning bodies our car count is down and I think that's directly attributable to the economy. "We're still very thankful we're in operations and we're thankful for the competitors we had and continue to have that have stood by us literally through thick and thin. I'm in hopes that we'll get this thing turned around. I don't know what the election is going to do as far as the economy. People are sitting back waiting to see some direction from the government." CARS Pro Cup has made some wholesale changes in regards to its rules and race format. McNelly told us more.
"We have made lots of changes without compromising the quality of the competition we have. Last year the series was on radial tires, and it was just too expensive of an item for our teams to swallow. So we had to go to a bias ply-tire, which saved the teams about $500 a set. All of our teams use two sets (most teams use three sets), so on a given night we're talking about a saving of $1,000-$1,500. "After the second event of the year we went to a 10-minute halftime break instead of pit stops. We still run 250 laps, but it's divided up into two different segments. Now the teams don't have to bring in specialists to change tires, carry tires, or jack the car, which translates into a $1,000-$1,200 savings for the teams." CARS Pro Cup also recently announced a new title sponsor, Revolution Oil. With a series sponsor, the Rev Oil Pro Cup series its on its way to revitalization. "We're still in operation, and we're going to stay in operation."
RJ Scott--Managing Partner
In January 1997, Action Entertainment purchased Anderson Speedway, and set about putting together an eight-race series, with cooperation from Salem Speedway, Winchester Speedway, and Indianapolis Raceway Park. The response was overwhelming from the sponsors, fans, and competitors. As a result, the series became a full touring group in 1998 featuring more races (16 total), more racetracks (6 total), and more drivers (more than 75 total). The Champion Racing Association (CRA) was developed to oversee the new series. The CRA Super Series and JEGS CRA All-Stars utilize stock-appearing cars, which resemble the Impala, Fusion, Camry, and Charger. CRA is an ABC body rule series that feature a typical Asphalt Late Model engines, 358 ci with a compression ratio of 9:1. Competitors may also use a special Sealed Engine that is only available from two certified builders, which is designed to keep engine costs under control. R.J. Scott is one of the managing partners of CRA, and he took some time to speak with us.
"The economy has really affected our lower series much greater in terms of car count, but we seem to be doing OK at the upper levels," Scott explains. "We feel pretty fortunate when we look around the country, because we see car counts falling off for some other series, but ours have remained pretty steady. These days if you can have 18-24 really good race cars on a racetrack, you can put on a really good show. When you see 12, 13, or less, there are some serious struggles. It seems like out top divisions have been less impacted by the economy, so we're pretty pleased about that."
Engine costs have been a huge issues among traveling Late Model series, and CRA has enacted rules to control these costs. Scott explained that this has impacted car counts in a positive way.
"That's why our car counts have remained pretty steady." He adds, "Some years back we looked at what was going to be the biggest problem for our competitors, and we looked at the cost of engines. Twelve years ago, if you wanted a competitive engine, you could easily spend $35,000-$40,000 on a great 9:1. We saw the number of people who could afford to do that was diminishing. We started with a fresh sheet of paper, and came up with the sealed engine for about $16,000. You can go run the top Super Late Model races in the country with a $16,000-$17,000 engine vs. $35,000-$40,000 ones. So we have significantly dropped the cost of the engine package, plus with the increase in crate Late model racing, there's another more affordable way to have some really sharp, fast race cars that the fans really enjoy and the teams enjoy putting on the racetrack."
SRL Southwest Series
Larry Collins--Managing Director
The SRL Southwest Series was formed after the Tri-Track Series was dissolved. Tri-Track was the last reminants of the old NASCAR Southwest Tour and its demise left a surplus of cars that fit a certain set of rules in the Southwest corner of the country. At the completion of the 2000 racing season, three tracks--Altamont Raceway Park, Madera Speedway, and Stockton 99 Speedway--decided to close the Tri-Track Series, as Stockton did not want to hold these events in 2001. In January 2001 the promoters of Altamont and Madera asked for a meeting to try and continue to schedule a Series of the NASCAR Elite type cars for 2001. It was suggested that the two tracks would hold events with the same rules package as the NASCAR Southwest Tour. At the same time they requested that Steve Fensler, along with with their help, try to form the new Series. Davey Hamilton and Rick Gerhardt were promoting a Supermodified Series under the Supermodified Racing League (SRL), and offered to bring the Late Models into the company--the Late Models would compete under the name SRL Wild West Shootout Late Model Series.
In April 2005 the decision was made to sell the Supermodified division to Elizabeth Williams and Rick Cameron and they formed the WSSRL. The Late Model portion of the Supermodified Racing League was kept in tact and went under the SRL. With the Late Models being identified under SRL the corporation was then changed to the StockCar Racing League. Larry Collins is the SRL Managing Director. We sat down with him and he explained how the series supports the tracks that host SRL events.
"When we took the series over about five years ago, the tracks were really struggling," Collins tells us. "So we had to price accordingly. We had to actually help the tracks, which we still do in some cases, bring sponsorship to the events to help the track cover the expense of the series being there and pay the purse. As things have gotten a little better and we've proved ourselves to the track by bringing good fields of cars and creating a draw of fans at the front gate, a lot of tracks are able to go out and get their own sponsorship."
The economy took a downturn shortly after the series was started, making survival a struggle. Collins explains how the series is holding up.
"We feel things getting better. Mainly because the series has been able to bring a good enough show to where it's drawing the spectators and the attention of the sponsors and media. So overall, we think we're doing as well as we can right now with the state of the economy and we are really looking forward to when the economy rebounds. We are really going to be in a good position and the series is going to thrive."
Rules can make or break a series, and the SRL is in a unique position.
"Every decision we make, be it rules, schedule, how far we are going to travel, first and foremost, we think about how it's going to affect our race teams," explains Collins. "We are running the same rules NASCAR ran when it owned the series in the '80s and '90s. We saw that there was an inventory of cars in our region that matched those rules and we stayed with it. We figured if there's a car out there and inventory that's not being used, someone can pick it up at a really good price and the guys who already have cars don't have to invest in new equipment. "We feel really good about the strength of the series right now. We have great sponsorship, and we've made very careful decisions based on how it affects our race teams. We feel in doing so it allowed us to keep our numbers up and we're real happy with the strength we've had over the last three or four seasons. And we just see things getting better!"
George Silberman--Vice President, Regional and Touring Series
The NASCAR Whelen All-American Series is NASCAR's national championship program for short-track racing. More than 10,000 drivers compete at NASCAR-sanctioned short tracks throughout the U.S. and Canada. The local racing program was founded in 1982, and since its inception, the series has been a successful starting point for the careers of many top drivers. Throughout the season the top 500 feature division drivers are ranked nationally according to their NASCAR points. At the end of the season, each top 500 driver will receive a certificate of recognition from NASCAR displaying their 2011 ranking. The Vice President of Regional and Touring Series, George Silberman, took some time to fill us in on how NASCAR's short track program is doing. "Obviously, the economy has had an effect on the entire sport." Silberman continues, "to put it into perspective, right now our short track program is arguably some of the top short tracks in the U.S. and Canada, and right now of all the tracks in our Whelen All-American Series, roughly 2/3 of the tracks still have Asphalt Late Models as its feature division or second division if they are in an area of the country where Modifieds are bigger. When you look at the entire NASCAR program, Asphalt Late Model stock cars are still very well represented."
NASCAR spends a lot of time observing the trends in racing to better position itself in the ever-changing world of racing. He told us a little bit about what he's observed. "Some of the trends we've seen are promoters getting creative about how to address the economic impact. So what you're seeing at a number of tracks, and this may not be coast to coast, but in some regions of the country, you're seeing promoters adjusting their calendars and maybe not running Late Models every weekend as they may have done 6 or 7 years ago. This helps the racers stretch their sponsor dollars, but it also allows for some recovery time if someone hits the wall or whatever." He goes on to say, "What we've seen too is a trend, particularly among our NASCAR tracks, of a little more uniformity in the rules. If you think back about 10 years ago, there seemed to be a trend where promoters wanted to have their own unique set of rules to differentiate themselves from the track down the street, and to keep racers competing just at that racetrack. Now, particularly with our NASCAR tracks and the way our state and national points structure are put together, you're seeing more of a trend of promoters getting together and trying to come up with rules that aren't necessarily the same, but they are compatible to allow competitors to run another track if their track is not running on a given night, when another one is. "At the end of the day, racers are racers and within reason they are going to find a way to go racing. So even though times are tough, Late Model stock cars are still a force within short track racing. They are a spectacular type of race car for the fans to watch!"
Wrapping It Up
Asphalt Late Model racing has certainly seen its fair share of ups and downs. The sport is healthy and will continue to thrive for years to come. As the economy improves, look to see car counts come back and far exceed what they were pre-economic decline. That means the technology, talent, and competition will soon be greater than ever!