By John F. Katz
Racers are above all competitors, driving hard against the clock, against the odds, against their own personal best, against each other, flat-out to the finish line. They drive to win, and to win they'll buy the best hardware they can afford; believing that high tech can help but that sometimes duct tape can do the job. They're used to steering around obstacles. And to the truly committed among them, the trying economy is just one more obstacle to steer around.
The racing industry, too, has slalomed through recessions and Depression before; it'll do it again—and again after that, if necessary. This last economic wreck was a doozie, and there's no denying the debris that's still on the track. But 2010 already looks better than 2009, and we may yet see the green flag again. Here's why.
We'll begin by pointing out that 2009 went better than a lot of people expected. “We all went into 2009 with a heavy gray cloud over our head," commented Tom Deery, of the World Racing Group, which sanctions the World of Outlaws sprint cars and dirt late models, in Concord, North Carolina. "But it hasn't been complete gloom and doom. We just have to work a little bit harder. People still wanted to enjoy their motorsports entertainment, and they still sought it out. The week-in, week-out racing was a challenge in 2009 and will continue to be a challenge in 2010. Our big events all did well."
"Our participation was up overall, to the highest it's ever been," reported Terry Voeltz, of the Wissota Promoters Association in Dassel, Minnesota. "We had the best Wissota 100—in terms of attendance—that we ever had in the 30-year history of our organization"—with 400 teams participating in the four-day event.
"We learned in 2009 that there are a lot of very passionate fans and racers who, regardless of the economic climate, have a tremendous desire to spend their entertainment dollars on racing," noted a spokesperson for the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) in Glendora, California. "The shadow cast by today's economic downturn will likely remain at the beginning of 2010, particularly as it relates to sponsorship. But, as the year unfolds, I think we are going to see more fans come out to events, and racer participation increase. Then as sponsors return, they will see the incredible value of association with drag racing, and the significant return on their investment."
And, the team at NHRA is optimistic as the series recently announced that the Pro Mod class, which has been an exhibition class since 2001, will become a full-fledged series in 2010. The NHRA Get Screened America Pro Mod Drag Racing Series will compete at 10 NHRA Full Throttle Series events beginning at Gainesville in March.
"Most of us in the racing industry have seen that the challenging economy is driving the racing business," added Darrel Krentz, of INEX in Harrisburg, North Carolina. "2010 looks better than 2009 because the trends are toward an expanding economy and recovery. People will be ready to spend a little more in 2010 than they did in 2009."
We certainly hope so. Even the weather was uncooperative in 2009. "We were actually fortunate to dodge the bullet on a number of occasions," recalled Charlie Harmon, of Promedia (the parent organization of both NMRA and NMCA) in Santa Ana, California, "although we lost some events to rainouts. That always makes the next year more difficult, because you lose your momentum. The events that show the most growth are the ones that have been successful three years in a row. That creates a buzz. But where we were not impacted by weather, we experienced growth."
"Both the economy and the weather took a serious toll on some of the best short tracks in the country during 2009," agreed Ritchie Lewis, of the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series in Oliver Spring, Tennessee. "On the other hand, we've had such great crowds at our events that our biggest issue for 2010 has been how to schedule all the races we've been offered." The series, he added is "racing for more money and doing it with less miles traveled." The 2010 schedule lists 41 confirmed dates in 19 states, from Florida to New York and as far west as Missouri.
"Even if the economy begins to rebound," noted Mark Gundrum, of the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) in Temperance, Michigan, "many companies have had to make drastic survival decisions that will likely affect their business plans for at least a year or two. People and businesses are likely to continue to be very conservative with whatever disposable income they might have, and rightly so. Most sanctions and promoters have struggled to fill the grids and the grandstands. Finding ways to cut costs have been the most successful, along with finding ways to add real value."
"While the current economic crisis has clearly had an effect at the top levels of the sport, it has actually appeared to benefit dirt track racing," added Emmett Hahn, of the American Sprint Car Series in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "With fewer disposable dollars, a significant number of fans have foregone a pricier NASCAR-type ticket in favor of a more palatable short-track ticket. Our crowds have been consistently up, across the board."
James Spink, of the United States Auto Club (USAC) in Speedway, Indiana, emphasized the "alignment" of USAC's Midwestern Regional Midget Series with the Wolverine Outlaw Midget Series (WOMS, headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan) to provide uniform rules for midget racing in Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. "We're partnering the two series to have healthier car counts. WOMS will use the USAC rulebook, and even the same tires," so racers who wish to can easily compete in both series. "And there will be some cross-promotion," said Spink.
USAC is attacking the cost of midget racing in other ways, as well. In September, "we had a meeting of the engine builders and the OEMs—a who's who of midget engine building—and we decided as a group that we needed to save the racers some money, to increase the car count. We agreed to develop a rev limiter"—although the details have not yet been worked out—"to make these engines last longer.
"We also started our quarter-midget initiative, with kids as young as five years old racing under the USAC banner, where they can move up to Junior Focus Midgets and then Focus Midgets," he continued. Additionally, the newly developed Traxxas TORC (The Off Road Championship) series brought in USAC as its sanctioning body. With the intent to unify "formerly fragmented short-course organizations into a cohesive nationwide series" (according to TORC publicity), the new series ran nine events last year, from California to Michigan; and expects to schedule eight rounds consisting of 16 races in 2010.
In the USAC sprint car series, which Spink called the organization's "core… We're going to do something we haven't done for a long time, and that's start out in Florida in February at East Bay Raceway Park with a three-day event that coincides with the Daytona Speed Weeks, and then head out west and hit Tucson, Vegas, and Perris before the end of the month" (to coincide with the Cup weekend in Las Vegas), "before heading back to the Midwest."
Meanwhile, the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) of Norwalk, Ohio, has announced "plans to completely overhaul" its Nitro Jam series, trimming all but two events from three days to two. "Nothing will change regarding sportsman racing except for one less day spent at the track," noted Aaron Polburn. But the professional classes will have invitation-only fields, with no qualifying rounds, and with a winner declared at the end of each day of racing—so that fans will be able to see a professional drag race from start to finish in less than three hours instead of six or seven. "Right now we don't even tell the story until Sunday," Polburn continued. "We want the story to be told every day." Furthermore, "sportsman drivers won't have to deal with being interrupted by professional sessions."
IHRA also plans to revive the Top Dragster and Top Sportsman classes—and to tailor each of its events for its particular market. "Prior to each season," Polburn added, "IHRA management will meet with track operators and design events to best suit the local budget and marketplace." Top Fuel will be included in every Nitro Jam, but otherwise tracks will be able to choose from a "menu" of regular racing classes, jet vehicles, wheel standers, and other exhibition machines. "So in the end Edmonton may not look like New England, and neither may look like Rockingham."
UARA-STARS of Hendersonville, North Carolina, reported lower car counts in 2009 compared to 2008. "We may rethink our 2010 events from a cost standpoint," said Kerry Bodenhamer—specifically, to reduce the amount of travel required. Even marketing will be concentrated on the local level, using more print than radio. On a more hopeful note, attendance at some 2009 events was up over 2008. "We have not increased our ticket prices in two years," Bodenhamer continued. "And we offered a ‘family pack' in 2009, along with student and senior discounts." For the racers, UARA will be "holding events at the same cost as last year, and controlling the testing we allow. At shows that are out of our hub area we hold an open practice the day before the event, to save teams the expense of renting a track individually."
Krentz believes that INEX is "fortunate, because many of our racers will not necessarily sell their race cars, but rather will cover them up and put them to the side. Our challenge is to provide a quality racing experience so that participants will once again dust off their Legends, Bandoleros, or Thunder Roadsters race cars and hit the track. Providing a fun, entertaining experience for our racers, with not a lot of turmoil, will result in bigger car counts." Still, "with racers on a tighter budget, we must do everything we can to reduce their costs—and to make sure they know that we are concerned and doing our part. Where we can't save the racers money, we try to make their experience more fun. Recognizing them for their achievements is paramount. We send letters of recognition, post pictures on our website, and include as many racers as we can in our magazine and other publications."
WISSOTA, said Voeltz, "froze our rules for three years, because any time you make a rule change it's costly. So we thought that would be the responsible thing to do. We hadn't had a lot of changes in the previous three years, anyway. Two years ago, for 2008, we started a one-compound, one-tire rule for the modifieds, the super stocks, and the street stocks." WISSOTA currently boasts nearly 3000 drivers in six divisions.
Brett Root, of the International Motor Contest Association (IMCA) in Vinton, Iowa, pointed out that his organization has always worked hard at containing costs. "Obviously, the economy is the number-one topic for most of our promoters, sponsors, racers, and fans," he noted, "and with IMCA-sanctioned tracks in 25 states and Canada, we've seen the economy affect different regions at different times and different levels." In a normal year, "20 percent of IMCA's membership does not renew their license. They get married, they get divorced, they relocate, they have kids, they have medical problems. They change hobbies, they lose their jobs, they run out of money. And even so, we experienced 3.2 percent growth in our membership for 2010."
"In the ARCA Re/Max tour," said Gundrum, "we have adjusted race schedules to reduce travel. We try to shorten the amount of time teams need to be at the track and in the race-event market, which helps contain costs surrounding lodging. We have also waved some mandatory requirements, providing short-term cost relief in some areas. At Toledo and Flat Rock Speedways, we have limited tire use, increased the frequency of more economical racing divisions, and make a greater effort to make big shows really special for the respective divisions, particularly the classes which are more expensive.
"But perhaps most importantly, promoters have had to re-learn how to promote. Gone are the days of just opening the gates and waiting for the people to come," added Gundrum.
As Bodenhamer pointed out, boosting car counts by simply "paying a lot larger purse and charging a lot less at the gate…unfortunately does not equate." The most successful track promoters have been more creative in cultivating relations with racers and fans.
"The marketing part has become really important," Voeltz agreed, "because we have to attract the new fan. In these ever-changing times, people find new things to do all the time, and we have to replace those people. It doesn't have to be young people. But if you can get someone to come once, they may get hooked. More tracks have added specialty events, like trailer races, and bus races, and race car rides. Tracks that never used to do those things are starting to, to put more butts in the seats so they can pay the racers. A lot of tracks still just open the gates, and wonder why they don't see the same results," while others "pull in their horns too much. But the promoters who are proactive go after it twice as hard when times get tough. They're not afraid to stick their necks out—and that's what we see working. We've seen tracks surrounded by interstate-size billboards, and have PA announcements that fill up the night. In some small communities the marketing opportunities are going to be limited—but in other areas, tracks are just missing the boat."
Deery also sees more outreach to the casual, "once, twice, or three-times-a-year fans" by "creating events that are meaningful to them, and understanding that they still want to be part of the passion, part of the sport."
Successful tracks are also "keeping their advertising up," said Spink. "That's important, to get the word out that they are alive and well and racing. In tough times the first thing some people cut is advertising, but the successful tracks keep it going. They've also kept prices reasonable, not only at the gate but also the concession stand. They know that even in a tough economy people want to get out and do things; that racing has withstood the Depression in the past, and it can get through the slow times like we have now."
"What we have seen at the most successful tracks is a focus on service," Krentz added. "Taking care of the racers by showing them respect, accommodating them when possible, attending to their wonderful egos. Each driver wants to feel special, and that is the key to getting more competitors, for less money. The same with the fans: the more successful tracks provide a great experience for them. Sometimes good, close racing is not enough. We have a diverse crowd that requires more for their entertainment dollar. Tracks need to improvise and provide a fast-paced, exciting, and fun event." That includes "challenges like putting the best driver to the rear and offering a bonus if he can win. Double wide starts, mid-race pit stops, etc. Use the flagman as part of the show, give him a flashy costume. Have more spectator interaction. Use some imagination!"
"I think the outlook for 2010 is remarkable," Deery concluded. "We survived all the doom and gloom that was forecast for 2009. We did it, down to the weekly racers, and we should all pat ourselves on the back. Now we're going to continue to provide great racing, for our participants and for our fans."