As times passes and the years go by, we get many requests for the story of how the Performance Racing Industry Trade Show and Performance Racing Industry magazine came about. It's a unique and fascinating set of circumstances that came together all at once, and it's a fun and interesting story to share, especially when told with the help of its founder, Steve Lewis. So, for those new to the racing industry or veterans who have never heard the full story, here's how it all began.
First, the most important catalytic element in the birth of PRI is that there was a real need in the marketplace for this event to happen.
It was the mid-1980s, and the big SEMA Show out West was thriving. It was also evolving and expanding beyond its original premise of serving the racing market. "Speed" was removed from the organization's title (Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association) and replaced with "Specialty" (now the Specialty Equipment Market Association), as the organization embraced the opportunities in the broader automotive performance aftermarket.
The prime movers of the national racing industry felt there needed to be an annual event for all the people in the business of racing, with new hardcore racing equipment on display. No fans. No weekend racers. No mere enthusiasts. Just manufacturers of racing equipment as exhibitors, while the attendee make-up would include retailers of racing parts, race engine builders, race car fabricators, WD's and manufacturers reps active in racing, and professional race teams. Even in the beginning, it could be a small group of people, but it would be the right group of business people representing the 'hardcore' racing market.
In the winter of 1987, Steve Lewis, a race team owner in the USAC National Midget Series and a successful entrepreneur in publishing and trade shows (having previously 'grown' three highly successful trade shows in three separate industries), closed his second consumer racing show in Indianapolis, held the week of the Indy 500. The name of the show was the Indy Motorsports Expo, and for various reasons, it just didn't work. At the close of the second show, Lewis told the racing companies exhibiting that there would not be a third consumer show in Indianapolis, and asked if there was any important feedback that he should hear.
"It was unanimous. The exhibitors told us they did not need another consumer show, but really needed a true trade show specifically for racing, and they wanted us to produce it," said Lewis. Upon returning home, Lewis immediately met with eight or nine owners of hardcore racing businesses in Southern California at the Long Beach Marriott where further discussions of the proposed venture took place, and there was a unanimous decision at the Long Beach Meeting that there was a need in the marketplace for a racing trade show. "We launched PRI magazine, then nine months later, the first PRI Trade Show was held at the Kentucky Commonwealth Center, the first week of December, in Louisville."
According to PRI records, there were 169 companies exhibiting in the first PRI Trade Show in Louisville in 1988.
The racing industry embraced this new idea for a trade show specifically designed to meet the needs of the growing market. "Everybody got onboard quickly, and made it happen," continued Lewis. "It was magical."
As it turns out, the creation of the PRI Trade Show and PRI magazine helped the racing industry take advantage of what might be viewed as a 'golden age.' Several big trends were coming together to provide a major boost to racing component sales. Cable television came into its own and found the sport of racing made for great TV and came with its own advertisers in the form of race sponsors. All the TV hours of racing made heroes out of racers for millions of new fans, and racers were becoming ever more professional.
At the same time, racing was becoming safer. It wasn't just for the daredevils of the old days. Now, we have a whole new group that wanted to race, and they wanted to race badly. Lawyers, dentists, business owners, machinists and young kids were all finding ways to go racing all across the US at over 1300 race tracks, whether it be drag racing, oval track racing or road racing.
The Baby Boomers were coming to that phase in life where their children were raised, and they had disposable income to go racing. And parents finally felt comfortable helping their children to go racing, too, rather than pursue stick-and-ball sports.
Few of this new group entering racing were as savvy with machining and fabrication as their predecessors in the 1940s and 1950s, who were building all of their cars and components on their own. This new generation of racers wanted to purchase their cars and parts ready to race. Simultaneously, as there was a surge in racing parts, there was also a surge in the infrastructure to distribute them. Thousands of retail outlets for racing components started up all across the US to service this demand. These thousands of new retail outlets automatically became subscribers to PRI magazine.
During this time, NASCAR took off like an Apollo rocket. The number of grassroots racers in the country went through the roof. There were 1300 race tracks of all shapes and sizes, and they were busy every weekend, weather permitting. Race parts sales kept climbing the charts. New racing companies were born every minute, and now they had an event where they had an efficient way to get their new racing products distributed to the ultimate end-user, the racer.
"Hats off to the racing industry," said Lewis. "The doors of opportunity opened wide for the racing industry, and hundreds of companies jumped in and took advantage of a Golden Age in racing component sales."
The annual PRI Trade Show made it easy, convenient, affordable and efficient for this growing industry to meet once a year to conduct business face to face, and for the attendees to shop all the new racing product lines....all in one hall, all at one time.
As the racing industry continued to grow, so did the PRI Trade Show. In fact, the PRI Trade Show has outgrown every convention center it ever occupied, including Louisville, Cincinnati, Nashville, Columbus and Indianapolis.
"We never thought we would outgrow Indianapolis, but it happened and it happened fast," said Lewis.
Because the demand for exhibit space was so great, by 2001 40% of the exhibitors in the PRI Trade Show in Indianapolis were located outside the Convention Center's exhibit halls in meeting rooms, ballrooms, lobby areas, and the football stadium. A "no growth policy" was established and exhibitors were not allowed to expand their display space, and new racing companies were put on a waiting list.
As custodians of the racing industry's most important business event, the PRI team knew that something had to be done. After numerous meetings with the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association management, politicians and political insiders, it became apparent at this particular time that expansion of the existing facility was a long way off. In fact, the sitting mayor at that time, Mayor Bart Peterson, informed PRI that the racing industry should not expect a completed, expanded Indiana Convention Center until 2009 or beyond.
"That was the moment when we knew we had to do something," said Lewis. With pent-up demand for exhibit space building, the show would require 1,000,000 contiguous square feet of exhibit space to provide the opportunity for the racing industry's suppliers to showcase their wares in a professional atmosphere.
PRI made the decision to temporarily move to Orlando for four years, and then return to Indianapolis as long as there was 1,000,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space. "We never got that opportunity," said Lewis. The expanded Indiana Convention Center is scheduled to open later this year with a total of 566,000 contiguous square feet of exhibit space, according to the ICVA website. By 2007, the PRI Trade Show had grown to 850,000 contiguous square feet of exhibit space. An additional 80,000 square feet of space is set aside for the Grand Opening Breakfast (where 3,500 racing entrepreneurs annually flood the doors for this fun event). So, the PRI Trade Show was using nearly 1,000,000 square feet for the event.
"We could not bring a show that was using nearly 1,000,000 square feet back into a building that's only 566,000 square feet," explained Lewis. "And that was the key element to the fact that we had to continue to stay in Orlando."
The move to Orlando was an immediate success, and the PRI Trade Show continued to thrive, as did the racing industry. The PRI Trade Show grew each year in Orlando. And it expanded its reach to all corners of the world, as 67 countries were represented in attendance last year. The new economic challenges that slammed the world economy in 2008 also affected the racing industry, which has been reflected in the size of the PRI Trade Show. As racing companies rescaled to the new realities, some reduced their number of booths in the PRI Trade Show.
"Everybody in the whole racing industry is working as hard as possible to return business activities to the levels established before the 'great recession.' If anybody can be first to meet this challenge, my bet is on racers," said Lewis. He pointed to the growth in number of exhibiting companies that occurred in 2011 as an example of the turnaround taking place in the racing industry, in addition to the growth of advertising pages in PRI magazine that same year.
It's important to note the critical role the magazine played in the success of the trade show, bringing subscribers each month the timely, factual business reports that help them steer their businesses. Now, more than ever, the magazine serves as an important conduit for the kind of business insight that's helping racing business meet the challenges of these economic times.
"There's going to be thousands of new racing products on display by the best in the business," said Lewis. "And in Orlando, one of the most amazing things to witness is the four sets of escalators pouring buyers into the Show all day long!"
For exhibitors, the attraction of the PRI Trade Show is best stated by another exhibitor--Tom Merrifield, D-Force Wheels. "We are SWIMMING in leads from the show!" he exclaimed.