News & Media

Inside NASCAR: In tough economy, tracks add value to keep fans coming

March 23, 2011, Joe Menzer,

As a soft economy continues to contract, tracks focus on adding value for fans

It was roughly 11 years ago when Bruton Smith, chairman and CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc., laughed at the thought of empty seats at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Heck, he wasn't yet finished adding them. At the time, BMS had a grandstand seating capacity of 147,000 and Smith claimed he had a waiting list compiled with more than half that many names who had requested additional season tickets.

"We have so many people on the waiting list to come to Bristol, we just stopped taking orders," Smith said then. "I mean, it was foolish. We stopped at 84,000 people. They think they're going to get 'em someday. But with a waiting list of 84,000 people, for most of them it's not likely in their lifetime."

"At one point, ticket prices weren't an issue -- because, hey, if this guy didn't want to pay X amount of dollars for a ticket, there was a guy right behind him who would. So I think we all got a little fat and happy, and this has brought us into check."


If those folks are still around, they could have had their pick of seats at BMS for last Sunday's Jeff Byrd 500. By NASCAR's estimate, there were 40,000 empty, unsold seats for the race -- and others, including television analyst Darrell Waltrip, put the estimate at closer to 60,000 empty seats or more.

Bristol seated a mere 71,000 when Smith first bought it in 1996 -- and today seats over 160,000.

So Waltrip, Smith and others also correctly pointed out that in their estimation that still left a crowd of about 100,000 that was huge in its own right and needed to be kept in perspective, especially after strong crowds at the first three races of the season that preceded Sunday's event. But it still was the lowest attendance for a NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Bristol in years -- and it was a stark reminder to all race-track operators that despite the otherwise strong start to this 2011 season, all is not a bed of roses in the business just yet.

With attendance and television ratings up markedly over the first three races leading into the Bristol event, the signs are there that the business side of NASCAR is on the recovery path. But there is still work to be done, and race promoters insist that they are working harder than ever.

"I'd say the past two years in particular have been the most challenging since I've been in the business," said Clay Campbell, who has been president at Martinsville Speedway since 1988. "You seem to be working harder to accomplish the same that you used to, or less. But it's not an isolated case with our sport or anything else. Everybody is facing the same challenges, with the economy being what it is.

"I do think the positive thing this year is that our season seems to be going on the right path. To me, it's gotten off to a positive start. There is just a different feeling in the air."

Explaining Bristol

Smith and Jerry Caldwell, who is in his first full year as general manager at Bristol, candidly admitted heading into last Sunday's race that times have changed since a 55-race sellout streak at the track was snapped in the spring of last year.

Both said that while sales for the Sunday afternoon race that was just held were sluggish, sales for the August Saturday night race at the track have continued to be brisk. That race fell just short of a sellout last August, even in the throes of the bad economy, and Caldwell said he remains hopeful that it will sell out or at least come close to selling out this August.

But the track used to insist that if fans wanted to come to one race at Bristol, no matter which one, they had to buy tickets to both in that given season. That stipulation was dropped this year, which likely has helped save sales for August at the expense of the spring race.

"They still want to come to the races," Caldwell said. "They love Bristol. They may have their job, but they're still very cautious with their money -- so they're going to come to one event and not two. Our August ticket sales are playing out that way. Our August ticket sales are very, very strong."

While many other tracks have slashed ticket prices in recent years, Bruton Smith said he hasn't seen the need to adjust ticket prices too much, and that instead the focus has been on giving the fans the best value for what they do pay. Both he and Caldwell said that they also implored local merchants to work with the track on helping in that regard.

"We've got so much that's going on here, and we just continue to try to add value for the race fans," Caldwell explained. "Because we hear from them and they say it's not $5 or $10 [in ticket prices] that's having them decide what races they're coming to. It's value and the overall expense of the trip.

"So local chambers of commerce in local cities around here, and hotels and restaurants and campgrounds have all worked with us. We met with them at the beginning of this year as well as at the end of last year where we said, 'Hey, guys we're all in this together. We need for you to work with us.' If you'll come down in your prices so we can pass that along to the race fans, we'll relay that to the race fans and promote the heck out of you."

Working with local merchants to help the race tracks bring in fans is something most of the track operators are doing these days. In short, they've discovered that they need to help do more for the race fans in many different areas than ever before.

"We're doing a lot on a lot of different levels," said Marcus Smith, Bruton's son who is president and general manager at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "I think that's the real silver lining on the cloud that was the last 24 months for the race fan. It woke up a lot of people who really were resting on our laurels, not focusing on the core customer.

"All race promoters -- and really anyone in any business -- has really had to refocus on the core customer. For anyone in our business, the race fan is the core customer. So we're focused on delivering a great event with great racing and great amenities at a great value to the race fan."

Kyle Busch celebrates a weekend sweep with fans at Bristol. Jerry Caldwell, general manager at the track, says he is more mindful of the many aspects of putting on a race, because fans want more for less or they won't come.

No more complacency

When every track was full week after week, television ratings were soaring, and the general economy was rolling along -- as it all was back when Bruton Smith boasted of his long Bristol waiting list -- there may have been a tendency for race promoters to get complacent. They all seem willing to admit that now.

"There was one point -- and we all remember it -- where I don't care what you did, you were going to fill the place up. So you didn't have to do a lot," Campbell said. "At one point, ticket prices weren't an issue -- because, hey, if this guy didn't want to pay X amount of dollars for a ticket, there was a guy right behind him who would. So I think we all got a little fat and happy, and this has brought us into check."

Campbell and others agree that in the long run it may turn out to be a positive. In fact, Campbell insisted that it already can be construed as such for what it has set in motion.

Plan your race

Get your tickets, book your travel and check out the best places to tailgate as you learn more about NASCAR's race tracks.

"Everything is not bad. Everything that has happened is not a negative," Campbell said. "It's gotten us to open our eyes a little bit, and understand what our audience is and what they can afford.

"It's been said time and time again that this is a sponsor-driven sport, and to a degree it is. But if we don't have people in the grandstands watching it, it's much harder to attract sponsors. I've always said if we please the fans first, everything else will fall in line behind it -- and I've never changed my belief on that."

Caldwell said the tough times have forced him and his fellow Bristol employees to change the way they think about many aspects of putting on a race. It isn't enough now simply to advertise a great pre-race concert or blow something up in the infield. Fans want more -- and now they want more for less, or they obviously won't come.

"We have always -- and I'll put it up against anybody -- been the best in the business with customer service, from taking care of the race fans with amenities at the track and other things," Caldwell said. "So in the past we've been able to focus on that experience. It's like none other.

"The areas that we did not have to focus on were the fan-loyalty programs and ticket packages, those kinds of things. We were able to focus on the fans' experience here at the track. The softness in the economy and the contraction, it made us have to focus on how we're going to take care of our season-ticket holders and give them more value. And how are we going to reach out to these other markets and get tour operators to come in."

Tour operators? At Bristol? That in itself is a sign of changing times.

"Years ago, we pushed away from the tour operators -- because we though they were doing a disservice to our race fans because they were charging a lot more than the face value for tickets. So we didn't embrace them," Caldwell said. "With what's going on now, we've started embracing a lot of those folks -- because they're offering much more affordable packages. We're doing lots of things that we've not focused on in the past.

"But it's been good. I think anytime you go through a challenge like this economy has been for the last couple of years, it's going to make you stronger in the end. It's going to make you trim some fat and see where you need to focus and where you need to gain ground. That's what we've done.

"I think that's prone to happen in any industry after a lot of success. I think we all, unfortunately, just had become complacent with our spot and how we interacted with our customers. I don't think going through a challenging time is a bad thing. It's how we grow and become better."

Marcus Smith is overseeing construction of the largest High Definition television in the world, which his father, Bruton, has insisted will ensure a sellout of the Coca-Cola 600 this May.

What they're doing

Examples of tracks trying to meet these as-yet undefined demands are everywhere. Campbell is selling four seats (two adult, two youth) to the upcoming Sprint Cup race at his track, including four sodas and four famous Martinsville hot dogs, for $99. For the recent race in Las Vegas, which sold out, the general manager of that track, Chris Powell, pushed an initiative to appeal to younger fans by offering 50 percent off all tickets purchased by or for fans 15 and younger. And on the backstretch of Charlotte Motor Speedway, Marcus Smith is overseeing construction of the largest High Definition television in the world, which his father, Bruton, has insisted will ensure a sellout of the Coca-Cola 600 this May.

"We've never offered discounted tickets before," said Powell, whose facility seats 142,000. "And this is not some type of desperate act to fill seats -- because we've had a very good year in selling tickets. We just thought it was a statement we needed to make to get more young people out to the race.

"We're trying to appeal more to the younger set, while at the same time not forgetting the core fan who has made the sport what it is."

"We've never offered discounted tickets before. And this is not some type of desperate act to fill seats -- because we've had a very good year in selling tickets. We just thought it was a statement we needed to make to get more young people out to the race."


Campbell said he is aiming to do the same at his track.

"We've done a lot of things differently in the last couple of years," Campbell said. "One thing we're doing is we're targeting the youth market more, because a lot of our older fans are aging out and we've got to replace them. To that point, we've been targeting a lot of colleges and universities. We've got a lot of great ones all around us.

"We've got special pricing for college students. We've got special pricing for children -- because if you attract the children, obviously you've also got the parents. That's a focus we're heavy onto now that maybe at one time we were not. I would say primarily it's families. We've got that $99 four-pack -- two youths, two adults, four hot dogs, four drinks. Years ago, we wouldn't have attempted to do that -- because there was no need to. Now we're working a whole lot harder to attract youth and the family as a unit."

Marcus Smith insisted that never before have race fans been able to get so much for their money at NASCAR's biggest events.

"When you look at the cost of going to a NASCAR race this year, last year and the year before, it's the best time we've ever had for race fans," he said. "There is more access than ever before, better entry-level prices than ever -- and for the fans who want to see more and do more, you can see more and do more than ever before. Access to pit road and season-ticket packages that really give you more for your money are things that all tracks are doing, and hotels are dropping their rates. The market is really coming to the race fans to supply a lot more for the race-fan dollar."

Some tracks are kicking up their pre-race concerts a notch as well. Brad Paisley played before the season-opening Daytona 500, Smith recently announced that Dierks Bentley will play prior to the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race, and legendary Lynyrd Skynryd has signed on to play prior to the Labor Day weekend race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

"Our fans really enjoy the pre-race concerts. We've done pre-race concerts for a long time, and this is part of how we like to try to bring the race to the fans," Smith said. "A NASCAR race is so much more different than a typical sporting event. It's not a two- or three-hour event like a football game or a baseball game. It's a huge festival that kind of blends in the atmosphere of a state fair and a race and a lot of friends coming together all rolled into one.

"You've got a lot of fans coming in from out of town. An average fan travels more than 300 miles one way to come to a race, and with over 10,000 campsites around most of our speedways, you can see how a festival is really more what a race is than just your typical sporting event."

More challenges ahead

With the average fan traveling such great distances to see races, another obvious stumbling block that played a role in all the empty seats at Bristol last Sunday was high gasoline prices. With Americans paying $3.50 or more for a gallon of fuel these days, many of them are simply opting to stay home.

"I wish I could wave a magic wand and do something about that," Bruton Smith said.

He can't, of course. No one can, although Campbell did say that he is working with a couple of service stations around his track to hopefully have them lower their prices during his race weekend.

Fueled by devotion

For everyone who cheers the hero and boos the villain, an inside look at the fans of NASCAR.

"It's a challenge and there again, it goes back to another way we're now marketing our events," Campbell admitted. "We spend a lot of focus on the 200-mile radius, where fans can make a morning drive to the track for the event. Prices haven't leveled off to where they need to for fuel or anything else, because the economy is still tight. So we need to attract people who can drive to Martinsville to watch the race and then get back home in one day.

"We're still targeting areas outside of that, but a big focus is on that. That's one of the things we've changed. How can we attract people who want to make it but maybe don't want to stay over one night or more? Fuel prices are a big part of that, but we can't control that. It's kind of like the weather. It is what it is -- but it sure puts a dent in someone's wallet when they have to travel great distances. Hopefully that will level off at some point and it won't affect us too bad, but it does have an impact."

Meanwhile, despite attendance being down at Bristol, there have been plenty of positive developments to build on this season, according to Campbell and others. There were the popular wins by drivers Trevor Bayne, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards to start the season in front of large crowds at Daytona, Phoenix and Las Vegas, respectively, as well as improved television ratings over a year ago for each of the first three races. (The overnight ratings for the Bristol race were down nine percent, but that race went against the NCAA college basketball tournament).

"The races have been good. I'm optimistic that 2011 will be a year of getting back to what we once had," said Campbell, whose facility seats a more modest 65,000 and had its own lengthy sellout string of 34 consecutive races snapped in 2008.

"I think everything is starting to turn around. I think this year will be a year of improvement. It's going to take us a while to get back -- and I don't know that we'll ever get back to what we had at one point. But I think we are going to start slowly recovering."

One thing is certain in NASCAR. It's no longer business as usual. Race promoters have found that approach no longer works.

"I think some had gotten complacent, some had gotten focused on other things and assumed certain things were taken care of," Marcus Smith said. "But you know, everybody in every business has had to make adjustments for the economy we're in. It's not unique to NASCAR racing. It's the same at the mall, it's the same anywhere you go, really. There is more value for your dollar today because of the tough economy that we've been in, and NASCAR is no different. We've just got to keep working to get the word out about that everywhere we go."