The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : Gas And Go Home -- How Fuel Is Keeping NASCAR Fans Away by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday May 8, 2008

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The Cup event at Richmond almost didn’t sell out last weekend, and that worries me. I know firsthand from my time as a fan in the stands how tough it used to be to get a ticket to that race; back then, once the renewals got sent out, the limited amount of seats remaining were offered to the general public. Getting some of those coveted tickets often involved a day off of work, along with chicanery like climbing fences and other desperate measures.

I guess those days are behind us.

I’ve rattled off my reasons why I feel longtime fans are growing alienated from the sport in numerous columns, and I won’t repeat myself here. That disenfranchisement may have a lot to do with empty seats at traditionally sold out venues; but right now, I think the biggest challenge facing promoters is the high cost of gas, and that’s a factor completely out of their control.

I’m well aware that despite the stereotype of race fans as rednecks, there are a lot of NASCAR fans with enviable incomes. Some of them still think nothing of towing a 40-foot Campground Caddy behind the Hummer to a distant locale, or loading up the F-350 for a cross country jaunt to their favorite track. God bless ‘em all; but there just aren’t enough of those fans to fill the grandstands anymore.

Thus, if I were a track promoter, I’d concentrate my efforts on luring in fans, new and old, to a demographic I’ll call the “One Tank” consumer; a fellow or lady who can reach the track and get back home on a single tank of gas.

How big a radius does that encompass? Having recently put some miles on my beloved ’88 Lincoln Town car, I’ll use that as my gauge. Yes, the big Lincoln is pretty atypical of what folks drive these days, which is why fine examples of mechanically solid low mile land yachts can still be had for a song. But in my recent travels, that old boat averaged 22 MPG — occasionally higher — with the cruise control set at a resolute 75 MPH and a tailwind at my back. In my experience, that’s about the same as a half-ton pickup or a mid-sized SUV, typical of what I see in the parking lot at some tracks.

If track promoters want to fill the grandstands in today’s economy, they should be marketing to the “One Tank” fan.

Let’s do the math; the Missing Linc averages 22 MPG, and I was able to stuff about 18 gallons of distillate of dinosaur in the steerage section during each sphincter-tightening $75 fill-up at the local Exxon. That works out to approximately 400 miles per round trip on a tank of gas.

Well, there are two Cup tracks within that distance of stately Eyesore Acres where I reside: Dover and Pocono. Of course, that 200-mile radius also contains a lot of fans and potential fans, and that’s who I think those two tracks ought to be marketing to. The question is, at what price point they need to market their product?

I’ll select 150 dollars as the target price. That’s not an inconsiderable sum in this troubled economy, but it’s realistic for a lot of people not as a weekly expense, but as a biannual treat and a break from the ordinary. Naturally, that price wouldn’t include overnight lodging or a seat in the suites; what it should include is the price of gas to attend the race, a ticket to the Cup event with decent sightlines, two burgers, three cups of cold domestic beer, and maybe a ball cap as a keepsake of sorts. (As an aside, I still ascribe to the McLaughlin Law of Ball Caps: There is no ball cap ever made worth more than $9.95. Given the fact I have three large boxes of ball caps given to me for free by folks promoting everything from tractors to casinos, I have never and will never spend more than 10 bucks on one.)

Given my $150 target budget and a $75 tank of gas, that leaves only $80 for my ticket and other targeted items. That’s going to dent the promoter’s bottom line some; but given the fact you can’t control the cost of gas, he’s going to have to absorb some of the pain.

Then again, there’s also the beauty of the economy of scale. If I can convince one buddy to attend the race with me (and he doesn’t stiff me at the pump) my fuel cost is down to $35; plus, I have someone to bitch at while caught in post-race traffic. If, in fact, I were able to convince three friends to go on the adventure (and the Lincoln will transport the four of us in decadent luxury), my fuel cost is down to $17.50. That would be a major adjustment on our part from the old days. But with the usual debates about smoking in the car, what radio station to listen to, and when bathroom breaks should be taken, carpooling isn’t always ideal. In the old days, ten of us would show up at the rented cabin near Pocono — each one at the wheel of his own ride, usually towing or hauling some manner of off road conveyance. So, in order to entice old schoolers like us to come together, track management could offer some incentives: a quick exit lane from the parking lot for high-occupancy vehicles, one that allows four folks in a car or three across in a regular cab pickup. Not only does that encourage carpooling, it reduces traffic, and allows promoters to keep more of the targeted $150 per fan.

Simply reaching the target price isn’t enough for a promoter, though. After all, there are several intriguing ways of spending $150 of my shrinking discretionary income in this area. For example, I could haul the dirt bike up to the Poconos and ride the tracks and trails at Camelback, go boating for the afternoon on the Chesapeake, take the Harley for an overnight jaunt to New England, or hit the casinos for the weekend, given my tolerance of seedy motels and habit of limiting my gambling to a single roll of quarters pumped into the slots daily. So why should I spend my dough going to the races? While there is no way a track promoter can assure me that I’m going to see a great race, every effort should be made to see to it that I do. That means track promoters are going to have to get on NASCAR’s back and ride them like rodeo ponies to fix the problems with the new cars that have turned races on the midsize tracks into snore-fests. If the track itself is at fault (think Califorinia) the track’s owners have to bite the bullet and invest the funds to make the racing better. After all, there’s a lot of competition for that $150 in my wallet.

In addition to providing a more palatable product, track promoters have to eliminate those irritants that spoil a fan’s race day experience. The biggest complaint I hear from fans who attend races is the post-race traffic. Naturally, when you’re trying to move somewhere between 60 and 200,000 folks out of the same area at once, there’s going to be congestion; but the traffic at some tracks on the circuit is simply soul-sapping enough too many people have decided it’s not worth it. Working with local and state governments, track promoters need to coordinate ways to move the traffic more efficiently… even if it means adding slip ramps to highways and forgoing some tolls. (Are you listening down there in Dover?) Politicians need to be reminded of all the money fans pump into the local economy on race weekends. Empty seats don’t spend money, and traffic is limiting attendance. Before his untimely death, T. Wayne Roberts — Winston’s marketing guru — had identified traffic as the single biggest threat to the sport’s continued growth. Unfortunately, not enough folks took that message seriously.

Another hot button topic with fans at some tracks is the new “no smoking” policies some have instituted. Yeah, a lot of fans smoke, and it’s simply not reasonable to tell a pack a day smoker that he’s going to have to go four to six hours without lighting up; or, at best, seeking out some small sanctuary where smokers are herded, even while the action on the track continues. Yes, I am aware that a lot of non-smokers don’t like being around cigarette smoke. I’m all for non-smoking and family sections; we all need to get along. But the irony is Bristol was the first smoke free track; and that’s a track where I routinely got sick to the stomach from breathing in carbon monoxide on race weekends, an illness that had no relationship to the pack of smokes in my pocket. If the Feds were ever to measure the levels of exhaust in the stands at Bristol, the place would be shuttered up overnight. To sum up, if you’re truly worried about keeping Junior’s lungs healthy and pink, take him or her to an Earth Day hootenanny… not a race track.

As noted above, both the prices and the quality of the fare offered at concession stands is another major irritant to fans, particularly at tracks that ban or limit coolers. I am convinced that consumption of warm beer is a telling factor in the demise of the English Empire; and I’m not about to lay out six bucks for a cup of it.

Given the costs and inconveniences of attending a race live nowadays, the track promoters’ biggest allies in selling race tickets is the TV networks that provide the natural alternative to seeing a race live. In fact, if I were trying to sell tickets to One Tank fans, my marketing commercials would involve 45 seconds of ears-splitting bombast spewing from the mouth of Darrell Waltrip, followed by the tagline, “You can see the race live, or listen to this jabbering jackass tell you about it!” As a side note to the promoters at Dover and Pocono trying to lure One Tank fans: if you’re running ads to sell race tickets, you’re not running them during the shows I watch, on the radio stations I listen to, on the websites I visit, or at the places where I hang out with like-minded people.

Yeah, there’s still fans out there who’d like to go back to the races despite this perilous economy. Even with rising mortgage payments, rising prices at the pump and the supermarket, and uncertainty about jobs, everyone still needs and wants an occasional break from the ordinary. But the old mindset at the tracks and at NASCAR’s top level was if old time fans wanted to walk away, they were welcome to; after all, there were waiting lists of new fans eager to grab up those tickets. But that’s not the case anymore… obviously. With that said, it remains to be seen if the stewards of the sport can adjust quickly enough to the new economic realities — realities that will include four dollar a gallon gas — to survive.

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Travis Rassat
05/08/2008 07:27 AM
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Great article, Matt – it’s definitely an interesting look at a big issue.

One other thing I would like to add is comfort: I’m a pretty average sized guy – 6’ tall, 200 pounds, with wide shoulders. For $80+ I rent a 12” wide piece of real estate that kills my back and is sandwiched in between two other 12” pieces of real estate with 20” wide asses in them. Because I only spent $80 and not $200, I’m positioned where I can’t see 90% of the track. I’ve got my knees in the back of the person in front of me, who farts a lot in retaliation for the discomfort I’m causing them.

The person in the row ahead of them worked very hard to build their 4’x8’x3/4” plywood “Go <insert their favorite driver here>! Boogity Boogity Boogity!” sign that they hold up every time the cars go by. The person behind me is mad at the guy with the sign, and insists on spraying beer at them every chance they get. Of course, somewhere in my row there is a woman with two kids that need to potty every 4 laps, so the whole row gets to do the wave as they try to squeak by.

I actually like the traffic on the way back from the track – all that extra family time gives me some time to try to explain to my kids why people get so drunk that security shows up, why people swear so much when their driver isn’t winning, why people swear so much when their driver is winning, and the science of the chemical reaction of body odor, beer, and sunblock.

I’m exaggerating (a little), but my point is pretty simple – the tracks could do something to make me feel a little bit better about spending money – give me a little room, maybe throw in a free seat pad, etc. I can spend $80 to be smashed into the stands, or I can spend about 15 to 20 cents on electricity to watch it on TV at home, lounging comfortably on my couch, going potty during the commercials, and taking a nap if it gets boring.

Ed
05/08/2008 07:43 AM
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Once again, great analysis. I quit going to races several years ago for all of the reasons you stated. Now, it would be even worse. No way would I pay the high price of gas, tickets, food/drink and on top of that have to endure the often obnoxious fans. The track owners are going to lose money with empty seats, so they might as well make some cuts and come up with specials to draw fans. Otherwise, as the year goes on it will be worse. I would bet that the drivers are losing a bit of money on their over priced souvenirs as well. I have always wondered why NASCAR fans continue pay those outrageous prices, passing their hard earned money on to already rich drivers.

Mike In NH
05/08/2008 07:45 AM
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Matt and Travis, you both make good points. I think NASCAR is doing well to put as many butts in the seats as they have this year, though, considering the high price of tickets, the high price of gas, of everything at the store now that shipping costs are going up, mortgage issues, etc, etc… a time where race teams are themselves having issues finding sponsorship.

Maybe all of this is why the TV ratings are up – they’re watching from home because it’s cheaper.

With regard to getting the politicians to pony up for access improvements around the tracks – good luck! The price of highway projects has tripled since 2000 and most states are in fact cutting back on everything but maintenance at this point; getting them to put in more access for one or two weekends worth of traffic isn’t going to happen. If the track owners want to overcome the stigma of traffic in and out of their (privately owned) tracks, they should split the cost for these improvements, at least, and that’s only because I’m aware of the economic impact of these races. Or come up with solutions like at NHMS, where they reverse the flow of the nearby interstate highway’s northbound lanes to southbound when race traffic is getting out (I know that’s not possible everywhere though).

Speedcouch
05/08/2008 08:00 AM
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Travis! You named about 75% of the reason why I gave up 12 sets up tickets like by little (including great seats at Ricmond and much-coveted camping spot)! I got so sick of not only the crowded stands, but the rude people surrounding me at ALL venues.

Matt! As always, you hit the nail on the head. Love the “avoid DW” motivation! I know that was a major side-benefit when I was still attending races in person prior to 2005 when I “voted my my dollars” in protest of the Chase, Lucky Dog, obnoxious Junior fans, cooler rules, etc.

Mike
05/08/2008 08:32 AM
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Mike in NH: “Maybe all of this is why the TV ratings are up – they’re watching from home because it’s cheaper.”

Bingo.

Janice
05/08/2008 08:36 AM
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when i’ve gone to races, i’ve tried to save to be able to buy the $120 seats. but travis, you still get 12-18” of space to park your body. last i checked the average race fan, male or female, didn’t have 12” rear end and the guys have shoulders share your space with. you still have the feet in your back and beer and peanut shells showering down on you all day long. i use to buy an extra seat so i could have some room just so i wasn’t getting to know my seat neighbor in an almost intimate nature. you also don’t want to sit at the end of the row cause people will climb over you and on you going up and down the stairs. we won’t even mention heat. years ago, when i lived in mid-atlantic area, i was at dover for qualifying on a typical june friday (hot & humid) and some man had a heart attack in the top row. I swear it took 10 minutes for medics to climb up to get him and then the fans passed down the guy on the body board. now that i live in georgia, for the life of me i cannot figure out how at talladega i’m only allowed to take in a cooler the size of my lunch box and a clear tote, and then when i’m in the stands there goes someone with a backpack on wheels the size of a medium piece of luggage. you still have to shove this stuff between your feet and hope you con’t smash your snacks and lunch before halfway. at ams, a few years ago the track did get with the governor and get an extension built onto a highway to help ease traffic. well the brain trust now makes people, like myself, who can take back roads to the track, get on the highways just to get into the track. i had one too many people tell me in 2007 i couldn’t enter the track the way i came (which is the way i had been going for 10 years), turn around and get on 19/41 and get in 2 hrs of traffic. they also make fans park in the south forty (as i call it), and before, if you got to track at 7 am, you could park and not have to walk 5 miles to get to souviner area. older fans, like myself, have joint problems, but not severe enough for the handicapped permit. us older fans are the ones who supported the series. souviners?? i gave up buying them years ago, even when they hawk the stuff on qvc on friday nights. nothing is limited edition now, so that diecast isn’t worth the cost you pay. i also grew tired of seeing dale sr souviner riggs at the track, making more money for tei. still see rusty wallace riggs there too. i always would go to a race where i could get home and sleep in my bed. i’ve been to darlington, rockingham, ams, dega and charlotte. won’t pay for motel room. i’ll take a nap before leaving after race if i’m more than an hour from home to make sure i don’t fall asleep on the road. i use to justify the expense that i’d get 12 hrs of things to do and see, but now…i’m loosing enough money in my 401(k) that i can’t justify the expense of a race. couch at home with a/c any my own food and beer without having to haul it up stairs is fine with me. don’t have to worry about weather or sunblock either. good article matt.

Annie
05/08/2008 09:41 AM
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We had renewable tickets at Dover for years. When Dover started building more seats but ignoring the parking and traffic issues, we gave them to our kids. They used them for a few years before they, too, couldn’t take it anymore. These were good seats in Row 10 of Turn 2. You could see the entire track and the faces of the drivers. Awesome! I miss the live racing, but after all this time I still can’t get over the negative traffic and parking issues enough to want to go back. Having said that, we also had tickets for the Southern 500 at Darlington. Now that city/town/burb knows what they’re doing!! The parking was incredible and they had the traffic feeder pattern down to a science. We never slowed down on the way to the track and we were back at our hotel 20 minutes after the race ended. Sure, let’s move THAT race. We can’t have a track owner who knows what he’s doing calling all the shots. Na$car = A$$hole$

Mel Hull
05/08/2008 11:01 AM
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Matt, That was one of the best articles I have seen on this website since I started reading it last year. I am a huge open wheel fan, but I like all motorsports and have been to tracks all over the world. My family has own Indianapolis 500 tickets since the 30s (I have attended the last 29 years)and I have also attended many F1 races overseas. I share everyone’s pain in what it is like to go to race in person (but like everyone who goes, TV just doesn’t do it for me). But if you think it is bad here trying going to an F1 race in Europe, most Sunday only tickets are close to $300 US and you don’t the have sightlines that you do at Richmond (which by the way is one of the nicest tracks I have every been to, from the facility to the people that work there everything is first class and I will be attending my second indycar race there next month)or any other US venue. The fans in Europe are even more into thier favorite drivers than they are over here, obnoxious on a scale you couldn’t comprehend. Expensive food? (try $12 for a 12 ounce coke with no ice and that was in 1987 at Monaco). I guess what I am saying is it could be worse than it is and I would rather spend 4 hours watching a race with a bunch of obnoxious fans that 30 seconds of golf!!

Connie
05/08/2008 02:01 PM
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We started attending races in 2000. At that time we could Fly, rent a car, get our hotel and tickets to the races for $1,000.00. A few times that even included bus transfers to and from the track. We would attend 2 to 3 a year trying to make it to all the tracks on the circuit. No way can we do that anymore. Ohh the good old days. I know that is not that long ago.

All airlines know how popular Nascar is and they up the fees. Hotels rooms that any other weekend would be 49.00 a nite will run you 125.00 a nite some even require a 3 nite stay. Then last but not least throw in your tickets and food, water, snacks and anything else you might enjoy at the track is priced crazy. They are hitting us from ALL angles with these prices.

The last 2 to 3 years we have been driving to the races because of the outrageous airline tix’s. Even though I drive a smaller SUV (that I owe to much to get out of) it cost us $350 to get to Richmond last weekend in gas alone and then throw on the hotel and race tix’s we were WAY over $1000. Chicago will be our last for this year. It’s only 2 hours away but most likely will be the last one we will go to there. Being forced to buy season tix’s is to expensive and we can’t even give away the Sept race tix’s much less sell them. Danica is from our area and we might have a slight chance to sell the IRL this year.

jerseyjim
05/08/2008 06:32 PM
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Todays costs of going to any event on any level is out of the reach of most of us. I remember the days of going on thursday thru sunday for a race, 4or 5 times a year. pocono, richmond, daytona, watkins glen or dover. those days are gone forever. things for me changed after that dopey days of thunder movie. thats when things began to change for the so-called race fan. its never been the same since.

Kevin in SoCal
05/09/2008 12:50 AM
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Oh geez, how did I miss this one? Even an article NOT about California gets the required slam against California in it. Give it a rest. You can pick on California twice a year: In February and on Labor Day weekend. “roll eyes”

MATT
05/09/2008 08:50 AM
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Considering the attendence or lack thereof at Fontana how could the comment not be germane.

I’d also point out that folks in LaLa land tend to pay some of the highest gas prices in the country and have a huge amount of options of what to do with thier 150 bucks. There’s not many places you can go skiing and tan on the beach on the same day

DWS44
05/09/2008 12:17 PM
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Wow…$125 for a room? You haven’t been to Bristol yet, have you? hehe We so enjoy our 3 night minimum @ $230/night…and I’ve heard of much worse in the area.

Kevin in SoCal
05/09/2008 12:42 PM
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Fontana isnt the only track having attendance issues, so dont just pick on them. The track was built by Roger Penske for both stock cars and indy cars. Its wide with lots of room, but its low banking, too.

Gasoline starts at $3.90 a gallon and goes up from there around here.

Connie
05/09/2008 02:04 PM
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Yes we have been to Bristol. We were there the spring race when it snowed. We had hooked up with a bus company out of Long Island. We did the meet us there package. This package was hotel and transfers to and from for both races. We were about an hour away from the track. I did hear the front desk tell someone on the phone they had rooms for 110.00 available.

Ed
05/09/2008 04:45 PM
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Fontana ought to have more vacant seats than any track, since it didn’t sell out during good times.

Kevin in SoCal
05/09/2008 04:59 PM
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Fontana DID sell out prior to 2004 when they got the Labor Day date, and the curse of the lady in black began.

Michael T.
05/11/2008 03:21 AM
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While Matt loathes the road courses, Infineon (in recent years) is an awesome venue to watch a Cup race live. Bruton has done wonders with that track. Everything from seating (terrace seating is wonderful), mobility around the track, flow of traffic in and out of the facility and sightlines anywhere around the track have improved tremendously. Gone are the rickety wooden bridges that would sway and groan when loaded down with several hundred race fans and replaced with a couple spacious tunnels that are big enough to drive a semi through. Golf carts, trams and busses are buzzing around the facility throughout the entire day shuttling fans to any part of the track within minutes.

Obviously Infineon is not immune to high ticket and food prices, but you are still allowed to bring coolers filled with food and drinks into the track with you. The terrace seating has spoiled me forever. I can never sit in cramped grandstand seating again. Each seat is more than adequate to accommodate large adults without having to analyze how many hours it’s been since your neighbor last applied deodorant. But here’s the real selling point. You can walk the span of any row and not have to ask a single person to scoot their legs in or kick the row in front of you in the back as you pass by. Each row is remarkably wide.

I know some people that have never been to a road course like to complain about them. One major complaint is that you can’t see the entire track. Somehow I doubt you can see Pocono in its entirety. When I order my tickets I simply asked to be seated across from one of the many giant screens playing the race live. I can watch all the action that isn’t directly in front of me, watch replays and pit stops. It’s a pretty simple fix.

Back in the pre-Bruton Smith days, once the race was over, the track workers and parking lot navigators just abandoned ship and it was every man for himself getting out of the track. 5 to 6 hours was not uncommon to even hit the road to start your journey home. Last year I was out of the parking lot and on my way home in under an hour. Getting 100,000 people funneled out of there in that amount of time is phenominal.