The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : How A Smith (Not Bruton) Is Making Life Easy For Race Fans by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday July 31, 2008

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The stock car racing community was shocked this May by longtime Charlotte promoter Humpy Wheeler’s abrupt departure from the SMI fold. When Bruton Smith named his own son Marcus to replace Wheeler, fans got a little nervous. I mean, when Bill France appointed his son Brian to run (or ruin) NASCAR. that didn’t go so well, right?

Brian France began his tenure with a series of major changes to the sport; the rush to implement the Car of Horror, schedule changes, and the much maligned Chase. Other NASCAR officials now admit the series made too many changes — that too many fans found unpalatable — too fast. Fortunately, it seems Marcus Smith is taking a different tact. Rather than setting out for new frontiers, he’s chosen to continue an initiative Humpy Wheeler started a few years back — he’s trying to make attending a race at Charlotte more affordable for the blue collar fans that are the backbone of this sport.

For out of town fans, one of the biggest hits to the wallet on any race weekend is lodging. In recent years, hotels and motels have routinely jacked their per night rates on race weekends, imposing burdensome minimum stays of three and even four nights. Often, fans left hotel rooms they’d already paid for vacant on Sunday nights so they could get back to work on Monday.

But now, that trip to wherever you work should include a little extra cash in your wallet. With the cooperation of the Charlotte Regional Visitor’s Authority, Smith has been able to line up 35 hotels within 30 miles of the track that have agreed to drop their “race weekend” rates 15%. In addition, they’ve agreed to eliminate the minimum stay requirements; that second provision will likely save fans more coin than the price reduction, as a lot of fans want to drive down for the Nationwide race on Friday stay in town overnight for the Cup event then head home after the race.

Bruton Smith named his son Marcus to replace Humpy Wheeler as General Manager of Lowe’s Motor Speedway in May. Since then, the Smiths have worked hard to make attending their track more affordable.

Admittedly, the move by the hospitality industry isn’t pure altruism on the part of the participating hotels, who were used to seeing 90% occupancy rates on race weekends. As the price of gas, concerns about their jobs, and the mortgage crises conspire to keep more fans at home on the couch, occupancy rates on race weekends have dipped to 70%. By dropping their minimum stays and lowering their rates, those 35 hotels are obviously hoping to get a bigger portion of the visiting fans to stay with them. That likely will force other hotels to follow suit in the future.

The move is also necessary for SMI, the owners of the speedway. Outside of racing circles, Marcus Smith in an unknown commodity. Since Wheeler’s unexpected, lamentable and hasty departure, SMI stock prices have dropped precipitously. Investors are worried about declining ticket sales and the huge amount of money Burton Smith paid to buy the race tracks in Kentucky and New Hampshire. SMI needs to show investors that management realizes these are tough economic times and they are willing to roll up their sleeves and do something to put more butts in the stands.

At the same time, the Speedway is offering a special ticket package for fans. For $159, fans get four seats in the Diamond Tower (off of turn 2), and coupons for four hot dogs and four bottles of Coke.

Look at the math. Say you live 250 miles from Charlotte. You and three buddies throw in to get the special package. For $40 each, you have your seat and a snack. (And unlike some other tracks, you are each free to bring a decent size cooler for your beer or water.) A 500-mile round trip in a vehicle that holds the four of you and averages 20 MPG adds up to 25 gallons of gas. At four bucks a gallon, that’s another $100 split four ways. Grand total coast of attending the race is $65 which I find reasonable — even if it isn’t cheap. (Just be sure to bring along a designated driver, or the cost of the weekend could dramatically increase for one unlucky attendee.)

Unfortunately, SMI and the Smiths can only address half of the big picture. 65 bucks is 65 bucks. For that amount of money, I can cruise the Harley about 2,500 miles, stopping in for a sandwich and a libation occasionally to celebrate another nice ride. The question posed for my four mythical friends was is the race they’re going to see going to be worth $65, or is it going to be another processional parade of the Winged Blunder cars cruising around until things heat up in the last 20 laps? Even if they let you in some of the races for free this year, they wouldn’t have been worth enduring — see Indy. That’s an issue Brian France is going to have to address, not the Smiths — though I’m sure our friend Bruton might have some pretty pointed suggestions on how to make the racing better. That’s one press conference I’d gladly pay $65 to watch.

For more information, visit the Lowes Motor Speedway’s website

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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07/31/2008 07:59 AM

you’re right matt….i’d love to see bruton try to sell his ideas of making racing interesting to brain dead. love or hate him, bruton is trying to make racing a bit more affordable. sure the goal is to put fans behinds in the seats for the television $$$. at least he’s trying. i got a phone call from talladega a week ago. the person called to ask me what they could do to encourage me to renew my seats for the fall race. they’d didn’t think my suggestion would work. i suggested same seats, at lower price and chip in something for gas and food. they weren’t too receptive to that. ams has started email campaign about the fall race as well. i just “delete” those without reading. right now…with how racing has been this year and economy, couch is cheaper and more comfortable, my food and beverages are cheaper (even with increased prices at the store) and bathroom is much more cleaner.

08/02/2008 11:35 AM

65$ will take you 2500 miles on your Harley?(and a sandwich) A 100 mpg Harley? Why isn’t everyone riding one?