The Frontstretch: MPM2Nite: An Open Letter to Track Owners by Matt McLaughlin -- Wednesday July 6, 2011

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MPM2Nite: An Open Letter to Track Owners

Matt McLaughlin · Wednesday July 6, 2011

 

Well, it’s been a few years since a new track was added to the schedule, but this weekend Kentucky gets tacked on to the slate of Cup dates. Naturally, I wish those in charge well in their endeavor while accepting the fact there’s likely to be a few glitches as the initial foray into the big leagues begins. They’ve sold out the track, a notable accomplishment these days, but the big question is how many of the fans on hand will be back for next year’s race? It’s a bit late to be offering advice to Kentucky management, but I present the following both as a reminder to them and as a refresher to the management at other tracks.

Here’s the hurdles you have to leap in order to keep the fans happy and coming back as paying customers:

Traffic: The late and lamented T. Wayne Robertson spent the final years of his life (tragically ended in a boating accident back in January of 1998) trying to convince Bill France, Jr. and track owners that traffic prior to and after a race was going to be the biggest hindrance to the then-explosive growth of the sport. Who was Mr. Robertson? T. Wayne was the architect of the then-Winston Cup program, saving NASCAR from the brink of doom when the factories left the sport in the early ’70s while building it into the elite tiers of professional sports at the time of his demise. While his paycheck was signed by R.J. Reynolds, no person in this sport’s history has ever cared more about its health and its fans than Mr. Robertson. He contributed more to the growth of NASCAR than any three members of the France family combined.

Traffic. Do you know anyone who likes sitting in traffic? In addition to being aggravating and wasteful, it can also be humiliating. New cars can park themselves, connect you to the Internet, give you directions and inform you of vehicles in your blind spots but they still don’t have pissers aboard. The good old Gatorade bottle still has to stand in when it takes you two hours just to get out of the parking lot at a race track. Then, it can be another hour and a half to two hours to get back into free moving traffic so you can wind your way home.

If track owners want to keep their fans coming back, they must keep them happy.

I’m a realist. When that many people try to exit the same venue at the same time, especially with most tracks located in remote rural areas there’s going to be some traffic. Even in these days of declining race attendance, that’s still a lot of folks and cars to get on the road. But every time I watch some inept part-timer issued a yellow vest and a blinking red wand simply overwhelmed and waving on whichever lane of traffic has the most people honking at him, I want to scream. See, I’m from Chester/Lancaster County, PA and the sticks at that. My idea of rush hour traffic is when there’s two cars ahead of me at the stone, one-lane bridge down the street.

Cup races generate a tremendous amount of revenue for localities and states. Thus, it behooves the track management to coordinate with traffic engineers, the State and local cops to come up with a workable solution to manage traffic. Alternate exits, slip ramps, turning two-lane roads into single direction travel ways and other methods can all help, but only if key checkpoints are manned by professional police officers – not teenage kids working a one-day summer job. Helicopters above the track monitoring trouble spots and reporting to a centralized traffic command center should be considered essential. One broken down motorhome or fender bender can turn an already bad situation into an obscenity.

Again, NASCAR races pour an awful lot of revenue into a community and they do so year after year. If roads need to be widened, widen them. If turn lanes need to be added, add them. If special use off ramps need to be added, build them. Make sure the pathway to and from the track is clearly marked with signage to help guide first timers. Have tow trucks on hand to clear disabled vehicles from lanes of traffic. I’ve gotten to the point if I can’t be in free moving traffic heading home a half-hour after a race, I’m not going. And there’s a lot of folks like me. Right, T. Wayne?

Concession Stands: This is another key irritant that fans write me about regularly. I’m kind of weird. I can go the length of a race without food as long as there are cold beverages on hand. In fact, I often go 24 hours without eating in day-to-day life if I’m busy.

But in that regard, I’m an exception, few of you do the same, and if you’ve ever brought children or teenagers to a race you know the drill. Most of the snacks you’ve packed for the afternoon are gone before you even reach the track. The rest are devoured before the race starts. And twenty laps into the race you get the usual, “Mom, Dad, I’m STARVING.” So off you head with the lad to the concession stands to wait in an interminably long line whilst the race continues buzzing along. The attendant serves up two lukewarm hot dogs that look like death, an equally lukewarm Coke and then asks you for 12 bucks. What? I can go to the local Wawa (for those who don’t know, think of it like a 7-Eleven run by English-speaking people), get two decent dogs and an ice cold Coke for three bucks and pocket change I wouldn’t bend over to pick up. But you’re at their mercy. It’s not like you’re going to hike back to the car and run down the street to the 7-Eleven. You’d miss half the race.

Simply put, track owners, the lines need to be shorter, the food better and the fare more fairly priced. You’ve got a captive audience and they’ve already paid out the big bucks for race tickets, travel and accommodations. The gouging has to stop somewhere if you ever expect to see them again. I’ve been to countless automotive swap meets, arena rock concerts, hill climbs, music fests and the like and nowhere have I seen any venue with the audacity to charge such ripoff prices for such unsavory fare.

Welcome the Out of Towners: Of course, you need to cherish every fan from the local area who attends your race. When they stop coming, that’s your “dead canary in the coal mine” warning sign.

But recall that a lot of folks travel long distances to help fill up those stands. The latest statistics I have read stated that fans travel about six hours, on average to go to a Cup race. That means that many are going to need overnight accommodations, are going to be eating out every evening, patronizing local businesses and in general pouring millions of dollars into the local, regional and state economy. All of you business owners, from the track owner to the local mom and pop diners and service stations have suddenly got the Goose that Laid the Golden Egg nested in your lap.

But some folks will tend to want to wring it by the neck to get the most they can out of that poor goose. Hotel rooms that would normally be 55 bucks a night on the weekends are suddenly 185 bucks and up with three-night minimum stays. Restaurants raise prices or don’t have sufficient server staff on duty to handle the crowds. Some business owners are simply overwhelmed and others have larceny in their hearts. So go to the local Chamber of Commerce and to elected officials, sit down and have a heart-to-heart meeting. Together, we are going to ride this wave for everything it’s worth and make our guests feel welcome as we accommodate them… or we’re going to run this thing into the ground. It only takes a few hotels signing onto the plan and agreeing to charge reasonable rates (with full occupancy) to shame the other chains into being more reasonable as they have empty rooms on race weekends. Most race fans aren’t looking for the Taj Mahal. A clean and safe room at a reasonable price with friendly staff will keep them coming back year after year.

Parking: I’ve always espoused the theory that when attending a big race, it’s in a fan’s best interest to arrive unreasonably early to beat traffic. There’s plenty to see and do, plus a lot of nice folks to meet and befriend as the extra hours before the race simply disappear. (As opposed to each nanosecond spent in traffic… see above). Part of my early arrival strategy is to park as close as I can to a main exit lane near the exit of the parking lot so as to beat some of the post-race traffic. Once the race ends, I can walk back to my car faster than the cars I am walking past will make it to the same spot. And since I’m way early, I have plenty of time to get to my seat before the race starts. But at some, if not most tracks, this practice is prohibited. Weekend Gestapo in bright yellow shirts insist that you follow their wild gesticulating and park in orderly rows at the parking sites closest to the track. Why? Because they can. Try to deviate from the herd and you’re likely to end up with some pencil necked geek who looks like he’s got two bullfrogs wrestling over a grasshopper in his Adam’s apple leaning in your car, spitting all over you as he orders you to get back with the pack and do as he says or…or…or… his mom is going to be really, really, mad at you. As a paying customer, I don’t appreciate getting screamed at upon my arrival at the track.

But then, we can’t have people parking their cars in appropriately designated spaces on their whim, can we? The same thing happens at shopping malls all across the country daily and there’s not much in the way of anarchy or mayhem as a result, is there?

Security: Those parking lot attendants who don’t succumb to massive coronaries before they turn 20 often show up as cop wanna-be security guards in the stands. While most of the security people I have dealt with have been pleasant and helpful, there’s always been their fair share of Barney Fife wanna-bes who have been complete a-holes and incompetents. Yes, in any large gathering like a Cup race there’s a need for security. People who toss beer cans, get profanely abusive with the fans beside them, become threatening to the safety or enjoyment of others and the like need to be dealt with. But if I’m smoking in a non-designated area all you need do is tell me. I will extinguish my cigarette, apologize and comply with the rule. There’s no need to grab the smoke out of my hand and start threatening me with ejection.

In most cases where I’ve seen security go into hand-to-hand combat with patrons, it’s been the security guard who escalated the situation to a fight and laid hands on the other party first. And trust me: I’ve been to a lot of races over a lot of decades. (Pocono infield security is particularly notorious for their gang attacks on patrons.) These people need better training in crowd control, manners and how to respond to a potentially unruly patron. They need to be reminded that they are there to assist race-goers, not assault them. Does a drunken lout ever need to be ousted? Certainly, for the safety and comfort of the other fans around him. But such ejections should be handled in the least violent manner possible with good manners and understanding. After all, that drunken clown is going to wake up in the morning feeling like a jerk anyway. There’s no sense in you stooping to his level.

The bottom line, security is you’re paid to be a professional; act like one, or get actual off-duty police officers who are trained to handle such potentially volatile situations weekly, if not daily to do the job. To sum up, security guards do your job quickly, equitably and without violence so the rest of us can get back to enjoying the race.

And for goodness sakes, if they’re going to be wearing that “Security” shirt and people are going to be turning to them for help, give these guys and gals at least the bare minimum of first aid training. One of my worst memories at a Cup track is an afternoon at Bristol. I had agreed to hike up into the stands to meet some longtime readers prior to the race. When I got there, they were fussing over an overweight, older gentleman who was ashen gray in the face and complaining of chest pain after his long trek towards his seats. Fearing he was in imminent danger of a major cardiac event, I went and found the nearest security person. Her advice: “Give him some water and let him sit awhile. If he doesn’t feel better in a half-hour, come see me.” My friends eventually walked that poor fellow to a medic’s station where they got one look at the patient and had him taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital. I hope the story ended happily, but I don’t know.

Restrooms: Again, I’m not picky. When nature calls point me behind a dumpster, picket fence or a strategically parked dually and I’ll take care of my business. But over the course of a long afternoon a lot of fans will feel the need to visit a restroom. It’s insane that a person should have to miss a half-hour of a race to answer nature’s call. And the deplorable conditions of some of those restrooms and porta-potties by mid-race is so bad, it’s near criminal. Again, I’m not fussy but a whole lot of race fans, more than some track owners seem to be willing to admit to, are of the female variety. Women in general seem a bit more demanding of clean restroom facilities and since they tend to take longer to get the job done, the lines can be even worse. Somewhere in the arcane data related to holding stadium-hosted events, there are perfect numbers for the number of patrons on hand to restroom accommodations for both genders. Some tracks have answered the call. (Pocono proudly bills itself as having the largest men’s room in the world.) Others lag badly behind.

Follow Up: These days, most fans order their race tickets online or over the phone. They make a substantial financial investment to attend these races. If I were running Kentucky Motor Speedway, job number one Monday morning would be to start a mass mail campaign. Since I have their addresses on file, I’d send them a note thanking them for attending the race. “Please” and “thank you” are becoming arcane terms but they are still appreciated in some circles. I would ask them to list what positive things they took away from their race experience. I would also ask them to list the things they didn’t like so much. I’d again thank them for their patronage and ask if we, as a track would be entertaining them again next year for the Cup race. If they responded “no“, I’d write back individual letters asking what would have to change to get them back in the grandstands. Collecting those responses, I’d start new track initiatives to address the wants of my customers. Yes, Kentucky will be sold out this weekend but will it be again next year? A proactive approach to customer satisfaction is the only way to go in this economy.

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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sb
07/07/2011 06:39 AM
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I no longer attend the Bristol races (by preference, not economics), but was always impressed with how well they maintained the track and facilities. With that many people in such a small track, the restrooms were always clean, and lines (even for the ladies room) were seldom long. Just cleaning up the stands between races was done superbly. I luckily found a great ‘escape route’, and managed to avoid the worst of the traffic. Motel rooms are another story.

RickP
07/07/2011 07:55 AM
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Good call on all of this. It took TMS’ Gossage a while to figure this out but things aren’t too bad now. Except, I sure don’t see $12 for two dogs and a coke there or nearly anywhere…..

Carl D.
07/07/2011 09:23 AM
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Spend a weekend in the infield at Charlotte and you will find out quickly what the owners figured out a long time ago… ice is as valuable as gold and is priced accordingly.

I quit going to the races in Charlotte when they kept me out of my reserved infield spot for a full day and night in order to show the word premier of the movie “Cars”. Sorry, I didn’t go there to watch a cartoon. That was the final straw.

I’ll give the security guys a bit of a break; the infield can be a pretty challenging place. I’ve seen stuff going on that would shock Charlie Sheen. Because there’s so many people, folks try to get away with a lot of things (just don’t light any fireworks; apparently that’s worse than commiting murder in NC).

These days I only attend races when I can get greatly discounted grandstand tickets. The bottom line is that the racing just isn’t worth what it costs to spend a weekend at the track.

Gordon84Wins
07/07/2011 10:40 AM
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Well done Matt. Although I will say this…back before the Chase when individual races actually mattered, I never minded any of the inconveniences. Racing could be great, but the first 26 races don’t matter, and 33 drivers mean nothing in the last ten, so why bother?

If they hadn’t turned it into a crapshoot, people might be a little more tolerant of the traffic.

JPE
07/07/2011 11:24 AM
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I went to a Grand National race at Kentucky many moons ago. It’s literally right off I-71 & the parking method was to park cars according to the N/S direction they’d be leaving in. The method was fine but the amount of parking seemed inadequate even by GN standards. All the other things, I agree with Matt on. Best venue in NASCAR is Martinsville. They’re realitvely inexpensive, great lines of sight, and most importantly the racing is always good. I’m for eliminating cookie cutters & wouldn’t have added Kentucky.

Carl D.
07/07/2011 11:32 AM
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JPE

I ilke Martinsville as well, but the last time I was there (April 1999) the only bathroom facilities were port-a-johns and there were long lines at them all day long. Do you know if that has changed?

Matt
07/07/2011 12:42 PM
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Pocono traffic can be a nightmare leaving the racetrack. It could take 2+ hours to get out of the parking lot and 3 hour drive home plus a rest stop. I went until 2007, and the experience was worth the yearly battle with mother nature and traffic issues. The state of the sport in 2008 lowered my enthusiasm to the point I ended my summer Pocono trip. I started attending the Whelen modified race at Riverhead instead and loved it.

Sharon J
07/07/2011 12:53 PM
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I found Phoenix the greatest disappointment in racing. Absolutely uncaring personnel. Not a place for the handicapped. For people with handicaps, Texas and Kansas will accomadate your requests.

GinaV24
07/07/2011 01:38 PM
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Nicely said, Matt. It’s a shame that your poll didn’t have “all of the above” as an option to choose since at various tracks different things are equally important.

CarlD — We go to Martinsville (both races every year) and I agree the bathrooms of 1949 vintage were hard to handle. According to an e-mail that I received a few months ago from the track, the restrooms were being upgraded and should be ready for the October race. Hooray!

We had one of the worst experiences in the free parking area at Richmond some years ago with people who were uniformed law enforcement – they were monitoring the parking and were completely and utterly unreasonable. I had surgery the week before and probably should not have gone to the race. We asked (politely mind you and no we weren’t drinking) if we could please park near a port a john so I didn’t have to walk across the acre of field each time. They absolutely refused to allow it – when my brother finally got tired of it and told the officer we were moving – they threatened us with arrest — one of the officers told me I should have arranged to have gotten handicap parking. We have never been back and I wouldn’t go if they handed me free tickets. It only takes ONE bad experience for a fan to make that decision a permanent one.

Have also been stuck in the traffic nightmare after Pocono — twice was plenty. IMO that track is already difficult to see the action on as it is so big, being unable to get out of the parking lot for 3 hrs and then spending another 2 on the roads leading to the interstate was enough for me. I’d say one and done, but I caught talked into “it can’t be that bad again”. Yes, it was, no, I won’t do it again.

Joe--
07/07/2011 01:59 PM
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NASCAR has forgotten that we are the customers, treat us like dirt and we will not be back.

Kevin in SoCal
07/07/2011 04:07 PM
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Restrooms: I can pretty much say with certainty that the restrooms are totally clean the morning of the race. But after you get hundreds of people using them, people that dont care because its not their restroom, they’re bound to get filthy during the day. I’ve been in some restrooms that it would be easier to condemn the building than clean it. All because people only care about themselves. So, I cant find fault with the tracks, I place the blame on the drunk and discourteous fans for that one.

mikegh
07/07/2011 05:38 PM
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Great points all but there’s ONE thing that nascar needs to do more than anything else: MORE SHORT TRACKS.

Newracefan
07/07/2011 06:01 PM
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I go to the Dover cup races. I’d add the entire weeked but the hotel costs would put me in debt for years so I deal with the parking and traffic instead. Every year we leave at the crack of dawn, drive 2+ hours and still have to park in the far corner of the track. This means sleep in the car after we get there for him and after the race for me because it takes at least an hour before we can get off track property. We’ve tried all knids of ways to avoid the waiting with limited success. This past May was the best it’s ever been and then I realized it was because it was the worst attendence ever. Thankfully Dover still lets you bring in coolers only problem if you put in enough drinks you can’t carry it

sylvia richardson
07/07/2011 07:21 PM
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All tracks are hard 2 get in and out. except the brickyard but then it is such a boring race.Question are the drivers paied to lie a little??????

Bill B
07/07/2011 08:28 PM
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My biggest gripe is traffic too but you have to ask, how much should a municipality spend for a once or twice a year event.
Think of a town that gets a big snowfall once every 2 or 3 years but otherwise sees very little snowfall. How much should they spend on snow equipment?
As for the hotels that is kind of supply and demand at work. Granted there is gouging no doubt but people can say no, drive an hour or two away and find a more reasonable rate. If enough people did that the prices of hotels close to the track would go down. But as long as people pay it, someone is willing to collect it.

The one thing that is in the tracks’ control is the actual venue. They can make the ammenities nicer and the concession prices more reasonable.

upgrayedd
07/07/2011 08:47 PM
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I’ve been going to Sears Point pretty much every year since 1990. The facility certainly was not prepared for 100,000+ people the first few years. The traffic in and out was horrendous. Missing the first 20 laps was not unheard of just trying to get in to the parking lot.

Old, rickety wooden bridges would sway unnervingly as they were overloaded with people trying to cross the track.

Bruton Smith bought the track and finally dragged the facility into the 21st century. Two tunnels big enough to drive two busses through replaced the bridges. New roads and gates eased the traffic in and out. All facilities were upgraded and mountains were leveled to improve sightlines around the track.

Now it takes less than an hour to get out and be in free moving traffic. Gone are the days we would bbq in the parking lot for two hours before even attempting to get in line to get out.

The only complaint I still have is the tram system of busses they use to get you from the parking lots to the track. It’s not so bad coming in when everybody is trickling in, but when everybody is leaving all at the same time it can be a nightmare to even get on a bus. Most people give up after an hour of waiting watching bus after bus packed to the gills just keep on driving by your shuttle stop. Walking a couple miles up and down large hills eating dust from shuttles and cars.