The Frontstretch: An Open Letter To Track Owners by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday July 7, 2011

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An Open Letter To Track Owners

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday July 7, 2011

 

An Open Letter To Track Owners

Well, it’s been a few years since a new track was added to the schedule but this weekend Kentucky gets added 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 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 that saved NASCAR from the brink of doom when the factories left the sport in the early 70s to the elite tiers of professional sports at the time of his demise. While his paycheck was signed by RJ 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 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.

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 wash 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 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 is 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 motor home 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 with 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 bought 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 and an equally lukewarm Coke and then asks you for 12 bucks. What? I can go to the local Wawa (it’s sort of like a 7-11 run by English speaking people) and 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 7-11. 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 rip-off 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 average 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 other have larceny in their hearts. Go 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 with keep them coming back year after year.

Parking- I’ve always espoused the theory that when attending a big race its in a fan’s best interest to arrive unreasonably early to beat traffic. There’s plenty to see and do and a lot of nice folks to meet and befriend and 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. 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 are 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 assholes 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 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.) This 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. 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 long time 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 set 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 on-line or over the phone. They make a substantial financial investment to attend these races. If I were running Kentucky Motorspeedway, 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.

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