NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Gas & Go Home – How Fuel is Keeping NASCAR Fans Away

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.

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 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 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, 10 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 60-200,000 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 racetrack.

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 $6 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 are 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 $4 a gallon gas – to survive.

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