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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: Double-File Restarts Are a Big Hit – Now Let the Kids in for Free

It has been almost one month since NASCAR revamped its restart procedure at Pocono Raceway, a decision that most agree has served to add at least a smidgen of excitement to the traveling circus that we know as NASCAR Sprint Cup racing. The change has not been met with unanimous support by drivers or motorsport enthusiasts, but it is fair to say that a significant majority of the sports fans like what they see. And at the end of the day, isn’t pleasing the fans the number one priority, after all?

Turn 5 chimed in on the subject of the side-by-side restarts amongst the race leaders when the change in the restart procedure was rumored to be under consideration by the NASCAR honchos in late May. In the article that appeared in this column at the time, Time For NASCAR To Re-think The Re-starts, the change was not considered an iffy proposition, for the pros and cons of such a procedure had been well tested. As I stated in the May 28th article, “Double-file racing will be a simple enough change that would require little time for drivers to adjust to – after all, it’s the only type of restart that most were familiar with as they graduated up the stock car ranks. In fact, the sanctioning body itself is very familiar with the double-file, lead cars up front format – it is the one they utilize in their lower divisions, and was the very same restart procedure that was employed just a week and half ago for the running of the All-Star Race.”

In 45 years of religiously following auto racing at not only the national but local levels as well, the proposed change seemed, as others have put it, a “no brainer.” Sure, it is working and adding an extra degree of interest to the show. That’s why it is done all over this great country of ours by local tracks, touring series’ and even many of NASCAR’s lower divisions.

NASCAR has been known to swing for the fences with some of their more radical and/or innovative changes (does the CoT, discontinuing the Southern 500 or the Top-35 rule ring a bell?). However in the case of the leaders up front, side-by-side restarts there was no gamble, it was a tried and true procedure. If anything, one might fault the sanctioning body for having not made the change long before they did.

Make no mistakes about it though, the change would have never come without the attendance and television rating slump that the sport finds itself in. NASCAR officials are ‘brainstorming’ for anything that will give them a boost right now. In the case of restarts – they have found one good idea from the grassroot racers at the local level.

NASCAR is finding out is that a significant number of the ‘new fans’ that they believed they had cultivated during their boom years of the late 1990s up until as recent as three years ago have now deserted them. These were fans that were attracted to the sport via glitzy television promos and race broadcasts – the same type of viewer that once made Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Desperate Housewives a huge ratings success. Those viewers are here today and gone tomorrow.

To the non-initiated – folks that have never heard up-close and personal the rumble of non-muffled race engines charging down the frontstretch at break-neck speeds or became intoxicated by the smell of burnt fuel or hot rubber – the sport truly would look like a bunch of guys driving (albeit fast!) on a freeway and only turning left. They certainly didn’t experience it as a youngster. And these days, even fewer children ever will considering the price of admission. For even as NASCAR purports to be a family friendly sport, it is shooting its own foot by not cultivating its future racing enthusists; something that local tracks, many fighting for their economic survival as they compete for an ever shrinking family entertainment dollar, know is a necessity. It is important to note that the vast majority of local tracks do not charge admission to children under a certain age (generally 6-8 years old).

NASCAR might heed the example set by these smaller enterprises that know that unless children in the community are introduced to the sport, they are likely to never develop an interest in the sport. They will never acquire the passion that will carry into adulthood and thus NASCAR is losing out on a future ticket buyer and viewer.

There is no ‘voodoo economics’ involved in the notion that at least some of the kids that attend races today will one day be attending races with their own children. It is a tradition that can be seen by many of the true loyalists of auto racing and more specifically the Thompson family, who will be taking a fourth generation of still blossoming race fans to this weekend’s race festivities at Daytona International Speedway.

Here’s the rub, though… it is a very expensive proposition. Whether a family purchases tickets for a single race during the weekend or, like us, hauls the motorhome in for the entire weekend, bringing three of NASCAR’s future fans along (Grandchildren ages nine, eight and five) is a financial consideration that often squelches any hopes the average family may of had of taking in a race. And with the absense of every family that foregoes the races due to the costs of bringing their children, there is a missed opportuinity for NASCAR to gain a lifelong fan, not to mention the lost loyalty of a Mom and Dad that will be turning to other activities in which they can afford to bring their children to.

For those that are not aware, the cost of a child’s ticket is the exact same as that of an adult. Some might argue that NASCAR and individual track owners are justified as a free-loading child would occupy the same seat as a full-price-paying adult. True enough. Perhaps what is needed is for some “cheap seats’ to be erected. A family section if you will. With the possible exception of Bristol Motor Speedway, every track on the circuit has room in not-as-desired segments of the track to utilize for such a purpose. It would at least provide an option for a lot of cash-strapped parents that would, except for the price of extra adult-priced tickets for the little tikes, attend an occasional race.

Going to the races is just something that a lot of folks have always done. Their folks took them and they shared the enjoyment with their children… and on and on and on. Whether it be racing at a local track or at a NASCAR event, the thought is the same – expose the kids to racing and you may have a fan for life.

Cutting the family a little slack with ticket prices for the “little fans in training” is an investment in the future as well as the present. The track and the sanctioning body benefits from the attendance of the parent(s), some of whom would not have been able to make the race had they also been required to pay a premium for a child’s seat. In addition, NASCAR will have made it possible for a youngster to take in its very entertaining show and become hooked on the sights, sounds and smells that NASCAR racing has to offer… an experience that may eventually develop into a fan that is into the sport for more than one or two television seasons.

But back to the child taking the seat for free of an adult that would have paid full price. Note that even in an infield campsite, at least at Daytona, wherein up to 10 individuals are allowed within individual sites (no seats provided), admission for a 5-year old costs a minimum of $95. And really, that 43-pound preschooler isn’t taking up near the infield space that a 280-pound man requires.

To be fair, some tracks have offered “cheap seats” for selected events this season in response to the sour economy. Yet there is no blanket policy on the part of NASCAR to encourage parents to attend by offering discounted prices to their youngsters.

There is no argument that NASCAR is the best show in town. However, just like with the issue of the side-by-side restarts, they can in the case of free admisson for children take another tried and true lesson from the local racetrack.

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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