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Holding a Pretty Wheel: An Open Letter to Track Owners – Do Right By Your Fans

Dear Track Owners:

(Yes, I am talking to you, International Speedway Corp. and Speedway Motorsports Inc. To the Mattiolis and Dover Motorsports Inc., not so much. But there are, perhaps, lessons to be learned. You too, NASCAR.)

You are in a unique position in the sport right now. You, perhaps more than anyone with the possible exception of NASCAR, have the ability to make decisions that will affect the future of racing and its fans. You have the ability to listen to race fans and make decisions which directly affect them and, ultimately, even their decision to stay race fans. At the very least, you have the ability to influence where fans go to see Sprint Cup races, and to encourage them to return. That is a lot of power, and a lot of responsibility.

Too bad you don’t seem to see that. Because, frankly, you aren’t doing a very good job.

Sure, your bottom line is important. But instant gratification, or lack thereof, isn’t a business model; it’s the reason for a 3-year-old’s temper tantrum. Sure, you want it all, and you want it now, but you have to think of the consequences. And I don’t see that type of thinking going on.

It’s easy, I suppose, when you’re in that position of power, to get caught up in visions of dollar signs and forget about the reason you see those dollar signs-the people paying for the privilege to sit in a seat at your racetrack. It’s easy to see their money and not their faces. It’s simple to discount loyalty in the face of possibility.

The problem is, race fans don’t see it that way.

Race fans, for the most part, go to the track for one thing, good racing. Whether it’s a wild one like we all saw at Daytona last week, or a battle of wits and wills like we see at Martinsville or New Hampshire, fans care about the racing, not your bottom line.

Fans save their money to purchase race tickets and travel to the track for a few days. Sure, some of them will only go if it’s local. It’s logical to have tracks in different markets for that reason. Fans who cannot or choose not to travel will likely spend their money on a track close to home. Certainly tracks like Kansas and Fontana have a place (note I said a place, as in one) on the schedule for that reason.

But even in a poor economy, there are also those fans who care more about the racing than about just being at the closest track, and those fans are the ones who make an annual trek to another state, another region, to see what they deem the best racing. Some of them have been doing it for years. And those are precisely the fans you are letting down.

I know that overlooking the longtime loyal race fan in favor of the bandwagon fan who sees racing as the latest cool trend to talk about around the water cooler is in high favor within the sport right now. It’s an attitude that’s rampant everywhere, and in the short term, I guess it works – those bandwagon fans have money to spend. But in a year or two, when they’re bored with the product and leave because it’s no longer the cool thing to talk about at that water cooler, who are you left with? If you continue to alienate race fans with your expensive multi-race ticket packages and your boring, cookie-cutter tracks, the answer is, well, nobody.

Nobody wants to see that. Most race fans are fans because they love their driver or their manufacturer, but mainly because they love great racing. And given that millions more watch on television than go to the track in person, the sport must depend on great racing to keep the juggernaut afloat.

Moving races from the tracks that provide great racing is doing the majority of race fans a huge disservice. Sure, you want to move race dates to your new tracks or a second date for your other tracks. But those moves should never (and should never be allowed by NASCAR) come at the expense of a track that is unique on the circuit. Only like-for-like moves should be considered.

That means you, ISC. Take your second Kansas date from Fontana, not Martinsville. Better yet, put that second race at Darlington and spend some money on improving that facility. A casino is not the be all, end all. A casino doesn’t change the on-track product that draws fans to the track year after year.

Same goes for you, SMI. If you want a date for Kentucky or Las Vegas, you have no business taking it from New Hampshire. Take it from Atlanta, fine, or Texas, or another one of your tracks that race alike. The fans watching on TV will barely notice the difference then.

A few years ago, when you, SMI, bought New Hampshire International Speedway and changed its name to fit your fleet of racetracks, you promised the fans you would not take a date from the track. Its dates were safe, you said, because the track had great fans and great racing. Now you have an excuse, thanks to a disagreement with local municipalities, to move a date to Kentucky and your IRL date. And that’s all, she wrote. But know this: New Hampshire fans don’t see you as the upstanding business they hoped you were. They see you as a liar.

For what it’s worth, it’s expensive to travel as far away as New Hampshire from Charlotte, but I do it for at least one race a year. Kentucky is much closer, but I will not bother to spend the money for a race on a cookie-cutter track. A lot of race fans who live in New England certainly won’t either. NHMS was one of the better-attended races this year, and many fans have attended every race held at the track. Leaving at the first excuse isn’t really a great way to thank fans for their loyalty to the sport and venue, which has been in place since before either Las Vegas Motor Speedway or Kentucky Speedway were even built.

ISC, you’re no better. You sold Rockingham because that all but ensured that fan outcry couldn’t get the track a race date back. You took what was once the longest-standing tradition in the sport, the Southern 500, and threw it away. Calling the spring race by that name doesn’t make it so, and it doesn’t fool the fans. Percentage wise, there were more rear ends in the seats at Darlington this spring than at Fontana, and some of those fans have been coming for decades. And now you want to do it all over again, taking a date from Martinsville in favor of Kansas, which rarely produces an exciting race?

ISC, it also appears to race fans that you are using an almost decade-old event to pad your pockets. We all understood the restrictions on what fans could carry into the stands in the wake of September 11th. But now, with coolers and other items allowed at other tracks not owned by you, it seems like a convenient way to ensure than fans will have to buy at least some of their refreshments from your overpriced and understaffed concession stands. It was about safety once, and people respected that. Now it seems like a weak excuse.

And lest you think that the fans’ perception of SMI as liars escapes you, you may want to consider that many fans consider you to be in bed with NASCAR, monopolizing the sport with your greed. Not in it for the fans at all, but rather for your corporate sponsors. The suites at your tracks have far better amenities than those the average fan has access to. To give credit where it is due, SMI is much more friendly to the average fan, constantly upgrading facilities to make their experience a good one.

Yes, track owners, you are in an incredible position of power. The problem is, instead of using that power to make decisions for the long term benefit of race fans and the good of the sport as a whole, you’re abusing that power to line your pockets. In the short term, it will do that, though at the expense of the very people you claim to care about. In the long term, though, you only alienate the fans you should be trying the hardest to keep-the ones who have been loyal for many years.

And when the bandwagon goes down another road, you may find that you are left with empty stands and empty pockets. In the meantime, it’s your loyal fans who suffer through more and more races on cookie-cutter tracks that, more often than not, produce similar races time and again. Yet we could be watching the best racing anywhere on tracks you still own. And that is what will keep race fans coming, and tuning in, for years to come.

Shame on you for not caring about your biggest commodity.

Sincerely,

Amy Henderson (a writer who still cares about the racing)

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