Those who attend events regularly at Pocono Raceway know that a weekend at the Tricky Triangle is about more than just a race. An infield Block Party highlighted by bands and fireworks, the Jr. Nation Camping Experience, numerous driver appearances and most recently, the grand opening of the Bark Park for man’s best friend are just a few activities fans can take part in on the raceway grounds.
Pocono Raceway’s senior director of marketing and ticketing, Ricky Durst, plays a significant role in developing the fan experience. It may come as a surprise to some, but Durst, a guy with the word ticketing in his title, does not measure his success by race day attendance. His journey, which brought him to the Long Pond, Penn. facility. provides some insight into his approach.
Originally from New Jersey, Durst grew up a fan of stick and ball sports and even spent seven years working as a golf pro. In fact, motorsports were the furthest thing from his mind. A growing family would soon warrant a year-round job, which lead Durst to the Pocono Mountains where he would join the Camelback Resort sales and marketing team. During his tenure there, he was introduced to the world of NASCAR when he worked with Pocono Raceway on joint promotions and was convinced by now CMO Ben May to attend a race.
“I came out, saw it, and I was hooked. I started watching it and tried to understand it better and better” he recalled.
As it turned out, the introduction to NASCAR would lead to more than just a new fan.
After moving into the non-profit sector for three years, Durst was presented with what he described as an opportunity of a lifetime to join the Pocono Raceway staff.
“That Mattioli family is one of the most esteemed names in this region and this sport,” Durst said. “Working in the motorsports industry made it really exciting but it all came back to the family legacy and the chance to be part of something special.”
On the surface, hiring someone with limited experience in both NASCAR and ticket sales, to sell tickets to that very sport, would seem like an odd choice. However, track president and CEO Brandon Igdalsky had a method to his madness.
“When Brandon and I were finalizing the offer, I told him that I was honored, but I never sold a ticket before in my life. He said that’s exactly why I want you on board,” Durst explained.
The new endeavor began in 2012, a year when NASCAR was still attempting to recover from sharp attendance declines experienced during the economic meltdown just four years before. Igdalsky knew he needed someone with a fresh perspective. Durst was determined to offer that perspective and he did so by purposely not focusing on what his title meant on paper, literally.
“I tell people I’m a glorified paper pusher but I try to not focus on that.” he stated. “For all of us here, it’s about the fan experience. The memories that families can forge together.”
Figuring out just what those memories should look like is a challenge that Durst masters by using prior experience.
“Going back to my golf days, everyone comes to the course with different skills and expectations As a teacher, you have to identify what they are, he continued. “It’s really no different in ticket sales. When that phone rings or I answer emails, I’ve got to ask some probing questions about camping, view preferences, budget restrictions, family members and of course, the favorite driver. So we want to be more than order takers, we want to try to position ourselves as consultants.”
Durst understands that people expect a return on investment in their race weekend in the same way they do for a cruise or Disney vacation and the raceway must deliver.
“We want to be ambassadors of the sport and we want to drive experience at Pocono. We want people to come here for three or four days and realize how much is possible.”
Tracks on the NASCAR circuit have a longstanding rule of not releasing attendance figures for any given race. Pocono is no different when it comes to this policy but its reasoning might be unique according to Durst.
“I can’t speak for other tracks but from my perspective, I’ll go back to the family dynamic at Pocono and the fan experience that we talked about,” he reiterated. “Personally, while the total attendance is what we might get measured by, the total experience is what is important to me. I want the fans to walk away from Pocono Raceway saying ‘that was awesome!'”
So just how does one measure success in the ticketing industry when the guy in charge of putting fans in the stands is just as consumed with the subjective fan experience as he is with objective attendance figures? How is anyone supposed to understand if a NASCAR weekend is a success when the tracks won’t even reveal the size of the crowd? One answer is quite obvious and everyone has access to it: social media. In fact, social media platforms provide an even better measuring stick with access to instantaneous results, and even challenges staff members to address problems in real-time.
“Social media gives a different way of measuring experience beyond just the numbers.” explained Durst. “Whether they’re consuming it on their device, on their couch or in the grandstand, our reach is expanding in ways that are tough to define but you can see it via hashtags and trending topics”.
Durst referenced an event where the track, in conjunction with Comcast, and some XFINITY drivers took over Philadelphia just weeks before that series’ inaugural event at the Tricky Triangle. It didn’t take long before organizers knew the event was a great success.
“To see random Philadelphians that may or may not have been NASCAR fans, posting about the event was almost as priceless to me as seeing a full grandstand,” said Durst. “So the instant gratification definitely helps us measure the success of an event. It’s satisfying if we contribute to a trending topic on Twitter or Facebook.”
In an age where everyone has access to reviews of restaurants, movies, shows and other purchases, Durst understands that social media posts can very well determine how many tickets he will sell to the next race.
“If people are willing to brag about an experience they’ve had with you, like posting a selfie from pit lane, a photo of their kids signing the start/finish line or a photo with Dale, Jr., then you know you did something right.”
He also knows that those same fans can work against his efforts and is appreciative of the staff that works hard to solve their issues.
“When you respond to someone quickly and honestly to a problem, it broadens your relationship with your fan. It helps cultivate a lifetime relationship with fans.”
When Durst isn’t busy selling tickets or brainstorming the next fan event, he is working with local politicians to improve the fan experience from an infrastructure perspective.
“Starting with Brandon and going back to Doc (Mattioli), maintaining relationships with elected officials on both sides of the aisle is important to us” explained Durst. “For example, we’re working with them on making road improvements to route 115 leading into the track, which stemmed from a transportation bill. I never would have thought that I would be in any sort of meetings about a transportation bill. But if we can get people in and out of here quicker, it will be a better experience.”
Durst’s political ties don’t stop with important bills. It is important that the state’s politicians continue to understand the positive economic impact the track and the fans have on the local economy so Harrisburg continues to support projects that will improve the fan experience.
“The track is generating tax dollars and creating jobs. It’s important to us to put that stake in the ground with our elected officials and focus on meaningful and important issues.”
Judging by the Axalta 400 weekend alone, it appears that Pocono management has been successful on planting that stake.
“We had PA Lieutenant Governor Mike Stack as our grand marshal for our first XFINITY race. He was thrilled and loved seeing those fans!” exclaimed Durst. “We have great Pennsylvania-based partners like Axalta, Comcast and Sunoco coming together in Victory Lane, and when we show those NASCAR associated brands to our elected officials, like the three senators that are here today (for the Axalta 400), it puts this whole thing in an entirely different context. It demonstrates to them that this is much more than just cars turning left.”
It wasn’t all that long ago that a ticket was a simple piece of paper that granted a person access to an event and that was all that was expected. Times certainly have changed in NASCAR. With so much competition in the entertainment industry, tracks around the circuit have to make their experience stand far above other options fans may have on race weekend. That race ticket is now a key that unlocks a weekend of events extending well beyond the cars on the track.
As it turns out, Durst was wrong, he is much more than a paper pusher. He is gate keeper to a lifetime experience for thousands of fans that make the journey to Pocono Raceway each year.