It’s been a bit of a rough week for NASCAR. Between the rain delays at Bristol Motor Speedway and the continued absence of perennial most popular driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. due to lingering effects of a concussion he suffered in June, the news hasn’t been too positive. (It wasn’t all negative; the racing at Bristol was well worth the wait and some of the best we’ve seen at the track in several years.)
In the middle of the not-too-good news, though, there was one thing that stood out as one of the best moves the sanctioning body has made in a long time, as it was announced that children 12 and under will receive free admission to all Camping World Truck and XFINITY series races next year with a paid adult.
It’s smart marketing for NASCAR; attendance in those series has suffered, and if fans can bring the family out to the track for the cost of just two general admission seats (and the details of how many children can tag along per paid adult, what sections they can sit in and other restrictions are up to individual tracks), it’s a lot more attractive than having to pay for several tickets along with the souvenirs and concessions kids inevitably want on race day.
NASCAR benefits because there are butts in the seats, the stands look less empty on television and they’re reaching out to another generation of fans who may pay for tickets in the future.
Tracks benefit because they make money from increased concession sales. Sure, families can take their own snacks, but children have a way of eating their way through a race that involves purchasing some extras. Then there are the souvenirs, which kids will want to have, and it’s more money for the track (and the teams who also benefit from sales of their merchandise).
But beyond that, the move benefits families and children. Because here’s the thing when it comes to sports: all the marketing in the world isn’t going to attract a lot of fans just out of the blue. It’s not like fans of music groups, movies or other forms of popular culture. Sports fans, by and large, become fans because someone took them to a game or a race when they were young and they fell in love.
When I was about 8 years old, my father deemed me old enough to go to that foreign world called Fenway Park in Boston to watch the Red Sox. I had watched games with Dad on television and already knew I loved the game, but that day, walking from the tunnel into the light in the grandstand, I was hooked. That was it. I not only loved the game and my favorite players (the poster I got that day of my favorite, Carl Yastrzemski, hung on my bedroom wall until I left for college and probably longer, until someone got around to redecorating), I also loved the sport and its history. I learned everything I could. By middle school, I could score a game better than many adults (to the delight of the school’s coach, who made me team manager so I could keep the scorebook at all the games). When I went away to school, I dragged my friends to games.
If I had not gone to that baseball game as a child, I might still watch games on television, but it would be without the same passion and dedication that I gained that day. It not only shaped my childhood, it also shaped my life. After reading an essay I wrote in my freshman English course, my professor suggested that I take an introductory journalism course the following semester instead of the typical freshman course—something that not a lot of freshmen did because it required a recommendation and was considered a more difficult course. I loved it. I loved the process and the craft, and because of that, I changed my major from biology to communications the following year and never looked back. All because my dad took me to a baseball game.
NASCAR’s move this week may allow a child to experience a sport the way I did, and it could change that child’s world. That is how fans are made—not by creating more and more gimmicks in an effort to keep casual fans interested, but by giving current fans the chance to bring the next generation into the fold, by allowing them to experience the sound of engines and that perfect moment between when the pace car drops to pit road and the green flag flies when anything can happen.
This is the way to bring new fans into a sport. The question is whether NASCAR is too late.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.