NASCAR races are not just about drinking beer, getting hammered and watching cars go in ovals. OK, maybe it’s like that for some people in the grandstands, but that’s the case at every sporting event known to man kind.
There is nothing like the sound of 40 racecars roaring by you, no matter how close or far you are to the actual surface.
When the National Anthem is sung, you experience American pride like you have never seen it before, and that’s not because NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick isn’t around to ruin things for everyone. When the green flag waves, you stand up and cheer, not necessarily because you feel obligated to due to conformity, but rather you’re so excited to see what all the hype is about.
What makes fans want to come to a NASCAR race? Isn’t it all about drunk rednecks.
No. It really isn’t.
There is something different about NASCAR fans compared to those who are heavy followers – and sometimes even believers – of what other sports provide. That’s the beauty of sports in general. Sports does a great job at bringing people together.
When’s the last time you were at a NASCAR race? Have you ever been to one? How can you judge a sport that you haven’t seen in person?
I used to be on the fence about hockey, but I attended an NHL game – New York Islanders v. Colorado Avalanche – and automatically, as soon as the first puck dropped for the face-off, I knew why so many people packed into Nassau Coliseum, which featured chipped paint on the walls, compacted seats, narrow walkways and plenty of other areas that make even the worst sports venues seem as beautiful as the night sky.
But at a NASCAR race, things are different. It’s not like a baseball game, where it’s either you’re for or against a team. You don’t necessarily need to be a fan of one particular driver, though that would certainly spice up your experience at the racetrack throughout the weekend.
Q: I’ve never been to a NASCAR race before, but why should I go to one? – Matt, Long Island, New York.
A: The fan experience at a NASCAR race is unlike any other sporting event you will ever attend.
Before I became a reporter, I was an avid NASCAR fan, attending the majority of races at Pocono Raceway from 2005 through 2013. In that span, I started following different sports, namely baseball since I live in close proximity to Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets.
But there is just something different about the atmosphere at a NASCAR race.
Over the past few years, NASCAR has worked diligently to satisfy the needs of all fans, from those who have children to ones with disabilities. Creating innovative ways for fans to interact with drivers, crews and everyone in the garage, NASCAR has become an industry leader in the motorsports realm.
Oh and on top of all the access NASCAR gives fans, you don’t have to pay for parking, whereas at baseball and football games, pulling your car into a spot for a few hours might cost nearly as much as tickets to walk into a venue. According to a CBS News report, the average cost for parking at a MLB game is $15.89, with parking for NFL games ranging from $15 to more than $30 at some venues.
This weekend at Richmond International Raceway, President Dennis Bickmeier, who took on the role in 2011 after previously serving as Vice President of Consumer Sales and Marketing for Michigan International Speedway from 2007 to 2011, is unveiling a new initiative, one rather different compared to other sports. The 3/4-mile track will be emphasizing a new effort this weekend for the Federated Auto Parts 400 Saturday evening.
“The biggest thing centers around the fan appreciation,” Bickmeier said in an interview Wednesday afternoon. “Part of that is a signature event on Saturday afternoon called ‘Gridside Live.’ Anyone who has a ticket to the Federated Auto Parts 400 can come onto the track starting at two o’clock on Saturday. We have a number of drivers that will be coming out as part of the “Gridside Live” stage. They’ll be having a Q&A with fans, some of the drivers will be playing games with them on the video board, so that’s kind of the signature event for Saturday.”
With the unveiling of ‘Gridside Live,’ fans can enter the track without a cold or hot pass, which grants on-track access prior to practice sessions, qualifying and races on any given weekend. This new event is one that has made Bickmeier and his staff ecstatic entering this weekend’s race, the final one of the NASCAR regular season.
“The opportunity to come down on the racetrack right before the race?” Bickmeier asked himself. “You can’t walk on an NFL field before the coin flip. Everyone who has a ticket – if they want to – can come down and experience ‘Gridside Live.’ We had ‘Track Takeover’ in April, when fans could walk the whole track before the start of the race. It comes back to us in the sport to find a unique experience for the people who love this sport and those who participate.”
But Richmond isn’t the only track attempting to make new fans want to make the journey to a NASCAR race.
Pocono Raceway, led by President and CEO Brandon Igdalsky, is among the leaders in the sport’s latest movement to attract fans. His 2.5-mile facility created a dog park in the center of the infield, attracting drivers and fans alike during the race weekend.
Among the initiatives NASCAR has been taking to please fans is holding pre-race concerts. Years ago, they used to be a special treat at the sport’s largest races. But over time, several tracks started adopting this feature, bringing more non-NASCAR fans to races. In 2014, Dover International Speedway was able to book country star Luke Bryan prior to the race Sunday morning.
“We’re always trying to find new ways,” Bickmeier said with enthusiasm. “This sport was built on generations coming to the racetrack together. It’s great to see families with kids and parents introducing their kids to the sport. With that, too, as track promotors, we have to provide opportunities for kids to be able to enjoy the day as well.”
And with the added incentive of introducing more fans to the sport, going off what Bickmeier says helped build the sport in his mind, his initiative is focusing on children.
“That’s why we have a kid’s zone, and it’s very unique,” Bickmeier said. “The Science Museum of Virginia helps operate our kid’s zone, where the whole focus is trying to teach kids the science behind the sport. NASCAR has NASCAR Acceleration, which travels to some tracks. When they go to watch the racing, they understand it and appreciate it more.”
Along with creating a better fan experience within the physical realm of a NASCAR race, the sport and its tracks have worked diligently to make a difference in the digital world.
In 2013, International Speedway Corporation (ISC) welcomed a new project. Fans could be seen glued to their phones while taking pictures — as always. But this time, something was different.
While going through their settings, people were able to connect to Wi-Fi for the first time at a NASCAR race. ISC created Wi-Fi hotspots in six different areas within Michigan International Speedway that season. The next year, the speedway added five more hotspots, followed by adding 14 areas by 2016.
“I think it provides a great connecting point to the fans,” Bickmeier said of social media. “It seems like we’re in constant dialogue with them now via social media. To us, it’s been a great place for us to produce some original content and be able to push that out to the fans. More than anything, it’s the interaction that we’re able to have, whether it’s real time with our fans or if they have a question, we’re monitoring it.
“If they have an issue, which some of the social media has become a customer service tool as well, we can respond and help them. It’s become a great promotional tool for all of us to talk about our events. For us, it’s become a key part of our business. We have dedicated staff around social media to be our voice on it, and it’s definitely a key part of our marketing strategy.”
Fans love tweeting pictures during races, but sometimes, tracks like Pocono Raceway are in the midst of land that has unpredictable weather in the mountains, giving fans poor cellular speeds. But with the Wi-Fi initiative, it has helped NASCAR enter the digital era of attending sporting events, enabling folks in the grandstands to post pictures and videos to social media outlets as something happens.
In addition to sending out pictures and videos, fans are able to live stream videos on Periscope and Facebook Live, showing off their experience to fans.
As part of the Daytona Rising project, which was completed earlier this year, ARRIS partnered with the self-described motor sports “stadium” to enhance the fan experience. Providing fans with high-speed Wi-Fi throughout the frontstretch grandstand area, it helped makes fans’ race weekends more enjoyable, giving them the ability to access track-specific applications on their devices.
Mars Inc., which extended its deal Monday with NASCAR to be the Official Chocolate of NASCAR through 2019, is getting in on the activation with Richmond this weekend as well.
“Mars is literally rolling out the red carpet for fans right at the frontstretch gate,” Bickmeier said. “The whole theme is the fans are the VIPs. We have a lot of giveaways this weekend, from us at the racetrack to a number of sponsors.”
M&M’s is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, which is inspiring the company to do more activation at the track, including turning Kyle Busch’s No. 18 car into the No. 75 during the Sprint All-Star Race in May. Greeting fans at the red carpet this weekend at Richmond will be the M&M’s folks, who will have special giveaways throughout the day.
And let’s not forget about the racing action itself.
There have been several photo-finishes this year, including a thriller at the Daytona 500, when Martin Truex, Jr. came up just short of having an emotional victory. Instead, Denny Hamlin conquered the famed speedway, creating headlines throughout the country.
This weekend’s race at Richmond has high hopes after a stellar event in April, which saw Carl Edwards earn the win in a day race at a track that usually hosts evening races. And let us not forget, that race came up as No. 1 in our The 10 a few weeks ago, ranking the best races of the year.
“You can look at it in two ways, with the competition side and the fan side,” Bickmeier said. “On the competition side, there are a lot of storylines going into it, with it being the last race of the season and getting ready to move on to Chicago to start the Chase. We love the spot that we’re in on the NASCAR schedule. I think from the competition standpoint, I always look at the races within the race. There’s the Chris Buescher storyline, the guys in the top 16 and if they can stay in.
“There’s also the guys on the outside who have one shot to get in. You always kind of think if it’ll be that Hail Mary moment, when someone who’s outside of the top 16 and needs a win to get in, and they throw that Hail Mary pass and it works for them. That’s some of the things we keep our eyes on.
To purchase tickets, fans can head to NASCAR.com/tickets for any of the remaining events in each of NASCAR’s top-three divisions.
Have a question? Email me at Joseph.Wolkin@Gmail.com or message me on Twitter at @JosephNASCAR and make sure to check back next week when we’ll answer your questions on all things NASCAR.
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