There is one common question I hear from race car drivers and track promoters at weekly racing events: where are the fans?
Big events like the World of Outlaws Sprints or the Wissota 100, for example, draw well. But at weekly shows that used to draw pretty well, the numbers have been down at most tracks. There are some exceptions, but pretty much every track I went to last year the crowds were down.
I talked to one long-time area racer last summer, and he made the comment that racing is as good as it has ever been, but the crowds don’t reflect that, and neither of us had that one great answer as to why. Car counts, while down some at most tracks, are still solid – if you average 18-20 cars per class to me that is enough for a good show. But fan counts have dwindled and it’s a concern of many.
I have a few observations, and keep in mind these are 100 percent my own opinion. I know there is not one magic answer to reverse this trend so it’s worth looking at a few areas.
First, there is more competition than ever to get fans in the seats. More people are going to the lake on weekends. Parents who have teenage children or younger often take their kids to baseball, volleyball, basketball, soccer or hockey tournaments in the summer months on weekends. In Fargo you have the Redhawks baseball team. You could go to a movie. People have a lot of options recreationally on weekends and as much as those compete for our dollar, they also compete for our time, too.
Second, the question has to be asked – are there too many tracks out there right now? It isn’t a popular question, and it’s tough to think about. In the Red River Valley Region, for example, there are six tracks within a 75 mile radius of Fargo.
The amount of drivers and fans in the area probably have stayed the close to the same as 10 years ago; however there are more tracks to divide these numbers by, meaning less cars and fans per night at a given track. Let’s look at last year in the IMCA Modifieds, for example: you could race Thursday at Ada, Friday at West Fargo, Saturday at Jamestown and Sunday at Glyndon. There were very few, if any drivers, who raced all four nights weekly. Most ran one or two. That means fans of those drivers probably go to 1-2 nights a week. Perhaps the cars and fans are spread a little too thin.
Third is the cost for a family to go to a race. Tracks have to raise their ticket prices and pit gate prices to help meet expenses and I totally get that. Concessions and beer prices have gone up along those lines. Let’s say you are a family of four, two adults and two kids. Adult tickets are $12 and kids are $6. Right off the bat you’ve spent $36 on tickets. You buy meals/concessions which can add up, and you’ve spent $60-70 on the night. Now for one night that doesn’t sound so bad, and it isn’t. But if you are a family, no matter how much you love racing, would you be willing to do this 2-3 nights every weekend? Probably not. I don’t think the tracks around here, with one exception, overcharge at the gate for fans. They are trying to pay the bills.
Fourth, the length of the racing program is a growing concern of mine. Shows that should be running 2 ½-3 hours are lasting 3 ½-4 (or later). I understand if there are red flags for a bad crash that requires the ambulance or a lot of cleanup, or freak things like the fence being damaged by a crash (happened at I-94 and River Cities), or the lights going out (happened at I-94). Stuff like that happens. It’s the unnecessary delays and lack of urgency that bugs fans. Having a 30-45 minute intermission isn’t necessary unless the track needs serious work, which happens when the weather is a roller coaster early in the year. The other things that slow the show are too much time between races and too much time lining up cars. Those are things that can be cleaned up.
Fifth, and lastly, “selling” our sport is important not only to keeping fans but attracting new ones. There are stereotypes that racing is just a bunch of beer-drinking rednecks driving cars in a circle which isn’t true. But I am not sure myself as a fan gives a good indication of what we love about racing.
Part of selling the sport is driver interaction with fans (meet the drivers, autograph nights, candy tosses, etc.). Maybe a driver parks his/her car at a sponsor for a day. The more people that know a driver, the more likely they are to come to a race. Also, selling them on why we as fans and drivers enjoy racing is vital. Do we love the cars going fast? Do we like the fenders rubbing? Do we like a good rivalry? Do we like good 2-3 wide racing? The camaraderie in the pit area. The people you meet. All of the above.
I don’t think there is a simple answer to get grandstands full on a weekly basis but I also don’t think it is impossible to figure out, either. I do know I like nothing better than when the pits are full of race cars and the grandstands are full of fans. Drivers like to race in front of a full house and promoters like to see it. There is a chance those days are gone, meaning tracks have to adapt and be creative to draw people.
Like I said, there is no one magic answer.