Fobbe: Recapturing the Casual Fan
Lansing, MI (Sunday, January 24, 2021) - In the formative days of motorsports, fans would flock to the race tracks by the thousands to witness the drivers compete on short tracks that had been quickly erected in someone’s cornfield with haphazardly assembled bleachers. The tracks were often no more than a rough oval someone plowed down on their property. But less important than the facilities were the fact that people showed up to watch. It is no secret the race tracks have been struggling to draw even a fraction of those same crowds. Now, in place of traditional racing, many tracks have resorted to the Demolition Derby-style events to offset the cost of operating solely as a traditional track.
So the question begs, how do we bring these crowds back to traditional racing events? I want to preface this by saying I am not, nor do I have any desire to be, a track owner or promoter. I can say, I have had the pleasure of working alongside some of the most fondly looked upon promoters of the last 14 years I have been an official with several tracks and series around this region. COVID excluded, racing has definitely been improving in health across the nation but in my opinion, there are ways things can be streamlined and improved. These are just my opinion, and much like certain parts of our anatomy, everyone has one.
Length Of The Show
If you’re reading this article, chances are you are also a diehard fan of racing (if you’re not, please go visit your local race track this summer, it’s awesome). The diehard fans have no issue sitting on a bench until past midnight to watch a night of racing to conclusion. But the days of that fan being the majority in attendance have passed. To keep the sport of short track racing viable from an attendance standpoint, we need to cater the formatting of these shows to the casual fan who may be trying the track for the first time. Or even the fans who have drifted away from racing over the years and are trying it again.
There has never been more competition for our entertainment dollars than we see right now. On average, most of these other entertainment ventures last a few hours in duration. In my opinion, short track racing needs to follow this same pattern. From the first green flag to the last checkered flag should be aimed to be a three to four-hour experience. Obviously, things happen beyond the control of the track that will extend these shows out, but nonetheless, the three to four-hour target should be the goal.
One track that has really done a lot to streamline their process, out of necessity is the Galesburg Speedway crew. Thanks to some pretty stringent local regulations, the track has a very narrow window they can operate in on a Saturday night, and a very strictly enforced curfew the track must observe. Because of this they have combined hot laps and qualifying into one event, so when the drivers are on the track for their designated sessions they are also clocking their qualifying times for the night. Every heat and feature has pretty strict time limits enforced, and Eddie Santora, Kevin England, and crew do a tremendous job making sure the night’s schedule is posted and the races are staged and ready to roll almost as soon as the last race leaves the track.
That quicker and more efficient show is going to allow families with younger children to see the completion of the event, which leads me to my next point:
There is nothing more frustrating as a race fan who has a child under 5 than going to the track, sitting on the bench for 4+ hours and not getting to see the “headline” divisions. And before anyone gets angry, yes, everyone who straps on a helmet and contributes to making a race night possible are important. However, the divisions that have traditionally drawn the fans in have been the Super Late Models, Sprint Cars, and similar classes that have been considered the headliners over the years.
This is one of my opinions on the issue that has been met with the most resistance. I do not think the headline divisions should be run last. For years I subscribed to the opinion that they should be run first, but I have come to the realization that it is a bit of a let down for the support classes when the stands are empty for their race. I think the headline classes should be slotted into the middle of the feature line up for this reason. It allows you to alternate the order of the support classes around them, and make sure every division gets their moment in the sun.
Another methodology I used to like from years past was when Owosso Speedway would set their order based on the number of cautions from the week prior. The divisions who had the least cautions would race first, the divisions with the most would race last. This put the order of the show in the drivers' hands, and also helped to make them accountable for keeping their races clean.
The format of these programs should be designed to make sure no one leaves without seeing what brought them through the front gate.
Another format issue racing programs seems to have is events that have no bearing on the rest of the show. Qualifying has the consequence of setting lineups for the next events, feature races are the main events for the night, but on asphalt we have heat races that just seem confusing to the casual fans. I personally have never brought a new person to the race track who thought heat races make sense. Some drivers use them as extra practice and don’t give their full effort. Some drivers end up having their entire nights ended early because of someone else being overzealous in a heat race.
Berlin Raceway has taken a unique strategy, due in part to their NASCAR sanctioning agreement, they run two features a night for their divisions instead of heat races. This gives the drivers more laps overall and allows their competitors to have a shot at NASCAR Weekly Racing Series Championships. It also eliminates the confusion for the casual fan as to what these eight-lap races that have no bearing on anything else in the show are for.
Too Many Divisions
This may be the part of the article that hurts some feelings, but this is a universal issue across the board between dirt and pavement. We have too many divisions, and too many of those divisions visually look exactly the same. While those of us who attend a track week in and week out can know which class is which based on the drivers we know and see on the track, the casual fan does not have this luxury. So, when a fan walks into the track and there’s two divisions of cars with template bodies, three divisions of Front Wheel Drives and four divisions that could possibly look like Street Stocks, how are they supposed to know what they’re looking at?
Joe Sixpack bringing his family to the track for the first time isn’t going to know one division runs racing tires and one runs street radials. To him, they’re both cars that basically look the same. Joe Sixpack should be able to look at what is on the track and know that what he is seeing is different than what will be coming up next.
It seems to me this problem stems from two sources. Track promoters had dwindling car counts in other divisions, so they add a new class to inject some new energy into the race program and cast a wider net to capture more cars. And you also have the drivers that were slower (or in some cases faster) in their division, and instead of letting things play out, a new division would be created to split the class between the two tiers of speeds.
In my head, the ideal race program is somewhere between 3-5 divisions a night. With possible room for a traveling division to come in every so often. This is something I think my home track Springport Mid-Michigan Speedway has excelled at in recent seasons. The headline division alternates from week to week, along with showcase races for the other divisions. Typically there are only four divisions a night, which helps keep the programs manageable and gives fans enough variety.
Another part of this falls in the lap of the track announcers (and is something I am guilty of not doing myself). The track announcer needs to take the time during the night to explain the basics to the fans. Instead of saying, “This is the first heat race,” the announcer should explain what a heat race is. If a driver is black-flagged for breaking out of their qualifying time, the announcer needs to explain why, instead of just saying the driver was black flagged. It will get redundant to the regulars who are there every week, but those regulars already know why. You are trying to capture the new audience, and as much as the format of the show and product on the track matters, the announcer needs to do their part to clue in the audience as well.
There is no exact science to what makes a racing event successful, but given the current state of the world there is no better time to start tweaking and adjusting what we have always done to make short track racing in 2021 as much fun for families as a night at the movies, or a minor league baseball game. We are all stewards of the greatest sport there is, and we can all provide the ideas to keep this sport alive and keep continuing on our upward trajectory.
Story - Chris Fobbe
Photo - Deep Dixie Racing