Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: NASCAR’s Tale of 2 Cities

Geographically, Los Angeles and Las Vegas are about 270 miles apart. Yahoo! Maps says the drive should take about four hours on average – unless you’re Sam Kinison or the nice folks at Shelby Motors lend you one of those Super Snake Mustangs. In this great big country of ours, the two cities are virtual next-door neighbors. Hell, it can take four hours to get from Philly to Dover on race weekends. Trust me, it’s been tested.

But it was very apparent over the last two NASCAR weekends that the tracks at Fontana and Las Vegas had very different levels of success in selling tickets this year. Vegas drew more fans for Saturday’s Nationwide race than Fontana managed to peddle for the all-singing, all-dancing Cup event the previous Sunday. In fact, Vegas sold out the Sunday show, while the “crowds” for Saturday’s doubleheader Truck/Nationwide event at Fontana were nothing less than an embarrassment to the sport. In fact, the Calaveres Fair and Frog Jumping Contest draws more spectators than wandered into Fontana for Saturday races.

I mentioned this issue in Sunday night’s column and some people immediately chimed in that Vegas has a natural advantage. With the casinos, the night life, the shows, and everything else going on in Vegas, it’s a vacation destination, they say. I can’t argue that point. Vegas appeals to a lot of people. To be frank, I’m not one of them. I’m not much of a gambler; if I blow $20 at a casino annually, that’s an oddity.

So in my opinion, I find Vegas crass, phony, tacky and over-hyped. Yeah, there’s nothing like a pair of drunks getting married by an 80-year-old Elvis impersonator at a Drive Thru chapel to scream “class!” I think everyone should go to Vegas once… and only once. But if that city is your cup of tea, well, hey, to each their own poison.

So – while some of you who have decided that I hate the left coast because of my loathing for Fontana may be surprised to hear it – I actually prefer L.A. There’s something to be said for a town where you can go skiing in the morning, hit the beaches in the afternoon and enjoy some of the best clubs in the country at night… if you can avoid the latest starlets achieving terminal meltdown. L.A. is America’s car town, the place where hot-rodding as we know it was born, and I’ve enjoyed every trip I’ve ever taken to Los Angeles.

From personal experience, I can’t subscribe to the notion there’s nothing to do in L.A. other than going to the Fontana race. I guess the track promoters just need to do a little better job selling the city as a cool vacation for everyone, from folks who are obsessed with Hollywood types to sun worshipers needing a little quality preseason beach time in between 500 miles of cars going ’round in circles.

Others have told me that Fontana’s chances at a sellout are doomed because their races and the Vegas events fall on subsequent weekends. That begs the question, why doesn’t Vegas suffer the same fate? L.A. has a bigger population base to draw from and they ought to be able to sell out their races – even if fans don’t fly in from out of town.

So, then, why the disparity in ticket sales? For one thing, there’s a very major difference between Fontana and Vegas. Fontana is one of the tracks in the France family portfolio, while Vegas is one of Bruton Smith’s tracks. For all his faults, and they are myriad, Smith is a natural-born promoter. I think the man could sell tickets to watch paint dry. The general managers he has hired to run his tracks, starting with the inestimable Humpy Wheeler, tend to be among the best promoters in the business. They’ll hustle to sell tickets in any circumstance and they have no problem staging outlandish promotions.

In Eddie Gossage of TMS’s case, he wasn’t above calling season-ticket holders to listen to their thoughts on the cooler issue. It’s clear to me the SMI promoters have a better finger on the pulse of the fans, coming across to those fans as much more appreciative of their patronage as a result. Meanwhile, the France family’s typical arrogance has always been summed up as, “We’re offering a great product and if you don’t want to buy tickets there’s a line of eager fans behind you eager to grab up your seat.”

Yeah, these are tough times to sell tickets. The economy is well and truly in the tank. A lot of race fans are either unemployed or fearful that they might soon be unemployed. A lot of folks are struggling to hang onto their homes. Retirement savings that once seemed rock solid have been decimated. I don’t have to tell you this stuff – you know it as well as I do. Back in the days when it seemed our 401Ks swelled $1,000 every month as if by magic, it was a lot easier to justify the not-insubstantial cost of taking the family out for a race weekend.

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These days, that expense is a lot harder to justify for many of us and completely unrealistic for many more. (Which seems to indicate TV ratings for the races should be soaring… but they’re not. That’s a topic for another column.)

It would seem that the folks at Vegas and other SMI tracks got the memo on the economy. In the months leading up to the Vegas race, I saw numerous press releases touting lower-priced hotel rooms and discount flights to Vegas in various media outlets. Discounted race tickets were also available, perhaps not to prime seats but to ones that offered a decent view of the track. If fans needed more information on a budget race weekend at Vegas, they could find it on the track’s website.

Let’s face it; even in these grim economic times, we still all need a break from the usual routine, a chance to have a little fun and make a change from the 9-5 Monday to Friday workweek. Through its various promotions, Vegas made a case that a race weekend was more affordable than ever – and a lot of people apparently bit.

I’ll admit that the way the so-called “hospitality” industry gouges race fans has always been a pet peeve of mine, even back when I was traveling on somebody’s else’s dime chasing the circus. Hotels and motels are notorious for jacking rates for rooms during race weekends, doubling and even tripling their prices while imposing burdensome and expensive minimum stays.

For whatever reason, Daytona has earned a reputation as the worst track on the circuit in that regard. Triple-rate rooms with five-night minimum stays were typical of the way local businesses tried to fleece the race fans there. To the best of my recollection, Humpy Wheeler was the first promoter to try to restore some sanity to the situation at Charlotte, working with the hospitality industry to offer fans affordable lodging in the area of the track. He was also the first promoter to offer reduced price tickets to the races. That was back when the economy was still good.

My guess is that the folks in Vegas twisted some arms at the local Chamber of Commerce, pointing out that casino and hotel revenues were down – but that a big event like the races could bump up everyone’s bottom line. If the folks at Fontana tried a similar strategy, I never heard about the initiative – and I spend a whole lot of time keeping up on current happenings in the sport.

Just for a moment, though, let’s put aside the economy. After all, this sport has survived tough economic times before over its 60-year history. There will always be a need most folks feel for a little entertainment, even when things aren’t going well. The key word here is “entertainment.” Given this sport’s history, both Vegas and Fontana are relatively new tracks on the circuit. Both of them were designed as dual use tracks, and were designed to host both stock and open-wheel cars.

Tracks designed for dual use tended to be wider and have lower banking, while a track designed specifically for stock cars tended to be unsuitable for open-wheel racing due to the higher speeds the open-wheel cars ran. Texas and the IRL cars were a notable exception to that; when CART tried running at Texas, the speeds were so high that drivers claimed they were blacking out in the corners, to the point the race actually had to be canceled the day of.

But thanks to the fratricidal battle between CART and the IRL, open-wheel racing has been reduced to a minor asterisk in the sports world, with the exception of Memorial Day weekend at Indy. Meanwhile, the tracks that hosted both series tended to put on some of the most boring events on the stock car racing schedule: Michigan, K.C., L.A., New Hampshire, Joliet and others. From the day they opened, fans have been complaining about the relative dearth of excitement at both Fontana and Vegas.

The difference is the folks at Vegas actually did something about it. They dug up the track. They added more banking. They made a good-faith effort to make the races there more exciting. To an extent, it has worked, at least in the Busch/Nationwide Series over the last few years.

No racetrack design – not Richmond, not Martinsville, not even my beloved Darlington – is so perfect that every race held there is going to be a classic. Ned Jarrett once won a race at Darlington by a mere 16 laps. No, you don’t have to remind me. I was already following the sport back then. But it behooves the management at any track to put their best foot forward, attempting to make sure that the ratio of clinkers to classics remains acceptably low. It’s essential to try to host the sort of races that leave fans breathless, feeling the monies they spent to attend the race were well worth it.

You want those fans to leave your track so excited that when it comes time to renew their tickets, even in tough economic times, they don’t want to miss out on a chance to see another classic race live and in person. It also behooves those track managers to see to it the irritants that turn a race weekend sour – traffic, high concession prices, long lines at the restrooms, etc. – don’t make the fans at this year’s event not want to come back next year. Here’s a hint: if folks are leaving the track with 100 laps left in the race to try to beat traffic, you’ve got a major-league problem on your hands.

Vegas isn’t the only SMI track to get a major facelift. For better or worse, Atlanta was totally redone in 1997. The levigating experiment at Charlotte was a failure, but they kept right on digging the place up until they got it right. Texas has been dug up and reconfigured three or four times.

In comparison, the France family seems reluctant to lay out that sort of dough. Daytona is a stone-cold embarrassment to the sport. Highways in Third World nations are smoother and have less cracking. Both that track and Talladega are way overdue for a major rewrite to eliminate the dreaded restrictor plates. Out in L.A., there have been calls to reconfigure Fontana almost since it opened. (A fuel-mileage race, as I recall, dominated that first event… yawn.) Yet nothing has ever been done.

In the meantime, Fontana track management is long on excuses for the recent slowdown in ticket sales. It’s the economy. It’s the track’s date on the schedule. It’s the addition of the second date. (Funny, that didn’t seem to hurt Texas.) Well, here’s a hint for Gillian Zucker: the track sucks. Fix it. Fix it now, or don’t expect fans to lay out their hard-earned dollars to watch another parade. And if you think an improving economy, a different race date, or a Chase event is going to put butts in your seats, take a drive down the road to Ontario – to the remnants of a track that couldn’t sell out even when that race decided championships.

Some of you have apparently decided that I dislike (OK, loathe) Fontana because it’s a continent away from the Philly area I proudly call home. Quite frankly, if Fontana was across the street from my house, I got my tickets free and they flew me over there in a helicopter to my own private suite, I wouldn’t waste four hours of my time to attend the race. And regardless of what I think, a lot of folks in SoCal have already come to the same conclusion.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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