NASCAR and Short Tracks need to reconnect

Big crowd at Lancaster National Speedway near Buffalo, NY

With a new season of racing upon us, both the NASCAR and short track ranks will be vying for fan attention, retention and return ticket sales.

During the recent Speedweeks in Daytona, the local asphalt track of New Smyrna Speedway and dirt oval of Volusia Speedway were action packed with stout car counts and fans in the stands.

They turned out big time to see racing, and weren’t disappointed. In recent years (pre-Covid), NASCAR events have struggled to sell out with some tracks fighting to reach even half-full capacity.

Compared to decades ago, interest from the short track fan to attend a NASCAR race has waned. So, what caused the disconnect, and can it be rejuvenated?

Short track and NASCAR fans were one

In the days of old, the NASCAR action and short tracks seemed to work in sync producing win-win situations for both. The short track fan could attend their local track and see the greats compete against their weekly heroes via special appearances.

Fans who witnessed those races talked about them for decades, and still do. They made a personal connection to someone in the big leagues taking home a memory, autograph and/or conversation.

When the next NASCAR race was on TV, they could say, “Hey, I met that driver at my track last week.” In turn, a fan was created who might attend a race, but would certainly follow by watching it on TV.

Those same fans would buy the hats, t-shirts and die cast of their favorite; which also carried the sponsors of that driver. In turn, the sponsor experienced product loyalty from those who fervently followed NASCAR.

Big names at short tracks

When NASCAR was trying to grow their product, drivers like Bobby Allison, Donnie Allison, Neil Bonnett, David Pearson, and Richard Petty, to name a few, were barnstorming the USA competing at ovals of all types. They’d travel to mid-week shows, make a little extra cash and have some fun. More importantly, they were connecting with the grassroots fan to solidify the needed growth.

“I enjoyed doing those races all over the place like that very much,” said NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Bobby Allison. “They were so thrilled to have us come race against their local drivers. And, for me, I was able to hone my skills by racing at all those different tracks because it really did help me for NASCAR races.

“Neil always put on a great show for those fans. One time, I double booked myself by accident and I sent a relatively unknown Neil Bonnett to the one track. He put on such a good show, the fans went crazy and they wanted him back again over me.

“I know it’s a different way now, but I really think if today’s drivers did more races or appearances at the short track level it would probably help everyone. Those were some of the biggest crowds the tracks had when we showed up.”

As of late, tracks on the NASCAR level have been tearing down grandstands, covering up seats or covering up sections because less tickets were being sold. Waiting lists for Bristol tickets has been reduced to only front and backstretch tickets being sold because demand has been down.

It’s not entirely the fault of NASCAR or its tracks.

Hotel, Motel, Modern Technology

When NASCAR was reaching its peak during the mid-1990s, the hotel industry started to get on board with both hands out…way out. In the early 2000s and now, it is still common for area hotels to almost double their regular rate for race weekends.

The three-night minimum is a great way for them to lock a fan in for higher rates for more nights, thus pumping up their revenue. Even the race teams bore the brunt of this surge driving up their travel costs for events.

Once the higher-than-a-satellite hotel prices started forcing people to choose between going to a race or paying their mortgage, the motivation to attend diminished. Ticket prices rose, gas prices rose, hotel prices rose…the average fan’s incomes didn’t follow.

Modern technology and the need to be on the scene to experience a race also started to take a toll.

Because of those advances, a fan can now sit home and follow laps via a scoring app that also provides scanner frequencies on one’s phone. Following drivers on a Twitter account provides in-race updates of that team, as well.

Avoid traffic, hotel prices and “watch” a race from your recliner has become very favorable.

Short tracks have suffered from Social Media

As a Track President for three years, this writer has personally witnessed the harm done via the growth of Social Media. An informative Facebook post letting ticket buyers know what was going on, when and how much for an event often turned into a barrage of complaints having zero to do with that upcoming race.

Add to it fans and competitors now having a platform to offer their unsolicited opinions about race calls and track operations. For some promoters, it got to the point they’ve bailed because it became so brutal and futile to be productive and profitable.

The saying of “you can’t please everybody” certainly holds true.

“Social Media has definitely been a deterrent to the short track industry,” said Joe Skotnicki, of Racing Promoter Monthly and the Race of Champions series. “What should be a great way to advertise and promote racing has probably turned off potential fans and sponsors who read what’s going on. They don’t want to get involved in the BS they’re seeing.

“As a result, many tracks have been forced to enact a Social Media policy to keep the negativity down. At the RPM meetings attended by short track operators around the country, we have seminars on how to handle Social Media.

“It used to be about the racing and attracting sponsors, now its about how to keep the track in a positive light.”

Fans will rally around the common cry of “Support Your Local Track” only to do just the opposite. When a track ceases operation, they are the first to wonder why it happened.

There are a large portion of fans and teams who do support and promote positivity, but that often gets overshined by the protagonists.

NASCAR Drivers need to return to their roots

During the heyday, short tracks were paying big money to have NASCAR drivers come race or make an appearance at their events. Drivers would gladly oblige, provided the promoter ponied up some serious money for their time and effort. For some, they were asking tracks upwards of $25,000 to come out for a night.

Rich Bickle is a driver who made his name in the short track archives by winning multiple championships and a repeating champion at marquee short track events. Before he became a Camping World Truck Series winner, then competing in Xfinity and Cup, the Wisconsin native recalls when some of the biggest crowds would turn out.

Today, Bickle is competing in Super Late Model races at the very tracks where he started his career.

“Every year, the Slinger Speedway Nationals was the biggest event…and still is now,” Bickle said. “In 1988, we had Dale Earnhardt, Alan Kulwicki, Davey and Bobby Allison all show up. The place was packed.

“The guys the fans saw on TV every Sunday, they were now able to see them race against us. When those nights happened, it was good for everyone.

“The track did well, the NASCAR drivers had some fun, we got to race against them and great memories were made. To this day, when I race the Slinger Nationals people still bring up some of the NASCAR greats who raced there.

“To me, it would be good for everyone if guys who made it in NASCAR got back to their grassroots beginnings once in a while. Without that short track and the fan, they wouldn’t be where they are today.”

Some still do

For the past few years, some drivers like Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. have raced in the Chili Bowl held each January in Tulsa, OK. The prestigious indoor event on dirt packs the place nightly.

This year, reigning Cup Series champion Chase Elliott entered the race, along with Xfinity Series driver Justin Allgaier, Cup veteran Ryan Newman and Cup rookie Chase Briscoe.

Elliott also made a return to compete in the Snowball Derby at Five Flags (FL) Speedway this past December. It is one of the premier Super Late Model and short track shows on asphalt, which Elliott has won twice.

“I feel like I learned some of my biggest lessons in my years here, and certainly my biggest opportunities came from my years of racing here as well,” Elliott told Matt Weaver of Autoweek last December. “So, I think it’s really important to respect that as time goes on and remembering where you came from.

“But most importantly, this is a really important piece of racing that needs to survive and thrive. It needs to be here. And, it’s the responsibility of the people who are fortunate enough to do what I do to give back to it and respect it. It needs to last for a long, long time.”

In a story written by this writer from February 2020, Larson had this to say about NASCAR drivers racing short tracks.

“Myself, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Christopher Bell, Kasey Kahne and Tony (Stewart) being involved in dirt racing, but also in NASCAR, helps bring a lot of fans,” Larson said. “I like feeling like I’m making an impact on those efforts with my involvement.”

How the connect became disconnect

Skotnicki said the disenchantment between the short track fan and NASCAR racing was created by a few reasons.

“Yes, it is great to see Larson and Elliott race in those special events like the Chili Bowl and Snowball Derby,” he offered. “But, those aren’t weekly events where fans watch the short track drivers. They aren’t experiencing those NASCAR stars at “their” tracks where the post-race fun continued in the pits to meet them.

“Jimmie Johnson is a great racer and seven-time champion. But, he came up through the off-road series with very little short track background. Dale Earnhardt did come up through those ranks and he knew it was important to get back and keep the connection going.

“NASCAR Garage access in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s was geared toward the average fan. They could get behind the scenes, see their heroes and make a connection beyond what they saw from their seats or TVs.”

As more Fortune 500 companies became involved in NASCAR, the need to placate them and keep them on race cars and track billboards increased. Passes went to them and appearances became more geared towards the suites of those stakeholders.

Fans have been reduced to occasional glimpses of drivers as they whizzed by on golf carts to those appearances. Or, they could stand in long lines at souvenir trailers to purchase and get apparel signed.

SPEED TV Network used to host shows in track parking lots attracting legions of fans who got to see and hear their favorite drivers. They made a connection and got to have a little fun with their fellow fans.

That, and the network, have now disappeared.

Some wheelmen are returning

NASCAR drivers like Ryan Preece still compete in select Modified events. Right after qualifying for the Daytona 500 on Wednesday night, he made his way to New Smyrna to compete in the Modified race. Starting in the back, he thrilled the crowd battling his way to the front and claiming the checkers.

Camping World Truck Series driver Stewart Friesen has a devout fan following. Starting his career on the dirt and asphalt tracks in Western and Central New York, he still actively competes in DIRT Modified events during the NASCAR season.

Tony Stewart, even though he’s retired from NASCAR racing, competes in his self-owned All Star Circuit of Champions drawing crowds at each event.

“More drivers are starting to compete at the short tracks, and it’s been great for the fans and NASCAR,” Skotnicki said. “It’s a step in the right direction, but it would be good to see more do the same and engage with the fans who follow them.”

NASCAR has been making efforts

In recent years, NASCAR has made a concerted effort to have the big leagues reconnect to the short track fan. Brandon Igdalsky is the Managing Director, Touring & Weekly Series for NASCAR.

He’s been tasked with keeping the short track scene sustainable, and reconnect it with the NASCAR tracks hosting Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series ranks.

“We have worked with many of the national series tracks to spearhead local programs with a goal of driving awareness to the local tracks, in and around the national series tracks,” Igdalsky said. “We teamed up with NBC-TV on the Short Track Summer Program, and hosted local Home Track Hubs at tracks like New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway.

“Partners like Speed Sport TV and Trackpass are great in that they can bring the excitement of local NASCAR Home Track races to your living room, while still supporting, albeit differently, their local community track.

With the entire world having to alter how they survived and conducted business because of COVID-19, all efforts were slowed between NASCAR and the short tracks. Now, a percentage of fans are being allowed back into the stands with hopes of more as virus numbers go down.

“We were seeing some momentum and were really excited about what we had planned for 2020 at 10 National Series events to showcase and support Home Track racing, the drivers and their partners,” Igdalsky said. “As we begin to re-imagine our events, we are continuing to evaluate how/what we can do in this current climate, while also looking forward to what 2022, or hopefully later in 2021, we can do.

“NASCAR Home Tracks that hosted events last year did see some increased numbers of fans attending as folks looked for more to do outside the home.”

The responsibility to reconnect isn’t only in the laps of NASCAR and its leadership or drivers. The fans who might follow NASCAR, but don’t attend their local short tracks, need to make an effort.

“Spend a few fun nights with the family at your local track,” Igdalsky suggested. “Support the local businesses you see on the cars and at the track. Those are your neighbors, your friends and your friends’ friends.

“A little pay-it-forward can go a long way. If you can’t make it out to the track, or you’re just still a bit uncomfortable in public settings, check out events on Speed Sport TV or Trackpass.”

In conclusion, as someone who grew up at the short tracks and worked their way through them to reach the NASCAR level, it appears the stars in the cars need to reconnect with their fans in the stands. In turn, those fans in the stands need to get back in those stands they once filled.

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