Monday, January 19, 2009

Speedway execs lighten up, but aren't sure drivers should

I never had been among those who believe that race car drivers need to have fist fights to make NASCAR popular, but then again I don't have hundreds of thousands of tickets to sell each year, either.

A group of men who do have that task gathered Monday afternoon at the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Lowe's Motor Speedway to talk about the state of the racing economy and they did have a funny exchange on that very topic.

The men are all the presidents and general managers of the respective Speedway Motorsports Inc. tracks around the country. Eddie Gossage of Texas Motor Speedway, Steve Page of Infineon Raceway, Ed Clark of Atlanta Motor Speedway, Marcus Smith of Lowe's Motor Speedway, Jerry Gappens of New Hampshire International Speedway, Chris Powell of Las Vegas Motor and Jeff Byrd of Bristol Motor Speedway joined their boss, SMI chairman Bruton Smith, on the dais.

Gossage talked about the $20 tickets his track is selling for some of the backstretch seats for its Cup races, saying he knows it would be infinitely harder to get fans to come back once they decide they can't come any more than it would be to give them a ticket they can afford and keep them "from losing touch with the sport."

It's hard to argue that, but it's also true that the business of cutting ticket prices when sales are "soft" right before a race is a tricky proposition. If I paid $100 for my seat last year and then renewed it for this year at that same rate, I don't want to hear that the guy sitting next to me waited until two weeks ago and got his seat for $50.

Sometimes you have to do what you have to do, of course, but that can make it harder to keep those renewal rates up in the 90 percent range that Byrd said he has with his non-corporate clients at Bristol.

Burton Smith said it's really simple to know what to do when times are tough.

"I don't care what you're doing, if you're selling hot dogs on the corner. What you do is work harder," he said, "You sell, sell, sell."

All tracks are doing that, of course. Byrd and members of his staff have literally been going to Food City grocery stores in Tennessee and Virginia and selling tickets to fans in those stores - "one-at-a-timing," as they called it in the movie "O Brother Where Art Thou."

But that doesn't mean the tracks couldn't use a little help, and the ones the folks on Monday's program said they could use some help from are the ones fans really come to see - the race car drivers.

"This idea of running and hiding and not signing autographs, I don't like that," Smith said. "I think we have to overcome that."

Byrd and Gossage said, and their colleagues nodded in assent, that drivers seem more willing to help out with the season coming up than they have been in a long time.

That's when the day's best exchange happened.

"You take Jimmie Johnson," Smith said, speaking of the three-time defending Cup champion. "He's my neighbor and he's a great guy. I like him, I like his wife.

"But one thing that would help would be for Jimmie to get out of the race car and just go slap somebody sometime. He could slap me."

Gossage said he believes the sport is beginning to pay a price for becoming "corporatized" over the course of the past several years.

"These guys are a colorful bunch, but not publicly," Gossage said of today's drivers. "It's nothing that can't be fixed pretty quickly.

"Jimmie could punch somebody. He could hit me, but it would be better if he'd hit another driver. If he wants to hit me, he can hit me."

Smith said it was good of Gossage to volunteer. "Can I hit you?" Smith asked.

As the laughter died down, Gossage said he'd be OK with taking one from the boss.

"I would like to own some car dealerships," Gossage said. Smith owns hundreds of them.

Smith said he doubted that would happen. "I have more lawyers," Smith said.

Gossage thought about that and said, "I think maybe you have hit me a time or two."

Unfortunately, Smith still has a good memory.

"Well," Smith said, "you set me on fire one time."

That's true. When Lowe's Motor Speedway first turned on its lights, Gossage was working for at the track and had arranged to have Smith throw a ceremonial switch that was rigged with some pyrotechnics. A spark from that actually set Smith's hair on fire briefly.

That, pretty much, was the end of discussion.

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

If it helps a "sport" to have the athletes "slap one another"... maybe we just don't need that "sport" anymore.

Something to think about Bruton.

Anonymous said...

How long will Lowe's and Kobalt want to sponsor Jimmie if he goes around slapping people? Those are family businesses.

Anonymous said...

There is a lot of truth to the idea of "losing touch with the sport." Before the last NHL strike I used to drive 2 hours to attend about 10 Penguins games per season.

I think I've only been to one or two games in the years since and I no longer follow them closely.

Cedar Posts and Life Floating By said...

David,

Burton "I have more lawyers" Smith may be what is wrong with racing.

Eddie Gossage now here is someone with some smarts:

"....it would be infinitely harder to get fans to come back once they decide they can't come any more than it would be to give them a ticket they can afford and keep them from losing touch with the sport."

Big Time racing is in Big Time trouble. I know because I spent six frantic weeks last year trying to save Morgan-McClure (I know I suck but I really did try).

I'm one who thinks NASCAR needs to get back to its roots, like the Lancaster Motor Speedway of 1954, yes little known fact they used to have NASCAR racing in Lancaster.

http://cedarposts.blogspot.com/2008/02/daytona.html

Either that or talk 100 pounds of trouble Danica Patrick to leave Indy Cars.

Mike said...

I just wish nascar would go away...there's just no excitment watching cars go round n round for almost a whole year...but whats worse is its begining to start all over again...

Anonymous said...

Stop it. I don't watch the WWE I follow racing. If NASCAR and the track owners are dependent on drivers acting immature and like idiots then the sport really is in trouble.

Anonymous said...

Mike,
How true your statement is.
Nascar is no more a sport than disc golf.What blinds everyone to the fact that it isn't a sport,that it is boring,and that the winners are pre-determined is the Nascar press.David Poole gets 4 checks each week.1 comes from the Observer,1 comes from chevrolet,1 comes from Nascar,and 1 comes from Rick Hendrick.I read on this joke of a web site that Poole ha won some kind of award...must not be a credible award...Nascar has given it to him 3 or 4 times now.And that penny storie...that was made up.Probably written by Steven Spielberg.The year Nascar folds will be a truly good year.

Anonymous said...

I've been a NASCAR fan for quite a while and have had tickets to the CC600 for years, but not this year. Things are just too tight to spend almost $1000 on 8 tickets, so those will be back in the pool. If I decide at the last minute to go to the race, I'm pretty sure there will be tickets to be had.

I predict that there will be lots of open seats until this economy turns around. What the track owners should have done is cut prices from the get-go and offer long time buyers a deep discount. If they believe this year will be sell outs, I think they are delusional.

So let them sit in the sky boxes and see how empty it is at the tracks. It can't be business as usual because it is not life as usual.

Anonymous said...

Mike and Anonymous who agreed with Mike - What a boring, shallow life you must lead if all you have to do is go on websites of sports or activities you don't like and diss them. It must make you feel real big to mike fun of others from your PC. You probably wear Depends and have a mini refrigerator next to your PC so you never have to get out of your chair. You guys are pathetic

Anonymous said...

9:34.You used the word sport in your sobbing saga of a story.
Please leave this word out of Nascar.It reflects bad on true sports and sportsman when it's linked to Nascar.

Anonymous said...

Wow for a bunch of Nascar haters, you sure do read about it a lot. Why don't you folks 'go away', we love our sport!

As for the tracks, David, I predict a dire first race at California. The current president, Jillian Zucker, is clueless. We have a race coming up here in a few weeks. I've seen 1 billboard, that's all. You hear other track pres/gm's on Sirius talking about how they are working with hotels for package deals/rates, lowering some ticket prices, etc. She does absolutely nothing but sit in her Hollywood office trying to rub shoulders with tv/movie celebs. Exactly how is that supposed to fill the stands? We all know they only do things if you pay them or give them stuff. They don't bring in fans.

To show how little she really knows, Mike Waltrip made a comment last year after the first race that they should turn California into a 'Superspeedway'. Without thinking, she was all over it! If a driver jokingly said to make it into a figure 8 track, she'd probably be all over that too! What a fool. She must have some good blackmail photos on someone at ISC to keep her job. She is running our track into the ground. Maybe if ISC sold it to SMI we could start having a better event.

Dan said...

David P, on the point of some buying higher prices with fees and all while others are getting discounts, your point is well taken. But this has happened for eons in plane fares as you well know. You probably have sat right bedside a business guy who paid $900 round trip from CLT to Boston while you had plenty of time to prepare and bought three weeks out and stayed over a Saturday night and paid $275 for the same plane ride. Doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Ticket prices for all kinds of entertainment, especially NASCAR, have been too upwardly mobile for a long time. They are due a "course correction." or as a NASCAR Spin Doctor would try to tell you -- "ticket prices have been mildly lateral while seat sales have only recently slightly softened to the extent that we need to revisit the face value and added value packages that form our initial discussion into whether we or not we should approach a discount pricing matrix that may empower our track managers to decide if a discussion in the future is warranted. We cannot make decisions over here that might affect things over there without a thorough looksee."

Just recently in the news were comments from CEOs of major retailers, who said, in effect...all we used to have to do is pile the shelves high and unlock the doors. Now consumer habits are changing. That's been a NASCAR thing and to some extent they are the victim of their own success.

I have been outspoken on the rise of ticket prices for years. And the softness has been showing since early in this decade not just the past year or two. The economy has been weakening for three years now. But my strong point is that you cannot endear your fans by sticking it to them on ticket prices, sticking it to them on trinket prices, sticking it to them on food prices, sticking it to them on parking prices, sticking it to them on hotel prices, all at the same time and not expect something to break. Parking and hotel prices are beyond NASCAR's direct control but as they have found out now the hoteliers are beggars too and now they want to deal...Lemme tellya paying $125 a night for a $35 a night room at Red Roof Inn at Sugar Creek ain't being nice to your customers, it's highway robbery. And the minimum stay thing--well don't get me started. As hard as I am on NASCAR, I hope the hoteliers in these major cities starve!

My point: Gossage, Byrd, Gappens, Brian Z, Darlington, Homestead, NASCAR, ISC, SMI et al better dam well get their act together and view this as a wake up call and take care of the fans in the way of pricing many months out and away from the current downturn. Making someone buy a yearly package with both Nationwide races just to see Cup races, plus a PSL...well that's highway robbery too and maybe a thing of the past.

Dan said...

The other thing is I really don't want to turn on the TV on Feb. 22. California is going to look bad bad bad. I don't know this for a fact so I may be all wet. But it just feels like there may be 35,000 in attendance, maybe less. Of course if ESPN was doing the telecast Jerry Punch would say, "fans are men on missions they are here in droves over 90,000 people are here...". That ain't optimism he sells, it's Nixonian.

Dan said...

One more final thought from me on this snowy day. I think investors, speculators and the Middle East were giddy over the fact that America could withstand $150 per barrel of oil. Well the bottom dropped out of that one didn't it? Ships are in ports all over the world loaded with crude and no where to go. All the while the globe suffers, partly because of high oil prices. I know this whole economy thing the last few years has been a house of cards, but oil prices provided the match for the recession fire that burns brightly now. I hope those greedy pigs, wherever they are (it ain't Big Oil folks), choke on that $150 price of oil. It partly plunged a world into recession.

So my moral of the story? NASCAR beware. Beware that PSL and yearly package thing and that $200 seat "price point." It will come around to bite and it will hurt when it does. Only Wal-Mart and state-run lotteries do well in bad times. The rest of this "bidness" thing can easily fall by the wayside. Banks autos retailers boats airplanes ski resorts housing hotels home improvement, etc are all vulnerable. Hell even Park and Michigan Avenue shopping is down. take heed NASCAR bosses, be kind to your consumers well in the out years. Because this crap ain't over yet. We got a ways to fall before we see the bottom...And that's being optimistic. Don't believe me? Ask your bank exec when he or she is on their way to Washington to beg for more MO.

Anonymous said...

Dan,
David Poole is the "BIGGEST" Nascar spin doctor out there.He's the guy who blamed the fans for Rockingham being closed.Said we didn't fill the place up.He will make you feel guilty for not paying out $$$$$$$$$$$ to Nascar.In fact if he had it his way he would require everyone to pay a Nascar tax to keep the floundering giant afloat.As for California.I hope 3500 show up and they shut it down next year.

Monkeesfan said...

If Bruton talks about how he thinks the sport needs drivers to slap each other around but curiously doesn't get around to that the sport needs more lead changes, more winners, more comeback winners - i.e. more all-around competitive depth - then he and everyone else are not looking at what's staring at the sport in front of it.

Anonymous said...

Nascar for years has done nothing but suck the money out of anything that is breathing. It is money first, money second, and maybe toss in a race.

Anonymous said...

Amen! NA$CAR could create a revenue stream from a sewer stream. Package "Do-DO" and sell it with a NA$CAR logo, and then ask us to "believe." Yep, there ain't a seat or brick or piece of asphalt that is sacred to NA$CAR. All is for sale. They are open for bidness 24/7. They are sucking a little air now and it ain't all that rosy or sweet smelling as it used to be. All the while 6-8 car operations, like DEI and Ganassi, "merge" to keep afloat. Merge? Merge? Looks like they just combined rosters to qualify for layoff and tax breaks. What merger did they do? Merged form a 6 car operation down to barely 2. How is that a merger? How does Evernham become Gillett-Evernham to Richard Petty Motorsports in only a few months? That's that NA$CAR "business model" for you. Doublespeak has always been the mantra of this current management group. They might as well do like George W. Bush and hang up a sign in Daytona Beach headquarters "Mission Accomplished". It has about the same meaning in Washington as it does in Daytona.

Anonymous said...

NASCAR and Bruton Smith - the are MORE IMPORTANT things in our society than catering to multi-ruch fat cats who resort to blackmail and extortion to get a street named after you and rip off your fans with high ticket prices and driver fights.

Anonymous said...

North Wilkesboro proved how much you can believe of what B. Smith says.

Anonymous said...

The economy has a lot to do with every sport. Earlier this month, the Nfl had to give extensions for 2 games that threatened to be blacked out for lack of selling enough tickest.

In Minn, it was the first time in 12 they had not had a sell-oyt game. and in Arizone, the NFL had to give a couple extensions so they could sell out. I mean these were NFL play-off games!

When football has a hard time, you know everyone else will too.

As for some of the stupid suggestions found on this site, I can only assume these people have never owned a business or met a payroll.

Track owners have to take a good look and see where they can cut cost, but the idea that because I can't afford to attend a race, they should lower it is crazy. As a long time race fan, I remember some of the old tracks. They were filthy (some still are), not enough restrooms, the food was terrible, the parking was terrible, the entrance and exit were worse than they are now.

Security now is much better. I still remember taking my young kids to a race (in the South), and being petrified walking through the camping area to see some friends.

Track owners have also spent millions on lights, safer barriers, repaving, etc. Our new President has promised tax cuts to individuals and higher ones to businesses. Guess what that means? Higher taxes on track owners.

Much in business is a matter of supply and demand. As long as the track owners are still making a profit, they will make small changes to track prices, but I don't expect them to sell tickets at half-price.

The insurance companies are not telling them they will lower their primiums, the state, county will not lower their taxes, the thousands of employees will not offer to take a cut in salary, etc.

I wish them all well and glad when the first race starts.

Richard in N.C. said...

Well another typical BS - having contracted for broadcast of all the races for many, many millions additional, now Smith wants to try to have TV blackouts if the races don't sell-out. Yes, fan friendly.

Anonymous said...

Richard, where on earth do you get your information? What makes you think there will be NASCAR blackouts?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 9:00 PM: You asked where Richard got his information on TV blackouts. This article appeared on thatsracin.com:

TV blackout would benefit tracks, Smith says
By David Poole
dpoole@charlotteobserver.com
Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009
Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith said he thinks NASCAR should follow the NFL's lead when it comes to blacking out races in a track's local area when the event is not sold out.

"That's exactly what should happen," Smith said. "It worked for the NFL, so you have a forerunner there who has done it successfully."

Smith said he doesn't know how big of an area should be blacked out around a track that has not sold out its event. NASCAR's network television package does not have blackout provisions.

"I think it would be beneficial to speedways," Smith said. "If it's blacked out and people who live close by say they're going to sit home and watch it, they wouldn't get to see it."

majorshouse said...

Again, here is another bunch of pure bull coming out of the mouth of someone that has no clue what he is talking aobut. I don't want to see a bunch of punks throwing punches, I want to see real racing and with the car that has been shoved down our throats by NASCAR, I doubt that we are going to see that anytime soon. Make the car look more l;ike the production cars like they did in the 1960's-early and middle 1980's and then let the racers do what they do best and let their talking be done with their right feet and let's not even think about pairity because it has never been there and no matter how hard the sanctioning body tries, it will never be there.

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