Wednesday, March 18, 2015

What's Hurting Short Track Racing?

Wrote this in 2013. I only made a few slight adjustments to update it.  I also added at audio show to the end of the post.  The show ties up a few loose ends from Sunday's show with a few more results and talks a bit about Petaluma Speedway as well as John Soares Jr's commitment to racing and building up these shows.

First of all...

Don's California Racing Recollections:  Best Of The Blog And Beyond

Available via print on demand at Lulu in Hard Cover or Paperback

Just A Kid From The Grandstands:  My Time In Auto Racing

Available on Lulu in Paperback And Hard Cover

Also, what could be a series of informative books...

Short Track History Project at Gofundme

When I was active in the sport, I used to send my articles to Racing West.  I think they have them somewhere on that site, but they aren't archived to be easily located.  I check the site from time to time and look at the forum.  I noticed a thread asking who is killing short track racing.   The name of this article asks the "real" question.

You see, it's hard to say that short track racing in California is being killed or dying, and here's why.  We still have many active tracks.  Rocky Hill Speedway, Orland Raceway, Stockton 99 pavement (and now dirt), Merced Speedway. Chowchilla too, Madera Speedway.  All were dead or non existent, and they are holding races in 2013.  So, it's not dead or being killed, because people are still fighting for it.

What is hurting racing is the real question.  Some things in that thread I agree with.  We still have people over spending and making it harder to be competitive and parts distributors getting rules changed to sell more parts.  Both of which have been a part of the sport since the beginning.  It's not easy to change those trends.

I think we should have had a "next big thing" in racing by now.  The only divisions to be added state wide in the last ten seasons are Four Bangers and Sport Mods.  One is an en entry level class, which is needed, but it is not a class people are rushing to the tracks to watch.  The other is a rehash of the division John Soares brought to Petaluma 1987.  The irony of it all is that this division was billed as an affordable move up from Street Stocks back then.

The Dirt Modifieds have had a good run, but they haven't suffered the curse that Late Models, Sportsmans, Super Modifieds and Hardtops had.  Part of it was old equipment, but these divisions also had another division nipping at their heels.  Super Stocks took down Hardtops, Sprint Cars took down Super Modifieds, Late Models took down the Sportsman division and Dirt Modifieds took out the Late Models.

Don't look now, but the Dirt Modifieds have been headlining some tracks since the mid 90's.  That's 20 seasons now, and there's no serious threat to that reign in sight.  Some will say that's a good thing.  Some will point out the Spec Sprints, which came on the scene 15 years ago, but this class isn't being giving serious promotion at most places.  It's still alive and well and could have been bigger if promoters wanted that.

I did an interview with Jim Bowman back in the 90's, and he said something I agreed with.  Modifieds should have been a feeder class into Late Models.  However, we let money dictate things.  Late Models were too costly as a regular class, and nobody wanted to compromise and try to cut costs.  Dirt Modifieds took over, and the same affliction hit this division to a point where we are recycling the class and trying again with Sport Mods.  It's not a long range solution.

At Antioch, John tried the same thing with Limited Late Models.  He had a vision and it took a few years before we started seeing 16-20 car fields.  Other tracks got involved and talked about working together.  The problem was they wanted more, and John wanted the class to grow as it was. Well, in the end he was right, but it fell apart anyway.  I'd say you can't go home again, but look what's happening with the Hardtops these days.

So, the safe bet is to keep promoting Dirt Modifieds and have big money races.  It's worked for John.  Some will point out IMCA, and while I'm not on that bandwagon, the numbers at Santa Maria, Bakersfield and Hanford speak for themselves.  The division lives on.  Though it's not what it once was, it's still good enough.

The problem is, even if you do want to create something new, what do you do?  What will capture the imagination of the racers and fans in the way Late Models, Sportsmans, Hardtops, Super Modifieds and Midgets did back in the day?  This is a real head scratcher.  It's become easier to just play it safe with what's been working.

I talked myself horse speaking of the problems ahead for racing, and people thought I was being too political and negative.  Turns out I was right.  Part of it was the economy, which even I didn't see coming.   I don't like being negative, but when you are used to watching competitive classes with B Mains, you want that kind of racing to continue.

Another problem is it takes money and dedication to be a racer.  Back in the day, it seemed easier for most racers to balance family and racing.  It's the whole economy thing again.  Plus, people are wanting to do other things with their time now.  And, the biggie is neighborhoods that frown on you working on a race car or even have regulations against that.  This is a topic in itself, but it is a factor in the car count problem.

Fans are starting to spend money elsewhere too.  It's more expensive to attend a race these days, and thanks to NASCAR, you can sit back in the comfort of your own home and watch races on many Friday and Saturday nights.  This has not helped the short track at all.  It bothers me that NASCAR built themselves up on the backs of short track America and now don't seem to care anymore.  They have their money.

This is a big reason I have respect for today's promoters.  They are risking a big loss in money.  Some of these guys may not be as nice as others, but they are trying to provide a race track.  It's a thankless job.  If you mess up, you get the hate.  Many times when you do good, you hear crickets chirping.  Some of these people lose a lot of money and fail, only to be bad mouthed on the way out for trying.

Two things I want to hit on that I know aren't helping is the lack of hype and the clutter of too many small divisions.  Nether of these things will inspire the average person to come watch.  The hard core fans, sure, but you need more than that.  If you have a 3000 or more seating capacity.  Filling it a third of the way shouldn't be the goal.

Let me tackle the second thing first.  Division clutter is a problem.  We didn't get there over night.  In the 50's and 60's, they could pack the pits with one division.  Towards the end of the 60's, they added a second entry level division.  Not a bad idea really.  This was good until the late 80's.  Everybody got Baylands syndrome and had to run more. 

Petaluma did a good thing by giving those Baylands racers a home, and those pits were flooded with cars.  The first few years of the All Pro Series were the most action packed and entertaining racing you would ever see.  Lots of full divisions, and I have no doubt it was a lucrative program.  So what?  It was an amazing show that ran efficiently.

So, in the 90's, three and four division shows became normal.  At Antioch, this meant three divisions in house and a traveling series every week.  That many divisions weren't really needed, but it was okay other than the endless crash fests of the Dirt Modifieds at the time.  What's amazing was we still had 30 cars showing up every week despite the crashing, but that's another story.

When John got the track, more divisions were added.  There are now eight divisions on the schedule and some redundancy.  Winged 360 Sprints, Late Models, Wingless Spec Sprints, IMCA Modifieds, Sport Modifieds, Super Stocks, Hobby Stocks and Dwarf Cars.  That's a lot of divisions, and some of them struggle to get enough cars for two heat races.

This divides resources, which includes purse money, point funds and track time.  What do you do when you still have loyal supporters in six car divisions?  You let them race.  To dump these divisions would be wrong, but we have to find a way to scale this back.  You need to focus on headline, intermediate and entry level divisions.  You can still have five divisions, but the goal should be fuller divisions.

I'm of the opinion we need to find a way back to 60-70 cars in the pits among three divisions, rather than six or seven.  The reason it is as it is now is simple.  You still get the cars you get, and as a promoter you have to pay the bills.  It's that simple.  The problem is division clutter and low car counts won't inspire the casual fan to spend money at the track when there are many other entertainment options

And, then there is hype.  You have to hype this stuff up by any means necessary.  Fans need to know what's going on, who's hot, what the points are, some of the history and other interesting facts.  They have to be encouraged to give a damn.  It sounds simple, but it takes work to do it right.  I know the hours that go into it.

Printed media is still around, but it's fading.  You still have to try, because it works.  John Soares Jr. actually owns Racing Wheels Magazine the last I heard.  Dare I say it needs to be revived with a different strategy?  You'd be amazed at the difference that magazine made, even though it was more racer supported than fan supported.  If you were holding a big race, everybody knew because of that magazine. 

Of course, Gary Jacob didn't hurt matters either.  I don't know when that man slept.  He lived and breathed racing, and his main concern was making sure everybody knew what was happening.  It was a sad day for racing when he passed away.  Even without Gary, there are enough writers out there to do a magazine, even if it's bi-weekly.

You need to make better use of the internet.  This means giving people stuff to read, but also audio and video.  There's also much needed revenue if it's done right.  Imagine fans of Bakersfield or Watsonville or Antioch who have never been to any of those places.  They tune in and watch on the internet from other counties or from the other side of the United States.

You have to engage the fans.  This means opening things up for opinions and having people on staff to deal with that directly.  If bad comments get through that are hurtful and non constructive, they get deleted without the removal of the board.  Tom Sagmiller made use of the internet, and he'd probably even tell you that was a positive factor in the rise of Chowchilla Speedway.

In the year 2015, promoting our sport has to get with the times.  Make that information available on the internet and mobile devices, and build a community that way.  You have to inspire the fans to support the cause, and that takes effort.  They aren't coming just because you have a race track.  You have to make them want it.  Want to know why we have all of those annoying commercials on TV?  Because they work.

This is all my opinion.  Others may disagree.  I don't think the sport is being killed.  Otherwise we wouldn't have all the tracks we have now.  We are very lucky to have them and some are barely holding on.  I think there are things hurting it.  You need to focus on building strong core divisions, running a good program, effectively spreading the word and getting the fans to want to come.  In the end, we are still doing okay as long as we have promoters opening race tracks and drivers and fans supporting them.

The DCRR Racing Radio Show

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