UP FRONT: DRAG RACING IS (W-H-A-T-?) TURNING THE CORNER

Written by Jon Asher.

The Economy’s Still A Major Concern, But Our Sport Is Doing Better

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Some headlines continue to cry doom (“Will Fragile U.S. Economy Shatter?” USA Today July 23), while others indicate better times ahead (“In Latest Data on Economy, Experts See Signs of Pickup” New York Times July 13).

Considering this is an election year you can pretty much toss out any economic predictions emanating from either political party. Forgetting simple veracity for the moment, politicians aim to get elected and are therefore likely to say anything they feel will garner voter support.

Since the economy tanked in 2008 all of motorsports has suffered a reversal of fortunes to some extent. NASCAR, which numerous media outlets were already reporting as “topped out” even before the crunch, seems to have taken the biggest hit, at least if what we see on television is to be believed. There can be little doubt spectator attendance has seriously declined at venues as diverse as Daytona, Charlotte, Sonoma, Dover and Indianapolis. At many races, large sponsor banners cover significant seating areas, yet there still remain legions of empty grandstands. More than one media outlet has pegged NASCAR’s decline as high as 30% in ticket sales.

Indycar racing has also suffered at the gate, due at least partially to the series itself, which lacks excitement and recognizable American driver names. The series may be as international as Formula 1, but that doesn’t get it with an often jingoistic American audience.

While IndyCar officials were certainly proud of the attendance and television ratings generated by the Indy 500, they are loathe to recall the so-called good old days prior to the CART-IndyCar split, and who can blame them? In those days more than 200,000 paid to see Pole Day and almost 100,000 showed up for Bump Day. In these times the crowd count is closer to 10,000 for Pole Day and considerably less for any bumping action that now comes the following day. And, like it or not, the departure of Danica Patrick to NASCAR has definitely had a negative impact on their TV ratings. She was the hook that drove their coverage, a point insiders at IndyCar will acknowledge, even if they do so off the record.

So, where is NHRA Drag Racing in all of this?

It’s obvious to everyone drag racing also suffered at the gate, but not in ’08. The financial situation began to impact our fans in 2009, and there’s considerable agreement that while many were beginning to feel the pinch a year earlier, those same folks decided to lives their lives as best they could until the crunch hit home. Then they had little choice but to make the house payment instead of attending the spring race in Vegas.

Since then attendance at NHRA Full Throttle series races has fluctuated somewhat; but since the beginning of the 2012 season there’s been a significant improvement.

Sadly, perception still overcomes reality in some situations.

The Englishtown race was negatively impacted from the visual standpoint at least partially due to a “special” ticket requirement for one starting line grandstand many declined to purchase. That resulted in the background of a lot of photos appearing to be empty. Some people jumped to the conclusion the grandstand in question reflected overall attendance at the race.

At Chicago, despite a heat wave, the attendance was pretty good – until a heavy storm hit the track on Sunday afternoon. A lot of fans bailed out when that happened, resulting in final round still photos and television shots that emphasized the empty seats. Many then called the race a failure. It wasn’t.

As we previously reported, the heat wave that impacted the Norwalk race probably “cost” the track at least 5,000 ticket sales on Saturday. That one definitely hurt.

Denver? You’ve seen the photos and the TV show. It was a monster.

Pre-sale tickets for Denver were up 12 percent for the weekend and up 15 percent for Sunday. Those numbers don’t include walk-up buyers, who are critically important to the success of any race. The packed grandstands indicated there were plenty of those.

Overall, NHRA attendance was up 8 percent over the 2011 numbers prior to Chicago on a race-to-race basis. This single digit increase in attendance may not be earth-shattering, but it’s indicative of the sport’s strength and is a very positive note for the future. When motorsports attendance overall appears to be somewhat stagnant, yet NHRA’s numbers are up, that’s good news for us.

TV viewership is also reportedly up slightly (about 5 percent) over the same number of races in 2011. It is also mandatory to consider where television itself is right now when discussing viewership numbers. Today’s television world is extremely fragmented, and is becoming more so with each passing month. Three channels have become 300, and how we watch TV is also changing. Netflix and other services offer almost unlimited streaming of popular network programming. On demand movie services offer up the latest blockbusters in the comfort of your living room for pennies. Smart phones are capable of handling movie and standard programming downloads. What all of this means is that even advertisers have come to expect smaller audiences for popular programs, and they’re willing to accept it. We have to too. We are not going to see ratings reports indicating two million households watched the U.S. Nationals. When those numbers reach, say, 700,000 households, we need to understand that, as small as this number is, it’s pretty darn good in today’s world.

We also need to understand that while the perception among newspaper and TV sports people is that IndyCar is bigger than NHRA Drag Racing, it isn’t. Our TV ratings are often better than IndyCar’s, which is something I believe NHRA should be shouting from the rooftops at every possible moment. The only way to change someone’s perception of drag racing is to hammer them hard enough and often enough with solid, factual information to the point where they can no longer ignore the reality of where drag racing is.

And where is drag racing?

We would like to think that we’re hot stuff, big time, major league and important in the overall scheme of sports. Alas, we are not. When NHRA talks about an audience of two million paid over the course of a season we need to keep something important in mind: The total population of the United States is, according to the CIA World Factbook, 313,232,044. That means our audience totals less than seven tenths of a percent of the total national population. Small wonder it’s an ongoing battle to get media coverage for drag racing.

So, knowing the numbers that we’re working with, drag racing is still performing quite well at the gate. It’s also doing okay on the sponsorship level, but in this area a great deal of effort has to be funneled into an educational effort because the perception continues to be drag racing is something far less than it is. Getting a marketing executive to go to the track and observe a national event in person is usually critically important to getting his company to sign on the dotted line. But, as long as some of those people refuse to see a race, selling the sport becomes more problematical.

On the sponsorship front NHRA Drag Racing continues to be the best bang for the buck you can find in North American motorsports. For a relatively small investment a company can put its name and face in front of a lot of people, and the fact drag racing is the only form of motorsports that actually encourages direct interaction between drivers and fans is a huge selling point in our favor. We often see shots of NASCAR drivers hastily signing things as they move from the privacy of their motorhomes to the exclusivity of the pits. Drag racing has a huge advantage in this area because our pits remain open to the fans all the time. As far as drag racing drivers being reluctant to interact with the fans goes, we’ve seen little evidence of that. Our drivers know, understand and appreciate the fact that the fans drive the sport, and react to those fans accordingly.

A front line Top Fuel or Funny Car operation demands financial support somewhere north of $2 million and south of $5 million. Compare that with a NASCAR Sprint Cup front-running team, where double digit millions must be invested annually. A friend has very close ties to a company currently backing a Cup team, and he reports their direct investment is $16 million per year – plus additional financial backing that they helped arrange to the tune of another $8 million. To invest in a series that appears to be hurting at the gate and with TV viewers at a level like that makes us wonder if this was wise marketing, or just another executive’s rationalized excuse to profile around with various NASCAR “name” drivers. If you think that doesn’t happen, think again. The vast majority of sponsorships are the result of someone’s personal feelings, and not necessarily the result of a detailed market analysis.

Something must be going right with NHRA Drag Racing, because K&N just signed an extension of their Horsepower Challenge race program, Summit Racing Equipment is about to sign a multi-year extension, and so, too, is Lucas Oil. We’ve also heard from a reliable source that Coca-Cola is likely to renew through the 2018 season. Companies don’t make those kinds of long term commitments to an endeavor they see as topped out and heading south.

Drag racing continues to have numerous problems that must be addressed, but with attendance and television ratings trending upwards, some aspects of the endeavor appear to be very healthy. Even if we can’t have a major impact on the sport by something we do individually, we can take baby steps. That means encouraging our neighbors to go to a race. It means taking the time to contact a sports editor to ask why he had the paper cover the lightly attended IndyCar race, yet ignored the SRO crowd and great racing at a close by Full Throttle series race. It means standing tall and proud when you tell a “civilian” that you’re a drag racer or a drag racing fan. It means talking to your boss about attending a race so that he can see for himself that it might be an ideal marketing tool for the company. It means doing anything we can to help the sport grow and prosper.

When you get right down to it, from the very selfish perspective, making drag racing bigger and better is in all of our best interests. ‘Cause after all, wouldn’t you rather see 29 cars fighting it out for 16 Top Fuel starting spots? Heck, I’d rather see 48 of ‘em fighting it out for one of 32 starting spots, but that’s another matter entirely!

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