WATKINS GLEN, N.Y.
It’s been 11 years since I worked my last Cup Series race as a Dover Int’l Speedway employee, and even longer since I was involved in the ticket-selling side of the business. Race promotion at NASCAR’s premier level has become far more difficult and every customer, individual or corporate, is now a jewel to be treasured.
I remember meetings where we debated how many tickets we could spare for XYZ, Inc., even though they weren’t buying the full hospitality package. Those days are gone, and no one I’ve talked to thinks they are coming back soon.
Tracks have responded to the new reality with all the tools taught in Marketing 101 — discounting, partnerships, loyalty rewards, etc. The smart ones have also gotten creative. In the last two weeks, both Pocono Raceway and Watkins Glen Int’l have debuted upgraded Saturday programs with success.
Pocono brought in the Camping World Truck Series to join the usual ARCA show and was rewarded with the largest Saturday crowd in memory at the old spinach farm.
At the Glen, both Sprint Cup qualifying and the Grand Am Rolex Series Crown Royal 200 moved from Friday to join the Nationwide Series for an 11-hour Saturday marathon. It was exhausting, but it pulled an impressive turnout. The superb weather helped keep things on schedule, but the 25-minute red flag in the Nationwide race didn’t help.
Another creative promotion could be seen just inside the Glen’s final turn. By the way, that’s turn 11 to me, no matter what numerology the various broadcast entities may use. But we digress.
The public hospitality tent was titled “The Bog,” reviving the name of the notorious party zone from F-1 days, which was actually located right across the track at that point. Maybe some of the patrons of The Bog in 2010 were among the college-age revelers in its namesake 35 years earlier, as I’d put the median age of this year’s Boggers at about 55.
The food was good, the beverage plentiful, and guests got to meet four Cup drivers, an Olympic bobsledder, and an “American Idol” finalist.
The growth of public hospitality is easy to explain. Back in the day, corporate hospitality programs acted as their own multiplier. “Tool Company A” offered its clients a ticket, food and beverage package as an incentive for expanded orders, so “Tool Company B” had a strong incentive to offer its clients a similar deal at a different track, and so on.
At one point we had 900 Snap-on guests at the Monster Mile in September, a week after its competitor did the same at Richmond (Va.) Int’l Raceway. The DuPont NASCAR program can be traced directly to the need for its refinish division to counter the incentives rival PPG was offering dealers through its CART sponsorship.
In today’s economy, the state of corporate budgets precludes much of the hospitality spending that fueled the 1990s. But once you’ve had the race-day hospitality experience, it can be a tough sell to go back to tailgating in the parking lot before taking a seat on the pine boards.
Hence the market for public hospitality like The Bog.
Sunday’s was an interesting lineup, leading off with Ron Fellows, who had high compliments for Tommy Baldwin Racing, and less praise for the speeding ticket that cost him several spots in the Zippo 200.
Next up was Joey Logano, expressing wonderment at his second-place finish Saturday and bringing the teenyboppers in the audience crowding to the stage. They stayed there for Bo Bice, whose rise from “Idol” loser to Southern rock icon passed me by.
Mark Martin, next up, was in a talking mood, candidly telling the crowd, “Making The Chase was a big deal last year because we thought we had a chance to win it all. It’s not such a big deal to make it this year; just to say we made it.”
Finally came Boris Said, a fitting finale because you just can’t top Boris. He admitted that neither the Said Head wigs nor the “Who Said? — Boris Said!” T-shirts were licensed products, but he didn’t care as long as everybody enjoyed them.
Maybe the most profound statement from the whole morning came from Bice, who reminded the crowd that musicians and NASCAR racers remember where they came from and keep in touch with their roots.
The Bog of 2010 was a pretty good way for this veteran of its original incarnation to do the same thing.