INDIANAPOLIS — The buzz is positive, and real. And welcome.
In case you haven’t noticed, short-track racing is in a very good place right now. In particular, dirt-track racing has never been cooler, or more accepted, as in 2018.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway built a dirt track in the infield and hosted a midget race that was embraced with enthusiasm by mainstream fans and media.
A NASCAR star — Kyle Larson — is criticized by NASCAR fans for continuing to express his passion for sprint cars and midgets and dirt-track racing in general.
Grandstands at major short-track events — the Show Me 100, the Knoxville Nationals, the North-South 100, the Kings Royal, among others — are bustling with excited fans, boasting some of the largest crowds in event history.
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If you’re new to the scene, be assured that it wasn’t always like this. For a great many years — most of our existence, really — much of the motorsports community looked upon short-track racing as child’s play, not nearly worthy of the respect devoted to NASCAR or Indy car racing, for example.
Supported year-in and year-out by hard-core short-track fans, the sport has always operated in the margins of the mainstream sporting world. But with the developments of recent years we’ve edged slightly toward the masses, with awareness — and respect — finally coming our way.
One of the most telling signs of this phenomenon is the “story of the steel.” Massive steel grandstands, built at NASCAR facilities during the boom period of 1990 to 2005, have been quietly torn down and purchased by short-track promoters and repurposed at small tracks around the country. As the structures are reassembled, they are soon filled with enthusiastic race fans who talk openly of losing interest in “big time” NASCAR or Indy car racing.
If you would have told me in 1995 that this would happen, I would have laughed and considered you unbalanced. And I’m not alone.
To be sure, short-track racing has its problems. Modern lives are extremely busy, leading people to become increasingly more selective on how they spend their time. This has hurt the weekly racing program at many tracks, I suspect because fans are budgeting their time and money for something special. Many divisions in short-track racing simply cost more money than is practical, although racers somehow continue to find the money to race. And lots of racing programs are plagued by too many divisions and the lack of “show.”
But overall, these are golden times for short-track racing. There is stability, particularly with the national touring series. The leaders within the various levels of the sport have gained some tenure over the past few years, and for the most part have cultivated the ability to work with rival groups to everyone’s benefit.
It’s true that short-track racing still has little success in attracting major, household-name corporate sponsors. Frankly, we probably never will. To gain the attention of a Proctor & Gamble brand, or Samsung or an insurance giant, our sport would need to reach tens of millions via television. At the moment that doesn’t appear to be a likely possibility. So we’ll have to continue to work on cultivating corporate sponsors within our range and figure out how to live within our means.
Most of all, we should embrace the idea that what we love is more cooler than ever among our mainstream friends. Our passion is no longer considered to be “out there,” and that alone is a significant breakthrough.
Life is always filled with ups and downs. That inevitable truth spans every decade, every century. But make no mistake about it, these are good times for short-track racing. We should give ourselves permission to pause for a moment and enjoy it.