INDIANAPOLIS — With a little bit of luck — a rare commodity lately — by now you have heard the sound of roaring engines at a track close to you, and your racing season has begun.
I write these words even as I realize that in parts of this country, normal life is a moving target, tied to things like infection rates, antibody tests and vaccine trials, terms that before this year had never appeared in the pages of SPEED SPORT.
COVID-19 changed everything.
In regions where tracks have come back to life — some with crowds capped by mandate, others shockingly packed — there have been waves of euphoria.
You hear those waves on telephone calls and see them in the social-media smiles of fans and racers. Those waves will only get louder as more states and counties relax their restrictions and speedways of all sizes reawaken.
But while we’re grinning about being back in the pits and the grandstands, let’s not lull ourselves into thinking that all is well. Even if this summer and fall unfold perfectly from a public-health standpoint — in other words, if this coronavirus does not come screaming back — we are still in choppy seas and the next waves that crash might not be gentle.
Consider all the households in which incomes have been cut in half, with the husband or the wife having lost a job, even temporarily. Then think about those cases in which the sole provider no longer has a paycheck.
Sure, even struggling fans will flock to a track’s opening race, and why not? They have missed the noise and the color. They have missed their heroes. They have missed the fellowship they feel when seated, even socially distanced, among like-minded fans at the local short track.
But will they keep coming? Can those on newly adjusted incomes afford weekly tickets or pit passes? If mom, dad and their two kids used to come to the track every Saturday, does that continue, or does the dad start coming with the dad next door, while the families stay home?
Has quarantining taught casual fans new ways to spend their weekends? Are the kids now so addicted to video games, and are their parents now so accustomed to mainlining Netflix, that they’ve all lost that fierce jones for late models, modifieds and sprint cars?
It’s a scary environment for the average promoter. There isn’t an industry workshop that explains how to rebound from a pandemic.
On the other hand, if we accept the fact that this mess was completely out of the promoter’s hands, we have to acknowledge there are still plenty of things he or she can control. Their handling of these things can have a very real effect on the bottom line this year and in 2021, ’22 and beyond.
The post-COVID short-track terrain will be rough. We don’t know if, or when, some fans will return. The promoter’s focus, therefore, must be on keeping those who are back, enticing new ones and maintaining a vibrant, buzzing venue for those sidelined fans who wander back as their personal economies recover.
We are going to find out soon who is up to the task. Every track operator did a lot of worrying during the first half of the year. The wise among them will have also used that time to examine and polish their weekly operations.
If I’m a promoter in the early laps of this reopening saga — or still awaiting my state’s green light — there are a few questions I’m asking myself. I owe it to my track and to my sport to give myself honest answers.
Have I done all I can to see that my race-night staff runs a well-paced program? A few dozen fans and a neighbor or two have complained about the show carrying on past midnight. Have I discussed this with my pit stewards? My flagman? My track crew? I can’t afford weary customers or disgruntled townsfolk right now.
Are the people coming to my track — contributing to its very future — having a good time? Is my place fun? If not, why not? Am I doing anything to keep the kids excited? Things like bicycle giveaways and driver autograph sessions work at other tracks. Why don’t we do that? And whatever happened to speedway clowns?
I can find a sponsor for the bike giveaway and maybe convince a clown that volunteering here will help him drum up other business. Happy kids have been dragging their parents to race tracks forever; am I missing out on that?
And how about the new fans? With so much on their minds these days and with a hundred other entertainment options available, am I doing what I can to hook them when they visit for the first time? Are my events easy to follow? Does the announcer explain the quirky things we die-hards take for granted: the flags, the qualifying procedure, the differences between similar-looking divisions? Does he identify the defending track champ, or the driver who just became a new dad? Does he at least point out where the restrooms are?
None of these things cost a penny, but down the road they might turn into dollars. One day, they may become what accountants call recurring revenue. And, as any promoter will tell you, recurring revenue cures almost anything.