WADE: Should Racing Series Work Together?

Susan Wade

SEATTLE — Shocking images of the poorly attended early-April NASCAR race at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway linger.

In the Austin American-Statesman during March, reporter Chris Bils described the IndyCar race at Circuit of The Americas by writing, “The racing captivated from start to finish” but “with the grandstands mostly empty.”

And drag-racing legend “Big Daddy” Don Garlits has lamented that beautiful zMAX Dragway at Charlotte, where the NHRA paid the first of its two annual visits in late April, usually doesn’t draw enough of a crowd to cover the light bill.

The three most popular forms of motorsports in this country have had trouble consistently packing their venues. The NHRA overall has fared much better than its circle-track counterparts but still has glaring gaps in the grandstands from time to time. While the on-track products in all racing series are strong and genuinely entertaining, the marketing shortcomings continue to present problems.

Here’s a suggestion that requires cooperation, flexibility, creativity and ego-squashing: a huge mash-up or maybe even a three-in-one motorsports event.

Only a few facilities could pull off the feat. Places such as Bristol Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway and zMAX Dragway; Route 66 Raceway and Chicagoland Speedway; and Worldwide Technology Raceway at Gateway in Madison, Ill.

Ryan Villopoto, a four-time Supercross champion, gets it. He contacted NASCAR headliner Jimmie Johnson to test his idea of piggybacking a pit bike race onto the Monster Energy Cup Series event at Chicagoland Speedway.

Track President Scott Paddock liked the idea, so that will happen during the June 27-30 weekend.

And somebody at zMAX Dragway got it in late April, facilitating an East10Drift exhibition during the spectacle of the NGK Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals. It offered spectacular, tire-shredding, smoke-churning drift demonstrations and ride-alongs.

But why not make it two powerhouse racing sanctions in one weekend? Why not, for example, move some dates around and bring NASCAR and NHRA to Bristol Dragway at the same time? Start with a Thursday Fan Fest, where NASCAR can take a cue from drag racers and mingle with ticket buyers.

NHRA racers love to meet fans, sign autographs and pose for photos. It’s what they do every single day of every race weekend.

NASCAR can qualify Friday and race Saturday while the drag strip is hopping with its own qualifying shows. Then NHRA can show off on Sunday with its eliminations. Charge fans one flat fee for both events and let them float back and forth between the circle track and drag strip. Include food trucks and make it one giant racing circus.

The mix-and-match pairings could combine a fall extravaganza at Gateway with NHRA drag racing and IndyCar open-wheel action. Or drag racing and NASCAR at Chicagoland — and include the pit bikes.

How about drag racing and across the street some NASCAR competition at Las Vegas? Maybe a NASCAR and an NTT IndyCar Series doubleheader at Texas Motor Speedway? Or how about some NHRA Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers exciting a NASCAR or IndyCar audience one night with some header flames and burnouts with some sort of Nitro Expo? Global Rallycross or World of Outlaws sprint cars could be included all on the same property throughout a single weekend.

Even if every sanctioning body agreed to the idea, it would take a couple of years to sort out the logistics. The negatives with this idea would be one or more of the three series wrangling about forfeiting a key race date. That’s solvable by setting egos aside.

Events like these should attract the attention of mainstream media outlets. Fans wouldn’t be hit up continually with the various series coming to the market. A facility might prefer to spread out its big-revenue races, but it would benefit from more fans coming to the track, more merchandise sales and significantly more concession revenue. Sponsors should love the added exposure.

With the right set of conditions, motorsports could make a big splash and remain relevant in the socio-economic clutter that is today’s sporting world. Think it’s a dumb idea? The late Mickey Thompson used to say, “When people tell you your idea is crazy, start selling tickets.”

How much buzz this cross-pollination would generate depends on how willing the decision-makers in the various sanctioning bodies are to try something fresh.