Creating new race fans
By Joe Verdegan
Just what does the future hold for weekly, short track racing in Wisconsin?
Yes, I realize this is a loaded question. It can go in many, many different directions with many components to consider.
I’ve attended one half dozen races locally so far this year by the time this column hits print. I’ve noticed a few things that I’d like to point out — things that I think are crucial to addressing very crucial points as to where the future of our great sport is headed.
The book signings I do for “Life In The Past Lane” are a great chance for me to catch up with old friends, many of whom I may not have seen over the years. With that said, it seems as if our “base” if you will of hardcore race fans is shrinking.
The Derek Sabourin’s, Bob Schafer’s and Russ Reiben’s of the world are few and far between. Those are guys from Oshkosh (and those are just three that come to mind off the top of my head) who would attend races seven nights a week if they could. I know Bob almost does in the middle of the summer.
My point with that is we’re losing those guys. They are either dying off or finding other interests later in life. Those three, even 15 or 20 years ago, weekly track promoters could almost virtually count on to be a part of their “front gate” (i.e. the paid adults who make up the grandstand sales). There were a lot more of the Derek Sabourin’s, Bob Schafer’s and Russ Reiben’s around.
How do you get those guys back, or cultivate new fans? It’s by far the biggest challenge we face in the short track racing industry. Never before have weekly track promoters had to work so much harder to get so many fewer fans in the stands.
To start with, racing promoters have to battle so many more elements than years prior. It seems in the meat of the summer every little community tucked either up the peninsula of Door County, the Fox Valley or even west headed out of Seymour has some sort of festival, picnic or concert going on. Young people, who are enslaven to their personal, mobile devices (I must also plead guilty to that at times) often couldn’t care less to go to the races, UNLESS they personally know someone who races.
I remember having a conversation with Lowell and Braison Bennett during the NEW MOTORAMA show in Green Bay the first weekend of April. Lowell said it best when he said “it’s to the point now where if you’re a teenager and you didn’t grow up with the sport like Braison did, you don’t really have any interest.” He’s spot on with that commentary.
Add in the fact that most high schools don’t offer any type of auto shop class and there is little interest in kids who want to tinker with stuff. Learning how to weld and fabricate.
It doesn’t seem like car counts are a problem. Currently, like any other year, the stronger tracks have stronger car counts. Fan attendance is often contingent upon the weather (which in late May – early to mid June has been less-than-stellar for track promoters).
And crowds? It depends where you go perhaps. 141 Speedway seems to draw well in that department. Shawano Speedway’s opener drew the largest crowd I’ve ever witnessed there and WIR on Thursday nights is still almost like a “beer garden” type atmosphere, and always seems to draw many young adults who just want to mingle with their friends.
So what can we do to combat this? Programs like the “Racer’s Ed” that Ryan Johnson has going on at Luxemburg Speedway is a great way to attempt to get young men and women into the sport of racing. But mostly just do your best to bring somebody new to the races – someone who’s never attended a short track race before. Unlike a NASCAR race you most often don’t have to pay to park, and you won’t have to take out a second mortgage to bring a family of four to the races. The action on the track is without question much, much better than anything you’ll see in NASCAR-land on television.
Whether it’s Shawano Speedway’s famous popcorn, 141 Speedway’s steak sandwich or WIR’s Haen Meat products from just across the street, rest assured if you bring someone new to the track they’ll have a good experience and hopefully will want to come back again, and again, and again.
On June 5 Dave Deprey and the world famous race fan 6er made a game day decision to head down to Angell Park Speedway for the IRA Sprint Car Series show.
For me personally Angell Park was another track for me to knock off my bucket list. I had only read about the track and its drivers as a kid when I’d rush to the mailbox on Wednesdays or Thursdays to get my copies of both the Midwest Racing News and the Checkered Flag Racing News (RIP). Yes, there are still a number of tracks in Wisconsin that I haven’t been able to get to yet. Angell Park is one of them.
Rich with history, it’s been the home of the Badger Midgets. It’s located in Sun Prairie, a stones throw from Madison. The track has been run by the city’s fire department since 1903. The Badger Midget Auto Racing Association (BMARA) is the oldest midget organization in the world.
It’s a very round, third-mile clay oval. Recently the inner guardail had been removed which prompted veteran IRA Sprint Car promoter Steve Sinclair to start hosting events there. In the past they’ve co sanctioned some USAC events.
Some big names have raced at that joint over the years, including Jeff Gordon, Rich Vogler, Kevin Doty, The Unsers, Tom Bigelow, Stan Fox, Pancho Carter, Kevin Olson, Mel Kenyon and most recently Rico Abreau.
It’s got a really cool pavilion and Angell Park is the host of the National Midget Racing Hall of Fame. Tons of history and nostalgia.
I’m not a huge open wheel fan but I’ve got to admit it was awesome and if you’re a dirt track fan at all you should make an effort to check Angell Park off the bucket list. The race fans there were hungry, as the bundles of Full Throttle magazines we put out in the pavilion got gobbled up in no time.
Twenty nine IRA sprinters were on hand. They had rained out the night before at Cedar Lake Speedway.
“I drove six and a half hours on the way there and they called the races when I was five minutes away from the track,” lamented Sinclair. He’s been doing this racing thing long enough so his comment was almost tounge-in-cheek. He gets it.
There were 16 Midgets on hand with the Legends cars also running as a support class. We got to see hot laps, and maybe three or four sprinters qualify before the rains came. Truthfully the forecast prior to the races didn’t look all that ominous. However as we in Wisconsin already know Mother Nature can throw her change up in a quick hurry.
One notable thing about the crowd at Sun Prairie is it was a very “seasoned” bunch. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. Many folks who were proudly sporting Angell Park Speedway caps, jackets and t-shirts were graying, and older.
And with that we revert back to what we were talking about earlier at the top of this column — growing new race fans. It’s a new tech-saavy, not-wanting-to-get-our-hands-dirty type Millenium generation.
That makes the advertising/marketing game even more difficult. Years ago it was simple. You ran ads in MRN and CFRN, ran some bigger ads in your weekly or daily hometown paper, maybe run an ad schedule on the local radio station and you were good. The show (and the racing itself) sold itself. There were only one or two classes. The sport was more affordable. Tracks weren’t crushed for time and really got to play out the “hero” and “villain” roles.
When a track has 175 cars for a weekly show (as 141 Speedway did June 4) you don’t have much time to really hype stuff up. Not knocking 141 at all — that’s an amazing number of cars for a weekly show as the stars aligned that night.
But with six divisions it’s too many. WIR, with the addition of the Outlaw Late Model class, some nights will have seven classes. At what point do you say there are too many divisions?
However on the flip side of things, to play Devil’s advocate on the promoter’s side of things with an ever-diminishing front gate, promoters have almost been forced to look to boost the back gate to make ends meet — almost out of necessity.
(This article appeared in the August 2016 issue of Full Throttle magazine.)