Minter: ‘Big Event’ Feel Is What Races Are Missing
By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
The Christmas/New Year’s holidays are times for reflection, and as I’ve listened to NASCAR radio shows and read stories on the Internet where “experts” weigh on what NASCAR needs to do to reinvigorate its fan base, I keep thinking back to an interview I did a couple of years ago with Ed Clark, the Atlanta Motor Speedway president.
As Clark and I talked that January day, during a tire test at his speedway, I came to realize just what it was that I really enjoyed about attending NASCAR races as a fan, long before I was going to races to write about them.
When I was just a teenager tagging along with some of my neighbors who were die-hard racing fans, going to a NASCAR race was much like going to the old Southeastern Fair in Atlanta. Races had a “big event” feel, and a good race was the topping on the cake. Things like the points standings didn’t really matter to me back then.
Going to races was even more special when the race was part of a holiday celebration, like Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte and Labor Day at Darlington or the Fourth of July at Daytona.
Now AMS has that Labor Day date, and it didn’t take long for AMS to begin feeling like Darlington once did on the first weekend of September.
That first Labor Day race at AMS, Clark saw a change long before the race car haulers arrived from Charlotte.
“The campers showed up way earlier than normal,” he said. “They came early, stayed late and had a big time.”
And as he mingled with the crowd, something Clark does at his track and at others too, he
discovered that much of excitement wasn’t directly related to the events on the track.
“The fans brought a lot of fun activities themselves,” Clark said. “Bruton (Smith, head of track-owner Speedway Motorsports Inc.) and I were riding around looking at stuff on Saturday, and he said, ‘You’ve got a state fair here, and a race is about to break out.’”
I suggested to Clark that he add to the state fair feel by building a chair lift over the speedway, so fans could ride high above the track while the cars were circling below. He laughed and said that wasn’t the first time that idea had been discussed.
It may happen some day. In fact, not lot after that Clark attended the State Fair of Texas, which not surprisingly is billed as the nation’s biggest, to gather ideas that could be incorporated at NASCAR venues.
“I don’t plan to do the exact same things they were doing, but it planted a seed for me,” Clark said of his research trip to Dallas.
Many a NASCAR promoter these days seems to be relying on things like the Chase and “Have at it, boys” to lure fans to their tracks. But even a couple of years ago, before TV ratings and track attendance really started to tumble, Clark had a good idea of what really makes fans want to book tickets to a race. And it doesn’t necessarily involve Kyle Busch or Jimmie Johnson, or even Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“The race is critical, but unless something unbelievably outstanding happens during the race,
what you’re going to remember is who you went with, and some of the weird things that happened and the overall fun you had,” Clark said.
For me, the most memorable race experience ever at AMS involved the designated driver’s idea to take a post-race detour across a recently cleared field in an attempt to beat the traffic.
As we bounced across that field, the left front tire of the truck hit a root, which bounced up and broke the fuel pump housing.
The most enterprising mechanic in the party figured out that we could use the truck’s floor mat and a wood wedge to jam the fuel pump back up against the engine block so it would pump just enough gas to get us home.
Ed Clark wouldn’t be surprised to know that I have no idea who won that race.
– Rick Minter can be reached at email@example.com Comments