Trade Shows Indicate Shift of Interest For Racers?
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
The popular notion about automobile racing in the United States is that the sport has peaked and is currently in a state of contraction. And when it comes to the top tier of racing – the kind featured in big media – that may be true.
But some connected to the sport think that racing may only be shape shifting. Some think that while racing may be hurting in terms of being a spectator sport, it’s getting stronger as a participatory endeavor.
They point to the strength of activities like club racing and after-market performance tuning. And they point to the huge current interest in automobile-oriented trade shows like SEMA in Las Vegas and the Performance Racing Industry in Orlando.
Despite a welcomed late-season ratings spike for the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, there can be little doubt that interest in big-time auto racing has waned over the last four or five years. Large blocks of grandstand seats at events for all of the major American series sit empty – even at places like Bristol, Talladega and Indianapolis.
Nielsen numbers also have been on the decline for the most part.
All this from a sport which not that long ago appeared destined to throw a net over the NFL and its popularity.
Steve Lewis, producer of the PRI show, which is currently under way in Central Florida, has been
around racing a long time – as everything from a marketer to the owner of the Nine Racing team which helped launch the careers of such drivers as Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne.
He has observed the fluctuating condition of the sport.
“Racing is in a state it has never been in kind of since the beginning,” Lewis said. “This world-wide economic situation has touched racing and they are having to deal with something that they have never had to deal with since the buzzing around race tracks in the early 1900s. I don’t know if it’s dying as much as going through a process of trying to figure out how can teams operated with reduced budgets, how can racing organizations deal with reduced sponsorships and they’re going through that.
“Obviously, the economy has hurt the major series.”
And not just the major series. But, Lewis said, the “grass-roots level” of racing remains relatively strong.
The grass roots-level Lewis is talking about encompasses everything from Saturday night short track racing to informal club racing and driving experience events.
With large numbers – perhaps growing numbers – of people involved in making cars go fast on tracks and, yes, streets, the speed industry appears to be shifting its emphasis.
“There’s still a strong number of people who are willing and wanting to race,” Lewis said. “So whether you’re a company like Performance Friction, Eibach Springs, CV Products, they are now somewhat redirecting their marketing efforts.”
SEMA has become a monster for speed product markets.
Della Domingo, public relations direcotor of SEMA, says that that 2011 show, which recently was held in Vegas, attracted more exhibitors and attendees than last year.
“We had more than 132,000 total attendees, and 2,100 exhibiting companies,” Domingo said. “While we’re proud of these numbers, we’re more proud of the feedback that we’ve gotten from both exhibitors and buyers. We really try to focus more on quality rather than quantity, and based on the feedback we received, the quality of business was very good. Buyers came to the SEMA Show to do business, and exhibitors had lots of new products to debut. It was truly an exciting event.”
And Lewis says PRI is monstering up. It opened on Thursday and crowds were big and customers were buying.
“Opening day was fantastic,” said Jeff Clark, of Roush-Yates Engines. “We had a great turnout with
people in our booth. The racers are asking very good questions on the engines and on the parts. We’ve definitely been able to grow our business from this. The whole Roush-Yates initiative is branching out to drag racing, late-model, sprints, off-road truck, dirt late-models, dirt modifieds. We’re engine builders and there are racers here at every grass-roots level and we have an engine for those racers.”
It’s not just the semi-pros who are showing strong interest in speed.
Amateur racers are also turning up at tracks in large numbers. They are turning up to participate in club races, driving experience events, informal outings, autocross events.
“There is still a desire out there to improve the performance of cars,” Lewis said.
While pro racing is having trouble filling seats, American race tracks are not having much trouble filling dates. Demand is high for track time from the amateur performance sector is high.
Gill Campbell, CEO of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, said that her track is in use 364 days a year – with the only day off being Christmas.
The interest in speed and performance has even spawned a rash of construction of private club facilities.
Sam Gee, of the Promoters and Owners Convention at PRI, said, “Right now, more country club race tracks are being built than any other type of facility in the U.S. They’re replacing the golf country clubs. Gentlemen racers pay a fee to join and they’ll garage their cars at the club. They’ll be maintained there and the members can basically show up and drive without the worries.”
The nature of the cars and equipment getting attention from grass roots enthusiasts is also changing. The trend in performance these days seems to be away from big American sedans and toward smaller sports cars and hot hatches.
“They are wanting to race these things,” Lewis said. “Either they are racing them at time trials or racing them on the drag strip so that market has some validity. I saw in some of the booths (at PRI), Fiat 500s. I’ve never seen a 500 in a show. They’re putting Brembo brakes on, different wheels and it’s race stuff and not as much cosmetic.”
All racing started out as grass roots. And, 60 and 70 years ago, those grass roots blossomed into NASCAR, IndyCar and the NHRA.
At least one major manufacturer seems to think that the current grass roots movement could/should grow into a more vibrant professional scene.
Jamie Allison, director of Ford North America Racing, would love to see NASCAR nurture interest in the grass roots and tuner enthusiasts.
“I think there’s one more platform that we, together with the sport (of NASCAR)” needs to explore, Allison said. That “is small, fuel-efficient cars The U.S. landscape, the buying public, is increasingly favoring these small, fuel-efficient cars.”
Over 40,000 racing business people from all 50 states, and 65 countries, are expected to be in attendance this year’s PRI, which, Lewis said, got off to a super strong start this week.
“We had a standing room crowd of more than 3,500 for breakfast,”he said. “The show floor was packed, the aisles are full and everyone was happy. Our registration people upfront were about ready to pass out from making so many badges. It was a great first day.”
Imagine that; the word “great” used in connection with something pertaining to American auto racing in 2011.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at email@example.com Comments