SBJ/20100517/This Week's News

Charlotte speedway president paying attention to low and high ends of ticket prices

The hum of race cars circling the track fills Marcus Smith’s corner office, serving as a constant reminder of his core business at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Smith, 37 years old and son of Speedway Motorsports Chairman Bruton Smith, is approaching the second anniversary of his appointment as the track’s president and chief operating officer for SMI. The University of North Carolina graduate oversees all aspects of SMI’s day-to-day business, which hasn’t been an easy job as the recession has taken a big bite out of SMI’s revenue. SMI’s first-quarter report earlier this month showed revenue shrank from $133 million in 2009 to $118 million this year. With two of his most important events approaching this month, the Sprint All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600, he recently sat down with staff writer Michael Smith.

What trends are you seeing on sponsorship, hospitality and other business aspects of the track?
I think things have finally started to turn the corner, thankfully. We’re seeing companies start to get back into entertaining and trackside marketing programs. We’ve filled a couple of holes [Coca-Cola, AAA, O’Reilly Auto Parts], so hopefully things have turned a corner and it’d be great once employment starts to turn around, too. … There’s been a perception in NASCAR that it’s really, really expensive, but we do have programs that not just big businesses can afford, but midsize and small businesses can afford as well. We also have to look at some nontraditional categories. The green industry is hot, so that’s an area where you could see some increases in sponsorship, hospitality and advertising. All properties are taking a closer look at those opportunities.

What do people want from hospitality these days?
As a company, you want to have something that is exciting for your customers or your employees or your sales team, but you also want to be affordable. That’s where we’ve had to look for different ways to help make a racing experience affordable for fans and groups. We’ve packaged tickets with coupons for concessions and a goodie bag with the sponsor’s hat and a keepsake from the race. We might skip the big tent and the formal sit-down portion and include a pit tour or concessions coupons for a hot dog and a Coke, and it cuts the costs tremendously when you do that.

There’s been intense discussion throughout the recession about the value proposition with tickets. Do you slash prices to entice more customers to come to the track or cling to the same prices, despite the economy?
For us, we’ve got to have more lower-priced tickets. At the same time, we’ve got to take care of our frontstretch ticket holders and the fans who are looking for the best experience possible. We’re providing more low-priced tickets. You can get a ticket to Sprint Cup races for $39 and there are also military and student discounts. That $39 ticket includes a Coke and a hot dog. On the higher end with our frontstretch tickets, we haven’t raised prices in a few years, but we’ve added more benefits. For our customers who buy more races, we’ve done things like our Victory Lane Club, which is a season-ticket program. Buy all three of our Sprint Cup events in Charlotte, you get automatic entry into Victory Lane Club. You get a Speedway hard card, 10 percent off at the gift shop year-round, dining privileges at the Speedway Club, special invitations to press conferences. … A lot of things have changed.

Is the racing doing its job to attract the fans?
The TV ratings have been impacted significantly by the weather we’ve had, but the racing has been great. It seems like the drivers are driving to win. As fans, we all love that. I wonder if the drivers have collectively heard that from fans, saying, “I’m tired of points racing. I want my driver to drive for the win.” Points are important, but points have nothing to do with why I go to the race that day. I can’t see a points race. I see that day’s race. Points racing is boring. Fans want to see their guy win the race.

Is racing suffering from Jimmie Johnson fatigue?
There are always people who root against No. 1 or root for the underdog. We’re not any different than when the Patriots were always winning in the NFL. Some people just don’t like the Patriots because they always win. Or the Yankees because they always win. Jimmie Johnson has a lot of fans in the stands, and there are a lot of 48 haters in the stands. If you back it up, there were a lot of people who couldn’t stand No. 3 and Earnhardt, and a lot of people who loved him. This is not uncharted territory. … There are definitely 48 haters out there. I spend hours every weekend at our races, driving the golf cart around, giving fans a ride. I always ask them who their favorite driver is (and sometimes they tell me which driver they don’t like). I ask them where they’re from, if they’ve been to a race before and how long they’ve been coming. I ask if they’re camping or staying at a hotel. I just want to know about their experiences coming to the track.

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