SBJ/December 19-25, 2011/Facilities

Tracks push harder for events beyond racing

Holiday events also help generate revenue while targeting new ticket buyers

As the Thompson family’s Honda minivan rounded a dark road outside Charlotte Motor Speedway on a recent evening, Brayden Stille’s eyes widened and absorbed the glow of blinking red, green and white Christmas lights.

“Holy smokes!” Stille said as he digested the sight of a 20-by-30-foot block of lights in the shape of a Candyland Candy Factory.

His friend and neighbor, Tyler Thompson, 6, poked Stille and pointed at the zMax Dragway on the other side of the van. Etched into the darkness in a Technicolor display were the images of Christmas: A partridge in a pear tree, two turtle doves, three French hens, four calling birds.

Charlotte Motor Speedway created its own Christmas tradition with an annual light show.
Photo by: HAROLD HINSON PHOTOGRAPHY
“Five golden rings,” Tyler sang.

Visiting Charlotte Motor Speedway has become a December tradition for the Thompson family. The Harrisburg, N.C., residents have spent a night the last two years winding their way through the grounds outside the racetrack and into the infield for a live nativity scene. They are just a handful of some 200,000 visitors who will spend $20 to see 2 million LED lights erected by the speedway this Christmas.

The light show, which is taking place at six of eight Speedway Motorsports Inc. racetracks this month, is emblematic of a broader effort tracks have undertaken in recent years. As the economy challenges their business, dampening attendance at races and forcing cuts in ticket prices, speedways increasingly are adding non-motorsports events to their calendar in order to drive revenue and find new ticket buyers.

Hosting such events has long been a priority at racetracks nationwide, but the frequency and scale has picked up.

“There’s more interest across the board in alternative events,” said Michael Printup, president of Watkins Glen International, which spent two years lobbying the local community to allow it to host a series of Phish concerts this year. “What really tipped people was looking and saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute. I’m not selling out like I was in the ’90s.’ They’re looking at their venues and trying to figure out what else they can do to make some money.”

The history of the Christmas light shows brightening SMI tracks nationwide can be traced to Bristol Motor Speedway. Former track President Jeff Byrd wanted to create a fundraiser for the Bristol Chapter of Speedway Children’s Charities and decided to do a Christmas light show inside the racetrack. The event started 15 years ago and continues today. It has helped raise more than $6.5 million for the charity.

SMI President Marcus Smith borrowed the idea for Charlotte Motor Speedway last year. He partnered with a local event company, Miller Davis, and the Christmas lighting company Winterland Inc. to set up 500 LED light displays at the track and charged visitors who toured $20 a vehicle.

Over 42 days in 2010, speedway officials estimate 200,000 people visited. They expect more visitors this year. Their biggest night to date brought in 2,500 vehicles and generated more than $50,000 over a little more than three hours — during a time when the speedway would usually be dark and closed.

Smith said that the event hasn’t been a big boost to the speedway’s bottom line but it succeeded in attracting a lot of visitors and exposing them to the track. “We have seen people that have come out to the Christmas show last year that came back and tried a race in May and October,” he said.

For that reason, SMI added light shows at New Hampshire, Texas, Las Vegas and Atlanta this year. Smith said the tracks don’t collect data on each visitor unless they buy advance tickets online, but SMI is thinking of ways to collect information from visitors who come out for the Christmas shows.

Smith said SMI tracks constantly look for non-motorsports events. Perhaps none was more successful than Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which this year hosted the Electric Daisy Carnival, a massive electronic music festival. The event brought 230,000 people out to the track over three days last summer. Festival organizers paid to rent the facility, and LVMS kept concession sales, helping push total revenue into the low seven figures. But the upside wasn’t just financial. The show also exposed the facility to a huge swath of young people, a demographic NASCAR has had a difficult time reaching in recent years.

“Our goal was to take care of everything around the facility and how they interacted with the different services so that they walked away from here feeling good about the experience,” said Kevin Camper, LVMS senior vice president of sales and marketing. “Hopefully that drives NASCAR revenue next year, 10 years or 20 years from now.”

Auto Club Speedway has played host to Festival Cardenas since 2007.
Photo by: AUTO CLUB SPEEDWAY
Using non-motorsports events to attract nontraditional motorsports fans has been a staple for the last five years at California’s Auto Club Speedway, which is owned by International Speedway Corp. The track began renting its grounds to a local Latino grocery chain, Cardenas, for a festival in 2007. The track doesn’t have hard data on the number of people who have returned for races, but it has helped increase attendance for races.

“I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and said, ‘We came here for the Cardenas event,’ and they keep coming back,” said Auto Club Speedway President Gillian Zucker. “It’s how they’re introduced to the speedway.”

Auto Club’s sister track in Kansas hosted its first music festival, Kanrocksas, in August and discovered a similar upside with a different demographic. The festival, which featured Eminem, The Black Keys, The Flaming Lips, Muse and others, attracted 70,000 spectators over two days. Most of them were in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic.

Like LVMS, the speedway rented the facility and kept concession revenue. It also oversaw the sale of a presenting sponsorship for the event: Samsung bought those rights and used them to promote a new phone.

Chris Schwartz, Kansas Speedway vice president of marketing and sales, said the track set up show cars and simulators and sent out members of its staff to collect names and information from people attending the concerts. He said the track sold hundreds of tickets to its fall race as a direct result of those “name generation” efforts, and he believes it will land Samsung as a facility partner or suite buyer in 2012.

Other tracks are courting concert promoters and other events for similar reasons. Pocono Raceway President and CEO Brandon Igdalsky has reached an agreement for a half-dozen new events in 2012 and hopes to add six more.

“Running a stadium is not as cheap as it once was,” Igdalsky said. “With taxes and the costs of operations now, it’s harder, and if we can, we add [an event] to offset those costs.”

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