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 Columns & Editorials

March 11, 2000

Media and Stock Car Racing Fans

The Race Fans And the Spectators

Everybody knows what a race fan is right? Wrong! Let's see now, who really pays their money at the local short track on a weekend night in Florida? One group are the circle track combatants themselves, with their contingent of seconds wearing the team T-shirts and who are given the designation of crewman. Another group are the team owners, sponsors, or friends of the team owner, sponsor, driver or crew. Their job is to yell real loud and wave the car around the track as if that magical arm wave gives the car more momentum or something like that. And then there's all the kids who belong to one of the above.

At some tracks I've been to those folks above make up the majority of the attendees. I guess that's called making your money off the back gate. At some tracks the folks who comprise the above groups are what are called the 'family'. Not to be confused with the family with the names ending in vowels. That 'family' wouldn't tolerate some of the disrespect shown to senior members of the family. But that's another story.

Then there's the people, we'll call them spectators to keep this simple, who make up the rest of the crowd. If you ever really want an education on fandom, spend an evening in the main grandstand section of a local short track watching the watchers. Don't worry about what goes on out on the asphalt or dirt bullring. The real action is in the stands.

Bill Posey, former owner of Eau Gallie Speedway, racer, now a Florida State Representative, part time racer, and track broker for those seeking to cash in on the surging motorsports craze, or leave it because they've had enough, has the following to say: "To be successful on any level, the sport must continue to entertain. It is the promoter's job to see this is accomplished. Due to increased competition by other sources of entertainment, this job becomes more difficult each day. However, a promoter with an adequate knowledge about the spectator will be more successful in his efforts to entertain him."

Whether or not stock car racing is a sport or not is still open to debate in many quarters, but for now we'll leave it at that. But this word 'entertain' keeps popping up. Is it entertaining to watch 20 drivers tearing up their cars? Sure it is, at least for that group Bill Posey calls the "blood thirsty fan". A clean 25 lap race with no major mishaps or excesses of impatience, and a smiling driver in the winner's circle is not necessarily what they came to see. Mr. Posey says this group makes up about 1000 people out of the 2000 attendees of our mythical audience. He estimates the group I called the 'family' earlier will comprise around 400 of the 2000 fans on hand. The third group Bill Posey refers to is as being true sports fans. People who understand the fine points of racing and who enjoy good competition. They, according to Posey, "comprise about thirty percent", or 600 of our group of 2000. Read all of Bill Posey's expertise at http://www.race-tracks.net.

There's a speedway in Florida that I currently hold the honor of having had my press privileges revoked, but before demonic possession gripped the owner and forced him to issue the fatal edict to my ego, I had the opportunity to take perhaps 30 friends to the races there. They loved it! Gaga for weeks, "wow Jack that's the coolest thing I've done in years". Even got one guy hooked up as a crew member with a team, until he found out you could drink in the stands, but not with that nasty pit band and a crew T-shirt on. For him seeing cars hitting the wall at 75 miles a hour was more fun after downing a few of the track sponsor's beers. Amazing that the biggest contributor to a track is Budweiser. Until you remember the reason 1000 of the 'fans' are there.

Back to the folks I turned on to local Saturday night short track racing. They didn't come back after more than one or two times. Why? Did it cost too much? An emphatic no! Was there something innately more exciting to do? Were the rent- a-sheriffs too harsh? Was it too far to drive? Would they rather go to Disney world? No. No. No. And no!

It was too predictable, among other things. They saw that elusive devil called favoritism. There was a little too long a line to get a medium sized hot dog. There was perhaps a little too much idle time with nothing happening, like watching a movie that drags. But the most important reason was no body reminded them to go back. These were the actual words used by acquaintances when a year or so later they were asked why?

I guess advertising doesn't work.

Or perhaps there's more to selling the fans than throwing a few canned spots on the radio and running ads where folks are reading the golf results and baseball line scores.

Showmanship and Racing
Now at your track how many different people attend a race once or twice a year? How many make a half dozen races? How many go once or twice a month? How far are people willing to drive? What media do they read, see or come in contact with? Is a person who goes to your local track 3 or 4 times a season a race fan? Does he or she want to know about the drivers, or does she just want to see some hot fast dangerous action? That's right she. Look around the main grandstands and fan watch. Saturday night racing is not stag party. How many kids are there at your track?

"Obviously, auto racing's spectators are the backbone of the sport" sums up Bill Posey's point. Note he says spectators not fans or drivers. Perhaps a spectator is simply a potential fan who hasn't been reminded enough times to come back.

I wonder if P.T. Barnum would agree.

Speaking of old P.T. There's a guy up in Georgia somewhere who used to light up the night skies of one Florida speedway with his shenanigans. His name is Tom Stimus. He is a showman. The fact that he went broke had nothing to do with his showmanship, just as it nothing to do with P.T losing more fortunes than most people can dream. Stimus filled his speedway regularly. Bradenton. Ask around and many old time race promoters and even some drivers tell you he knew nothing about racing. So what? He filled the place and when you ask around, people who long since became bored with the weekly shows under the current ownership, will tell you enthusiastically how they loved going to Tom's Place, and it's just not the same now. Are the drivers and the racing any different? Probably not.

Stimus reminded people to come back. Incessantly and non-stop he gave spectators a reason to return to see the show.

Were they fans? Not necessarily. They were spectators who loved spending their hard earned dollars at Tom's Place because he put on a show. Big purses come from having lots of spectators. To keep spectators coming back you have to entertain them and then remind them to come back.

And the more you do that the more fans you make.

Bruton Smith, Founding Member of the NASCAR Moguls Club and his side kick Humpy Wheeler, recently started a new campaign at Charlotte Motor Speedway, (I refuse to call it Lowe's just like I refuse to credit Raymond James) called Fan's First. Even in the rarefied air of NASCAR there are people smart enough to know you don't just have to get them there, you have to get them back.

Fans and Spectators are Fickle
Of course having a lot passionate fans are your track, as opposed to causal spectators, presents problems of it's own. They don't necessarily agree with everything and being passionate, they tend to want answers, and want to complain about things they either don't understand or things they don't like. East Bay raceway has as passionate fan base as you'll find in Florida. Boy, can they present problems. Last year at the big "Run what you brung race" there was a near riot when the officials black flagged the majority of the large Street Stock field. The brouhaha went on for fifteen minutes with the flagman in fear for his life, as drivers and fans came uncomfortably close to storming the palace walls. But the fans come every week and cheer vociferously for their favorites and boo the drivers they are sure are clowns pretending to be race drivers. And spend their money. I wouldn't be surprised if the East Bay concessions some weeks exceed the gate receipts at a few tracks.

Fans are fickle, completely nuts at times, but they are the reason the speedway is open and running every Friday or Saturday night. The track isn't there to give guys and gals with a passion for speed a place to vent. It's not there to please the drivers, it's there to get spectators and fans to come watch the folks with a passion for high speed motorized competition, and spend their money. And if a speedway doesn't make sure the show is half decent and people are not treated in a friendly fashion, and asked repeatedly to come back, they won't continue to 'support' the track. And the track goes broke.

How do I know this?

It's real simple, I'm a fan.

Press, Promotion, and Money
The point of it all is that racing, even a local short track, is big business. Do the math. Really, don't be lazy if you made it this far. How many fans? How many drivers and crews paying the pit fees? How much are the fans, and drivers paying at your track? The concessions, perhaps tire sales, gas sales, photo sales. Then look around the track and count the billboards, how much are they bringing? You're on your own from here, but I will tell you flatly this is not an exercise in how much money owners are making!

Racing at local short tracks is a big operation. It takes a knowledgeable full time, hard working, dedicated promotion person with a myriad of skills to fill a track to capacity every weekend. Reminding people is big job. This is a horn I've been blowing for three years and has gotten me into more hot water in certain quarters than you can imagine. It in actual fact is what led to the creation of KARNAC.com

How can you run a multi-million dollar nearly year round entertainment facility without having a full time marketing person, and a full time PR and media assistant?

Well the truth is, you and I know it's being done at tracks in Florida and has been for years. But this is the very reason why the people who wring their hands to see their favorite driver in the Tampa Tribune, Miami Herald, or Lakeland Ledger are so frequentlydisappointed. Crime, blood, sex, violence, disaster, and other mean and terrible things are their editor's stock in trade.

Get real here. Read the 'round ball' stories. Do you think for one minute, these guys are going to treat your track like it was High School football alumni week year round?

This is a business! Daryl Strawberry getting busted for cocaine one more time gets bigger headlines than George Brett donating a bunch to charity. Find that story in small print in some rare 'goody two shoes' obscure magazine. See, when you open your doors to the CBSVD and other mean and terrible things than dominate the 'traditional media' you now have to be ready to fend off the negative publicity because they will print it every time there's a big ruckus in the pits.

And worse. Joe blow high school loser gets busted for the 14th time and goes to Juvenile Justice. It might get buried deep in some list farmed out from the Sheriffs Department that eventually made it into the hands of a writer or editor. But if that young man was a star on the football team, he would make front page sports, probably front page local, and maybe if blood was slow that day, he might be Front Page. It takes someone on your staff to deal with that kind of realism, and he or she usually has a name like Public Relations Director or something.

If you want your name in lights, you had better have a PR agent to keep you from getting burned. If you want good coverage in newspapers and television for racing at your local tracks be prepared to have your dirty laundry aired.

Some of the mild rebukes track owners, officials, and cheerleaders have received on Florida Stock Car Racing are child's play compared to the 'hatchet jobs' TV and newspapers will deliver if they start paying attention to your game.

Want capacity crowds at your track every week? It takes more skills than are currently being applied. Some of you will take this diatribe as a knock against your track, your hard working dedicated track workers. It is not, so get over it.

Public Relations, Marketing, and Press Agenting are not skills developed overnight. But they are vital to filling a speedway with fans and spectators every week. And good ones with the knowledge of the art and science of these subjects cost money.

It takes money to make money is more than a flippant phrase. And it most certainly takes money to make fans.

If you were owner of a Florida Speedway, would you spend it?

-Jack Smith

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