NASCAR & Auto Racing

Economic downturn has NASCAR fans feeling the pinch

KANSAS CITY, Kan. —Pat and Renee Kasselman had to make a painful decision this fall.

Which race at Kansas Speedway would the die-hard fans give up?

"We'll be there Saturday, but we're not going to be there for the Sunday race because it's too expensive to do both," said Renee Kasselman of Ellinwood, who makes the four-hour trek with her husband, Pat, each year.

Across the country, racetracks have felt the impact of the struggling economy as corporate sponsorships and attendance have slumped and even the most loyal fans have been forced to make hard choices.

Kansas Speedway is no exception. With tickets still available for Sunday's Sprint Car race, there's a chance that attendance may not reach capacity — a rarity since the track opened in 2001.

Track officials don't release attendance or ticket sales figures but said they expected a good turnout for the Nationwide Kansas Lottery 300 on Saturday and the Sprint Cup Price Chopper 400 on Sunday. Grandstand capacity is about 82,000, but viewing from motor homes and campers can add another 20,000.

"Yes, there are still tickets available," said Kelly Hale, senior manager of public relations for Kansas Speedway. "I don't know what our exact numbers look like, but I think you'll see a tremendous crowd out here. The area loves racing, and they love NASCAR."

There's no denying, however, that the numbers are down.

In July, the International Speedway Corp. reported that for the six months of its fiscal year, which ended May 31, total revenues were $318.5 million compared with $368.8 million in the same period in 2008. The corporation operates a dozen tracks across the country, including Kansas Speedway.

And some tracks haven't been getting the sellouts they once could count on.

But racing officials say NASCAR has weathered the storm well. Bristol Motor Speedway sold out its Aug. 22 Sprint Cup race for the 55th time in a row. Richmond International Raceway sold out Sept. 12, and New Hampshire Motor Speedway sold out on Sept. 20 for the 30th straight time.

"This year, obviously, everyone has seen changes in attendance, but we're still averaging about 110,000 fans per event," said NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston. "Two or three years ago, the average was closer to 120,000. But given where we are in the country with the economy, we think this shows how strong NASCAR is. To keep hitting those numbers is very reassuring."

Racetracks have responded to the economic downturn by offering better deals and incentives, such as lowering prices on food and tickets, providing more interaction between the fans and the drivers, and working with local businesses on entertainment packages.

Kansas Speedway, for example, is considering a change in the way it sells tickets. Instead of requiring fans to buy season tickets for both major race weekends, it may allow them to buy tickets separately for each weekend.

At Dover International Speedway in Delaware, ticket prices haven't increased in five years.

"What we've been really focusing on is adding more attractions for the fans, providing them with more of an experience when they come to the track," said Gary Camp, spokesman for Dover.

The speedway recently built a five-story "Monster Monument" — a larger-than-life sculpture of Dover's signature icon Miles the Monster — to greet fans on the back side of the track. Other fan-oriented activities include live music, concerts, autograph sessions and a question-and-answer period with drivers before the race, he said.

Even so, the Sept. 27 race wasn't a sellout, with NASCAR estimating attendance at 110,000 in the 135,000-capacity stadium.

"Ticket sales have been a little bit soft, given the economy," Camp said. "But we were pleased with the outcome."

Fred Neergaard, spokesman for New Hampshire Motor Speedway, said its recent sellout didn't come easily.

"The week of the race, we had about 500 tickets left," he said. "They went, but right under the wire. The fans are watching their pennies and waiting until the last minute."

Neergard said some corporations have stopped buying large blocks of tickets, "but our fans, who are very loyal in this area, have stepped up and really filled the void."

At Bristol Motor Speedway, "our dynamic has changed," spokesman Kevin Triplett said.

"We had a lot of corporate sponsors actually cut their allocation because of the economy, so a lot of fans who had been wanting to come to our race for years but hadn't been able to get tickets actually had that opportunity," he said.

But even though they had a sellout in August, Triplett said, it took a lot of effort — and money.

"We've had to spend more in advertising than we ever have," he said. "We haven't advertised Cup tickets in 13 years. But we had to do that."

Like others, Triplett said, the speedway has come up with creative ways to add value to fans' weekend, such as a 35-lap race featuring retired drivers.

"We also had drivers sitting on stage answering questions for fans, we had video games, we had a Wii boxing tournament among some of the drivers," he said. "And all of that was free.

"In this environment we're in, people are just more discriminatory with their dollar. It's not that they don't want to come, it's 'What am I getting for it?' So we have to work toward that."

Kansas Speedway hasn't lowered ticket prices, Hale said, but has reduced the costs of some food items. The track now allows fans to bring small, soft-sided coolers containing food and drinks into the stadium as well, she said.

Hale said the Speedway also is helping The Legends promote a free outdoor concert for race fans Saturday night featuring country music singer Mark Chesnutt.

"We thought a country concert would appeal to the race fans," said Amy Kraft, marketing director for The Legends. "We're working closely with Kansas Speedway this year. That's something we've never done before."

The Legends also is setting up an outdoor entertainment district on Saturday night, complete with beer gardens.

Kraft said race weekends have been great for business at The Legends, despite the economic slump.

"Every year, it seems like more and more of the race fans are finding out about us, so every year since we opened, we've been seeing an increase," she said.

As tickets continue to be sold for Saturday and Sunday's races, some brokers said they haven't been affected by the economy as much as they'd expected.

"The economy has hurt a little bit, but not a lot," said Hal Wagner, owner of Ace Sports NASCAR and Tickets at Oak Park Mall. His main concern about Sunday's race, Wagner said, was that it was scheduled the same day as the Kansas City Chiefs home game against the New York Giants.

"We felt that was really going to kill our chances of selling the NASCAR tickets," he said. "But in light of the Chiefs' 0-3 start, the NASCAR race is red-hot."

Hard-core race fans said they still would be at the races this weekend, but some said they were making sacrifices in order to attend.

"We'd considered not coming at all, but my husband found the tickets online at face value," Renee Kasselman said. "And we're staying in Lawrence this year instead of Topeka, because we found a cheaper place."

Instead of dining out, the Kasselmans will save some bucks by tailgating in the parking lot.

"We take our little barbecue grill with us and we'll cook out there," Kasselman said. "We'll probably just have some brats and chips."

Bruce Werts, of Russell, Iowa, will be attending the races with a group of 10 who travel to Kansas City on an old tour bus.

"It's taken a little bit longer to save up the money to go this year than in years past, but we're still going to the races both days and staying at the same place," he said. "This is something we've planned on for a long time."