Track owner well aware of the affordability factor

Jenna Fryer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It's hard to find a hotel room near Bristol Motor Speedway on race weekend, and even harder to afford what is available.

The same room that goes for $259 a night with a three-night minimum during a Sprint Cup race was found through an Internet search for $65 a night during a midweek Car of Tomorrow test two years ago. It's gouging, it's outrageous and it prices many fans right out of the weekend.

But it's not NASCAR's fault, or the fault of the track operators.

In fact, contrary to popular belief, the hotel rates are not even within their control.

Fans are fairly vocal about the increased costs of attending a race, and during this current economic slump, many feel strongly that they've been out-priced by the sport that was once a family tradition. They blame a greedy NASCAR and direct their venom at chairman Brian France or track operators International Speedway Corp. and Speedway Motorsports Inc.

Alas, when it comes to that issue, the anger is misdirected.

NASCAR, the actual governing body, actually has no control over ticket and concession prices. That's left to the track owner, and it's never been more important than now for those operators to bend over backward to accommodate the race fans.

"If it's good for the fans, it's good for us,'' said Marcus Smith, president and CEO of Speedway Motorsports, which has 12 Sprint Cup races among seven tracks and wants a date for Kentucky Speedway.

It's Smith's job to fill stands across the country from New Hampshire to California, a task that requires concessions as race fans make hard choices on how to spend their entertainment dollars.

First up is battling the perception that attending a race is too expensive these days.

In Bristol, where corporate pullbacks made hard-to-get tickets available to fans for the first time in years, it is expensive. But there's not a whole lot SMI can do to change that. Hotel and motel operators in that area rely on the two race weekends a year for a significant portion of their annual income, and because demand for the rooms remains strong, they have little desire to work with the Speedway on lower-priced options.

"It is really tough, there are very few hotel rooms in those markets,'' Smith said. "The races are a tremendous shot in the arm for that economy, and it's something that a lot of those families are counting on.''

But Smith is going after other markets, particularly the area surrounding Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. With three races a year, Smith has a lot of tickets to sell. In one of his first tasks after replacing Humpy Wheeler as president and general manager of the track last summer, he worked with local operators to lower hotel rates.

The LMS Web site currently boasts a list of 80 hotels that agreed to lower their rates between 10 and 15 percent from what they charged a year ago, as well as drop the minimum-night stay requirement. Granted, the most affordable rooms are not actually in Concord. But there are decent choices and decent rates, and hey, it's a start.

While he can't set hotel prices, Smith has taken measures to make more affordable what he does control.

For example, there's a plastic seat with arm rests in Turn 2 of Lowe's Motor Speedway going for $25 for the All-Star race, and a family four-pack for the Coca-Cola 600 is being sold at $39.75 a seat, which includes one hot dog and one soda. The family pack is also offered at Atlanta, Texas and Infineon.

The most expensive ticket in the house, inside Lowe's lush speedway club, has been reduced to $199, and Smith argues that the same level seat at an NFL game would cost $250 or more. A layaway plan has been rolled out so fans can take their time buying the tickets of their choice, a discount was offered for season-ticket renewals and Smith claims concessions are comparable to other professional sports.

And, except for races at some of the newer tracks, fans are still permitted to bring in a small cooler with their own food and beverages.

There are public Fan Forums that non-ticketholders can attend, elaborate pre-race shows and concerts and a constant push to provide more for less.

"It's really not too expensive to go to a race anymore, in fact, it's never been a better time to be a race fan than this year,'' Smith said. "Most speedways are offering tickets as low as $25 to come to a Sprint Cup race; that's pretty strong.''

Some people will certainly argue that the bought discounted tickets for Atlanta were in an over-crowded Elliott Grandstand. Or they bought their tickets at regular price last year, and the guy sitting next to them paid half the price a month ago.

All valid.

But it's important to keep in mind that everyone in the country is adjusting right to the slumping economy, and track operators are doing their best to keep up with an ever-changing market. It's still their goal to present an affordable and entertaining event, but it's not practical or economical to offer a $10 fronstretch seat anymore.

Yet, because that's what many paid a decade or so ago to watch Dale Earnhardt battle Bill Elliott and Davey Allison and Ricky Rudd, some believe the inflation has out-priced the core fan base.

There are many who are just done with NASCAR altogether. Frustrated by the current racing and displeased with the new car, they are adamant that the sport they once loved has been irreparably ruined.

But there are still those who want to be present when Jeff Gordon returns to victory lane, and they want to see Michael Waltrip Racing become a competitive race team, or Bobby Labonte run up front. Some even want to show up just to root for Kyle Busch to wreck out of the race.

It may not be the Daytona 500 or the night race at Bristol, but even in these trying times, there's still affordable opportunities out there.

"Our sport was built on fan loyalty, and an access that other sports don't give,'' Smith said, "and we need to do more to add to the overall experience."