Craig Murto: Challenges of owning track

Craig Murto

 

 

Few things in motorsports are as challenging as owning a racetrack.

From the demographics of a track’s regional market, to simply hoping the rain stays away and the races run on time, there are plenty of things that weigh on the minds of owners of today’s short tracks.

Michael Diaz is the owner of Southern National Motorsports Park, near Kenly, North Carolina. The 0.4-mile high-banked oval first opened in 1993, but by 2009 fell on hard times. Diaz bought the track in 2011 and has opened the facility every year since.

“All of it’s a challenge,” Diaz observed. “Rules, finding the right staff for tech, promotion … you have to find the right way to reach your market in your area.

“Scheduling can also be a challenge,” he continued. “From my track there are 14 other tracks within four hours, so we try not to schedule events that step all over other tracks’ shows.”

And with the car culture changing, it’s difficult to find rules for entry-level classes that encourage racers to build their own cars, Diaz noted.

“I have an ‘any car’ division, where you can basically race anything you bring to the track,” Diaz said. “All it requires is a hoop bar. But I’m lucky to get seven cars each week.”

Nick Igdalsky is the Chief Executive Officer for Pocono Raceway, which owns Virginia’s South Boston Speedway. From the perspective of a track owner, Igdalsky believes the greatest challenge to any track is competition for the entertainment dollar.

When Old Dominion Speedway in Manassas closed, race fans lamented the closure of yet another legendary facility. But owner Steve Britt promised he would build a new racetrack. True to his word, Dominion Raceway and Entertainment opened a couple years ago, including a state-of-the-art 0.4-mile oval.

But Britt has concern for his latest venture citing his greatest challenge as “dwindling fan and car counts.”

“It’s the same almost everywhere, and the solution’s not readily apparent as I don’t think any magic bullet has been developed to positively change direction,” Britt said.

“What we lack on the fan side is engagement, and the simple fact that millennials are experience-based vs. spectator,” Britt observed. “Asking millennials to sit in a seat for hours and watch cars go ’round isn’t a model that works well for them. To keep their interest we have to build more modern facilities that allow more social function and interaction. We need more engagement with them through video and social media options including that engagement at the tracks through those mediums, especially on race day.

“We need more activities during cautions to keep them engaged and entertained. They are an intense group and used to constant stimulation/interaction that experienced-based activities provide vs. spectator. I don’t think this is news to anyone, but I don’t feel like the sport as a whole has really gotten behind this issue and offered solutions. That means that our sport continues to rely on an aging base that enjoys the existing model, however that will not provide growth in our industry.”

On the fan side, Dominion raceway actively attempts to be the solution. It has a restaurant and bar built into the grandstands, as well as a large video screen on which spectators’ social media posts are displayed and music videos are shown during delays in the racing action. But Britt also sees challenges in the pits.

“Car counts,” he said. “Some of this is a reflection of the offering as an experience, but also it’s about cost. Need to keep costs low and increase the technology. Most millennials don’t know what a carburetor is and old tech provides the basis for most of our race cars. We need more modern componentry and sophistication to gain their interest. All of our divisions at every level are expensive to run a full season and employ old technology. The cost and the car design currently are a disincentive to get first-timers involved in the sport at this level.”

But it’s not all bad.

“On a positive note, every Saturday I still see families enjoying themselves and race teams competing at a very high level,” Britt noted. “The passion for the sport still lives on and the racing at all levels is simply fantastic. I hope we can all find ways to attract new fans and racers to the sport and that facilities can invent new ways to attract revenue.”