The view from my couch

State of the Sport - Part 3

January 19, 2003

This is the third in a series of articles discussing the current state of NASCAR.

Just Plain Greed

I discovered NASCAR in 1988 when it was just beginning it's phenomenal growth. During the last fifteen years, I've seen ticket prices skyrocket. The first race I attended was at Richmond in 1988. I drove down to Richmond and bought a general admission ticket which only cost $20. Granted it wasn't a great seat, but at that time, at least you could still show up at a track and buy a reasonably priced ticket on race day. Now, at almost every track, you must reserve and pay for your tickets nine to twelve months in advance. And the prices at tracks have soared to over a hundred dollars a seat at many tracks.

Yes, I studied economics in college and I know all about the law of supply and demand. But in the last few years, NASCAR, track owners, and TV appear to have taken this theory to the extreme. I don't begrudge the track owners making a sizeable profit on their investments, but NASCAR seems to have completely forgotten about their blue collar roots. They seem to have forgotten that their sport grew to where it is today because the average working person could spend a reasonable amount of money to attend a race. These days, if an average working family wants to go to a race, they must save up for it all year long.

It doesn't seem enough that the companies hosting most of the NASCAR races, International Speedway Corporation (ISC) and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (SMI) have expanded the series to tracks which seat on an average of 100,000 fans. They are not only selling more seats, but they are charging an average of $80 for each seat. Is this another negative result of the companies now being publicly-owned and accountable to stockholders? Not only are the France family and Bruton Smith (majority owners of ISC and SMI) making a fortune on NASCAR, but the stockholders are as well.

More money for the stockholders brings me to what many call "the cooler rules" and something that I think best epitomizes the term "just plain greed". This is a personal pet peeve of mine. Besides the lower ticket prices we saw up until a few years ago, fans were free to carry in a cooler containing food and beverages to all NASCAR events. They were also able to bring in a tote bag or backpack containing race scanners, headphones, binoculars, seat cushions and rain gear. At least if a family had to save up to buy those outrageously priced tickets, they could still save a little money by carrying in their own food and beverage and other amenities to enhance their racing experience. If they didn't choose to do so, they had the option of purchasing a variety of food, sodas and beer from the track itself or renting scanners from a trackside vendor. These items were high priced, but at least fans had an option not to pay $4.50-$6.00 for a beer or soda or $5 for a hamburger. In addition, the nature of racing does not provide timely breaks to stand in a concession line. So fans who didn't want to miss any of the racing action chose to bring in a cooler with their own food and beverages.

With the expansion into new markets in the last few years, fans in areas starved for racing also found that these new tracks were changing these traditions or if they were the coveted "new fan," they did not even know that a tradition was being lost. New tracks like Las Vegas and Homestead Speedways totally banned coolers from the time they opened their doors. Fans were still allowed to bring in their scanners and tote bags. New ISC tracks, such as Chicagoland and Kansas Speedway didn't allow fans to bring in anything except one bottle of water. So if fans got hot and needed anything else to drink, they had to pay around $3.00 for something as simple as water. If they wanted to enjoy a scanner, they had to pay to rent one, and from a vendor that coincidentally paid a large fee to ISC to provide that service.

After the tragedies of September 11, 2001, ISC came up with another idea to increase their profits even more. They announced a total ban of coolers and any other type of bag at all ISC facilities. ISC claimed they could not guarantee the safety of fans bringing in camera cases, scanner bags or coolers. ISC explained they didn't have the staff to adequately search these items, so the easiest thing to do was ban them entirely. Of course, ISC told us they had plenty of food and beverages available for fans to buy. They also claimed they would significantly reduce the prices to compensate for the inconvenience. What this amounted to was reducing the prices about 50 cents an item.

I have also heard that in early 2001 the profits were down for Americrown, the branch of ISC which provides the concessions at their race tracks. Many fans find it very interesting that when the profits for one part of ISC drop, all of a sudden the policies concerning fans bringing in their own food and beverages is severely restricted. Again, this just leads fans to believe that ISC is using the tragedies of 9/11 as an excuse to increase its own profits.

In the Fall of 2001, fans were outraged by the fact that ISC was using a tragedy as an opportunity to make more money by forcing fans to buy their food and beverages from the track at exorbitant prices. Fans immediately threatened to boycott ISC tracks because of this policy, particularly since all non ISC-owned tracks had no such policies. These include all SMI-owned tracks as well as Martinsville, Pocono, Dover and New Hampshire. These tracks somehow were able to ensure fans security while still allowing fans to bring the usual 14-inch, hard-sided coolers and other convenience items fans had always carried to the races. When ISC saw the possibility of fans boycotting their tracks because of their absurd "cooler policy", they quickly backpedaled and said that fans could still bring food and beverages into their tracks, but only in a soft-sided bag no larger than 6 X 6 X 12 inches. They would, however, have plenty of food and beverages available for fans to buy if they chose not to be hassled with these small bags.

Let me also explain that these so-called coolers are not watertight or insulted enough to prevent ice from melting after a couple of hours. Now most of these soft-sided coolers come with a plastic insert that adds a little insulation, but more importantly prevents leakage. ISC said that fans must remove this plastic liner before entering their tracks because it presents a security risk. A thin plastic liner is a security risk? At last fall's Rockingham race, on a chilly day, fans were forced to sit in an inch of water throughout most of the race, yet ISC refused to rescind their new rules.

With the start of the 2002 season, ISC also banned fanny packs, backpacks, scanner bags, binocular cases, etc. from their various tracks. But at each race, these restrictions were inconsistently enforced at the gates. At races I attended at Talladega and Richmond in 2002, I saw many fans bring in anything they wanted. Where were the security guards when these fans entered the gates? If the fans safety was ISC's real concern, these items would not have been let in. To me, this just proved that ISC felt the majority of fans would obey the restrictions, even if they didn't like them, but they really didn't have the time to perform real security checks.

Also in 2002, ISC debut their "regulation-size cooler" only available for purchase at ISC tracks, for a mere $6.00. Many fans fell for this ploy and readily shelled out more money to ISC to replace watertight coolers that already had. More money for ISC and if these coolers didn't keep your food and beverages cold (which they didn't), ISC had plenty more than you could purchase and provide more profits to their stockholders. Oh and by the way, the "regulation" coolers also leaked and left fans standing in cold water or the coolers in the towers dripping on the folks in the seats below them.

When fans complained that they would have nowhere to carry souvenirs purchased while at the track, ISC changed their policy to allow a clear plastic bag to accommodate souvenirs and samples. Do you see the same theme I see? Fans can carry in anything that increases the coffers of NASCAR or ISC. (which are the same basic entity). ISC told us fans could still bring cameras, scanners and headphones, but only if they carry them on their belt or around their necks. I'll tell you from personal experience, it's no fun carrying all this stuff around your neck when walking a mile or so from the campground or parking lot to the track. Even though ISC claims these restrictions are for fan safety, there are no consistent checks of coolers or bags while entering the gates. Many people brought in their usual opaque bags or backpacks and there were no consistent safety checks of the contents. So much for protecting the fans from possible terrorist activities. When questioned about why all the other tracks can guarantee fan security without these extreme measures, ISC was strangely silent.

To me, all of these changes for "my safety" are just part of NASCAR's goal of changing the demographic of their fans to move further and further away from the blue-collar roots they'd prefer to forget. NASCAR appears to feel the "new fan" will have no problem with paying $3 for a bottle of water or $6 for a beer. And perhaps they are not wrong. Perhaps there was someone eagerly waiting to buy the tickets to Rockingham that I gave up in 2002 because of these ridiculous restrictions or the ones I gave up for Talladega for 2003. Yes, maybe someone will buy the tickets for that one race, but will that new fan be back year after year as I have been for the past 15 years? Will the new fan be willing to renew their tickets months in advance and continue to do so year after year after year? It appears NASCAR doesn't care as long as someone shows them the money.

Many people feel, myself included, that the new fan will quickly tire of NASCAR and then move onto something else and I agree wholeheartedly. This will leave ISC with an increasing number of empty seats at their tracks. Has anyone at NASCAR bothered to watch another major American sport - baseball - suffer from drastically dropping fan attendance? How will they deal with that WHEN it happens to NASCAR (not if)? Raise the prices of tickets to $200 each? Food and beverages to $10 or $15 each? In fact, in 2002, many tracks already saw empty seats. Myself and others who gave up their seats to ISC tracks in 2002, have received numerous requests from ISC asking us to please renew our tickets. In fact, it appears ISC is worried that the 2003 Daytona will not be a sell-out, so they have actually lowered the ticket prices and advertised specially-priced packages. Personally, I think this is a good thing. I can only hope that ISC will also see the error of their ways and rescind these silly cooler restrictions, lower their ticket prices, and abandon other price-gouging tactics soon. Believe me, I loved going to Rockingham and I don't like the idea of missing the races there. On the other hand, I was miserable sitting in ice cold water in 2001 and don't want to go through that again. I also didn't enjoy having cold water dripped on me at Talladega, so I won't be going back there again.

I don't know if other fans, like me, have reached the point that all this greed is just too much. All I know is that I will continue to patronize the tracks owned by SMI, such as Charlotte, and Martinsville or Dover, which are still independently owned. For some reason, the owners of these tracks have no problem guaranteeing my safety while still allowing me to bring in my scanner or binoculars in a bag and my cooler. I guess these organizations are just run more efficiently than ISC!

Coming Next, Part 4, Is TV Materially Affecting the Sport?

Read Part 1 - The Bad Things About Technological Advances.

Read Part 2 - The Problem with Expansion.

You can send me email at cheryl@speedcouch.com.

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