News and analysis  

Charlotte repercussions

You can bet they’re having some less-than-pleasant high-level meetings this week at Bruton Smith’s corporate SMI headquarters in Charlotte, NC, and in NHRA offices in Glendora, CA.  They’re having these meetings to figure out why they didn’t sell out of tickets for last weekend’s Carolinas Nationals at Smith’s self-proclaimed Bellagio of dragstrips. After all, it was sold out for the first race there last year, right?

The NHRA and Smith’s organization had every possible PR advantage you can think of going for them for the race to be a legitimate sellout. The NHRA got more national press attention, both print and electronic, during the two weeks prior to the race than at any time in its 50+ year history. Virtually every print magazine with even a remote attachment to drag racing had columns and stories relating to the John Force and Pedregon brothers dust-up and John’s “dive” against teammate Robert Hight. Nationally recognized magazines like National Speed Sport News and AutoWeek covered the story. There was a two-page color ad in last Friday’s USA Today. The Force vs Pedregon story line was the subject of coverage on the major sports networks including ESPN. And, of course, DRO had several stories about the incident, not to mention the letters from readers.

In addition there was even media interest for the race being the start of the NHRA’s six-race Countdown to 1 “playoff” and the much anticipated four-abreast exhibition laps for Top Fuel and Funny Cars. The Internet was ablaze with John Force, Tony Pedregon, and four-car chatter.

Yet for all of that pre-race hype and a rumored $500,000 advertising budget, the attendance at the track had to be disappointing for the Bruton Smith management team. A look at the Tivo recording of the race showed without a doubt that there just weren’t that many fans in attendance, especially in the west grandstands.

Some would blame it on the weather, but Friday aside, the forecast for the Charlotte area for Saturday and Sunday was good. Others might blame the lack of spectators on the ticket prices, but there were ticket packages available that cost an adult $100 for all four days and a child $25 for the same four days. In the world of professional auto racing, those prices for four days are a rare bargain.

There are approximately 6,000,000 people living within 100 miles of Charlotte, NC. The zMAX track holds 30,000+ paying spectators. A promoter would hope that with a 6-million population base, more than 30,000 racing fans could be persuaded to attend arguably one of the most anticipated drag races in the last 25 years. After all, they claimed a sell-out last year with a lot less reason for fans to attend the event.

The management teams at both the NHRA and SMI (Speedway Management Inc.) have to be wondering just what they did wrong or didn’t do to attract a full house. Evidently even a John Force soap Opera couldn’t save them.

You can strike off of the list competitive ticket pricing, lack of advertising, or lack of media attention. Both the NHRA and SMI covered those bases.

Maybe, just maybe, the answer is that in the southern part of the United States, stock car racing is still king. After all, it has been a very long time since SMI’s Bristol, Tenn., track has had a huge crowd. As a matter of fact you can track the drop in attendance at the Bristol dragstrip (NHRA or IHRA) directly to the rise in fan popularity of Bristol’s circle track. The late Larry Carrier, IHRA founder and builder of both tracks, once said that in the late 1970s the dragstrip regularly drew more spectators than the circle track did.

Maybe the fact that the NASCAR 600 race was held just about a month ago had something to do with the lack of attendance. Race fans in the South have the same, if not worse, financial issues that race fans elsewhere are enduring.

That is not to say the race was a catastrophe attendance-wise. It probably attracted 40-50,000 fans over the four days of the event and even if the zMAX management did have a $500,000 advertising budget they may still have broken even.

But, if they did break even, that is not an acceptable return on investment for the SMI shareholders. And you have to wonder what two NHRA national events next year in Charlotte are going to do from a financial point of view.

Bruton Smith didn’t build his track management empire making bad decisions or having unprofitable races, so you can bet that there are going to be a lot of meetings in Charlotte and Glendora between now and next year’s races at Bristol and especially Charlotte, trying to figure out what can be done to make the Southern drag fans to buy tickets for the NHRA drags.

Bruton Smith spent a reported 37 million bucks building the zMAX track and, unlike any other owner working with the NHRA (and that includes the NHRA itself), Smith runs a publicly traded company with stockholders who demand a return on investment and accountability for that kind of spending. 

I’m betting Bruton Smith now has little or no interest in buying the NHRA anytime in the near future. He’s too busy making his four tracks and current six NHRA events profitable.