getting down to business w/Scott Gardner

Scott Gardner has owned, co-owned and operated several successful drag racing facilities and is a past president of the International Hot Rod Association. He is the proprietor of Gardner Race Track Consultants, a member of the Motorsports Strategy Group. He can be reached through email at office@gardnerrtc.com

Some Advice for Running a Successful Race Track

When Jeff Burk (aka the Burkster) asked me to write an editorial on what makes a race track profitable, I was flattered but also knew I had a big task in front of me. With so many different types of drag tracks in existence in a variety of market sizes, there isn’t one single answer for profitability. In fact, while owning three tracks simultaneously and in fairly close proximity, I learned quickly that one operating system doesn’t fit all.  In other words, what works at one track might not do well at another. With this said, there are some important aspects that get missed by a lot of today’s track operators that can be the keys for success. If you’re a racer reading this article, you’re probably thinking this stuff doesn’t apply to you. Well, hang in there and you will see that it’s just as important for you as anyone.


Operating a race track is a business

Gone is the day the track operator can show up on Friday afternoon and open the gates and expect any kind of success with weekend events. In fact, many tracks are failing (or have failed) because their approach has been or was just that. While a race track is only open a limited number of days per year for actual racing, those actual race days are successful based on the work that gets done on the non-race days. Simply put, a lack of effort (planning, promoting, marketing, etc.), will result in underachievement and poor financial results. It’s rare when anyone in life is successful at anything without putting a tremendous amount of work and effort into it.


Additionally, the notion that a race track shouldn’t or doesn’t need to make money is false. Race track profits can and should be used to improve the facility as well as compensate the owner/manager “risk taker” for the hours of work and stress that come with the job. When a race track is successful, it’s a benefit for everyone involved.


The business is “entertainment”

Operating a race track isn’t just running the cars down the strip, it’s about entertainment. Whether it’s providing test-n-tune/fun runs to the locals on a Friday night or managing the feature show at a major event with thousands of race fans in attendance, it boils down to providing entertainment to the customer whether the customer is a spectator or a racer. Somewhere, somehow, many operators have forgotten or never knew the importance of being the facilitator of entertainment. I see operators spend thousands of dollars to prep their track but won’t hire a decent announcer because it’s hard to find someone to announce for minimum wage. That approach is counterproductive to success and shows a lack of understanding of this business. Yes, a track needs to be properly prepared, but not at the expense of a good announcer.


The entertainment shouldn’t be limited to just the “on-track” activities. Ideas include the offering of good quality concessions with a signature product that the track will become known for. Examples of this include Norwalk, Ohio, where they offer a pound of ice cream for a dollar or the legendary “Frito Pie” at Eddyville Raceway Park in Iowa! Both facilities are marketing their brand while pleasing their customers -- a win-win opportunity! Additional suggestions for providing entertainment are a playground or arcade for the kids to enjoy and a pub for the adults to relax and bench race when racing is over. Track operators need to understand how to entertain people if they are going to be successful.


Listen to your customers

The negative feedback a track operator gets from a customer is normally about 97% accurate and helpful. A customer who complains is really a valuable tool. If listening closely to what is really being said and trying to put yourself in their prospective, it’s amazing what you learn. Please notice I didn’t say it was easy, nice or comfortable. Criticism can be tough to hear and especially if it’s from one of the three percenters (people who complain and aren’t really looking for a resolution). Keep in mind if someone takes the time to complain it’s because they care enough about the business to want to see things better. In most cases, by simply by looking at Facebook posts I can determine how customer service pro-active a facility is. Clearly some track operators don’t care and they’re going to operate the track the way they want, win, lose or draw financially. For those operators, it’s more about ego and feeding some narcissistic need than truly wanting the best for people and making a reasonable profit in doing so.


It’s hands on

As a consultant I have been asked by many track operators why they can’t make a profit. As mentioned above, no single answer can be derived. However, it should be understood that owning/operating a race track is like running a restaurant: it’s hands on and requires a lot more time and effort that what it looks like from the outside. Believe me I know as I’ve done both and each requires a 100% effort. In the restaurant business, there is a lot of time spent cleaning and washing pots and pans, which is a lot like at a race track. The race track is full of behind the scene work plus the occasional curve ball with timing issues, crashes, oil downs, bad weather, low turnout, big turnout, etc. I’ve had seen several successful owners of non-race track related businesses literally pull their hair out trying to make a race track business work. Unfortunately, following the traditional rules of running a business doesn’t work in the race industry. I hope this insight will help some of them out.


For a racer, the key is understanding the operations of the race track that will assist them in moving from a good racer a great racer. Additionally, by understanding what it takes for a track to be successful, the racers can do their share in being good customers. The weekly racers and fans are the lifeblood of the race track the operator needs to understand, just as the racer needs to understand and respect the financial commitment and work required to operate the facility.  


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