(EDITOR’S NOTE: 51’s X-Factor is a feature on Speed51.com that features opinions from columnists on racing’s hottest topics. Jana Wimmer, the author of this editorial, is the Midwest Editor for Speed51.com. The views which are expressed in the following column are her own and not necessarily the views of Speed51.com and/or its partners.)
Recently my colleague, Brandon Paul, wrote an X-Factor (editorial) titled “Limiting Social Media Opinions Not the Answer” voicing his perspective on how racetracks should handle social media and specifically negative social media. While I respect Brandon and his viewpoint, he is completely wrong on this issue. The editorial was written after New York’s Ransomville Speedway released a new social media policy that applies to drivers and crews for the 2016 racing season. As part of that, the track states that “if we see any negative comments on social media outlets from owners, drivers or crew members, we will take action immediately.”
51’s recent X-Factor addressed how limiting social media voices is not the answer and discussed this from both a fans perspective as well as drivers and crew members.
I’ll start off on the positive side, on where Brandon and I are on the same page, and that is with fan involvement on social media. People should have their voices heard and if they have a bad experience at a track, should take to social media and tell the masses if they so desire. The analogy Brandon made was to a restaurant. We’ve all had a bad meal or a bad experience and probably complained on our personal social media outlets about the establishment and vowed to never return. While that may or may not influence our friends and followers in the online world, it is our right to base that opinion. It is also the right of any fan who walks into a racetrack as a paying customer hoping for the experience to live up to certain expectations.
Where Brandon’s and my opinion differ is on how tracks should handle social media from drivers, owners and crew-members, the very premise of Ransomville Speedway’s new policy. For more than five years I worked as the Marketing and PR Director at State Park Speedway in Wausau, WI and was involved in many of the day to day operations of the racetrack. I understand how social media can effect business and attitudes at the track.
The difference between fans and drivers posting on social media is that the track pays drivers to race every week. Yes, the racers have expenses, but at the end of the night the track pays the drivers for showing up and racing. Essentially, for that night, the drivers, in a sense, work for the track. The drivers become part of the show to make the fans happy and ultimately, to keep them coming back. The more fans, the more drivers get paid. If the drivers did not get paid and just had to pay to come, not many would show up.
So, we go back to the restaurant scenario. To me, it’s similar to a waitress at a restaurant. You get paid less than minimum wage and then the additional money you make is based on your performance and given in tips from customers. If a waitress took to social media after a bad night at work, I would be willing to bet he/she would not have a job much longer. Why should that be different at a race track? If the very people the fans pay to come and watch, and the people the track pays to help put on a show complain about a track, why would the fans come back? If that happens, here’s the issue. The same driver and team will pull back into the track the next week at the risk of a few less butts in the seats this time around and expect the same pay or even more.
We live in a world where short tracks are closing every year; the way to keep them going is to fill the stands and the pits, so drivers and owners need to be on the same team. A good show is needed for the fans and essentially the racers so that they want to be a part of it. Otherwise, drivers will eventually be without a track and may struggle to find a place to race.
You want to know the power of social media? Just a couple of years ago Baer Field Speedway in Indiana did close its door, all because of the negativity on social media. The track operator didn’t want to put up with it anymore and closed halfway through the season. In fact, John Raney (former promoter) said, “I don’t want to go through this anymore. The main problem is the decline in the attendance of the grandstands and a lot of that is to the racers tearing down the place on social media. I build up the facilities and the racers don’t reciprocate it to me. It’s just a negative weight for me.” (EDITOR’s NOTE: Baer Field Speedway have since re-opened.)
Another example is Cherry Raceway in Michigan. In December, track operator Roger Steig closed the racing facility and posted this on Facebook.
“I have come to the conclusion that we are our own worst enemy and Facebook, that I am using right now to reach out to you, does far more damage to the sport than good. It allows people that will not discuss any hate or disconnect they might have to hide behind the scenes and rant. These Facebook warriors are the reason I have chosen to sell Cherry Raceway. So for the record, you are the reason why short track racing is dying and there is nor more Cherry Raceway.”
Cherry Raceway has since been sold to Stephen Batzer, who intends to keep the raceway closed and use the grounds privately for his engineering business.
Drivers, crew-members and owners, how would you feel if your local track shut its doors when the problem that ultimately forced them to close could have been avoided?
The drivers, crew members and owners are who you, as a track, develop relationships with. When they destroy you on social media, it is like a punch to the gut. Being a track owner is hard. You need to please fans and drivers alike and it can be a difficult balance to find. Most track owners try to work with drivers and owners to make the track as enjoyable a place for them to race as possible.
What social media can do is give a voice and create issues where they could be avoided. Say a driver takes to social media about a call an official made. I’ve seen those posts completely spiral out of hand and weigh negatively on a racetrack and its employees. Often times, the driver had never spoken to the officials or the management of the race track.
The immediate response is to voice anger over social media without going to the track first and even giving them a chance to rectify the situation. The negative comment turns into a thread with 50 comments and now the track has lost control of a chance to make it right on the original issue.
These negative comments breed other negative comments that can be completely off topic. One little post on Facebook post can turn into a long thread of complaints about a local track. Maybe it’s a local track who is struggling to keep going and this can be the final tipping point. Hundreds of other drivers see this one post and so do thousands of potential fans. As I stated earlier, as a track you cannot control the fans, but the drivers, you most certainly can.
If drivers like a track and would like to continue racing there, they should not post negatively on social media, unless they plan to not go back. If they want to publicly bash a track on social media, then follow through and do not go back to race there. After all, you would never go back to a restaurant you posted negatively about.
This is why tracks should adopt a social medial policy and punish drivers who put out a negative connotation on social media, but then still end up there, wanting a place to race each week. As the saying goes, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
I also think the opposite can be done, and that is rewarding driver for positive social media attitudes towards the track. Maybe for a maximum of five times, every week you post something positive on social media you get 10% off your pit pass. At a typical track that’s maybe a discount of $2.50. It’s something. Now, maybe a new fan sees the post and comes to the track for the first time and buys a $15 ticket – you do the math.
The drivers have the potential to expand the tracks reach, so for a minimal investment to reward the drivers who support your track, why not manage social media both ways?
As always, there are two sides to every story, but having worked in the racetrack promotion business and felt punched in the gut by one too many negative social media posts that were completely unnecessary, I would urge every track in the country to look at what Ransomville Speedway is doing. Do what you can as a track to cut back on negative social media, especially from the driver who you aim to please every week. That same driver is the guys who ultimately wants to have a place to race.
-By Jana Wimmer, Speed51.com Midwest Editor – Twitter: @JWimm22
-Photo credit: Heath Lawson