(EDITOR’S NOTE: 51’s X-Factor is a feature on Speed51.com that features opinions from columnists on racing’s hottest topics. Brandon Paul, the author of this editorial, is the Editor for Speed51.com. The views which are expressed in the following column are his own and not necessarily the views of Speed51.com and/or its partners.)
I didn’t grow up in a racing family. Not a single person in my immediate family raced stock cars, worked on a pit crew or even regularly attended racing events. I didn’t attend my first short track racing event until I was somewhere around the age of nine or 10 years old. Racing wasn’t in my blood, but I made a connection to put it there.
My first connection to racing came at the age of 8, when my mother and her boyfriend (a racer himself) moved into a house in Oxford, Maine. You may have heard of a certain race track in that town that hosts a certain big event called the Oxford 250 each year.
One of the most well-known and well-recognized families to compete at that track, the Brackett family, owned the property we moved into. Right next door to our house was their family-owned auto sales business and garage in which they kept and maintained their race cars.
In that garage was Tim Brackett’s No. 60 Dunkin Donuts Pro Stock, his old Busch North car and, at the time, his son TJ’s Mini-Cup car. It was there that I had my first up close and personal look at a race car. They were pretty damn cool to say the least.
Shortly thereafter I attended my first racing event at Oxford Plains Speedway. When I saw the gray No. 60 pull onto the race track that day I developed a connection. I knew who the driver was. I knew where he worked. I watched him load his car up earlier that day.
Seeing the car on the track that night made me want to check out the car the next day after the race, and more importantly, it made me want to return to the race track.
As I grew older I was lucky enough to have more opportunities to develop a connection with these drivers and the sport.
Two or three times a year, Bessey Motor Sales and/or New England Dodge Dealers would sponsor a night of racing. Because my grandfather worked as a car salesman for the company, we were treated like rock stars on those nights.
After each feature I would have the opportunity go down to the track and present trophies to the top-three finishers. I was able to sneak into Victory Lane pictures with those drivers while proudly wearing my red New England Dodge Dealers hat. And on a few occasions, we were lucky enough to even ride in the pace car. I can remember specifically when they finally let me ride along during a Pro Stock feature. Boy, was that a rush as a young kid.
All of those moments helped me build a connection to the sport of racing. These days, it doesn’t seem as though that type of connection exists.
If you grow up in a racing family, you learn to love the sport and more often than not you become a racing lifer. But for those that don’t grow up in the sport, young or old, the opportunity to build that connection to the sport just isn’t there.
Some people may blame the economy. Some people may blame the promoters. Heck, some may even blame the drivers. But the problem doesn’t exist because of one single group, nor will it be solved by one single group.
During my adolescent years, the Busch North Series was in its glory years. I don’t know that because I witnessed it, but only because of my conversations with those that did.
The Busch North Series had drivers. It had personalities. It had rivalries. And for the most part, if you attended their races, you knew which drivers would be behind the wheel of which cars.
Dave Dion would be behind the wheel of the No. 29. Andy Santerre would be driving the No. 44, or No. 6 in his later years. Dale Shaw would be in the No. 60; Brad Leighton in the No. 55 and Kelly Moore in the No. 47.
When you arrived at the race track for one of these events, you knew the drivers and you knew the cars. And more often than not, you knew exactly who you were going to cheer for. Once you cheered for them once, you were going to cheer for them again, and again, and again.
That type of connection between drivers and short track heroes is no longer there. If a middle-aged racing fan shows up to a NASCAR K&N Pro Series East race or ARCA Racing Series race one year, they’re going to be lucky to see a handful of those same drivers the next.
While it’s tough to fault the development that is now involved with those series, there’s no question that it hurts the connection between drivers and fans.
How in the world can you expect a 40-year-old fan attending a race at New Hampshire to connect with a 16-year-old kid from North Carolina? It’s not going to happen.
Short track racing needs more of the Eddie MacDonald-type who continue to compete against the new generation of racers despite the status quo. While MacDonald’s shot at racing full-time in the top levels of NASCAR is slim, he thrives in the role that he’s in as the veteran of the K&N East series. And he’s not even that old; he’s 36.
On the ARCA side, you have Frank Kimmel. There’s a reason why he receives the loudest cheers during driver introductions. Fans know who he is. They know where he’s come from and they know they can expect to see him again soon. The same can’t be said for this new generation of developmental racers.
The lack of a connection between fans and drivers isn’t just with these developmental series’ either, that’s just where it’s the most obvious. You can also see it during weekly events at pavement short tracks throughout the country.
Unless you’re a family member of friend of someone out on the race track, you typically don’t have a connection with any of the drivers.
So how do we solve this problem? Like I said before, it can’t be solved with the work of just one group of people. Promoters, race officials, drivers and those who are already racing fans need to do their part to help the sport.
One of the easiest ways to help bring back this connection is by distributing racing programs. Very few tracks that I attend offer a printed roster to their fans.
Let’s think about that for a second. If a race track doesn’t have a stellar sounds system and doesn’t have printed rosters, how is a new fan supposed to have any idea what is going on?
Solution 1: Print rosters with numbers, names, and hometowns. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy; you can even do it in black-and-white if you need to save on colored ink.
Next up is the announcers and the sound system. First off, you need an announcer that is able to bring stories to the crowd. Secondly, you need a sound system that will allow race fans to hear that announcer clearly. Without both, everyone is just wasting their time.
The role of an announcer is to bring the stories and bring the excitement to those watching in the stands. Anybody can step up to a microphone and say, “Driver X goes to the inside of Driver Y for the lead.” And anyone who is watching the race can see when that happens.
What differentiates a great announcer from a good announcer is their ability to bring stories from the pit area and beyond to help establish that connection between fans and drivers.
Maybe a driver works at the local auto parts store down the road? Maybe he or she is a teacher at a local school? Maybe they drive logging trucks or work in construction for a living? Or maybe they live in your hometown?
All of those things, if heard or seen by race fans can help create a connection and a lifelong love for the sport.
From a promoter’s standpoint, it’s also important to market the short track stars that compete at your home track and tell their stories. Don’t just use your advertising money to tell people there’s a race coming up. Be creative with your marketing. Host events at local restaurants and encourage drivers to take their cars to local businesses. The best way to catch the attention of a fan is by putting a race car in front of their eyes.
And drivers, take advantage of every conversation you have with racing fans (young or old) to make them lifelong fans. Don’t just sign a hero card and watch them walk away. Talk to them on a personal level, allow the young fans to look over or sit in the race car and make it so that they want to come see you race again.
I was lucky enough to find my connection to racing right outside of my bedroom door. Not everyone has that kind of opportunity.
It’s up to all of us to help bring the sport to those who haven’t yet discovered the glory in it. It’s up to us to help rebuild that lost connection.
-By Brandon Paul, Speed51.com Editor – Twitter: @Brandon_Paul51
-Photo credit: Speed51.com