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For weekly racers, the news hit as hard as a trip into the retaining wall. Winston had to end its sponsorship of the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series. It was a move that even NASCAR hadnt fully prepared for.
Winston announced at the finish of the 1999 season that it had to end the relationship to comply with an agreement tobacco companies made with state attorneys general. That agreement prohibited tobacco companies from sponsoring activities that could involve 16- and 17-year-olds.
This was one we never looked at, says Tom Deery, NASCAR vice president who oversees the series.
As it turned out, with the Weekly Racing Series being a developmental series and trying to encourage our foundation in the youth to participate, we have a number of 16- and 17-year-old participants and that would have been a violation of that agreement, Deery says. Thus, Winston, very reluctantly, was forced to step away.
The immediate effect was obvious.
The first effect was the loss of a great marketing partner and the enthusiastic participation they had brought to the program, Deery says. They were instrumental in developing the Weekly Racing Series to what it is today. To replace that would have been a challenge. That has given us a great program to work with.
NASCAR didnt sit and spin its wheels at the situation. The sanctioning body moved full-speed into the 2000 season, pledging NASCARs commitment to short-track racing would not waver. Although sponsorsless, the series enjoyed one of its best seasons ever and doled out a record point fund.
Challenges remain: the sponsor search continues and in the meantime, some tracks have run into trouble selling sponsorship of their own for fear it may conflict with whomever NASCAR eventually finds.
Still, for the most part, its business as usual.
Every weekend, thousands of racers at nearly 100 tracks across America load up their race cars and head to the track for Weekly Racing Series competition. Whether its the thrill of participation, the hope of winning a track championship, a regional or national championship, or even a shot at advancing to racings big leagues, the competition is fierce.
NASCAR formed the Weekly Racing Series in 1982. The R.J. Reynolds Tobacco company and its Winston brand were involved in the program from the start.
Despite the loss of Winston, NASCAR and its large collection of secondary sponsors and marketing partners paid out a record $1.7 million in year-end money to Weekly Racing Series participants in 2000. National champion Gary Webb received more than $150,000, while each regional champion received $40,550.
Deery, a former track promoter himself, is pleased with the state of the series, despite the absence of a primary sponsor.
In the year 2000, bringing on new partners we were able to, from the competitors standpoint, increase our point-fund distribution to a little over $1.7 million, which was a significant increase from the $1.5 million we had in 1999, Deery says.
With all these new opportunities from the competitor standpoint, that added a whole new twist to the program. From the track standpoint, the enthusiasm that NASCAR as a company has put behind the program and will continue to put behind the program is good news. From our weekly position, NASCAR senior management has been very clear that this is a very important part of the entire NASCAR program, and we will continue to make sure it succeeds.
The Strong Survive
Most promoters contacted agree the series hasnt missed a beat.
The Weekly Racing Series is not just plugging along, says Bobby Wente, who promotes Tri-City Speedway in Granite City, Illinois. It is very aggressive. (In 2000) we had new programs for two more divisions at the racetrack. They (NASCAR) are constantly working to build it. They are always bringing something to the table.
Stewart Doty, who publishes Racing Promotion Monthly, a newsletter for racing promoters, agrees that Winstons withdrawal has had little effect on the Weekly Racing Series.
Speaking with the promoters and from our observations, the Weekly Racing Series program is as strong as ever. The product has not changed a bit, Doty says.
Steve York, who promotes Magic Valley Speedway in Twin Falls, Idaho, also likes the path the series is taking.
Im very confident that, with NASCARs history, the Weekly Racing Series will flourish better in the future than it has in the past, York says. I think we have a pretty good leader at the helm with Tom Deery. As a former promoter, he knows both sides of the coin. From the competitor side, he knows what their needs are and what needs to happen.
The strongest short tracks will survive, York says. There has been a shakeout of racetracks in the last few years. A lot of tracks have fallen by the wayside. The stronger tracks will do better in the future because they have weathered the storms. If they havent been providing entertainment value, theyre not here anymore anyway. They are already gone.
While he agrees the Weekly Racing Series is strong, York sees a problem with a primary sponsor not being in place.
I dont think the competitor has seen a difference at all, he says. The only thing from an operators standpoint, is that not knowing who may be the future sponsor kind of ties your hands as far as signing your own sponsors. It has created some challenges. You cant put yourself in a box as far as sponsors go. You have to be pretty careful where you go with it and the track operators dont have a clue where it is going.
NASCARs has explored Weekly Racing Series sponsor opportunities with a number of companies, but they are not aggressive.
The position is clear, Deery says. We need to bring into play a sponsor that can utilize and activate this type of sponsorship. It is very unique in that it is very local, but it is a national program with 100 tracks in 36 states. It has to be a unique company that can deliver and use the marketing power that we can on a national basis and a local level.
Deery agrees with York concerning the lack of a primary sponsor.
The obvious conflict you may have with the tracks existing sponsors does play into the equation as do the NASCAR family sponsors, he says. But more importantly what our search has been, and continues to be, is to find a sponsor that can utilize the thousands of competitors and the hundreds of thousands of fans that attend Weekly Racing Series events under the NASCAR banner.
A challenge for the series and its tracks is the changing average American consumer and attracting them to the track.
All of the 950 short tracks across America are constantly challenged with competition for the entertainment dollar and the maturity of a race fan, Deery says. There are plenty more opportunities in the world of motorsports, as well as the other entertainment industries. Our challenge, being part of the leaders of this part of the industry, is to make sure we keep delivering exciting, entertaining family activities.
In some places that will be a departure from the way they have done it in the past. Our customer is new and more sophisticated than before.
Wente believes many fans would rather pay big money to see the stars of the sport than $10 to see weekly racing.
The dirt-track fans as we know them are spending $30 for a World of Outlaws ticket as opposed to paying $10 to see some good racing, Wente says. I think the quality of the racing has fallen out of the equation. The thought of seeing quality racing has fallen out of the consumers equation. They are more star-based struck on how they spend their money.
Therefore, weekly racing and the tracks have to grow their business, and to do that they have to make it affordable for the entry-level side. From there you have to draw new interest and then from the entry level, hopefully they graduate to a Street Stock or a Sportsman division.
York says the NASCAR affiliation helps draw fans and media attention.
From the operator standpoint, the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series gives the track an opportunity to be connected to the big leagues of racing by using the NASCAR name, York says. Most tracks that are NASCAR sanctioned, the sponsor knows that that track is at least well-insured, the management sees some value of being connected with a national sanctioning body, and that track probably has some stability.
NASCAR or not, York knows he must promote his events thoroughly. Just opening the gates doesnt work.
You have to use that sanction with the sponsorsyou have to promote that, York says. Where else can a guy in Twin Falls, Idaho, get an opportunity to win $45,000 in weekly racing, or even $150,000 if he wins the national title.
Wentes track is bordered by the communities of St. Charles and Alton, Illinois, and St. Louis, Missouri. In addition to professional baseball, football and hockey in St. Louis, Wente competes with other tracks in his area.
There are six tracks and we are all competing for the same fans, he says. That is the problem. Until the strong get stronger and the weak ones go away, with that many tracks you will dilute it. That is the biggest problem because we have a shrinking market.
Cost To Compete
The cost of weekly racing is one issue that is brought up frequently among competitors and promoters. For the most part, NASCAR leaves rule-making in its Weekly Racing Series to the individual tracks.
NASCAR, as a sanctioning body for the Weekly Racing Series, has always relied on the racetracks to deliver their own rules because they know what is going on in our marketplace better than we do, Deery says. It is the natural evolution of motorsports, whether the time is 2001 or the time is 1961. The same concerns existed about the costs of racing and what is happening.
What we have to do and what we have to help our track operators do is manage that growth, he says.
Sometimes that means a division may have to move on because they have priced themselves out of weekly racing. Thats a natural evolution. It has been going on since the beginning of racing. What we have to do is help our track managers recognize when it is time. What we have tried to do through our rulebook is deliver some basic rules they can utilize to make their program succeed.
Wente has done that and his competitors have reaped the benefits.
I have had four champions, and I had two champions win over $10,000 and Bert Cheatham won over $20,000. Weve gotten rid of all the unlimited engines and the aluminum heads and all the internal trick parts. We are basically two-barrel carburetors, steel heads on eight-inch wheels. The racing is just as competitive.
When we had the unlimited stuff, our car count was about 15 cars and last year we averaged over 20. In this area we have guys running Modifieds for $500-to-win with $20,000 engines, and they are complaining because the price of the pit pass is $2 more.
Acquiring a NASCAR sanction costs tracks $1,150 per week, but the benefits are numerous, especially for competitors because it includes significant insurance. The PA insurance is the $1 million medical policy to every NASCAR member, Wente says. I am told by the insurance carriers that policy is worth over $900 per week. To be able to provide that kind of policy to the competitors, most carriers would have to charge more than $900 to the track. The remainder I chalk up to administrative costs.
That is one of the fundamental things that Bill France instituted that has always led the pack with all of our participants, making sure we are there to support them, not necessarily when it is the first thing on the competitors mind, Deery says. A number of years ago they developed a very extensive benefits program for the competitors, which was the foundation of that. So, what does the future hold for the Weekly Racing Series?
With the commitment that has been verbalized by the France family and Mike Helton, the weekly program and the regional touring program are so important to NASCARs strength that the future is very bright, Deery says. We will continue to throw resources at and continue to develop this program to make sure that it is healthy, and it is the foundation of NASCAR racing, and of all racing.