Originally published in The Washington Post.
Wednesday, May 31, 2006
By DANIEL LOVERING
The Associated Press
JENNERSTOWN, Pa. — As stock car engines howl in the background, Dave Wheeler raises a small air cannon to his shoulder and sends a bundled T-shirt tumbling through the air toward the stands at his racetrack.
Screaming fans, many of them children, jump to their feet and reach skyward in hopes of catching the souvenir. Nearby, other kids get their faces painted, crawl around a playground or wait in line for snow cones.
It’s opening night at Jennerstown Speedway, and the diversions are many for a segment of fans that racetrack owners and stock car enthusiasts say is vital to the future of their sport _ families.
With stock car racing’s recent boom in popularity, small racetracks are sprucing up their facilities to attract parents and children in ever larger numbers.
“We’re just trying to get it all family, family, family,” said Wheeler, a 53-year-old former stock car driver who bought the track four years ago. “Everybody wants to sell racing. We’re selling entertainment.”
To appeal to more than just die-hard race fans, Jennerstown Speedway and other short tracks _ asphalt circuits up to a half-mile long _ have done away with seedy attractions of yesteryear, such as short-skirt contests.
Instead, they try to offer more wholesome entertainment and activities, including an intermission in which kids scramble to collect pennies scattered across the track or visit the pit area to scoop lollipops off a race car.
Some have built fresh facilities, with clean bathrooms and concession stands that offer low-cost foods, and ample space for parking. Furry mascots and clowns mingle with spectators amid the aroma of rubber and oil.
And keeping ticket prices affordable _ $8 for adults at Jennerstown _ is crucial to filling the stands, said Wheeler, who also owns a national chain of automotive stores.
The efforts have paid off. Attendance at the speedway tripled last year, reaching an average of about 1,500 people for its Saturday evening races, Wheeler said.
“I attribute that quite frankly to what we’re doing, what seems to be happening nationwide,” he said.
Wheeler said his and other small tracks have benefited from the rise of NASCAR, which has a huge national audience.
Andrew Giangola, a NASCAR spokesman, said the trend toward families is evident at tracks of all sizes. He also said NASCAR’s fan base is 40 percent women and that the sport is the fastest-growing nationwide.
“I think a lot of this is independent entrepreneurs listening to their customer base,” he said. “These tracks are in competition for the entertainment dollar.”
He said the sport appeals to families because cars are one of the things kids play with, and “kids tend to be attracted by the colors and the sights and the sounds and the speeds.”
Tony Stewart, the reigning Nextel Cup champion, also recognizes the value of catering to fans. He offers pre-race entertainment at Eldora Speedway, the half-mile dirt track he bought in Rossburg, Ohio, in late 2004.
“Obviously, we do have a different angle that other short tracks don’t because of who we are with NASCAR,” he said last month. “Hopefully, what we are doing is opening the eyes of corporate America to the value of short-track racing.”
James J. Miley, whose family owns two racetracks in western Pennsylvania, said it is difficult to entice family spectators to return to stock car races regularly.
“That means … we better be a fan-friendly, family-friendly facility because people don’t come every week, and they do have a lot of entertainment choices,” he said, pointing out that his Motordrome Speedway in Carnegie installed a playground last year.
“We try to have something going on that interests kids every evening, whether it’s Ronald McDonald coming to visit, fireworks, giveaways,” he said.
Humpy Wheeler, manager of Lowe’s Speedway in Concord, N.C., said the new amenities at short tracks are helpful for children who “might like racing for five or six minutes, then their mind wanders elsewhere.”
“Parents, they’ve got a built-in baby sitter,” he said. “It’s smart business.”
At Lernerville Speedway in Sarver, competitors roll out school buses painted with cartoons and race them for an audience of mostly kids twice a year, according to the track’s manager, Gary Risch Jr.
“That’s the future of this deal, to get families, new families,” he said. “It brings you fans for years to come. It’s a clean family atmosphere.”
Larry Cothren, editor of Stock Car Racing magazine, said the tremendous growth of the sport over the past decade has also come at the expense of small tracks.
But in Pennsylvania, a racing hotbed that has more tracks _ many of them dirt _ than any other state, some speedways are marketing themselves to nearby residents and seeing an upswing in local sponsorships as a result.
The Jennerstown track earns $1 million to $2 million annually, thanks partly to a jump in local sponsorships, said Wheeler, who added that the track tries simply to break even.
At a recent race, 12-year-old Whitney Galantine of Friedens said she liked the racetrack’s food and playground, not to mention the fast cars.
“I love it, it’s fun,” said Galantine, whose forehead was painted with colorful swirls. “The race cars get trophies and it makes (the drivers) so happy.”
Her 45-year-old father, Gene Galantine, said he is a longtime race fan and that it has become cheaper in recent years to bring his family with him to the races.
“I get to do what I like to do, and they do too,” he said.
On the Net:
Jennerstown Speedway: http://www.jennerstown.com/
Lernerville Speedway: http://www.dirtmotorsports.com/tracks/lernerville/
Motordrome Speedway: http://www.motordrome.com/index.cfm