Raceways compete to fill stands

Turf Wars

Posted: Wednesday, February 20, 2002

HAMPTON, Ga. -- The Georgia billboards promoting the race last October at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway made Ed Clark think: Why would a race track one state away advertise in the shadows of the Atlanta Motor Speedway?

''I thought it maybe we should put a billboard across the entrance at Talla dega that said 'Atlanta: Real Racing, No Restrictions.' Every fan leaving the place would see it,'' Clark said.

The once-sacred boundary lines that define a raceway's home turf have been blurred. Talladega posted billboards throughout Atlanta, one as close as a half-mile from the speedway; Daytona International Speedway spent more than $25,000 advertising the Daytona 500 in Atlanta; Atlanta bought Florida airtime in Orlando and Daytona Beach for its March 10 race; Darlington (S.C.) Raceway has flooded a couple of North Carolina markets to push its race March 17.

Apparently, all's fair when it comes to selling tickets.

''It's all changed,'' said Matthew Becherer, director of marketing at Darlington. ''We're working a little smarter than we used to. Instead of taking a shotgun approach to how we do this, we're taking a sharpshooter's approach. There's a lot more science, a lot more thought behind what we're doing.''

There are plenty of reasons why raceways have to expand their territories. The sport went through a period of expansionism in the past 10 years. For example, Daytona built a 70,000-seat grandstand on the backstretch six years ago, creating a challenge to sell enough tickets to fill a large football stadium on top of the 100,000 tickets on the frontstretch.

Atlanta increased its ticket base by 50,000 tickets six years ago; Darlington added about 20,000 seats in the past five years; Talladega added about 20,000 seats in the past three years.

More seats, combined with a network television package that makes it easier to watch every race and a struggling economy, have put many raceways on the offensive. Races that traditionally sell out months in advance now struggle to fill every seat.

''It's made all of us think differently,'' Clark said. ''And it's always changing. What works this year might not work next year, so you really have to be creative and think about what you're doing.''

Last week's Daytona 500 didn't sell its final ticket until the day before the main event. Upcoming races at Darlington, Atlanta and Talladega likely will have thousands of empty seats.

''Another part of our strategy is to find new fans,'' Becherer said. ''At some point, you have to reach out to new folks as well, people who knew about Darlington but have never tried it. Darlington is the type of place where once you try it, you come back for more.

''We sell tickets in all 50 states. We sell tickets in Hawaii. You simply can't rely on our local market. You have to reach out.''

Darlington concentrated its efforts in five markets that boast the highest television ratings for NASCAR races. Its push in Charlotte, N.C., and Greensboro, N.C., included a promotion of six tickets for $120.

Atlanta, which targeted its advertising to central Florida markets while race fans were in town for the Daytona 500, has specially priced tickets for $25.

A year ago, North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham and Darlington offered a deal that allowed fans to attend one race at both speedways for one low price.

Not all raceways are working overtime to sell seats. The Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway already has sold all 155,000 tickets for its night race in August. In fact, there's a waiting list with several thousand names.

Speedways clustered in the Southeast corridor all within six hours of each other are the ones that seem to struggle the most, especially because they all want the same fan base. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 reduced the amount of air travel, so the Southeast's raceways have to concentrate on fans within driving distance of the raceway.

''To be big nationally, you have to be big locally,'' Clark said. ''It's made us all more aware, more focused. You've got to get to work; you've got to think; you've got to be creative.''

No matter how far away from home it takes you.

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net.

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