Nascar officials will have cause for satisfaction this weekend, when more than 100,000 stock-car fans pack a racetrack near Sparta, Kentucky, to watch the 267-lap Quaker State 400.
The race is a sign that one of the world’s most business-savvy sports groups may be on the road to recovery after three years of soul-searching and belt-tightening.
The event marks the first time that the Kentucky Speedway has hosted the flagship Sprint Cup series, underlining Nascar’s drive to broaden its core audience, once memorably described by Sports Illustrated magazine as “tattooed, shirtless, sewer-mouthed drunks, and their husbands”.
Furthermore, unlike many Nascar events since the onset of the recession, every ticket for Saturday’s race has been sold.
“We have had a tough couple of years from a ratings and attendance viewpoint, but these have both turned round this year”, says Steve Phelps, Nascar’s chief marketing officer, citing a 9 per cent improvement in TV audiences of Sprint Cup events.
Even so, Nascar has to fight much harder than in its pre-recession heyday for spectators, TV viewers and corporate sponsors. “They are arriving at a new baseline that is below their previous levels,” says Tim Frost, head of Frost Motorsports, a consultancy.
International Speedway, which owns about half the tracks that stage leading Nascar events, reported this week that attendance at Sprint Cup events slipped 4 per cent in the second quarter from a year earlier.
Both International Speedway and Nascar, a private company, are controlled by the France family, based in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Tougher times have forced many changes, big and small. Ticket prices have come down and some racetracks now allow fans to bring their own food and drink. Drivers have become more accessible for autographs.
Other forms of entertainment are being added to boost attendance. Indianapolis Motor Speedway signed a deal with Big Machine Records, a country music label, to bring top artists to the Brickyard 400 race later this month. A large casino overlooking the Kansas Speedway is due to open early next year.
Mr Frost predicts that drivers will find their wages squeezed over the next year or two. “The dollars that were coming into the sport are no longer at those levels”, he says.
Nascar has also overhauled its hard-hit merchandising business. Instead of dealing separately with teams, sponsors and Nascar itself, among others, prospective licensees and retailers now negotiate with a centralised “licensing trust”.
More flexibility has been required to attract sponsors, a backbone of Nascar’s business model.
Les Unger, Toyota’s national motorsports manager, says “it makes financial and marketing sense to be involved. It’s an outstanding opportunity to show off our products.”
Even so, Toyota, like many other sponsors, has cut back, eliminating product displays and hospitality suites at some tracks.
Nascar now sells “fractional” sponsorships for just a few races or in specific geographical areas. It has also brought in non-profit groups as sponsors through what Mr Phelps describes as “cause-marketing”.
“It’s not that we have fewer sponsors, it’s just that they’re buying differently”, Mr Phelps says.