NASCAR's decision last month to standardise start times for Sprint Cup Series races came as welcome news to track operators. They need all the help they can get to sell tickets to the races.
No race, not even the Daytona 500, is immune from the effects of the economy on the slumping ticket-buying trends in the sport. Robin Braig, president of Daytona International Speedway, said advance ticket sales are 20 per cent off the pace from the previous year for the sport's biggest race in February.
That's consistent with what other tracks in the International Speedway Corp. family have seen. ISC owns a dozen tracks that are home to Sprint Cup events, and its venues host 19 of the 36 Cup events.
During ISC's third-quarter earnings report earlier this month, company president John Saunders said advance sales are off 25 percent to 30 percent across all venues, both in ticket units sold and total revenue.
Admissions revenue for ISC in the first three quarters of 2009 was $143 million, compared with $172 million in 2008, when the Daytona 500 celebrated its 50th anniversary and ISC had one more Sprint Cup race (Auto Club Speedway) in the third quarter.
Still, ISC officials project ticket sales for the year will be down 15 percent, and Saunders is not optimistic about a quick turnaround.
“We think it will be 2011 before you'll see any noticeable improvement,” he said.
Most track operators emphatically applauded NASCAR's decision to standardise start times, which at least gives tracks a selling point when they call back those fans who have not renewed their tickets. All Sprint Cup races in the Eastern and Central Times Zones will start at 1:15 p.m. ET, and races in the West will start at 3 p.m. ET. Night races will begin at 7:45 ET no matter the location.
Tracks are also pushing tickets at lower prices. In 2010, ISC will lower prices on a third of its tickets, or a cumulative 500,000 seats across its venues. Price reductions have produced positive results in 2009, Saunders said. ISC tracks have sold 90 percent of their tickets at the entry-level price, typically $30 to $40, and of those, more than half have been purchased by first-time buyers.
“For those of us battling the economy, we've got something to talk about now,” Braig said.
Texas Motor Speedway, a track owned by rival Speedway Motorsports Inc., introduced “backstretch busters,” a group of nearly 3,000 seats available for as low as $20 for its April race. Those $20 tickets for Texas' Nov. 8 race have sold out, and close to 80 percent of those fans are first-time ticket buyers.