Why NASCAR Needs to Improve the Fan Experience at Tracks

Geoffrey Miller@@geoffreymillerContributor IJune 19, 2013

NASCAR tracks need to continue innovation of the fan experience.
NASCAR tracks need to continue innovation of the fan experience.John Harrelson/Getty Images

NASCAR has long been a spectator sport that has walked the line of being fully fan-friendly.

There are the good parts—most tracks allow coolers full of beer, drinks or food; fans can listen directly to the strategy and emotion of teams and drivers with radio scanners—that help NASCAR stand out. But there are the bad parts, too, like weather extremes hurting the experience, or the general difficulty keeping up with the race's stories or dramas with often poor scoreboards and hard to hear public address systems.

During NASCAR's enormous rise in popularity during the late 1990s and into the mid 2000s, it was easy for its tracks to look past any deficiencies. The tickets were selling faster than they could be printed. New grandstands popped up like boom towns in the gold rush. The push wasn't about fan experience; it was about packing as many in as possible.

And that strategy worked...for a while.

Now, NASCAR's widespread popularity has diminished from its peak and tracks are in pursuit of ways to sell new tickets. Many have been stuck with a supply of seats that far outstrips fan demand, hurting the sport's feel of prominence when large swaths of grandstands sit empty on race day.

There are many, many factors at play in the decreased at-track attendance that NASCAR—and all of racing, for that matter—has seen in recent years. There's little doubt that the combination of the recent recession and the substantial, consistent rise in fuel prices delivered a punch to the NASCAR fan base's ability to travel to several races per year. The on-track product seemed to lag when NASCAR instituted the Car of Tomorrow platform from 2007 to 2012. Intense rivalries in the sport also seemed to have waned, likely due to the proliferation of multi-car teams and sponsors demanding drivers who are basically high-speed public relations flacks.

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Each of those factors are important in the general widespread interest level of the sport. Not all have a direct and telling fix. But one not listed—the at-track fan experience—is an area where NASCAR and its tracks could afford to be more innovative. Some, like the proposed complete renovation of the Daytona International Speedway, seem to be moving in that direction.

It's important in two ways:  First, increasing attendance and the general experience will ideally more deeply develop a fan's affinity for the sport, and second the appearance of full, vibrant grandstands will establish the sport's credibility and buzz to the millions of television viewers, encouraging them to seek the at-track experience.

Trackside Social Connectivity is Key

The role of social media to a sport like NASCAR is invaluable. Where fans once had to rely exclusively on the stories and news told by the television provider, the radio broadcaster or the next day's newspaper, the rise of social media has created an instantaneous way to keep tabs on all 43 teams competing in a given Sprint Cup Series race. Whether by industry journalists or team public relations efforts, following all of the race's stories and footnotes is no longer bounded by print space or broadcast windows.

At the track, this means fans should be able to access their social media feeds on smart phones and other devices. Instead of the large-scale crowd overloading existing, unimproved cell networks, tracks need to make it a priority to offer wireless Internet connections. On a series-wide scale, NASCAR should insist title sponsor Sprint either provide more portable cellular towers that can handle increased demand from all providers, or find an exemption that allows other carriers to expand their networks for races.

Substantial Increases in Size, Number and Resolution of Video Boards

Charlotte Motor Speedway made waves in 2011 when it installed what currently stands as the world's largest video screen. The 200' by 80' high-definition screen has been a substantial improvement to the track's experience—both as a way for fans to feel more connected to the pre-race activities and as a dramatic, crystal-clear view of replays.

But CMS is the lone NASCAR venue to have built such a substantial display that incorporates elements typically reserved for viewers at home. Other tracks still rely on screens that are mounted to semi-trucks that are often too small and have a resolution too poor to truly view from a distance. It's no secret that video has become king in other sporting venues—what's taking so long for NASCAR?

Important Statistics and Stories Should Play More Visual Role

At home, fans can use the "second screen" approach to keep abreast of NASCAR races in ways mostly impossible at the track. The social media aspect has already been discussed, but other online tools can provide individual driver lap times, tell which drivers are moving forward or backward and provide instantaneous looks at point standings. Some of those are available in the expensive and clunky Sprint FanVision system available for rent at tracks, but they aren't available to the masses who simply buy a ticket.

To go with those improved video screens, tracks need to more smartly display overall running order (in a static, non-rotating format that can always be viewed at a glance), highlight the fastest car on track for a given lap, show which drivers have gained the most spots since a pit stop or restart and show live split times between leaders or other important on-track battles.

Each of those help tell the race's story to fans in the stands. Even experienced fans can easily get lost in the race's dramatics when leaders start to lap slower cars.

Greater Access to the Race Outside of the Seat

There are many fans who don't mind staying planted in one seat for the duration of race. Undoubtedly, there are many others who like to roam the grandstand areas in pursuit of differing angles or just to experience more from a sports venue. That's why many recent stick-and-ball stadiums have added concourses and other viewing areas where people can gather and still stay in touch with what's happening on the field.

NASCAR tracks need to do the same, and think beyond the single-seat experience. It's important because the length of races often tops that of other sports. Tracks need to build areas where fans can congregate, still see the track if they wish and also have access to multiple televisions. The gratuitous TVs many tracks place above concession stands just aren't enough. For races with mundane periods, an area perfect for a change of pace could be critical for keeping casual fans entertained.

Consider Driver-Specific Cheering Sections

An element of mainstream sports that be so encapsulating is the emotion a crowd feels for the home team. NASCAR is different in that regard thanks to each of its teams competing on the same field of play every week. Tracks should merge these elements by considering driver-specific cheering sections. Imagine the fun that could be had by putting Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans next to Kyle Busch fans as those drivers race for the lead.

The driver-specific seating areas could even offer premium connectivity. Imagine taking the idea some airlines use that allows individual flyers to listen various radio channels via a standard headphone jack and selection knob. Adapt that technology to the seating area by providing fans a chance to plug-in and select from a few listening options like their driver's scanner channel, the radio broadcast or the television broadcast. While we're at it, provide USB connectivity to charge various devices.

NASCAR's live event experience has long been good for those experienced and dedicated enough to fully immerse themselves in the race. But those barriers to entry and overall enjoyment shouldn't really shouldn't be so high. By taking what's working for other sports, being innovative in telling the story of the race and accommodating new fans, the track experience can be improved.

Looking at the empty seats dotting so many tracks today, there's plenty of demand for fresh ideas.