By Pete Williams
I did not grow up much of a NASCAR fan. But I’ve become one ever since my sons saw the Disney movie “Cars.”
I didn’t think that would translate into them following actual NASCAR, but they’ve become avid fans. I took my older son to the season-ending race in Homestead, Fla., in 2008 and for the last two years my wife and younger son have come along. Years ago, I attended races in Dover and Richmond, and I hope to take the boys to those venues.
You might think a NASCAR event is no place for kids. It’s loud. Smoking is mostly condoned and there’s lots of drinking. NASCAR never will be accused of having a diverse fan base, though it’s made some progress.
But I’ve come to realize that NASCAR actually is the most fan-friendly, family-friendly sport in America. As for diversity, it’s still a mostly Caucasian experience. I’ll say this, though. In recent weeks I attended the two World Series games in San Francisco and the Ironman 70.3 triathlon championship here in Clearwater and I saw far more people of color at Homestead Speedway yesterday than at either of those events.
I’d much rather take my kids to a NASCAR event than an NFL or Major League Baseball game. Let me count the ways:
LESS NOISE: It’s become impossible to carry on a conversation at an NFL or MLB game. That’s because teams feel it’s necessary to play LOUD music during any stoppage of play. Between walk-up music and the cancer that is “Stadium Click Effects,” the point-and-click digital software that enables stadium operators to plug in movie clips, advertisements, and graphics to incite the fans to make more noise, there’s not one moment of silence – ever. Plus, many teams have taken a cue from minor league baseball and hired some fledging comedian to serve as in-game host, roaming the stands with a microphone for god-awful promotions. Please, somebody make it stop.
It’s much louder at a NASCAR race, of course. But because there’s a caution flag every half hour or so, you get a break for five minutes to chat with those around you. During this time, NASCAR does not assault you with music and noise. That’s because, ironically, NASCAR events feature…
FEWER ADS: Remember when you could attend a baseball/football/basketball/hockey game and not have to deal with a video board on steroids assaulting you with loud ads during every stoppage in play? NASCAR doesn’t do that to you. That’s because the cars themselves are the ads. Soccer also gets this. In most parts of the world, soccer uniforms are emblazoned with logos since there are fewer stoppages in play than with U.S. sports.
Solution? Put logos on uniforms and stop the all-out ad barrage at the game.
BETTER ATHLETES: I’m not suggesting NASCAR drivers are better athletes than those in stick-and-ball sports, though guys like Mark Martin and Carl Edwards are in as good a shape as anyone in sports. I will argue that NASCAR drivers do a better job of behaving – or at least keeping their skeletons in the closet – than any other jocks in sports. That’s because they understand the direct link between their incomes and how they treat fans, sponsors, and the media. No group of athletes, with the possible exception of hockey players, is more accessible.
The two most dominant drivers of the last 15 years have been Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. And the worst thing anyone says about either of those guys is that they’re too clean-cut, polished, and boring.
God forbid we’d have more of those guys in the Big Four sports.
FEWER DRUNKS: I’ve never seen a fight in the stands at a NASCAR race. I’ve never seen a couple of guys carrying a passed-out buddy. I’ve never done a slow burn as drunks around me use foul language and act like jackasses with kids seated nearby.
Admittedly, this is less of a concern when there’s so much noise. Who can hear anyone? But for all of the drunken redneck stereotypes about NASCAR fans, they’re actually a pretty civilized bunch compared to your usual NFL crowd or baseball gathering featuring fans of the Yankees/Red Sox/Phillies. That’s probably because NASCAR fans are…
MORE PASSIONATE ABOUT THEIR SPORT: When was the last time you saw someone at an NFL or baseball game wearing headphones and listening to the radio broadcast? That used to be commonplace, but no more. At NASCAR races, at least 30 percent of the crowd is listening to the broadcast, if not tuning in to the communications between drivers and pit crews. Many people attend NFL and MLB games for the party. For years, teams have sold the “in-game experience.” Come pay $300 to sit in the club level and watch the game from a glorified sports bar. Or entertain the kids at a ballpark playground or interactive game center. Stick-and-ball sports sell the “entertainment experience” and wonder why kids have no interest in the sports themselves.
That is, when you can find kids at the Big Four sporting events. You’ll find many more kids and families at NASCAR events, even though tickets are not cheap. But here’s where NASCAR obliterates other sports leagues when it comes to value.
Homestead Speedway is 20 minutes from Joe Robbie Stadium (or whatever they’re calling it this week). At Joe Robbie, the lousy Miami Dolphins and Hurricanes charge $40 to park for regular-season games. Here’s what fans paid yesterday to park at NASCAR’s year-end, championship-deciding event:
Yep, free parking. NASCAR fans also can bring in food and non-alcoholic beverages. Here’s what my family of four paid yesterday for food and drinks during a nearly four-hour NASCAR race:
Even the souvenirs are reasonably priced. We bought our 5-year-old a Tony Stewart T-shirt ($5) and a $10 Tony Stewart hat. (If he didn’t have a big head like his old man, we could have bought the $7 kids lid.) We also bought both boys several matchbox-size cars of various drivers: $2 apiece. Good luck buying any of that equivalent for twice that price at a Big Four sports event.
As we walked around the merchandise trailers, a racetrack employee spotted our older son wearing his Jimmie Johnson hat and offered him a lugnut right off of Johnson’s car. No idea if this was legitimate, but who cares? My wife and I did quick four-question surveys – no personal information required – and received miniature cars for the kids.
You can stomach high-ticket prices when you’re not slumped over a log Big Four-style for parking, refreshments, and souvenirs. But even here NASCAR gets it. For qualifying events and Nationwide races, the equivalent of Triple-A baseball games (were they to feature a half dozen big leaguers barnstorming for kicks), here’s what NASCAR charges for kids 12 and under:
Compare this to the NFL, which extorts its season-ticket holders to pay full freight for preseason exhibitions for fans of all ages.
As for tickets to the main Sprint Cup event yesterday, they started at $55 and those seats (first five rows) were few and undesirable. In reality, seats were $90 and up for people of all ages, which is high, even for a championship event.
Here, too, NASCAR gets it. NASCAR distributes reams of tickets to its sponsors, many of which go unused. They want to have a sellout, especially in these difficult times. In each of our three visits to Homestead, we’ve been offered tickets at 50 percent below face value – or less. The first two years, a group of South Florida employees of Home Depot saw us standing near the ticket office and sold us $90 seats for $45.
Yesterday a man and his son gave us four great seats and wouldn’t take a dime.
“They were handing them out at his school,” the man explained. “We just wanted to give them to someone who would use them.”
For more than three hours, our sons, 7 and 5, sat and watched the race. They did not ask to use the bathroom or for food and drinks. They did not say they were bored or ask to go to the interactive play area, which doesn’t exist at NASCAR anyway. Unlike baseball/basketball/football/hockey games, where they’re asking to get up within two minutes of the start of the game, they sat transfixed.
As we headed out, a group of Coca-Cola workers handed out free cans of Coke Zero.
More free stuff!
We headed back to our free parking space and headed home, having enjoyed perhaps the best family entertainment value in the world of sports.