FEATURED IMAGE: INDYCAR, SHAWN GRITZMACHER

Dolla Dolla Bills, y’all (Race Edition)

One of the most common complaints I hear every race is, “It looks like there’s no one there.” I see it on Twitter when I’m actually at a race, surrounded by people. I think it myself when I’m watching a race (like the Monterey Grand Prix). My mom has texted me before when she does her annual check of the 24 Hours of Daytona and simply said, “Is there anyone there?” Our eyes fall on empty grandstands and then trail along the fence, searching for over eager fans as the cars fly by, driven by some of the best drivers in the world. Sometimes, the emptiness is all too obvious. It can be easy to explain to those watching from home, “Oh, sports car fans don’t sit in grandstands. The infield was packed!” Other times, it’s hard to deny that a sports car event isn’t getting the numbers it deserves.

As a sports car racing fan, I may be biased when I say that we see some of the best racing in the world from series like FIA World Endurance Championship, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, or Pirelli World Challenge, among many more incredible international options. The thrills and excitement that come with watching GT cars that we dream of owning race amongst the spaceship-like prototypes are like nothing else in the world of racing. We all can enjoy open wheel racing like IndyCar or F1, but with how hit or miss those series have been lately, I’d much rather spend a few hours of my weekend glued to the TV for a race like yesterday’s WEC 6 hours of Spa.

So why aren’t people going to races?

I actually need to stop here and point out that WEC at Silverstone had 52,000 spectators, while yesterday’s race at Spa reported 56,000. Nearly 84,000 people turned up at Barber Motorsports Park for the Verizon IndyCar Series race, and you have to figure a good chunk of them watched the Pirelli World Challenge races. While IMSA doesn’t report on attendance figures, Daytona has sold out of Rolex 24 four day passes and infield parking for a couple of years in a row, and it’s hard to deny that Sebring has grown every year since the merger. So am I asking the wrong question? Are people attending races? Honestly, I wondered if I had been a little hasty in asking this question.

PHOTO: INDYCAR, SHAWN GRITZMACHER

PHOTO: INDYCAR, SHAWN GRITZMACHER

And then I watched IMSA at Monterey. I know it can look a little skewed on TV, but when I asked around, people who were there confirmed it. Mazda Raceway had a pitiful crowd. A split race format with several support series on hand, and the grandstands and open areas around the track looked empty. But maybe that was one race. Maybe I’m overreacting here. Maybe there’s nothing to explore.

This column, when I set out to write it, was going to be about attendance at races. I was going to write about what people are missing out on and that going to a race live is one of the best things you can do. But when I looked at numbers like 52k, 56k, 84k, I thought enough people were aware of that. No, they’re no where close to the numbers of NASCAR or F1, but they are respectable attendance numbers. The Indy 500 has sold out this year. Racing clearly is still a popular enough sport.

So why are you reading this far? Because the reason for this column has actually changed. You see, I am addicted to racing. I can admit that. Hi, my name is Katie and I’m addicted to sports car racing. And when I’ve gone a month without being at the race track, I start to get a little twitchy. So I do this thing where I start to price out races around the country. I go through the IMSA schedule and I google map everything and try to figure out if I can swing an extra race. And as I went to each track’s site to look at ticket prices, something hit me.

Racing is expensive.

Okay, we all know that. It’s expensive for the drivers and crews and teams. It’s expensive to put on an event. The cars, the parts, the behind the scenes things that we never see…all of that is expensive. But I’m not just saying that racing is expensive for those who are involved, who work in the sport. I’m saying it’s expensive to be a racing fan. Traveling to a race, paying for lodging, food, drinks, sunscreen, merchandise…we put money into this sport, to enjoy this sport. But it’s more than that. The price we pay before we ever step foot outside our doors to attend a race is high.

What made me realize this? It was actually when I was pricing out my favorite race, the Six Hours of the Glen. The Glen was actually my second race ever, and my first true endurance race. I love the town of Watkins Glen, the track, the people who work there, and the racing more than I can say. It holds a very special place in my heart. So when I went to go look at ticket prices, imagine my surprise when I saw the prices: $80 for a three day weekend and $50 for parking. It equals $130 total for one weekend. Maybe that doesn’t sound like very much, but it also crossed my mind that I had only paid $10 more for a twenty-four hour race in January. The other thing that crossed my mind? When I attended my first Six Hours of the Glen six years ago, I paid $30 for the entire weekend, though it should be noted that I can’t remember if that included parking or not.

Nevertheless, that’s a 166% increase in price in six years. One hundred and sixty-six percent increase in six years. The race itself hasn’t changed. It’s a six hour endurance race. There are support series there. And I do love the Glen. I really do. It is, in my opinion, one of the best race tracks in North America. But that is a mind boggling number. 166%. In six years.

So I started to look a little more at other races. I started off with IMSA because it’s my favorite North American sports car series and because I’d be more willing to travel for an endurance race than for a sprint race. I saw prices that surprised me. $80 for a two day event at Lime Rock Park. $90 for a three day event at Mazda Raceway. $105 for three days at Road America. When I averaged out the cost per IMSA race, I saw just how much the racing season can cost for a really dedicated fan: $93.25 per race. With parking costs included, that number rose to $124.08.

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Maybe it’s not that shocking of a number. It seems high, absolutely, but we’re getting our money’s worth, right? I mean, with IMSA, you get to see the cars up close, you can meet your favorite driver, you can walk through the paddock, and you get support series, racing for days. But, still, this number was pretty unsettling. This led to me taking two different steps.

  1. I conducted a series of polls on Twitter, asking racing fans some simple questions. How many races do you attend a year? What’s the most important factor that goes into deciding what races to go into? Which series do you believe gives you the most bang for you buck?
  2. I decided to compare the cost of the three major sports car series that race in North America. This includes Pirelli World Challenge, IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship, and FIA World Endurance Championship.

My polls, in some way, were the most surprising part of this whole ordeal. The first question was pretty simple and the answer was not surprising:

That lined up perfectly with my findings, a little less than $100 per ticket. I did not specify including parking, which makes me wonder if that number would go up. The next question was simply asking an opinion:

That also lined up perfectly with my findings. Race tickets have gone up over the last five years, though I’m not sure anyone actually expected how much they’ve gone up. The least offensive ticket increase? Daytona’s 6% increase from 2011. I’ll give them a pass on this one. Nevertheless, 61% of people said their race attendance hasn’t changed since tickets increased. Other questions involved what went into the decision to attending races. 73% of people said they consider support series. 94% said track location was very important to them. 43% said location was the most important factor in deciding what races to attend.

And then I asked a really simple question:

One to three races is a good amount of races a year. I’m attending four this year, and last year’s six was probably more than necessary. But I have to wonder, would people attend more races if the costs were lower? Or are we so used to how much tickets cost that we just don’t worry about it anymore? I know I shell out my money for Daytona every year like it’s just another bill that has to be paid.

But I think the more important question here is how do we ask people who aren’t racing fans to spend the kind of money we’re asking them to spend? If you had a friend who you were trying to get into racing, what event would you take them to? Would you be willing to ask them to spend nearly a hundred bucks on something they might not like? What series would you take them to? Are there certain series that give more bang for their buck?

This is where my polls got interesting. When I asked Twitter what series they consider to be the most expensive? 74% of people said it was FIA WEC. It’s a huge amount. When I asked them who they thought provided the most bang for their buck? 41% said IMSA, only 26% said WEC. So, I went to the numbers. And I did research. And the answers surprised me.

A couple of disclaimers here before we go into the actual cost of races:

  1. North American race fans might consider WEC to be more expensive because of travel expenses. There are only two races on the WEC calendar in North America, the rest are in Europe and Asia. So, of course, it would cost more to travel to WEC races. However, that wasn’t what I asked. I asked, specifically, who was the most expensive ticket wise.
  2. I did not include Le Mans in WEC numbers. The reason for this is that Le Mans tickets are incredibly complicated. There is simply no comparable ticket to a three day all access pass. I did do a separate analysis with the cheapest option, but it doesn’t compare at all to other WEC races. Also, Mexico isn’t included in this number as ticket prices have not been announced yet.
  3. Pirelli World Challenge is interesting in that its ticket prices include IndyCar. The races that were PWC only were certainly far cheaper and IndyCar drove up the average cost of PWC tickets, but there was no way to separate them, and I included IndyCar as a support race that you get along with your sports car racing.

With that out of the way, I’m going to make a simple statement: IMSA is the most expensive of the three major North American race series. There’s no doubt. IMSA’s average of $93.25 is 13% higher than PWC’s average of $82.43 and is 100.03% higher than WEC’s (current) average of $46.00. Even with Le Mans included, IMSA’s average is 81% higher. I’m going to let that sink in for a minute. I’ll let you read the numbers. Read the spreadsheets. Do whatever you need to do as you take that in. IMSA’s average ticket is twice as much as a WEC’s ticket costs. It’s also twice as much as PWC’s standalone race average. Twice as much.

PHOTO: INDYCAR

PHOTO: INDYCAR

Are you good? Okay. So let’s think about this. There is no arguing that WEC doesn’t have as good as access as IMSA does. If you consider, like I do, a big draw to sports car racing being the access to cars and drivers, then absolutely, IMSA is the best bang for your buck. Each IMSA race allows unlimited access to the paddocks. You can get up close to the cars, you’re also more likely to meet drivers outside of a rushed autograph session. IMSA generally also has more support races. On a typical weekend, IMSA has about 3-4 support series on hand to fill the time over a three or four day weekend, compared to WEC’s and PWC’s two (though, with PWC, you’re talking about IndyCar, which is quite the show).

WEC is a little more restricted. While you may be able to walk through the paddocks at races, you don’t generally get to see the cars up close as they are in the garages, though WEC tends to open the garages for an hour or so a weekend at some races. There isn’t a pit/fan walk before the race, unless, in the case of certain races, you’re one of the first 2000 people to buy tickets. At COTA, the access was abysmal in 2015. We had a paddock passes but couldn’t actually see into the garages. There were two promises about an open pit walk, both of which were cancelled, so seeing the cars up close was impossible. The autograph session took place on the front stretch immediately after the then WeatherTech Championship race, behind a fence as the drivers walked up to sign autographs. It was a nightmare.

So again, if you consider access to cars to be the most important factor of getting your money’s worth, then it’s fair to say that IMSA has the right to charge more. If, like 69% of the Twitter voters, you consider the length of races when you’re buying your tickets, then the NAEC, with a ticket average of $91.25, might be something for you to consider. All of WEC’s races, with the exception of Le Mans, are six hours in length. PWC, of course, are sprint races. The access is incredible with IMSA’s endurance races and you get 6, 10, 12, or 24 hours of racing.

If quality of racing is more of a factor in getting the bang for your buck, then that’s up to you and your personal opinions. If you like the oftentimes unpredictable and insane quick racing of PWC, then I say go for it, you’ll probably enjoy yourself. But in comparing IMSA and WEC, that’s up to you and your personal preference. I can say the best race I went to last year was COTA. It was worth every bit of the $79 I paid and I’m going back this year. It was like a sportscar party.

But I want to circle back to my original question: why aren’t people going to more races? How can we convince people to go to more races? The fact is, sports car racing can often be confusing to follow in person. To make matters worse, a lot of these tracks are off the beaten path, where hotels can price gouge and travel can be expensive. The smaller tracks are charging as much for a two hour race in IMSA as they are for a couple of sprint races with PWC. And it can be really hard to justify the costs there.

I’ve asked around and no one could really give me a straight answer on who decides ticket prices, but general consensus seemed to be the tracks. I undestand that a lot of these tracks are small and are hosting very big events with large numbers of people. I appreciate what every track does in conjunction with a series to put on a great show and I can’t imagine what kind of man hours go into running a great event. I’ve seen what Daytona looks like after the 24, and the people working these events deserve a raise, praise, and a drink. And while racing is expensive for teams, drivers, and series, I can’t help but wonder how much of a burden will continue to put on the fans? If a ticket price can go up 166% in six years, you have to wonder how much more it will go up in another six or in ten. You have to wonder how you ask a newbie to the sport to spend that kind of money, and then to factor in travel, hotel, food, and merchandise. I think, for me as a racing fan, I’m starting to wonder how much is too much?

FEATURED IMAGE: INDYCAR, SHAWN GRITZMACHER

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