It's a buyer's market

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. --- Robin Braig's face was sunburned, except for two small patches around his eyes that were hidden by sunglasses. By 9 p.m. last Saturday, he had been nonstop for more than 12 hours -- make that five months -- at Daytona International Speedway.

 

He sat for a few minutes and watched the Coke Zero 400. He looked down at the filled main grandstands and smiled. He looked at the empty stands on the backstretch and shook his head.

Like everyone else in the sport, Braig considered his track half-full, not half-empty.

"The best place to watch a race is the frontstretch," he said.

A tough economy forced Braig to evaluate everything at Daytona. The first step was to admit he had a problem. Now comes the recovery.

With more than 170,000 seats, Daytona has created supply that far exceeds demand, especially when nearly 10 percent of America is out of work and sponsors are fighting to avoid bankruptcy.

A sport that had been rolling along at a record pace, often without a push, suddenly got off track when fans started to make priorities with their disposable income.

"We're Daytona and we're proud of ourselves," Braig said. "Maybe we're too proud. This forced us to look at ourselves, and we've made changes."

The track dropped ticket prices for last Saturday's race to as low as $40. With about 110,000 people at the track, the plan seemed to work. Braig said tickets will start for as low as $55 for next February's Daytona 500 as the track tries to rebuild its fan base, one ticket at a time.

Despite having about 20,000 more people at the race than last year, the reduction in prices means the track didn't make as much money.

Braig, however, said he'd rather invest now on new race fans than wait until it's too late. He strongly believed anyone who came to their first race last Saturday night will be back.

"We found the less expensive tickets sold first," Braig said.

The speedway conducted surveys as fans left the track. They also commissioned telephone follow-ups in the days after the track.

Braig wants to know what the fans liked about their experience -- and what they didn't like. Part of recreating demand is creating a memorable experience. From free parking, to lower concession prices to ticket payment plans, Braig wants a night at the races to be about more than race cars.

"Everybody in the entertainment industry is playing the same game," he said. "You have to work a little harder if you're going to make it. We've seen this in the last three or four years. That's why we closed the backstretch for July and decided to concentrate on the frontstretch. We feel a lot more fans went home happy.

"We've literally been knocking on doors, selling door to door. We have to fight for every race. We knew the economy was slowing down, but we were a little surprised where it got.

"The old way of doing business is over in this sport," Braig said. "You're going to have to work hard for every single ticket."

Reach Don Coble at don.coble@morris.com.

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