Originally created 06/04/06

Tracks woo families to increase receipts



JENNERSTOWN, Pa. - As stock car engines howl in the background, Dave Wheeler raises a small air cannon to his shoulder and sends a bundled T-shirt tumbling through the air toward the stands at his racetrack.

Screaming fans, many of them children, jump to their feet and reach skyward in hopes of catching the souvenir. Nearby, other kids get their faces painted, crawl around a playground or wait in line for snow cones.

It's opening night at Jenners-town Speedway, and the diversions are many for a segment of fans that racetrack owners and stock car enthusiasts say is vital to the sport's future - families.

With stock car racing's recent boom in popularity, small racetracks are sprucing up their facilities to attract parents and children in ever-larger numbers.

"We're just trying to get it all family, family, family," said Mr. Wheeler, a 53-year-old former stock car driver who bought the track four years ago. "Everybody wants to sell racing. We're selling entertainment."

To appeal to more than just die-hard race fans, Jennerstown Speedway and other "short tracks" - asphalt circuits up to a half-mile long - have done away with seedy attractions of yesteryear, such as short-skirt contests.

Instead, they try to offer more wholesome entertainment and activities, including an intermission in which kids scramble to collect pennies scattered across the track or visit the pit area to scoop lollipops off a race car.

Some have built fresh facilities, with clean bathrooms and concession stands and ample space for parking. Furry mascots and clowns mingle with spectators amid the aroma of rubber and oil.

Keeping ticket prices affordable - $8 for adults at Jennerstown - is crucial to filling the stands, said Mr. Wheeler, who also owns a national chain of automotive stores.

The efforts have paid off. Attendance at the speedway tripled last year, reaching an average of about 1,500 people for Saturday-evening races, Mr. Wheeler said.

"I attribute that quite frankly to what we're doing, what seems to be happening nationwide," he said.

Mr. Wheeler said his and other small tracks have benefited from the rise of NASCAR, which has a huge national audience. Andrew Giangola, a NASCAR spokesman, said the trend toward families is evident at tracks of all sizes. He also said NASCAR's fan base is 40 percent women.

"I think a lot of this is independent entrepreneurs listening to their customer base," he said. "These tracks are in competition for the entertainment dollar."

Mr. Giangola said the sport appeals to families because cars are one of the things kids play with, and "kids tend to be attracted by the colors and the sights and the sounds and the speeds."

Tony Stewart, the reigning Nextel Cup champion, also recognizes the value of catering to fans. He offers pre-race entertainment at Eldora Speedway, the half-mile dirt track he bought in Rossburg, Ohio, in late 2004.

"Obviously, we do have a different angle that other short tracks don't because of who we are with NASCAR," he said. "Hopefully, what we are doing is opening the eyes of corporate America to the value of short-track racing."

James J. Miley, whose family owns two racetracks in western Pennsylvania, said it is difficult to entice family spectators to return to stock car races regularly.

"That means ... we better be a fan-friendly, family-friendly facility because people don't come every week, and they do have a lot of entertainment choices," he said, pointing out that his Motordrome Speedway in Carnegie installed a playground last year.