After walking down a red carpet-covered path, guests munched on chef-prepared food, grabbed a drink and found a comfortable spot to watch some of the racing action on a TV.
They hung out, laughed and perhaps talked a little business, then walked out to the racetrack for a better view.
That’s the kind of scene that would take place at a major-league race, like NASCAR or IndyCar. But this slice of the hospitality experience is actually in the pits of the Clauson-Marshall Racing team at the Chili Bowl, right in the middle of the action at the River Spirit Expo center.
Tucked in the back of the work area for the team’s eight cars, the Clauson-Marshall party area might be a glimpse into the future of dirt racing. After all, series like NASCAR have excelled in part because of the marketing platform it provides to sponsors, who want to bring guests and employees to the track.
“What we wanted to do is showcase our sport,” said co-owner Tim Clauson, father of the late Bryan Clauson. “The Chili Bowl and the Hahn family (founders of the event) give us the venue to do that. We made the decision a couple years ago to go that way, to try and attract bigger sponsors not only to our team, but hopefully to other teams in the sport.”
It worked. With the help of a company called Spire Sports and Entertainment — which represents drivers like Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kyle Larson — Clauson-Marshall was able to get a six-figure commitment from NOS Energy Drink to sponsor all eight of its Chili Bowl cars.
“It’s a viable marketing platform,” Spire’s Joey Dennewitz said. “That type of investment into dirt shows you there’s marketing value in the grassroots. We just had to clean it up a little bit and show it to some of the corporate partners we’ve been working with for NASCAR stuff.”
But the hospitality area has made Clauson-Marshall catch some side-eye from other teams. The other pits all up and down the expo center building are nothing more than a trailer with a car out back and a bunch of crew members working away. No other team has a party area in its pits — even powerhouse Keith Kunz Motorsports.
Co-owner Richard Marshall said the team heard “a lot of complaints” last year when it first set up the hospitality zone, because “it’s dirt racing, and everybody ought to have greasy wrenches laying around everywhere.”
“But I don’t care, because as far as I’m concerned, this is the way you should take care of your sponsors,” he said. “That’s the way it should be done.”
The sponsorship has allowed the team to continue to make gains on Kunz, whose cars have been dominant as usual heading into Saturday’s main event.
Kunz-prepared cars driven by Kyle Larson, Rico Abreu and Christopher Bell won the first three nights of the Chili Bowl prelims while Clauson-Marshall drivers Tyler Courtney and Shane Golobic locked in A-Main spots but didn’t win.
On Friday night, though, Clauson-Marshall driver Justin Grant beat out KKM’s Spencer Bayston for the A-Main victory to give the team some momentum heading into the night that really counts.
“I think we’ve got a pretty good chance,” Clauson said.
As Grant took pictures on the stage with his winner’s plaque, the platform became filled with a couple dozen people who joined in on the celebration. Not only crew members were encouraged to come up, but their families as well.
“It’s like our Christmas and Thanksgiving. Why not?” Marshall said. “It’s the way I’ve done business my whole life. I want the employees to feel like they’re important. I want their families to be involved. And it’s a culture we enjoy.”
— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) January 13, 2018