Let’s talk about access in motorsports

The Rolex 24 is a world-class event that gets a lot of things right. But nothing I saw while at the track this weekend was more impressive or eye-opening than the access fans receive.

There was the pre-race grid with no ropes, where fans could literally touch the cars or walk up to the drivers — including some big names — for a selfie. There was an autograph session in the fan zone, just hours before the event began. And there was the opportunity to stand inside the garage — no joke! — and watch teams make repairs during the race.

Access is a funny thing in racing. Most forms of motorsports emphasize it and get their racers to buy into it. With 90 percent certainty, I’d say you could meet any driver in sports cars, IndyCar (full-field autograph session once per weekend), Supercross (race day autograph session at each rider’s hauler), NHRA (every ticket is a pit pass and the drivers sign right at their pits) or sprint cars (drivers stay at their cars after the race when pits are opened to all fans).

But in NASCAR, your chances of getting an autograph from a specific driver vary wildly. Much of it depends on whether you happen to be at a race weekend where the driver is making an appearance (either at an off-site business or an at-track display area). If not, you’re probably not going to meet a driver unless you have a garage pass (which mostly aren’t for sale), go to a track like Phoenix or Richmond that allows fans inside the garage walkway or get invited to attend a race day hospitality appearance through a driver’s sponsor.

Why is that? Well, let’s be frank: NASCAR typically has many more people at the events than those other series. That’s not a knock on other forms of racing, but the demand is simply greater.

Now, is this lack of access — compared to other series — holding NASCAR back? Brad Keselowski certainly took exception to that notion, and I agree. NASCAR has much more pressing issues than increasing access, and simply doing so would not solve many of its problems.

It also might create more problems, since stock cars are so sensitive to tampering and there have also been incidents where fans view drivers more like WWE characters than real people (remember Kyle Busch vs. the Bristol fan last summer?).

But aside from the grid, those who still make a living in NASCAR should pursue ways to do more. If IndyCar can still have a full-field autograph session the day before the 500, if Lewis Hamilton can walk an autograph line at a listed time once per F1 weekend, if fans can rub shoulders with the world’s best sports car racers moments before they get into the car at the Rolex…well, that just shows that saying hi to a Cup star at Kentucky shouldn’t be that impossible.

But let’s back up for a second. How did we even get to this point?

I don’t go to an NFL game and expect to interact with any of the players. I don’t get mad when I attend a baseball game and there’s no on-field access during batting practice.

So where did this idea come from in racing, that everyone has to be so available and fans have the opportunity to get up close and personal with the cars?

If you think about it, the idea of “access” goes hand-in-hand with the promotion of a race as more than just a competition; it’s an “event.” When a fan buys a ticket, there’s an expectation watching the race isn’t the only thing they’ll do at the track. It’s an entire day of memories being made: Walking around, looking at pits or display areas, having something to eat or drink, shopping for souvenirs and, yes, maybe catching a glimpse of one of the brave racers who is about to put on a show.

Sometimes, the event mentality even spills over to during the race itself — like at the Rolex or the Long Beach Grand Prix, which has various series race from dawn to dusk. You can’t watch all of it, so you do other things and catch the action when you feel like it.

That’s the difference between motorsports and major league sports, in which the game itself is what’s being marketed. When I go to an NBA arena, I’m showing up for the game, watching it and going home. That’s it.

Racing is much more about the experience, which is why Marcus Smith brought back the NASCAR Trackside Live stage and why Chicagoland Speedway is having an on-site carnival during its race weekend this year. Fans expect more value from their time and their ticket, which has become a motorsports tradition over the years.

That said, NASCAR had gotten away from that over the last decade as the big-league mentality seeped into the sport. Decision-makers treated races like an NFL game and forgot about the little things that made the experience so great, like walking around the souvenir haulers on race day morning.

Hopefully, the trend will return back to focusing on the event as a whole — which means increasing access at the same time. NBC’s Dustin Long recently reported the tracks will have scheduled garage access time for fans this year, which sounds like a positive step.

But it can’t just be the sanctioning body or the tracks or the drivers or the sponsors alone — it has to be everyone. And that’s what the Rolex 24 seemed to do so well.

The fact IMSA’s offices are in the same building as NASCAR and ISC, across the street from Daytona International Speedway, seems like something that should be taken advantage of more often. If anyone in NASCAR is looking for fan-friendly inspiration, they wouldn’t have to go far.

15 Replies to “Let’s talk about access in motorsports”

  1. The off track appearances are down to 3 or 4 drivers any given weekend. You used to be able to find almost any of the drivers somewhere each weekend. Fan Clubs have also gone by the wayside, Kyle Busch is the only fan club that remains. Its sad, but true. The drivers for the most part are becoming more and more reclusive.

  2. Places like TMS have acres and acres of land. More than enough to erect a stage and have quality music on those race weekends. I’m talking everything from rock to country to EDM. You can’t attract younger fans without making this an all-out weekend beyond racing. The Indy 500 has the snake pit. The Rolex has a carnival in the infield. It’s time tracks invest more in to their fans. Obviously, outdated venues with pop-up stages, cheap sound, and artists like Brett Michaels don’t work.

  3. You kind of touched on this, but when I go to an event (ANY event) I am not purchasing a ticket in hopes to meet the athlete or performer. I’m purchasing a ticket for entertainment. Anything beyond that is a bonus.

  4. Driver appearances were once one of the allures of the sport, and well before the boom of the 90’s the drivers understood that. Some drivers such as Keselowski, Truex Jr, Logano still do those appearances with a smile and genuinely seem to appreciate their fans. Richard Petty, who is nearly as popular today as he was when he drove, still understands the goodwill this promotes for the sport. In comparison JJ rarely does appearances, similar to Gordon when he drove unless you want to pay several hundred dollars for a “VIP” experience. Chase Elliott since his rookie year rarely does them anymore. The NASCAR Fan Appreciation event at the Hall of Fame with numerous driver appearances is no more as of this year. There are several reasons for the decline of NASCAR that have been covered at length, all of which are likely contributors to varying degrees. But next to races being taken away years ago from the smaller tracks with character like Rockingham and N Wilkesboro, the lack of accessibility and lack of interest by the drivers to participate in such events bothers me the most and has further diminished my interest in the sport. NASCAR will continue its decline with dwindling TV ratings, declining attendance, downsizing of its track seating, right sizing of its internal personnel and downsizing of the media coverage until collaboratively the teams, drivers and governing body comes to the understanding that the sport will never be what it once was during the boom years, but can still be a healthy and thriving sport, albeit on a much smaller scale , if all of those parties previously mentioned gain a better understanding of what factors lead to that boom in the first place.

  5. I went to my first sports car race last year at VIR after talking about it for years and was amazed by the access. I’d heard about it, but my only real experience being NASCAR, doubted it. Walk right into the paddock area. Not 10 minutes in, we’re walking and I get called out by a driver because I’m wearing his shirt. He was walking back to the truck to debrief with his co-driver, but stopped and chatted for me for about five minutes and talked to me about his accident in qualifying earlier. Even at an appearance at a NASCAR track I’d be lucky to get more than an exchange of pleasantries. It sold me and I haven’t missed IMSA or PWC race on TV since.

    I always imagined that that is what it was like back before NASCAR started restricting infield access over the years.

    Now I know not ever NASCAR driver can stop and spend 5-10 minutes chatting with every fan. Part of that is the demand that’s put on NASCAR drivers is so much higher, but I think this is a large part of what the sport is missing is that personal connection with drivers. Matt Kenseth has been my favorite driver for years because I met him briefly at a short track before he was even a Busch Series driver. When he retired, I pretty much stopped watching overnight.

  6. I think nascar wants to do the right thing for the fans but it will never work without the full cooperation of the drivers and I personally don’t see that happening. Opening the garage for a period of time probably means, when the cars aren’t running, which means the drivers a safely tucked away in their haulers or motor homes. As far as driver appearances, fans are kept a safe distance away and when the interview is over, they are safely whisked away to their waiting golf carts or SUV.
    Having a favorite cup driver is fine, but honestly having a favorite driver in XFINITY or trucks, is better. They don’t have the mega sponsor commitment or egos……….yet. The only problem with this is the tracks put so much emphasis on the cup teams, the XFINITY and truck teams are for the most part, out of sight and out of reach.

  7. NASCAR ‘s attempts to allow fans access to drivers feels very contrived and inauthentic to me. By comparison, meeting drivers at NHRA and Indy events is fun, the drivers are genuine and patient. I agree this is not NASCAR ‘s biggest problem but it’s something they should address at some point. In spite of the fact that people claim the racing itself is the most important part of the sport, the personalities who drive the cars define the sport.

  8. I think NASCAR and drivers to an extent undervalue what a little more access might do for them. If you sign an autograph or take a picture for a kid at a race, you might make a fan for the rest of your career.
    And access doesn’t have to be limited to in-person. Several young drivers like Hailie Deegan have YouTube channels and film vlogs during the race weekend. From those, fans get to see and learn more about drivers and their lives, but on the driver’s own terms. It makes you feel more invested in them and their future success.
    Personally, I was a fan of racing growing up because my dad loved it. Then in college and a while after, I didn’t really watch much if at all because I wasn’t around my dad. I’ve started watching NASCAR and other racing again in the past 6 months or so because I’ve found drivers to root for. YouTube and social media has been a big part of that.

  9. Wandering around the souvenir haulers at the tracks was a great way to spend time…without having to pay for the privilege. Drivers used to show up and sign autographs and actually talk with the fans. I was lucky enough to have a pit pass at Martinsville many years ago, and walking down pit road, seeing the teams at work was a real thrill. but nothing prepared me for the thunder of the cars starting up for practice. Feeling the throb of the engine is something I will cherish forever. For free.

  10. I’ve been in the IMSA paddock at the Glen a couple times. You could get any driver’s autograph & have a photo. I consider it a ‘bonus’, but it’s true, the Cup drivers at the trailers has decreased the last few years. I prefer organized events over bothering a guy during ‘business hours’. Have heard ppl complain drivers are rude for not signing like that; but I think having ‘official’ signings is the way to go. Safer for everyone. There are a lot of nut cases out there.

  11. Racing was built on the Ken Squier line of common men doing uncommon things.
    When you break down the walls it plays into this; and weather you know it or not.. we as a fan love that these guys aren’t 7 foot tall muscle machines, or 300 lbs with a bad disposition.
    That’s a reason people hate pay drivers, they are not common people like us.
    When you go to a dirt track race and stand in the same pit pass line as Kyle Larson and you just see him just being a dad and signing in like everyone else..break the wall of celebrity… but then later in the night you watch him wheel a sprint car and become Superman.
    It’s honestly a stirring thing to be a part of and witness.

  12. The days of drivers having announced times to show up at their souvenir trailer was the best. Controlled environment and of course they sold lots of stuff (even though their margins was low). I met Many drivers at those haulers and only 1 was a jerk to the fans.
    I have also met and observed many drivers and team members, and owners in the garage over the years. Of those 60% were engaging and pleasant, 30% tolerant of the request for autograph but not engaging, 10% either ignored the fans or did illegible scribble on the item and made sure the fans knew this was really a waste of their time. Some of the most engaging to the fans in person have been those perceived on TV as the biggest jerks and vice-versa.

  13. I’m not a fan of increasing garage access. One, it won’t increase driver access much, they’ll just retreat to the motorhomes more, and two, it’s not fair to the guys and gals that are there to do a job working on racecars and the like to have to dodge more and more people each race. But that’s just me, and I know i’m in the minority. And the real reason NASCAR has to be looking into it is easy $. Pocono as an example charges $50. for a pit pass. Now let’s add say $10.00, split 50/50 between NASCAR and track for garage access, most will spring for it after dropping $50 already. And if it happens at an ISC, soon to be NASCAR owned track when they don’t have to share, that’s some easy coin for 20 odd ISC hosted events. In a sport looking for revenue I’d sure look into opening garage access.

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