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.

A night out in Vegas with David Ragan

Free time can often turn expensive in Las Vegas, which is why I wondered if any Twitter followers wanted to meet up for dinner Tuesday night. I figured it would keep me away from the casinos and also be a fun time to chat with people about NASCAR.

But the night turned out to be way better than expected, and I want to share the story with you.

Three Vegas locals — Hunter, Bruce and Jose — were among those who saw my dinner invitation. But a non-local saw it, too: David Ragan.

After spotting the tweet while lying in bed scrolling through his timeline on Monday night, Ragan reached out with an incredible offer: Why not have the group join him and spotter Rocky Ryan for dinner at an Italian restaurant owned by Ragan’s friend?

So there we were — a driver, spotter, writer and three NASCAR fans — sitting at Ferraro’s, enjoying some crazy good family-style food and talking about all things racing.

As we dined on gnocchi and chicken Marsala and calamari, Ragan told us what it was like to be in the middle of a three-wide pack at Talladega. Ryan told us about his days as Ward Burton’s spotter. The fans told us about why they liked certain drivers and which races were on their bucket list.

While Ragan and Ryan spoke, I kept peeking at Bruce and Hunter and Jose to see their faces, and it was so cool to see them smiling and soaking up the experience. Meanwhile, Ragan and Ryan spent two and a half hours at the dinner — this despite being on Eastern time after just landing in Vegas — and could not have been nicer.

Anyway, that’s it. There’s no “catch” to this story. Ragan didn’t ask me to write about it or even mention it to anyone. He wasn’t trying to promote anything. The fans didn’t have to pay a dime.

Ragan just decided, completely on his own, to give three avid NASCAR followers the kind of memory they’ll treasure forever.


Fan Profile: Paul Baker

These 12 Questions-style fan profiles are one of the rewards offered as a tier on my Patreon page. You can catch up on the other profiles so far this season here.

Name:  Paul Baker

Location:  New York

Twitter name: pauljbaker79

Age: 38

1. How long have you been a NASCAR fan?

Since 2008.

2. How many races have you attended?


3. Who is your No. 1 favorite driver?

Kyle Busch.

4. What made you a fan of his?

I moved to the U.S. from England in 2008 for work, so I was intrigued by the sport coming in. My lucky number is 18 — and who doesn’t like candy? As I got more interested in the races, the more I heard his name. Then I started listening to the team radio and I found the blow-ups entertaining to listen to. So I guess the reason everyone else hates on Kyle is the reason I like him. I’ve learned more listening to Kyle and Tony on the radio than I have through any other medium.

5. Who is your most disliked driver?

I honestly don’t have one.

6. Why not?

I’m a fan of the 18 and I hope he wins whatever race he enters. But I have a lot of respect for all the drivers. What they can do blows my mind. Driving a car inches from each other at hundreds of miles an hour is insane.

7. What is your favorite track?

Growing up watching cars going left and right, I’m going to go with Watkins Glen or Sonoma.

8. What is one thing you would change if you were in charge of NASCAR?

More transparency around the post-race penalties. Everyone wants to jump on the guy who fails, but are we talking a fraction of an inch or a blatant attempt at cheating?

Also, give the drivers a cooling-off period after the race. I know if I have a shitty day at work, the last thing I would want is a camera in my face asking why the day sucked. I get that the raw emotion makes good TV, but the better story surely comes from a clear thought.

9. What is one thing you would keep the same if you were in charge of NASCAR?

The access fans get to the teams and drivers. The pits/garages are a mess of people on race day, but it’s unlike the access you get to sportspeople in any other sport around the world.

10. How often do you yell at the TV during a race?

If the 18 is leading with 10 to go, I’m on my feet pacing (I almost wore out the floor during Homestead 2015) — but I don’t yell.

11. Do you have any advice for other fans? 

I feel I should be asking them for advice still. I guess if anyone hasn’t been to a race, they absolutely should. The races I’ve been to have been some of the best days of my life. And to hear the cars at the green flag — words can’t describe it.

12. What else do you want the NASCAR world to know about you?

I’m a Kyle Busch fan — not Kyle Busch. So if you see me at a race with the shirt and cap, go easy on the cursing at me!