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.