SWEET CHARLOTTE – Young track president is upbeat in down times
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
There’s probably no bad time to be named president of a NASCAR race track, but for Marcus Smith, taking over at Charlotte Motor Speedway two years ago did present some challenges. For starters, he was following H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, the man many consider the greatest racing promoter ever. And then there’s the economy that is hammering auto racing about as hard as any part of the economy.
But Smith, the 36-year-old son of track owner Bruton Smith, was mostly smiling and upbeat recently as he talked about this weekend’s races at Charlotte.
“We’re really focused on making the race better every single time the fans come back, where they’ll really enjoy it as a thing you go to with friends or with family,” he said.
Part of making the races more enjoyable is making the tickets more affordable. And it’s not the easiest thing to do for a person like Smith, who also is responsible for delivering profits to his dad’s company and to its shareholders.
These days in racing, the strongest market for tickets seems to be the individuals who buy from two to four tickets at a time. In NASCAR’s recent boom times, corporations bought tickets by the stack and distributed them to their employees, associates and customers. But not lately.
“Corporate ticket sales have been soft, but we’re starting to see that come back a bit just now,” Smith said. “They really fell off the cliff with the recession. It’s tough times.”
And he’s responded appropriately, he said.
“We’ve lowered prices in a lot of areas,” he said.
“And we offer extra amenities for people who buy a lot of tickets or season tickets. We’ve also lowered prices for people that are just looking to come in for the least amount. That’s good for the fans and in the long run it’s good for NASCAR.”
But will that policy paint him in a corner where he’ll find it difficult to raise prices when the economy recovers?
“It’s no different than any other business, whether you’re selling cereal or race tickets, you have certain expectations of what a fair price is,” Smith said. “We still have tickets that are expensive, $100 or more, but they come with a lot of benefits. And we still have great tickets that used to be $79 and now they’re $49. Sure we’d like to charge more, but at this time we have to charge a fair price for the times we’re in.
“We’re very happy to be able to lower prices in a way that will be responsible to fans and to our company.”
Smith also argued that the media attention on empty seats at NASCAR races, attention that largely comes because of the sport’s successes in the past, is unfair today.
“If you flip on ESPN and see empty seats at baseball or football games, you don’t see stories about attendance being in the toilet,” he said. “We have a history of tremendous sellouts … but on a bad day we’re still bringing in 120,000 or 100,000, and that’s more than a baseball stadium gets in five or six games during regular season.
“It’s a bad economy, but thankfully some people are starting to see it level off and turn around. As things turn around, we’ll start back getting great big crowds.”
Smith also is making strides to emerge from the shadows of his predecessor, Humpy Wheeler. His biggest project to date is a Humpy-like improvement on the backstretch of the track.
That’s where he’s building what he describes as the world’s biggest HD video screen, one that will be 200 feet wide and 80 feet tall.
Construction is expected to begin after this weekend’s races.
“He’s been talking about that since the first day he took over,” said track spokesman Scott Cooper.