It was not long after I started at PRI that an interview suddenly veered down a different path, and the racing businessperson on the other end of the phone line said with some urgency that we should publish an article soon about a very important issue: the rising expense of racing. His concern was that the racing industry was pricing itself out of business. I shared this suggestion with the publisher, who said we might just want to wait for a while to do the article. That was 24 years ago. Yet, I can still have virtually the same conversation about the rising price of racing today.
The number of racers grew significantly during my time here at PRI, and it didn’t have anything to do with racing becoming more affordable. Much of it had a lot to do with safety. The number of participants grew because advances in race safety countered their legitimate fears about getting out on the race track. Also, racing was promoted more than ever as cable TV found it to be a vast, underserved market. NASCAR, NHRA and other sanctioning bodies made efforts to remove the ‘outlaw’ aspects of what people perceived as part of racing culture. Race track owners took aim at the market beyond guys to encourage women and families to enjoy the sport. Acceptable women’s bathrooms, better control of alcohol issues in the grandstands, programming aimed at children, and more all became part of the mix.
Interestingly enough, the years of growing numbers of racers occurred when racers were becoming less mechanical. They demanded race parts that could be pulled straight out of the box and bolted right onto the race car. And many were happy to hand over their engines to professional race engine builders because they lacked the skills and interest. Today’s racers may even be less capable with the hands-on technical aspects of racing. A new group of entrepreneurs has sprung up to answer this challenge—specialty installers of high-performance and racing equipment.
Safety, marketing and customer service appear to have been more important factors than price in the health of this industry for the past two decades. I’ve had many great racing businesspeople tell me—and it’s worth taking this space to mention—“We’re not just selling parts.” They say we are selling the real fun in racing: the experience of being able to compete for the win. The racing retailer who can describe the hot setup for the local dirt track is key in this process. The drag race engine builder who can provide a schedule of horsepower advances per a newcomer’s limited budget is doing the brickwork for the foundation of this industry.
The thrills of this sport are an attraction few other pastimes can offer. Safety swung the door ever wider on who will participate. There are easy, very accessible ways to enter the sport. The racing industry must keep sending this message out at every chance. And when the race fan shows up to become a racer, the industry must do well in shortening his or her path to competitiveness. That’s the key value-added ingredient to the sale of a racing component.