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NASCAR's most picturesque track? Bryan Sperber's Phoenix is right there....Now how many seats can he fill?


Remember Bobby Hamilton winning at Phoenix in the King's No. 43? (Photo:RacingOne/Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   This lanky, collegiate professor-type, perhaps a long-distance runner through these hills when it's not too hot, is the front-line general out here in the Southwest for the NASCAR Frances, in stock car racing's running battle this season against the tough U.S. economy.
   So Bryan Sperber has had to leave that white Fender guitar over in the corner for a while. No time for jamming right now.
   His job at the moment is two-fold, and basically simple: fill these 76,800 grandstand seats for Saturday night's Subway 500K, and put as many fans up on the Phoenix International Raceway hillside as he can….while keeping a wary eye ahead toward the already developing plans for next season's events here too.
   "Actually we're doing pretty well, even though this market has been hit pretty hard by the economy," Sperber says.
   "Our whole Phoenix market has been based so much on housing, particularly with speculators from Southern California….and when the housing market softened, not only was home-building hit but also construction and the trades, all the technicals of the home-building business was caught up.
    "And that's including a lot of race fans.
   "So that has presented a challenge.
   "On the other hand, we present a pretty good value-price."
    Which is more than a lot of larger tracks can say right now, given too much follow-the-leader stuff out there on the asphalt.

Track boss Bryan Sperber, one of the top sports power brokers in Phoenix (Photo: Phoenix International Raceway)

"This won't be a record year by any means, but we're pretty pleased, considering the challenging circumstances," Sperber says. "We'll be full, but I don't think it will be a 'hard' sellout. I don't want to get caught up in that 'sellout' thing, that streak thing; that sometimes works against you: 'Oh, I could never get a ticket to that race…..'"

   In fact Sperber's track may be perfectly sited, aside from the currently terrible economy.
   Phoenix been a boom town, go-go-go, for most of the 20 years NASCAR's Cup series has played here.
   NASCAR is well established in this neck of the woods, since even before the tour added Buddy Jobe's place.
   Phoenix' Sky Harbor airport is a major hub for Southwest and USAir, making flights in easy (especially compared to Las Vegas and Fontana, Calif.).
    There are plenty of hotels and restaurants in town – even now way out here, where there has been a remarkable, even amazing, transformation in this part of town over the past few years.
    This area used to be little more than cotton fields and stinky ranch land, albeit framed by some of those beautifully jagged peaks of the Estrella Mountains.
   But now the road off I-10 to the track has become a booming area, with huge malls and expansive condo and home developments.
   "We've seen unprecedented growth here. When I came here seven years ago, we were considered 'out of town," Sperber says. "But the community has moved so rapidly to the west past us….all the way to the White Tank Mountains….
   "And with that, it's brought improvements to the roads, and we have better access to the track than ever. Like the new 101, which gives us better access to the fans in the north."


And they always clear the hillside of rattlers before opening the gates.....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

The fall 500 at Phoenix International Raceway is typically a given – with beautiful weather and the end-of-season championship chase's penultimate event. After that November race, there's only Homestead.
   And the line for years has been Phoenix is either the graveyard of championship hopes or the place where the title is really decided. If a challenger doesn't leave here that evening within at least 30 points of the tour leader, it's usually wait till next year.
   So fans haul in here long-distance from all over the West, even down from British Columbia, in waves of campers and cars that stretch all the way to the horizon.
   However the spring race – despite almost glorious weather (80 to 85 degrees during the day, with crystal-clear blue skies, and 60 at night), and even the occasionally dramatic, and highly touristic, snowfall at the Grand Canyon barely four hours up the road – is more of a local crowd.
    And the local economy, as pretty much everywhere, is down in the dumps.
    So, in its fifth running, this spring race, like new second Cup events at other tracks, may be a bit problematic.

   Not only are other NASCAR promoters sweating out ticket sales this season, they're also becoming increasingly worried about ticket renewals for 2010 – with the combination of the weak economy and job losses along with less than tantalizing action out on the track.
    So Sperber is anxiously hoping for a slam-bang 500K Saturday night – maybe Kyle Busch getting knocked out of the way on the final lap by Carl Edwards, or Jeff Gordon pounding his way around Jimmie Johnson off the last corner – to pump up ticket renewals and make sponsors happy.

Carl Edwards, winning last year's Nationwide race, may be getting a bit riled this season with so many near-wins (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


The 2010 season is uppermost on everyone's mind in this sport, Sperber says, "because a lot of decisions about 2010 are being made right now – whether it's to sponsor races or sponsor race cars or renew tickets. People are making decisions right now about their plans for 2010.
   "Hopefully the economy will stabilize and give people more optimism."

    One issue for NASCAR execs to ponder – is this particular race weekend just right for the sport, or should it perhaps swap out with California's Auto Club Speedway, which seems to have considerable difficulty with its own late February Cup date?
   Phoenix weather has both pluses and minuses. This event, for example, comes too early in the season for a family vacation to the Southwest. And summer heat, well, even a race under these lights might be a hard sell; the average high here in early June is 100, the average low 75.
   Sperber says his track won't be swapping 2010 race dates with Gillian Zucker's California track: "Remember, we run in November, and to turn around and run again in February would be difficult.
   "Plus, this is a night race, and believe it or not, it gets cold here in February.
   "We like April; we could go a couple of weeks earlier, or a week later. But we like April.
    "And, being a night race, we promote the fun, party atmosphere of it all. In November the race is the sport's semifinals, and there's a championship flavor about it, a more serious nature."

NASCAR's car-of-tomorrow may not be a thriller at big tracks, but at Phoenix Bryan Sperber says it fits just right (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Sperber has seen the economy here sinking for a while: "Because this market is so tied to housing, we saw this market softening in 2008.
   "So we began to really looking at the value situation, to see what we could do to make coming to Phoenix even more compelling.
   "We worked with our concessionaires, to lower prices, and we're bringing out new products – like we've got the Speed Cantina, which we've worked out with Speed, and we've added Roll Bar, which we've worked on with Anheuser-Busch. Things like that to create more attractions."
   Now NASCAR's monopolistic concession business has long been a bitter pill for many fans and corporate customers to take. For example, General Motors has closed down many, if not all, of its race track suites this season, even though the rent has already been paid, because GM doesn't want to pay the exorbitant price for food-and-drink.
   And fans know all too well about those $5 cups of beer and $9 sandwiches…..

   "We've also done something with the ticket prices," Sperber goes on. "We've lowered some…in part, as a reaction to the economy, but also in an effort to use this opportunity to reach some new fans.
   "Just like any business, we have to look into the future and find our customers of tomorrow.
   "I remember back when I was growing up and my dad took me to races…and I did not grow up in an affluent home. So it was a struggle for my dad to take me to the races.
   "So what can we do here to help dads bring their sons here, to help moms bring their daughters….
   "Now we've got a $25 reserved seat for the Cup race (5:30 p.m. MST Saturday) and a $7 reserved seat for the Nationwide race (Friday evening, 6:30 pm MST).
   "So the Nationwide race becomes a great opportunity to bring an eight-year-old to the track."


The Arizona sun can be merciless...one reason to race under the lights (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

There is also the need either to keep fan-momentum or to regain that momentum.
   Regardless of the price point of a ticket, the big problem is to fill the stands, to show the TV audience that this track is a place to be.
   California Speedway, for example, is already mired in the muck of a weak on-track product, which NASCAR, for whatever reason, continues to refuse to address.
   In the end, it's all about 'the product on the track.' To sell tickets, Sperber, like Zucker and other NASCAR promoters, need a solid product to offer.
   "But I've got to say that with this new car, the sweet spot just might be tracks like this one and the three-quarter-mile tracks (like Richmond)," Sperber says. "It really performs well at these places. The racing at Phoenix the last couple of years has been excellent – side-by-side, three-wide, at this place, and tight as it is? That's pretty good.
   "Certainly every track president, every driver, everybody that watches the sport can see there are opportunities for improvement, particularly at the bigger tracks…and maybe this is an opportunity to build on.
   "I hear what everybody is saying (about the lack of action at some tracks), but then you watch a race at Phoenix, and there is so much passing, and all the way through the field.
   "It is pretty amazing here."
   And Sperber hopes to be saying that again around midnight Saturday.

Jimmie Johnson won Phoenix last fall. Is it teammate Jeff Gordon's time this weekend? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)




76,000 seats at a track in the 5th largest city in the country that is a disgrace and they are still trying to sell tickets I say cancel a date unless they can sell more seats.

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