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Gillian Zucker's Take: When the US economy takes off again, her track is primed to prosper

  Gillian Zucker, California's Auto Club Speedway pres, says the down economy has hurt her crowds, but she points to marketing efforts in key demographics as setting the stage for a dramatic recovery....eventually (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    By Mike Mulhern

   FONTANA, Calif.
   It appears to be one of the great mysteries in NASCAR – why this sport, which has been playing in car-crazy Southern California since the late 1950s, just can't quite seem to get over the hump here in Los Angeles, why it can't produce socko crowds in what is the second-largest market in the United States.
   Of course at this point it should be noted that the National Football League doesn't even have any presence here any more.
   Still, despite NASCAR's highly-touted Danica Patrick venture, and its push this season to 'Boys, have at it,' in the words of NASCAR competition director Robin Pemberton, California's Auto Club Speedway seemed barely half full for Sunday's 500.
   Gillian Zucker, who runs this track for the France family's International Speedway Corp., says the issue is simple: It's the economy.
   And she points to strong efforts by her staff to promote this race, this sport and this track in this vast geographic area of some 24 million people.
   "I think we saw a slight increase in consumer purchasers," Zucker says of the weekend overall. "But you have to remember that this part of the country is still affected by the economy. You haven't seen the economic recovery. And there are certain pockets of the country that have been hit harder, and this is one of them.
   "We do have 92,000 seats.....and we're pretty much flat (over the crowds last year). But that's saying something, given the state of the economy.
    "The economy is very difficult in this part of the country. And the ones who are out there do care about NASCAR.
    "It's been hard-hit here, with one in 15 homes in foreclosure in the Inland Empire. People here are struggling. We hear the economic recovery is coming, and we're hoping it comes our way.
   "I think we've done the things that, when the economy does recover, we will be poised to take advantage of it."
   Nevertheless, Zucker is now facing speculation about the future of this track – might it lose a Cup date to the ISC's Kansas City track, which is to expand to two Cup weekends with the addition of a major casino on that property?
   However she says there are good indicators that when the U.S. economy does finally bounce back strongly that this track is primed to produce big.
      "We're seeing growth in our Hispanic fan base, approaching 20 percent," she says, pointing to the Latino market as so key to NASCAR.
    "We're seeing growth in our youth market; we've seen more kids here at the Speedway than we've ever seen before
   "We have as many programs as we can possibly squeeze in there.
   "We're doing all the things right. We're getting great support from the broadcast partners.
   "We've had great support from the media.
   "And I really feel when the economy comes back that we're poised to bounce back too.
   "We market everywhere. Bakersfield, Palm Springs, San Diego. In fact some of the inroads we've made in San Diego are pretty monumental.
   "What people tend to forget is that if you want to reach people in the Inland Empire (around this track), you have to buy LA media. It's the only way to reach people here. It's sort of like Daytona Beach – you have to buy Orlando (media).
   "Our focus is really Southern California, and we try to reach out as much as we can, through main media and grassroots efforts. We have a huge geographic area to cover.
   "It was everywhere for this event. We had so many media outlets we've never seen before. I had people emailing me as billboards went up. I had several fans write in and say it seemed like every other ad was for this race.
   "In terms of our media mix, I think it was excellent.
   "Danica brought a lot of attention to this sport, and that is great for NASCAR. We marketed her, but we also marketed Dale Earnhardt Jr. too; and that was one of our most popular packages, our two-day package was our best seller."
   But was Saturday's crowd that seemed quite off from what might have been expected with Patrick as a headliner.
   "I don't think it (the small crowd) was for lack of interest," Zucker said, repeating the economic issues facing potential fans. "I thought it was a great crowd Saturday."
    And for the weekend overall?
   "Coming into the weekend we were about flat, a little off but not significantly," she said.
   Zucker declined to offer a specific crowd estimate.
   To the speculation that this track might lose a Cup date to Kansas City, she was quick to knock that down: "All tracks are not equal. And this track is very important to NASCAR."
   And she said this track "is growing...and attracting a youth market to the sport...a diverse market to the sport.
   "We're out there creating new fans, we're out there selling the message of the excitement of NASCAR. And twice a year Southern Californians respond."
   One point: the media can look at empty seats and consider TV ratings, in trying to judge success. However, there may be a bigger picture to judge. After all, if Zucker and her people can sell NASCAR to the Southern California masses – not just tickets to the two weekend events each season, but the sport itself – maybe that's a better measure of success.
   "Out of all the ISC tracks, there is more sponsorship interest in this track than in any other track except Daytona," she says.
   "And, like (team owner) Richard Childress points out, 'To secure the kind of dollars it takes to sponsor one of these teams, you have to pull from a national budget.' So this (track and market) helps them in that selling point.
   "We've talked about why this market is so important to NASCAR: the diversity of this crowd, for one, and the youth program. And we have a lot more things going on around this track. Jeff Burton just did a children's story-time. And we have a lot of new first-time fans here; so we put together a package for them on how to 'do' a NASCAR event...including what time to get here.
    "We would get letters from fans who said 'it was great, but I got there at the start of the race, because I thought that's when I was supposed to be there...but then I looked around at all the other things going and realized we'd missed the Foreigner concert and all those things....'
   "So we put together this program to teach people about this event, about how, when you come to an event this size, what all there is to do.
   "I love this sport....and I feel grateful for this job of being able to go out and teach people about this sport. And if afterwards they tune in and watch another race on one of our broadcast partners, or they buy merchandise, or they follow it on the internet, or they come to another race somewhere else in this country, that's part of what we're trying to do here."


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   Gillian Zucker has the pom-poms flying, promoting her track...but crowds are still off. She blamed the economy. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)




The problem is not the

The problem is not the economy, the problem is the horrible, mind-numbingly boring racing that occurs at California Speedway. As a lifetime NASCAR fan, I was able to attend my first race in person a few years ago at California Speedway....and the experience almost ruined the sport for me. First and second place more than half a lap apart regularly, no 'pack', no passing for the most part, and overall an experience of boredom and dejection at the money and time spent to watch something less exciting than the Pintos and Chevy Luvs at the local track, by a fair margin.....California Speedway almost ruined NASCAR for me in one weekend, luckily my lady brought me out of my depressed/confused/dejected stupor with tickets to Richmond. My second NASCAR race (in Richmond) reignited my love for the sport, and was well worth the flight across the country. Have seen several races since, love NASCAR, but wish the sham of a track in Riverside could either be reshaped or taken off the schedule completely.....don't waste your money or your time attending a race at this failed charade of a track.

The racing at California is

The racing at California is boring. Could it be that many in Los Angeles realize that? There's no getting around it and no matter what promotion Ms. Zucker does it's not going to put butts in seats of people that see that. NASCAR moving one of the Fontana races to Kansas is just as bad though, because the racing there is no more exciting. I almost feel sorry for these track owners who have to try to promote their track when the racing is bad, at best. Last week I was glued to the TV, even with the long pauses. Yesterday, I tuned in for the last 30 laps and did not miss a thing.

I'll give her props for what

I'll give her props for what she's trying to accomplish. Her biggest obstacle is LAS VEGAS. Move from around that LV event she might have a better draw. Say, you live in NC. And you have a choice between going to a race in FONTANA or LAS VEGAS. Where would you go?

So imagine being 4+ hours away on Cali's I-15 to where you can get more for your money in partyin' and racin'. And on top of that, you're racing in the middle of rain season in SoCal.

She's gonna lose that one race to Kansas. The ISC shareholders need to recoup from a dismal '09 financial year. I don't think her job is in jeopardy, but placing blame on the economy is a cop out. If that was the case, Kansas should have been half-full at the last race, BUT, they were 20,000 OVER and competing with an NFL team, Kansas City Chiefs, for fans. Overall, the fan base in Kansas is much more like the Southeast whereas SoCal is over 60% Latino/Hispanic. She might try to woo a international soccer game there on the frontstretch. May cost less to pack the stands but they'll get packed! And if it rains, no problemo.

The Las Vegas argument is

The Las Vegas argument is more myth than reality. Fontana struggles to sell out even when Vegas isn't racing, and despite its gaudy appearence Vegas is like SMI's other tracks, in that it depends on corporate bulk-buys to sell out.

Fontana won't lose any of its dates because the southern California demographic is considered too big to give up on. The second Kansas date will come from Martinsville, an outdated track in a demographic that is smaller than it was two decades ago.

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If the SoCal demographic is

If the SoCal demographic is too big to give up on, why isn't the NFL there? Just one team and that's San Diego, meanwhile the whole LA market goes overlooked. The population is 3X San Diego's and it's 2 hours away. Meanwhile, you have NY Giants/NY Jets fighting over the same real estate in NJ with the same amount of people as LA.

I've noted repeatedly in

I've noted repeatedly in numerous forums that the LA demographic is grossly oversold as a racing or general sports demographic. My point in the previous post is that NASCAR Thinks this market is too big to give up on. The LA myth is the same one driving the NFL to try and get a team there.

Before the economy went

Before the economy went south, the fans were shopping under the grandstands.

They've been trying to grow the Hispanic market there for how many years now and haven't succeeded?

Unless NASCAR/ISC is prepared to spend the kinds of money Hollywood does in the local media, they're not going to get squat for media coverage outside of the media which currently covers NASCAR.

Despite the valiant and

Despite the valiant and creative but unsuccessful efforts by Ms Zucker to improve the attendance at what some humorists have called 'Gillian's Island', it is clearly time to have only one race a year at California Speedway. The people in California for many reasons are not and have not been supporting NASCAR sufficiently to justify two races including before the economy went into the dumper. The track may need reconfiguring with high banks and a removal of some of the seats but is spending a lot of money on the place worth it? The real question is can even one race survive at the California Speedway? NASCAR is retrenching and consolidating to get through the recession and may have to go with further race reductions. Here's a thought: could Vegas have two raceweekends back to back at this time of year? Ms Zucker, by the way, is one of the best in NASCAR so let's hope that she is able to use her abilities to market events at better facilities with more potential.

Zucker could be right that

Zucker could be right that people in So. Cal. are interested in NASCAR, but unwilling to buy tickets in this economy. There's an easy way to test this. Check the TV ratings.
If lots of people in So. Cal. are watching the races (all NASCAR Cup races, not just those at Auto Club Speedway), we could assume they would be interested in attending a race at ACS. However, if people in So. Cal. aren't even watching on TV, what hope does she have in filling the seats?
If there is no interest in the local market, NASCAR should get out.
Mike, have you seen ratings numbers for the markets in Southern California?

just got them in, and filed

just got them in, and filed them, in my mike's take on vegas...not very impressive, sad to say.....

Thanks, Mike, but what I

Thanks, Mike, but what I meant to ask for were the TV ratings of Southern Californians watching NASCAR races throughout the season, preferably compared to other metropolitan areas that host NASCAR races. Not the ratings of people around the country watching the California race. The former number would tell us how much interest the people of So. Cal. have in watching NASCAR races.
+ Leonard

let me see what i can

let me see what i can get....tv has become tight on figures...but i'll work 'my people.' very good point.

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