Follow me on

Twitter Feed Facebook Feed RSS Feed Linked In Youtube

Gillian Zucker's Take on Sunday's California 500: Is the glass half-full or half-empty? Will Daytona give her support?

   Gillian Zucker, who runs LA's Auto Club Speedway, does a bang-up job of promoting....but the ticket renewal rates are "very low." She gets the fans to the track...and it's up to NASCAR executives to provide the product that keeps them coming back. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   FONTANA, Calif.
   Gillian Zucker must sometimes feel the pain of Sisyphus, who had to keep hauling that rock back up the mountain day after day, for eternity.
   Because each year she basically has to go out and sell this whole thing all over again. And again.
   Zucker, the woman who's running this place, the woman who wears a Richard Petty smile, the woman who has thrown just about every possible marketing trick at this market except strippers streaking down pit road.
    She says, considering the economy, Sunday's crowd was good. Yes, the 92,000-seat stands were maybe half-full, but the infield was jammed with RV campers, so call the crowd 60,000.
    However, despite Zucker's wide-ranging promotions for her two Cup weekends each season, it is simply hard to sell a product that is this boring. And she concedes the ticket renewal rate by fans is "low," and that may be the most telling point – that fans who come to watch don't usually come back.
   In fact that may be a damning point for the sport's Daytona bosses to consider: Zucker gets fans here, puts on so many side promotions it's dizzying to keep track of, and yet they tend not to come back.
   A better product out on the track?
   Certainly that would help.
   That may be the only missing link in this thing.
   Or maybe NASCAR bosses are just too stubborn to fix the darned cars and slow them down…or change the track….or do anything to change the dynamic that this track has become known for – boring racing.


  Yes, there is a lot more to do at this place than just watch the race...fortunately. What's this, the MAC Store pavilion in the Fan Zone? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Sunday's 500 was, for more than three hours, another snoozer, and only two late crashes, including a huge one on a restart with seven laps to go, provided any drama.
   Yes, this track may have been built an hour too far east of Hollywood.
   Yes, this area is known as one of the world's biggest truck stops, with major league cross-county distribution warehouses everywhere, and more big-rig haulers on the roads than probably anywhere else in the country.
   And, yes, this particular piece of land may be more renowned for being next door to the ancient steel mill where Arnold Schwarzenegger played out one of those apocalyptic Terminators.
    Still, if the product itself were better, the crowds would be better. That you can't deny.
    And yet here again Gillian Zucker sits and faces the press, who hit her up on why this place doesn't seem to succeed.
   Of course she knows – as do the media – that answers this track and this market need should be coming from the NASCAR trailer, where NASCAR president Mike Helton and CEO Brian France hole up.
    Zucker insists she doesn't get frustrated with a sometimes seemingly continual battering from the media over boring racing here.
    Yes, the racing is boring. That is difficult to deny.
    But it sometimes seems like Daytona executives have basically told Zucker to 'shut up and promote,' and stop worrying about the product itself, just the sideshows.
   Considering this is the biggest market that this sport plays in, the second-biggest market in the U.S., and one of the world's top markets, that seems a strange reaction from Daytona.
    Maybe NASCAR is afraid to try to succeed in this market. Maybe it is satisfied with just a presence in LA.
    One solution was first raised by Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip when he suggested putting restrictor plates on the cars here, to slow them down (from 209 mph into the corners) and bunch them up like at Daytona and Talladega.
    Zucker agreed with the thinking.
    But whenever she brings up that idea, she appears to get the cold shoulder from NASCAR.



  Yes, just get Kalifornia Krazy (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Selling NASCAR in Los Angeles/Southern California is still a tough gig, even after playing in this market, on-and-off, since 1958.
   Maybe R. J. Reynolds was right: the best time to try to promote a race in this market might well be late January and early June, which it did back in the 1970s and 1980s, when the LA market seemed so important to the sport.
   Sunday's crowd for the California Pepsi 500 – moved this season from hot, hot Labor Day weekend to mid-October – was again mediocre….though in the current economic climate that might still be pretty good, at maybe 60,000.
    Of course it doesn't help that unemployment in the area is so high, and that home foreclosures are stunning.
   And then there is the competition from other sports, including baseball and the major league playoffs (the Angels sweeping the Red Sox with a dramatic ninth inning rally at Fenway), football, even hockey and horse racing (Santa Anita).
   One of the latest problems – the San Diego newspaper, Jimmie Johnson's hometown paper and a paper with a long history of covering NASCAR, is dropping its NASCAR coverage.
    And the anchor Los Angeles Times is having its problems too.
    But consider this: Saturday's Nationwide race here at Auto Club Speedway was filled wild and crazy, slam-bang racing.
    And yet there was virtually no crowd.
    Then consider this: Sunday's California 500 was typical follow-the-leader stuff…and the 92,000-seat place was maybe half-full.
    It's like a broken record.
    Maybe that plan for increasing the banking here from current 14 degrees to a sizzling 23 degrees is the way to go, make it just a little faster than the two-mile Texas World Speedway, and maybe put plates on the cars. If plate racing is good enough for Talladega and Daytona, why not here too?
    Maybe drivers wouldn't like that. Maybe they prefer to get paid big salaries for follow-the-leader stuff like this.


  Jimmie Johnson celebrates his third straight late season victory at LA's Auto Club Speedway.....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Zucker tries to be diplomatic about it all – after all the same family that owns this track also owns the sanctioning body.
   "I don't know that you would get a better race at 23 degrees," she says carefully.   "When I first heard that idea, I said 'Great!' I love restrictor plate racing at Daytona and Talladega.
   "I think people know this is the fastest race track on the circuit. They're going 209 mph into the first corner. The drivers are already feeling those cars do things they're uncomfortable with.
   "What makes a great race is drivers being comfortable in the car enough that they will try some things that are daring. And I don't think you see that when you get speeds up at this level.
   "Or at least that's what the experts have been telling me."

    So Zucker has to be content to do all the peripheral stuff here…and there's plenty of that, for sure.
   "If you can find one demographic here we haven't targeted, tell me, and we'll go after that for the Auto Club 500 (next February).
   "I would say no. If you went through the Fan Zone, you'd see Viva La Fiesta, which is our Hispanic area in the Fan Zone. Our Latino promotions included King Taco, and we did a lot with Juan Pablo Montoya. We have an incredible relationship with Univision and Telemundo. We have five different Latino radio partners.
   "Budweiser and Bank of America came through too with their Latino programs.
   "And if you look in the grandstands, you'll see those partnerships working.
    "Our kids club program, which we launched in January, has 20,000 members already. They not only got in for free Friday and Saturday, but we set up a scavenger hunt in the Fan Zone, and we had Ryan Newman reading stories to the kids.
   "We had the Foreigner concert, and I've never seen the Fan Zone rock like that.
   "We did a program with T&A Wrestling, which did very well. We did an Angels program and a Dodgers night. And we also did things to appeal to the diehard motorsports fans.
    "In the Party Zone we had Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon back-to-back, and I don't think it gets any better than that. And the fans responded. That Party Zone was three times the size it was in February.
   "If there is something we didn't do, I don't know what. We Tweeted, we Facebooked, we Myspaced….
    "I talked with Brian France before the race, and he asked about what festivities we had going on, so we went over to the Foreigner concert, and we both said 'Wow! Look at how many people are out here.'"
    And all that media pressure to fill the stands?
   "I really felt, going into this race, that we were receiving good support from the media," Zucker said.
    "People are understanding that Southern Californians are great race fans, and the West Coast deserves NASCAR racing, and we deserve a race in the chase.
   "I really felt you all had turned the corner. The media has seen that we market this thing like nobody's business, and the fans respond…but there are other factors that play into this, and you all have recognized that, and we appreciate it.
   "This track deserves a race in the chase, and this track deserves two Cup races.
   "Having this race in the chase made a huge difference. I think the crowd would have been substantially smaller, if we weren't in the chase and enjoying this beautiful fall weather."
    And now on to February?
   The spring event? That February race?
   "Everybody knows we have had challenges with inconsistent weather in January and February. It can be beautiful or it can be cold," she concedes.
    And so it's not unexpected that a possible date swap between this track and Phoenix, which plays in April, has been mentioned.
   "I know Bryan Sperber (head of Phoenix Raceway) hates it when I say it, but I would love his April Cup date," Zucker said with a laugh.


   Gillian Zucker (L) knows the value of star power in LA...but maybe better action on the track is needed too (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)






I have to agree that the

I have to agree that the racing itself is a problem, but don't kid yourself Mike. I went to that track for a number of years and was damn tired of the poor treatment of fans there. The final straw was a few years ago when the situation with got so bad that I felt it was unsafe, and I'm not the only one who felt this... I know at LEAST 25 other people who felt the same way. I made the decision not to go, and I sent an e-mail to Ms. Zucker and my account rep detailing the reasons why I wouldn't be returning. I got no response. When I didn't renew my tickets for the next race, I got a phone call asking why and I told them. They said they never saw the e-mail, asked me to resend it, and when I did, I THEN (6 months later) got a response from Ms. Zucker. There were a few e-mails back and forth, but her response was basically to tell me that I was wrong in the way I was feeling about it all.

The media tells us that the fan friendliness has gotten better, but I still would NEVER spend my hard earned money on a place that gave that kind of response. Not just to me, but to the friends of mine that told them the same things I did. I'd rather go a few hours out of my way to Phoenix where fans are treated WONDERFULLY, than contribute a track run by someone who made it clear that she didn't want to listen to fans!

You could have Talladega at

You could have Talladega at Fontana. All 2.66 miles of track, 33 degrees of banking with restrictor plates and the whole nine and you'll get the same result. Why? Traffic, ticket prices, Dodgers, Angels, USC/UCLA Football. Although Cali is car crazy, it's more a drag strip state of mind, than either road racing or stock car racing. Riverside was a great venue and internationally known but the crowds then were sparse. Ontario, the Indy of the West, couldn't even budge the crowd. Not NASCAR, not even USAC in it's "hey-day". Bottom line, just have ONE race in Fontana, drop the ticket prices. Have the race in JULY where there's nuthin' going on (February's race competes with the OSCARS for t.v. coverage and billboards, In October, it's football and baseball; college and pro) I was in California this February during the last race, even at the airport, you wouldn't have known there was a race going on. Think about it Mike. If you attended that race or the one today, the only racing billboards you'd probably would see about the race would be on I-10 that intersects Cherry Ave by the Speedway. That's it. Outside of that, you wouldn't have known a race was going on. Zucker has to promote harder VISUALLY than anything else. There's more competition in sports marketing there than anywhere else with the exception of NJ/NY. Also, she's going to have to reach the Spanish demographic harder. It's 50 - 60% of the population of Southern California, that's like 15 - 20 million people? So she needs to work NASCAR w/Juan Pablo Montoya harder with a media BLITZ, not just a few ads, to attract and of course, cut down the ticket prices with the bad economics there in Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange Counties. Ask Zucker about ads or promoting in the Latino community, see what her answer is then. Trying to go the Hollywood route is spittin' in the wind.

All the promotions in the

All the promotions in the world won't help the racing and that is what NASCAR fans come to see. Yeah, we always walk around the souvenir trailers before the race, but when the green flag drops, I want to be in my seat and watching the action. I know that I would never waste my money buying a ticket for Fontana. I usually fall asleep on the couch during the February race and I only watched the last 30 laps on TV of the October race until then, I had work to do and wasn't about to waste a nice Sunday being bored to tears. Plus, ESPN, like Zucker, seems to be interested in everything EXCEPT the racing during their broadcast. Honestly, I don't care what Rusty and Brad think.

Gillian Zucker has done a

Gillian Zucker has done a great job in promoting the race as best she can given the product but if people aren't coming back, then the race itself is at fault. MM is right, the race was boring except at the end. The middle 100 laps were a real sleeper. As are the middle laps are at a lot of tracks. Perhaps try something even more California next time: break the race at half way for a Superbowl like half time show. Bring in the Rolling Stones to perform and then return the cars back for the second half of the (shorted somewhat) race. Why bother with fake NASCAR cautions for 'debris' when you could have an exciting half time show? To allow half time fix ups to the cars might also prevent runaway victories by the Hendrick teams also.

maybe the track should use

maybe the track should use the road course combination track (like the 24hrs of daytona), It would like no where else.

I can tell you what they

I can tell you what they didn't do/haven't done, Lower the PRICES!!!!

actually i was looking at the

actually i was looking at the crowd sunday and asking myself -- if all those seats were FREE, how many could they fill....given the boring racing.

The problem is Gillian

The problem is Gillian Zucker. They need to fire her.

actually i think the problem

actually i think the problem is the COT. someone in Daytona needs to pull his head out of the sand dunes and realize that. drivers dont need to be going into the 14-degree first turn at 209 mph....that's just dumb. no wonder no one wants to pass except on the restarts or off the corners. just check the video.

You cannot make people like

You cannot make people like racing if they aren't fans. And, simply put they are not!!

This is BY FAR the biggest area NASCAR plays to and they can't even sale 80k seats? And don't give me the location or this or that. Atlanta is a terrible location yet it always put 80-90k.

I don't care what the economic climate is. How many millions of people live within a 2-3 hour drive of the Fontana track? NASCAR needs to expand into the Midwest. Thats were the fan base seems to be growing the most. At the very least Iowa needs a race and probably Kentucky as well.

People in LA have proven they don't want it. 45 minutes is too much of a drive or the traffic sucks, blah blah blah.

Atlanta NEVER draws 80,000 -

Atlanta NEVER draws 80,000 - that track sold out this past September with substantially lower capacity than three or four years ago.

I agree that Iowa is a market

I agree that Iowa is a market ripe for NASCAR. That summer race there was jammed....it may need some polishing on the traffic control, but there are fans there.

Supply / Demand: Supply:

Supply / Demand:

Supply: 92,000 x 2 races = 184,000 seats
Demand: 55,000 x 2 races = 110,000 seats

So essentially, no one has to buy their tickets in advance. Which means they could wait until the last minute to make their ticket buying decision. And then at the last minute, they can compare it to everything else going on: Dodgers, Football, family, etc. You don't even have to buy tickets in advance to get "good" seats, I saw plenty of good ones still open. By having two races, that track is doomed to fail. If they take it down to one race, that balances things out and makes the ticket "in-demand" rather than "in-supply". And I hear people complaining about the ticket prices!!! The track is crazy if they think you can sell an "in-supply" overpriced ticket!!! The track also shouldn't admit publicly that their racing is bad!!! Give me some good news...

darned it, i missed that

darned it, i missed that economics lesson. of course, you're dead on. but the other half of it, i think is, you keep dropping the price of the product until you sell all the seats, and that's right price point.
and NASCAR's tracks NEVER should have done that package deal where you had to buy a 'season' package of all the races when all you might want is the cup event. that alone -- that arrogant attitude -- would turn me off if i were a fan.
you want some good news, eh? rooms in vegas for next season's race are wide open and cheap. Vegas rocks, baby! So why not put together a two-race package, Fontana-Vegas....the tracks are only three hours apart, and it's a nice road, and there's a good outlet mall halfway. Jim France should order the Vegas track and Fontana track to work together.

how about bulldoze it and go

how about bulldoze it and go back racing at THE ROCK i saw a good race there sunday at the arca race

why can't we add the rock?

why can't we add the rock? one-day in-and-out. 200 laps, yellows don't count, under the lights....

"Why can't we add the Rock?"

"Why can't we add the Rock?" Here's why -

Because it's a dead racing demographic; it's a lousy racetrack (no knock on Andy Hillinberg, it's just bad); for all of its NASCAR history it was never that competitive a race; racing at this level (Winston Cup, BGN) is about superspeedways (this is why it was banked up from 12 degrees to 24 in 1969, to make a superspeedway out of it) and one-mile and below simply is obsolete for this level of racing.

Fontana's only answer is to bank it up into restrictor plate mode.

As a LONG time NASCAR Fan

As a LONG time NASCAR Fan from up on the Central Coast of CA, I have NEVER been to a race @ Fontana.

Why? Expense in the early years of buying the Dual Ticket (INDY and NASCAR) soured me.

Later, when that went away...ticket prices, and all the stuff that goes with it is just too dang expensive to make the 200 mile trip FUN and AFFORDABLE for me.

I went to RIVERSIDE every year, I went to ONTARIO many times, it was fun and family budget (On a working mans wage) But NOW it's like they only want the BIG MONEY people there, and think everyone can drop a $1,000 on a race weekend!

LOWER Ticket Prices alone will NOT fix the problem.

Concessions, Hotels, Tickets, all need to have a more affordable option IMHO - add to it - MORE Advertising needs to be focused outside the L.A. area.

200 miles north/east - not ONE SINGLE T.V. commercial was seen on NETWORK TV for the event.

Amen, brother!

Amen, brother!

Fontana has several problems,

Fontana has several problems, some of which include:

- ticket prices are way too high, more than $100 for an upper level seat (rows 24 and higher)

- racing is extremely boring

- setting is terrible: track is great, but it's in the middle of Fontana's worst slum areas

- bad traffic: after sitting in traffic 1-2 hours each way on workdays, why do it on Sunday?

- pit passes: you stay out on the track, not down pit road and close to the cars...ridiculous!

- February race before Vegas: no brainer, Vegas or Fontana a week a part, I'd go to Vegas to party

- what is there to do in FONTANA? nothing, the majority of the town is an "outhouse" (to be polite)

- seating: you can't see the backstretch from anywhere lower than row 20 due to RV's, flags, etc.

On a side note: nothing wrong with Jimmie Johnson...great racer, person...he's a winner....BUT:
remember Gordon's 13 win season? everyone started to hate him. Unfortunately, Jimmie win's too much
and NASCAR's champion has become predictable. Not his fault he's good....just makes NASCAR boring.

a major problem for Nascar

a major problem for Nascar promoters is that they're suddenly faced with the loss of corporate sponsors willing to buy suites and 3,000-ticket packages. when the promoters had that gravy train, it didnt have to worry that much about the average fan....and it would price tickets pegged to the corporate buyers rather than Joe Fan, who has been increasingly priced out the ticket market. Now promoters are touting much cheaper tickets. Great. But what about the rest of the package -- hotels, travel, meals. And all that spent, to watch a boring COT race? no wonder the NFL is doing so well in TV ratings this fall.
i must say that fontana has done a very good job with traffic. yes, fontana isn't brentwood or santa monica or laguna beach, but in the past 10 years since nascar has come to town the fontana area has undergone major renewal -- if you'd seen it 10 years ago, and just came back you'd be stunned. and there's a nifty new urban shopping mall-city, Victoria Gardens, that is cool to hang around, and it's only two miles from the track. a lot of hotels have come to town (i got a room for $109 a night, in a marriott). for a long week, it's not that far out to joshua tree national park...and not that far down to Laguna Canyon on those new toll roads....now seating, i agree is a bit ragged on the sight-lines....but the real problem is boring racing. I simply cannot believe that NASCAR executives continue to sit on their duffs and watch this thing go down the tubes.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.

© 2010-2011 www.mikemulhern.net All rights reserved.
Web site by www.webdesigncarolinas.com