Monday, March 28, 2011

Learning from Laguna Seca

As anyone who's on my Facebook friend list or follows our Twitter feed knows (maybe too well), I spent the last couple of weeks at Laguna Seca, one of motorsport's premier tracks, near Monterey, California.

Though technically it's called Mazda Raceway now, I'll never be able to call Laguna Seca anything other than the name my Dad taught me...and there was reverence in that education. With that background, I found it an amazing amount of fun to stay at the track's campground and to be able to hear and see the cars from Skip Barber Driving School or the local Ferrari, BMW, or Porsche racing club all day long. Perhaps the highlight was watching vintage cars from the same time as the historic beginnings of the track run around for the day and then to get to walk the garages and see those fantastic testaments to racing up close.

A few of the various vintage cars around turn 5. (c) Robert Williams
By far -- my favorite view in 'the paddock'.
 (My Dad owned both of these at one time in his life)
(c) Robert Williams
The straightaway
between turn 2 and 3.
(c) Robert Williams
Perhaps because the area around Laguna Seca is run by Monterey County as a park, there is a tremendous amount of access to the track. One can stand within feet of the raceway and watch the day's events unfold. One can view just about every corner and straightaway, at times walk through the garage area, and once a month, through a special arrangement, bicycle every inch of the track. Why aren't we in horse racing doing things like this? How much more fervently would fans' fever for horse racing rise if we allowed them a little more access? If people were given the opportunities at Thoroughbred tracks that I was given at Laguna Seca, then we - as an industry - would garner a lot more FANS. Fans tell their friends; fans revere the locations; fans respect, appreciate, and will pay money to attend - and bet on - the races.

For a fan - how cool is that?  Yeah,
that's me at the start/finish line.
 (c) Robert Williams
Last week, I rode my bicycle around Laguna Seca for a charity fundraiser; the raceway allows people to simply sign a consent form, pay $10, and enjoy two hours. Unfettered access to be on 'the corkscrew' (one of auto racing's most famous stretches of track), to be lined up on the starting grid, and to cross the start/finish line under my own power. Aside from actually driving it, this is the most amazing way to be one with the track. And that got me thinking...

In horse racing, we have Keeneland - and maybe a few others - which give pretty good access to various areas of the track, and that's great. Breakfast with the Works, the Track Kitchen, and the tailgate area are all really amazing things. But I'm not sure we do enough to promote them. We really should let people walk the Churchill Downs stretch (reenacting their favorite Derby moment) or do a 5K for charity around Del Mar. Fans would go crazy and tweet their entire friend list from Belmont..."I'm moving like a Tremendous Machine!" So many things could be pushed so much further out into the general public that it would be worth the minor inconveniences for the track and their personnel. It'd be downright amazing if tracks, on a dark day, hosted a public "see what horse racing is all about" day where people could have access to the track, learn about what it feels like to walk on it, etc. Maybe get the chance to wander through a couple of barns. Ask a trainer some questions. See what a hotwalker does. View the track from the perspective of the track announcer. See the press box. Teach people how to bet the exotics. Tell the general public about simulcasting and that they can play the ponies just about every day all over the country. Show them the places they can bring a picnic and have a great day with their family. Send them up to the reserved areas with table service and great views. Get the message out about how great, exciting, and enjoyable racing can be.

This was my campsite.  Overlooking turn 5.
Tough to beat for a motorsports fan. (zoom zoom)
(c) Robert Williams
If a Thoroughbred track gave a normal, everyday person the kind of access I was given at my revered Laguna Seca - they'd be hooked, plain and simple. They'd give us the handle we need so badly right now. With numbers that we can count, we'd get better TV contracts, more sponsorship dollars, more eyes to look at advertisements. Fans = eyes. Eyes sell advertising. Those sponsorship companies don't care if they are bettors, players, industry connections, or just fans that root for the horse with the longest tail.

Unfortunately, I believe, the people in our industry who can make these things happen have forgotten what it's like to be a regular, average, pay-at-the-gate fan. They have privileges and access to 'everywhere,' so they don't even realize the simple pleasures the fan longs to be a part of. If we don't embrace and build fans now, we will lose them to the sports that do.

My desire for auto racing was fueled, so to speak, these last couple of weeks. Imagine if an average Joe could camp in the infield at Santa Anita or could walk down the stretch at Gulfstream Park. Chances are all his or her friends would hear about it - and maybe, just maybe, some of those friends would become racing fans too.

--Robert Williams

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