For NASCAR, the future is now at Arizona’s ISM Raceway

What’s most important in NASCAR right now?

The race?

The face?

The place?

The question is part of what makes next Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at ISM Raceway so significant. Not only for Arizona, but for all of the sports entertainment industry, aside from being NASCAR’s semifinal that will determine the final four drivers eligible to become the Monster Energy Cup Series’ champion.

The answer could put the former Phoenix International Raceway on the leading edge of a revolution in how to convince people to leave the comfort of their sofa and big-screen HD TV and pay to attend events in person.

The Avondale oval’s grand opening comes after a $178 million, two-year transformation that has turned it into a gem on the state’s sports landscape. Featuring the latest in spectator amenities, it’s perhaps the country’s second-nicest motorsports venue, behind only corporate cousin Daytona International Speedway.

It also comes near the end of a turbulent, and somewhat divisive, NASCAR season. There’s been debate on how to make the races more exciting, pressure on the newest generation of drivers to win and become marketable stars amidst further audience declines, and for tracks to modernize to improve the overall fan experience.

Stock car racing’s sanctioning body has also had to weather two major embarrassments: 

–Reigning Cup championship team Furniture Row Racing is about to go out of business due to rising costs and loss of a major sponsor. (Driver Martin Truex Jr. is expected to join Joe Gibbs Racing for 2019.)

–The arrest of chairman and CEO Brian France on charges of DUI and possession of a controlled substance (reportedly a few oxycodone pills.) France, who pleaded not guilty, has been on a leave of absence since August.

There have even been reports that heirs of the founding France family might sell NASCAR, or at least a minority stake, creating further uncertainty.

So, the celebration of the Valley’s rejuvenated raceway couldn’t come at a better time.

“It will be a moment everyone in the sport can enjoy,” NASCAR Vice Chairman Mike Helton said. “It’s them (track) saying, ‘We’re proud to be in this sport.’ It’s NASCAR saying, ‘We know there’s a lot of sports options in Phoenix. We’re part of your sports community.’ It’s all of us saying, ‘We mean business.'”

Comfort, access

Research done for International Speedway Corp., which owns and/or operates 13 facilities including ISM Raceway, indicates that ticket-buyers for almost any entertainment event want — insist on — contemporary comforts like stadium-style seats and other amenities. More engaged fans also seek increased access to the drivers and cars.

The raceway built on lessons learned during a $400 million “reimagining” of Daytona, ISC’s flagship, completed in 2016. Granted, the ISMR project for its 1-mile track was on a smaller scale compared to Daytona’s vast 2.5-mile complex.

There are two “vertical transportation” entrances to the grandstands, called “canyons,” with four new escalators and nine elevators. All 42,000 seats have individual chair backs and cup holders. Upper-level seats have armrests. There’s Wi-Fi — the raceway says it’s the first in motorsports to have this throughout the facility — and over 400 HD video displays.

A pedestrian tunnel allows easy access to the “INfield.” There, fans can literally step into the garage area to see the crews work on their cars, drivers walk a red carpet to their pre-race meeting, gather around Gatorade Victory Lane to watch the winner celebrate, sip a  Modern Margarita at the tequila bar, relax in the Miller Lite Beer Garden, or cool off at the Portacool Chill Zone.

Fan experience

For years after the 2008 economic recession, which deeply cut into ticket sales and corporate sponsorships, all of NASCAR’s constituency groups seemed united in efforts to re-energize the sport. In 2018, though, there’s been public disagreement over what needs to be done.

Denny Hamlin, driver of Gibbs’ No. 11 FedEx Toyota, says the burden — and cost — of making race day memorable has fallen on the teams for too long.

“We’ve tinkered (with rules requiring expensive changes to the cars) to try to give the fan the best racing possible,” Hamlin recently told the Republic. “You’re not always going to have walk‑off moments. Sometimes a baseball game is 8‑0. Sometimes it’s 1‑0.

“The upgrading of the on-track product is less important than upgrading tracks that were built 20 or 30 years ago. (Phoenix opened in 1964.) Every NBA, NFL, MLB stadium is getting upgrades. We’re just now getting around to doing that.”

It’s this new, better, nicer, comfortable setting on which ISC is making a big bet: it will motivate people to watch races in person. ISC has commissioned less-extensive physical updates of some of its other tracks, too, spending more than $700 million to up the “experience.”  

Those who want to enjoy the premium perks apparently are willing to pay. ISM Raceway’s 300 $1,399 three-day passes for the Dos Equis Curve suite above Turn 3 sold out months ago. So did the best motorhome spaces along what used to be the front straightaway. Infield access is $89 Sunday or $129 Friday-Sunday, in addition to a grandstand ticket, which ranges from $67-$195 for the weekend (Camping World Truck, Xfinity and Cup Series races) package.

Star shortage?

But it’s the race — and who is racing — that remains what people come to see.

With the retirements in recent years of spotlight-bright stars Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Danica Patrick, plus race-winning veterans Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne at or near the end of their careers, there’s been concern that NASCAR’s 20-somethings aren’t the same box-office attractions.

At least, not yet.

NASCAR’s latest wave of millennials includes Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, William Byron, Bubba Wallace, Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez and Tucson’s Alex Bowman. They have opportunities with some of NASCAR’s most successful teams, which heightens expectations.

ISC President John Saunders went so far as to tell investor analysts during a July conference call — in which he admitted second-quarter paid attendance was “a little softer” than expected — that the sport faces “an issue with star power.”

Since Saunders’ comment, one has, finally, broken through. And just might be that new “face” many think NASCAR needs.

Chase Elliott, whose father, Bill, is a NASCAR Hall of Famer, is a championship contender and has won three of the last 12 races after going 0-for-98. He’s expected to succeed Earnhardt as this year’s most popular driver in fan voting, an honor his father won a record 16 times.

Also, Dillon won the Daytona 500, and Jones and Blaney also have a victory.

“This whole ‘young guys need to win now’ thing is getting old,” Blaney said. “It’s not like I’m happy for fifth (place) every week.”

While a key industry goal is to draw in a younger demographic, not everyone approves of NASCAR’s marketing focus.

“It is bothersome,” said Kyle Busch, the 2015 Cup champion whose Toyota is sponsored by M&M’s. “We’ve paid our dues, and our sponsors have . . . and all you’re doing is advertising all these younger guys for fans to . . .  choose as their favorite driver.

“I think it’s stupid. But I don’t know, I’m not the marketing genius that’s behind this deal.”

Spreading the news

Hamlin, noting that tracks get 65 percent of NASCAR’s $8.2 billion TV rights money over 10 years, also thinks more resources should be allocated to event promotion.

“The tracks receive such a large sum of money no matter how many tickets they sell,” he said. “I’m not sure if the motivation has been too major for them to go out and promote and buy TV ads and things like that. I think I’ve seen a little bit more over the last couple of years. You’ve still got to go out and knock on doors and let people know the races are in town.

“Who cares who the stars are if people don’t even know if we are in town? It’s not up to them (young drivers) to (say they are) superstars. People are going to like who they like no matter what age they are. There are a lot of Kevin Harvick fans and he’s in his early 40s.”

‘Not too hokey’

The consensus appears to be that most races have been entertaining — or at least had an entertaining finish — despite the “Big 3” of Harvick, Busch and Truex accounting for the most wins. Even so, NASCAR has yet another package of car specifications for 2019, to be used primarily on speedways 1.5-miles or longer.

Some tracks have gotten creative trying to jump-start excitement, which concerns Hamlin. ISM Raceway has re-numbered its turns, with the start/finish line now positioned just before the traditional dogleg. It’s not a coincidence this zone of potential mayhem is in full view of the new (and priciest) grandstands.

Said Hamlin: “I’m not in favor of the tracks just kind of taking it on themselves to change the racetrack.

“I think it’s up to NASCAR to reel that in and make sure we’re not getting too hokey with what they’re doing to try to put on a show. I don’t think the tracks should be in the business of competition. They should be in the business of putting people in the stands.

“Making the racing better is up to the teams and the sanctioning body.”

So, the race, and selling NASCAR’s latest legend-in-the-making face, are works-in-progress.

Not so for ISM Raceway, now — finally — ready to show itself off to everyone as the place.

What’s new at ISM Raceway

Start/finish line: With all four turns renumbered, it’s been moved to just before the dogleg. What was Turn 3 is now Turn 1, and so forth.

Why it’s big: Could be the scene of major mayhem, especially on late-race restarts. Most of the cars will still be in Turn 4 when the green flag waves while the leaders will have to go side-by-side in the dogleg. Those right behind them might steer hard left onto the apron, creating the possibility of 4-or-more wide going into Turn 2.

Cactus starter: A 25 x 13-foot lighted structure mounted to the starter’s flagstand.

Why it’s big: The Raceway’s signature visual element is synced to NASCAR race control, and will be lit green, yellow or red along with all other track lights to alert drivers to track conditions.

Pit stalls: Relocated to inside Turn 3 through Turn 4.

Why it’s big: Drivers will have to adjust, and avoid pit-lane speeding penalties, after pitting mostly on old front straightaway for years.

INfield: New garages, offices, meeting room and victory lane for the Monster Energy Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series competitors.

Why it’s big: INfield wristband buyers will have more access to the drivers and cars than ever before. Fans can step inside the Cup garage and gather around victory lane to celebrate with the winners.

Grandstands: 42,000 stadium-style seats with seat backs and cup holders.

Why it’s big: The track says it’s the first motorsports facility to have Wi-Fi throughout the venue.

Tunnel: Easy pedestrian access from midway area to INfield.

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