July 19, 2009
By Rebecca Gladden
To hear some folks tell it, NASCAR is a sport on the verge of an economic meltdown, with ticket sales and television ratings plummeting, sponsorship dollars drying up, and fans fleeing in droves.
Bryan Sperber * Photo Phoenix International Raceway
Bryan Sperber, President of Phoenix International Raceway, begs to differ -- though he does acknowledge a few bumps in the road recently.
"As a sport and as a business, we're not immune to the downturn in the economy," Sperber told me in an interview at PIR's Administrative Offices in Avondale, AZ. "For so long, the business side of our sport has just appeared to be on this meteoric rise. So, when anything changes, people start panicking a little bit and looking for answers."
Mr. Speber is quick to point out, however, that he believes the sport's fundamentals - including "great sponsors, great TV partners, and the best fans on the planet" - are sound.
That positive attitude has served Sperber and Phoenix International Raceway - where he's been President since 2002 - exceptionally well. He was recently named one of Arizona's top five Sports Power Brokers ("It's more about PIR than me personally," he says), while leading a talented team that continues to sign new business partners despite the down economy.
This week, PIR announced an exciting initiative with the valley's Kawasaki Superstores that gives area race fans the opportunity to win an array of exclusive prizes for the November NASCAR Sprint Cup race at PIR - the Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500. The Grand Prize includes pre-race pit access, a pace car ride, pre-race ceremony access, and a trip to Gatorade Victory Lane at Phoenix International Raceway for two.
The November race in Phoenix is always hot ticket because of its pivotal position on the Sprint Cup schedule. As the next-to-last date of the 36-race season, the Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 is critical in determining the winner of the series championship.
Sperber predicts three potential storylines when the Cup series rolls into town this November, including the possibility of Tony Stewart winning his third Cup title - his first as an owner/driver with Stewart-Haas Racing. Mark Martin's quest for a championship at age 50 will prove dramatic, particularly since Martin won the spring race here in April. In addition, Sperber believes PIR will be an important track for driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. "He's had success at this racetrack before, and there's a guy and a team that could really use a shot of some good luck," said Sperber. "He's won twice here, and, if he hasn't won by the time we get to the Checker O'Reilly 500, could this be something that turns his luck and sets him up for a good season next year?"
Though Earnhardt Jr. continues to be a favorite of many NASCAR fans, some feel the sport has lost much if the appeal that contributed to its 'meteoric' rise - particularly fans who were around to see Junior's father race back in the day. NASCAR seems to be struggling with an identity crisis - trying to appease the traditionalists while appealing to newer fans and sponsors - but Sperber thinks the solution is a simple one: "What's made our sport great in the past is what's going to continue to make it great in the future and attract new fans. We've got great competition on track with interesting storylines and driver personalities that fans and sponsors alike are interested in learning about, following, and rooting for - in some cases, rooting against - and that's what really makes our sport so strong. It's the human element. It's not the engineering or the technical aspects of the sport. It's the human aspect."
When fans criticize NASCAR and the direction its taking, their frustration is often aimed at the sanctioning body's CEO, Brian France, who's frequently portrayed as a figurehead out of touch with his disenfranchised fan base. Sperber, who worked closely with France for several years before coming to PIR, strongly disagrees, while hastening to remind fans that France is ruling the sport in a different era than father Bill France Jr. "I find Brian to be really a brilliant marketer. He is in tune with what's happening in all corners of the sport, whether it's with the fan base, team owners, track operators or television. Brian cares about the future of the sport. I found him always to be open to listening to anybody's ideas or concerns and I think he's a great leader. But, he's not his dad, either. He's his own man. Let's be honest, Bill Jr. cast a pretty big shadow and he has huge shoes to fill. I think it's probably fair to say no one is ever going to fill Bill Jr.'s shoes, and I don't think Brian is trying to. He's his own guy and if you look back on the decisions that Brian has made, I think history will really treat his decisions kindly."
While NASCAR strives to find itself and define its brand in the Brian France era, Speber continues to bring new partners and innovations to PIR, including an unprecedented offer of $25 reserved seats to November's Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500. Creative trackside amenities such as the SPEED Cantina and Budweiser Roll Bar have been extremely popular with fans, but Sperber is particularly proud of two recent additions to the trackside menu that deliver big flavor and even bigger southwestern flare: Prickly Pear Margaritas and Rattlesnake Fritters - the latter made with real ground rattlesnake meat. "I had to do a little bit of some arm-twisting," Sperber laughs. "No one on staff wanted to indulge me on that, but finally I wore them down. It's actually really, really tasty."
Sperber admits there are unique challenges to running a racetrack this far away from NASCAR's southeastern U.S. birthplace, but, as always, puts things in the best possible light. "On the one hand, it's really nice to be in the situation that we're in where we have an opportunity to really be a leader for NASCAR in the southwest and blaze the trail. But, on the other hand, you could make the argument that in markets where there are a lot of racetracks and a lot of racing, it keeps fan interest high. I don't know that there's any one right answer, but I will say that I've really enjoyed having the opportunity to be a part of Phoenix International Raceway. The fan base in the Southwest is stronger than I think some people back east might even recognize.
"Our fans that come to the track are some of the best there are."
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