The oval track season has come full circle once again, with early evening sunsets and cold fronts signaling the end of the racing season and the beginning of engine building time.
To get an idea of how the just-finished season went, we spoke with a few industry professionals about the highlights, and their expectations for next year.
They also offered some advice on how shops can best-position themselves over the winter to be ready for 2011.
A Stormy 2010 Season
In general, opinions of the 2010 circle track season were positive, and many manufacturers happily reported higher sales numbers than expected. That optimism may seem surprising, but in the context of a rough economy and on the heels of a couple of down years, folks are inclined to search for a silver lining-particularly after witnessing an unusual number of races called off due to crying thunderclouds.
“The main challenge facing tracks this year, in our region at least, was rain,” says Marshall Fegers of QA1 in Lakeville, Minn. “It seemed like the rain would stay away during the week and get here just in time for the races on the weekend.”
Among other challenges facing the circle track industry in 2010, Bruce Rhoe of Intercomp in Medina, Minn., lists engine costs, tire costs and purses not increasing. Basically, being broke was a major issue facing participants this season.
“The main challenge, like every year, continues to be cost,” adds Jeff Stacy of Fragola Performance Systems/FK Rod Ends in Southington, Conn. “Track promoters need to understand that consistent rules are a must. No matter what it seems like when a promoter tries to save the racer a buck, it ends up costing the racer two.”
In addition to challenges due to costs, participant counts and spectator counts, the circle track industry also dealt with legal issues, says Dan Nicholas, speaking on behalf of the Quadrajet division of his company, JET Performance, headquartered in Huntington Beach, Calif. “There were a lot of fights over sound restrictions all over the U.S.,” he says.
Despite that, however, Nicholas says the 2010 circle track season was actually a much better year than he had forecast.
“All of our circle track sales were up over the previous year. The number of participants varied from track to track. But, when the track worked together with the promoters to make it almost a ‘had-to-be-there’ situation, then the racers showed up,” he says. “The tracks that backed down because of economic worries suffered. Sometimes, you have to step on the gas, even as a track owner.”
Fegers also sees positive signs.
“The circle track season this year was, in general, up a little more than last year,” he notes, but again references the rainouts. “In our region, the upper Midwest, we were hampered by an above-average number of rainouts. Car counts were fairly steady, but they were still down from their levels of a few years ago. It seems that racers aren’t racing nearly as many shows as they used to. Attendance in the stands greatly depended on the weather. Fans generally aren’t willing to risk traveling a great distance to a track when there is a threat of rain.”
While rain is bad for race day, it is a good reason to stay in the shop and work on the car. Noting that the circle track market continues to grow for both Fragola Performance Systems and FK Rod Ends, Stacy says, “This year we saw more people building new cars as compared to the last couple of years. More and more people were attending races and participation continued to grow.”
Dick Boyer, director of sales and marketing for PBM Performance/Erson Camshafts, notes that he saw a slight decrease in overall engine builds this summer.
“The 2010 racing season has been an interesting one,” he says. “We have seen some weak car counts in many weekly racing series across the country, as one would expect with the economy as it is. The racers this summer seemed to choose not to race every week, but focus more on the special events.”
According to Brandon Hamm of Canton Racing Products in North Branford, Conn., the factor that helps this market as much as anything going on with the stock market or the national unemployment percentage is its inherently persistent and resilient nature.
“Circle track racing is highly competitive and requires constant effort from the teams to keep the cars coming back every week. When budgets are tight, doing everything necessary to upkeep the car can be difficult,” he says. “Some teams have had to put off upgrades and other improvements over the last year. For those teams, the challenge has been to keep their current equipment competitive while working within their budget.”
Providing a regional perspective, Rhoe notes, “The circle track season was healthy in the farm belt and oil-producing states, but overall, most tracks were down one heat race per division and no B features were run.”
That said, Rhoe adds, “The attendance was really good for the state of the economy, and most of the healthy tracks with good car counts had good crowds in the stands.”
The last couple of years have been full of negative perceptions and gloomy predictions with regard to circle track expectations. And, that is one of the reasons why it is fun to look forward to 2011 and discuss the next season’s potential.
Racers and fans seem ready to forget the past and prepare for the excitement of next year, Nicholas says.
“Going off of the enthusiasm we have witnessed building over the past year,” he notes, “we feel that 2011 could be a great season for all. Parts sales are already up, which means that they are starting to work on the vehicles early. Now is the time for the tracks and promoters to work on their marketing and get the racers excited.”
Boyer says he’s cautiously optimistic for the coming year, but it will still take some work to get the industry where it wants to be.
“Racers don’t have access to credit like they have had in the past. That has been a very big hurdle to overcome this year,” he says. “I think that is why racers are fixing instead of buying new, big-ticket items such as engines and race cars. Some sanctioning bodies have also added to the issues with uncertain rule changes for next year, and more talk of the crate engine programs has scared some racers away from making the commitment to purchase a new engine.”
Stacy speculates that circle track will see participation continue to climb next year, and in turn, parts sales should do the same.
“We have a very large hole to dig out of financially as a country, but we are seeing more and more people ready to get back to having fun,” he says.
Hamm concurs, saying he expects parts sales will be on the rise for next year as teams make some of the upgrades and maintenance they may have put off over the last year or two.
“We have seen it before-new engine builds and new car builds that have been put on hold are put back into action once people start to become more optimistic about their budgets. That can bring a rise in part sales,” says Hamm.
Fegers’ 2011 outlook is also positive.
“We expect next season to have increased sales. This year saw an increase from the previous year, and we only expect the sales to keep growing. Our circle track sales tend to be about a year behind our industrial sales, and if they are any indication, next year will be great!”
Much of circle track racing has to do with gaining position-specifically, position to pass the competition. So, what sort of position is your performance shop in to take advantage of the apparent enthusiasm for circle track’s 2011 season?
It is always a good idea to take stock of one’s business and make sure it is ready, and there are a few keys to doing so.
According to Nicholas, one factor is to have needed inventory on hand.
“You can’t sell from an empty cart,” he says. “Shops need to be a team player with their warehouses to ensure that they have the parts they are going to need in stock. Give them a call and give them a forecast of what you think you might need. Then, they can be prepared and get it to you quickly when you order.”
Nicholas is not alone in his emphasis of increasing a store’s inventory. In contrast to the recent emphasis on using WDs as off-site storage, now many manufacturers are instead encouraging shops to have plenty of product on hand.
According to Stacy, “The local shop needs to have the availability of parts on the shelf or be able to access parts quickly. Building season isn’t as bad as racing season when it comes to having parts on the shelf, but the end-consumer doesn’t want to have to wait. Also, shops need to make sure the racing community knows they are there and have the parts that racers are looking for.”
Hamm also touches on inventory.
“Many businesses have scaled back their inventory to adjust for the economy over the last year or so,” he says. “However, as racers put their projects back into motion and get ready for the new season, shops have to be ready for the increase in demand with the right parts on the shelf.”
Hamm adds that sales can be lost when parts are not available-”customers will often move on in their search rather than ask about a product they don’t see on the shelf or wait for special delivery.
“Shops should take advantage of season-end specials or any promotions being offered by distributors or manufacturers to build their stock for the spring,” he suggests. “If retailers and shops are apprehensive about stocking inventory, unsure if they will move it, they should check into the return policies being offered. We offer a very liberal return policy because we know that our parts will sell. We take the risk away from putting parts into inventory by accepting back any unsold item from a stocking order.”
Again, the concept of stocking up on parts flies in the face of what shops have been taught for years to think in regards to their inventory, but Fegers says there is a reason for that.
“One of the biggest things that we hear from end-users is that they want parts when they need them. Racers will shop around more now and make better-use of the Internet to find the parts that they need, when they need them, and they aren’t as willing to wait for the parts to come in. If the local speed shop doesn’t have adequate inventory, chances are the racer will find the parts they need online and have them shipped the same day.”
Of course, in order to stock up on parts, you have to know which parts to purchase. Rhoe has a suggestion to help.
“Shops have to stay on top of top-quality parts and make sure they attend one of the top trade shows to have an idea what products and changes are in store for the 2011 season,” he says.
And finally, PBM’s Boyer suggests taking a more active role with local tracks and sanctioning bodies.
“Engine builders need to get more involved with the promoters in many areas of the country and find ways to help support the race tracks in their areas,” he says. “For instance, one of the largest sanctioning bodies in the country has been contemplating a rule change that will affect almost all of us in the aftermarket by going to a spec engine that can only be built by approved engine builders. This would adversely affect many engine builders across the country, so the more they get involved with their local race tracks, the less likely that this will happen. We all need to be involved and give our input-even if it is not wanted.
“The other thing engine builders can do is develop an engine program designed specifically for a series in their area that has good car counts and an aggressive promoter that cares more about how many people are in the grandstands than they do about the number of people that are in the pit area,” he adds. “I think that many promoters have forgotten that they are there to put on a show and if the show is boring, no one will come back. That’s bad for everyone involved.”
As the excitement for the 2011 circle track season builds, the weather forecast is pleasant-a prediction for sunny days with clear blue skies and the feeling of limitless potential they evoke.
To help cultivate that feeling and build enthusiasm for next year, Nicholas recommends participation in SEMA’s Take a Friend to a Race Program.
“Join in on Facebook. It’s a free program that we started to promote getting people out to the tracks,” he says. “The more new people we can get in the stands will benefit everyone in the industry. We have been handing out decals at every race, and almost every major manufacturer supports this program. Just do what it says and take a friend to a race!”
After all, everyone is expecting big things.