By Richard Allen
I think it’s safe to say anyone who is taking the time to read this article is a fan of dirt racing. It’s probably also safe to say those reading this post have the best interests of the sport at heart.
But after a look at some of the information presented in this piece, the concern going forward is there may not be as many fans to care about dirt racing in the future.
Throughout the recent off-season, I have used my Twitter account (@RichardAllenIDR) to conduct a number of poll questions about racing. A couple of those queries were specifically aimed at the future of this sport, and the results of which will be discussed in this article.
Specifically, the questions asked to provide information for this column focused on the ages of dirt racing fans and the introduction of new fans to the sport.
In one question, I asked, “Dirt racing fan: What age bracket do you fit in?” The answers to that posting were interesting, and possibly disturbing. A total of 286 votes were registered from the tweet. Only 13 percent of the respondents reported their age to be 21 or younger. For multiple reasons, that number is worrisome.
First, the simple fact such a low percentage are in the youngest age grouping indicates the possibility that the well may be drying up in terms of new fans coming to the sport. Without young spectators, there will be no one to replace those who go away in the coming years.
What makes the low percentage of those 21 and younger even more bothersome is the fact this is the age group most active on social media. Thus, it would seem logical to guess the percentage of answers to any poll question on Twitter would be weighted in favor of the younger ages. In other words, that 13 percent may actually be a lower number than it even seems.
Granted, there is the possibility the Twitter account of a 49-year-old man may not be followed by a large number of young people. However, it would seem if a young person is a fan of dirt racing, they would be more inclined to follow said account, even if the tweets do come from an “old man.”
To offer some degree of hope, the percentage of respondents rose dramatically for the 22-35 age group. A total of 32 percent claimed to be within that bracket. The law of averages says this particular batch of dirt racing fans should be followers of the sport for many years to come.
It must be noted that to this point in the poll, less than 50 percent of those who answered the question are under the age of 35. Further, I believe that visual evidence in the grandstands and pit areas of the tracks I visit most often provides proof of these numbers. I see far more people at those facilities who look to be in their 50s than those who look to be in their teens or 20s.
Imagine your local short track in 15 to 20 years with more than half of the fans who currently attend not there.
To complete the report of these results, 38 percent reported they belong to my age category, which is between 36 and 49. While these folks should still have plenty of good years left to attend races, their time is obviously more limited than that of those in the lower brackets.
And finally, 17 percent of respondents reported themselves to be in the 50 and older grouping. Just as the teenage numbers may be skewed to the heavy side in any social media poll, this percentage may be just the opposite due to the fact this age group represents a lower number of people who are active on social media, particularly Twitter.
A second question, also posed on Twitter but at a different time, further delved into the topic of fans who will attend dirt races in the future.
The question asked, “When you go to a dirt race, how often do you take children 16 and under?”
A total of 341 people responded to this question, with 29 percent answering they never bring youngsters with them to the races. Another 23 percent stated they rarely are accompanied by someone under the age of 16 when they visit their local speedway. That’s more than half of those polled who, at best, only rarely bring kids with them.
This piece was not written to condemn folks for not bringing kids to the track, however. Instead, it is merely stating the fact young people are not populating the grandstands of dirt tracks as much as older fans. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the results of this numerical fact will start to show themselves in the not-so-distant future.
To complete the final results of that poll and to show that those results were not entirely bleak, 21 percent of those who responded said they usually bring someone under the age of 16 to the track with them, and 26 percent reported that they always have youngsters in tow.
Furthermore, this piece was not written to simply provide a dark view of dirt racing in the future without offering up a few suggestions to help the situation.
While I do not profess to be an expert on the subject of young people, I am a father of three children and work as a high school teacher in my “real job,” so I do have at least some understanding of those under the age of 18 who live in today’s society.
My first suggestion is one that Michael Moats and I have already made numerous times on my site, InsideDirtRacing.com. That suggestion is to run racing shows in a more concise manner. Young people, and quite a few older ones for that matter, do not like to feel their time is being wasted, and they will not continue in something they feel is doing that very thing. They have short attention spans compared to earlier generations and need almost constant stimulation.
Things such as long and meaningless hot lap sessions, single-car qualifying, and seemingly never ending heat races that are dragged out by multiple caution flags are not the things to keep their attention.
Sitting on a wooden or concrete bleacher for two or three hours before the first feature ever begins is not their idea of a good time. As a result, they will grow restless on that particular night and will have little or no desire to come back the next week.
Also, you don’t have to be an expert to know teenagers love their cell phones more than just about anything else. This was recently confirmed for me when I asked my classes at Seymour (Tennessee) High School which they would give up first, their car or their cell phone.
By a rather large margin, they answered they would give up their cars before parting with their phones. To folks of my generation who lived for the day when we would finally be able to drive on our own, this seems completely foreign. However, it’s the reality of today.
People my age can complain all they want about teens and their phones, but it is what it is. No cell phone reception at a track will equate to no young fans. And further, they are also keenly aware of the amount of data they are using to play the gaming apps they have or to communicate with their friends, and they will not frequent any place that causes them to go over the limits set by their payment plans.
Providing free Wi-Fi at the track is not a terribly expensive or difficult thing to do if the track already has internet service, and it could go a long way toward assuring young fans will return on a regular basis.
While those of us older than 40 may think playing games on a phone is silly and useless, it is what teens do to pass the time when nothing else is going on to keep their attention. If they get bored, they will be ready to leave whenever they are in search of more entertaining options.
And lastly, race tracks could take lessons from minor league baseball.
Smaller kids love things like bounce houses and goofy mascots who interact with them. And to the benefit of the track owner, play areas and bounce houses could open up an entirely new revenue stream, as a charge of a couple of dollars could be assessed for a few minutes in the play area. And more, such areas could help take the restless energy out of those kids, which would no doubt be worth a small charge to the parents and grandparents.
It’s no secret young people must become fans of dirt racing, or any other sport, to ensure the survival of the sport. At present, the average age of those who visit their local race tracks appears to be climbing. To combat this, dirt racing may have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the modern era or it may face tough times in the relatively near future.
So, where will the next generation of dirt racing fans come from? Obviously, there’s only one place they can come from, and that’s the younger ranks of our society. But, the generation in question is unlike those who have come before it, and racing – like all other sports – has to find a way to capture their interest before it’s too late.
Richard Allen is a writer/editor for InsideDirtRacing.com. The site presents feature stories, photos, and live updates as part of its coverage of dirt racing in the east Tennessee region, as well as throughout the Southeast.