Racing fans turn upscale, with down-home flavor

October 28, 1990|By Jill J. Lanford | Jill J. Lanford,New York Times News Service

CONCORD, N.C. -- The limousine glides silently through the speedway traffic a somber gray shadow amid a noisy jam of pickup trucks, Camaros and custom vans.

As traffic slows to a crawl, a rear door of the vehicle opens and a stream of tobacco juice splatters the pavement.

Meet the new breed of racing fan a man with a taste for extravagance, and sometimes for a good chew.

"Hot shots is what I call 'em," says one Charlotte Motor Speedway regular of the surge of monied spectators upgrading the image of this traditionally blue collar sport.

Along with the fancy cars have come a range of upscale amenities: a members-only restaurant and club, posh track-side condominiums and barrage of VIP suites for corporate entertaining.

"At the very least this should elevate us from 'redneck' to 'pinkneck,'" says Jim Duncan, executive vice president of sales and marketing for the Speedway. "The past few years have seen a dramatic change in the demographics of the racing fan, largely as a result of the excellent facilities we've added here."

An example is the Speedway Club, where race enthusiasts who once drank six-packs in the infield may now linger over champagne, their tables offering a panoramic view of the track.

Don Fryar and his wife, Ann, are charter members, having bought into the club three years ago.

"When I first started coming here my seat was on the hood of my truck," recalls the Charlotte businessman, who has missed only four local races since 1959.

As his success in real estate climbed, so did the price of the ticket he chose. The infield turned to the grandstand; the grandstand to the pricey covered seats, which today go for more than $70 apiece for a Sunday race.

Full membership in the Speedway Club added $5,000 to the tally, but also proved the incentive for luring his wife with him.

"I never cared anything about it 'til they added this," Mrs. Fryar says over the clink of silver and china at a pre-race brunch. "The club has made racing, well, more sophisticated and fun."

It's a professional operation, her husband agrees, glancing around the glass-front restaurant tucked into the fifth floor of Smith Tower.

Fresh flowers and white linen grace the tables.

A harried maitre d' scurries by, reservations list clutched in one hand.

It could be Sunday brunch at any of a number of Charlotte restaurants, with the exception that the talk here is peppered with racing vernacular: pole positions, qualifying times, who looks good and who doesn't.

Duncan notes that the club's 1,275 charter members are encouraged to gather here year-round, the restaurant designed as a congenial backdrop for both business or pleasure.

Mixing the two has proven in large part the success of the speedway's new luxury amenities, particularly the 63 VIP Suites.

"The idea was to encourage corporate interest in racing, and that's exactly what we've been able to do with these."

For $45,000 a year, a company may lease the use of a suite and decorate it to its liking. Each accommodates around 60 people, is equipped with bar and buffet and offers prime race viewing in air-conditioned comfort.

Coca-Cola USA, Miller Brewing Co., Pepsi a stroll down the hall of VIP Suites has come to read like a Who's Who in big business.

The relationship is mutually beneficial, Duncan notes. Companies land accounts when they show customers a good time; the speedway gains sponsors when monied executives are interested in the sport.

Then there is the visibility the track offers something illustrated by the Mello Yello 500 on Oct 7.

"It's a growth brand for us, so we're doing everything we can to make Mello Yello's presence well known," says Michael Ringham, retail operations manager for Coca-Cola USA.

Anywhere there is a major sporting event, Coca-Cola is there: the Super Bowl, Wimbledon, the World Series.

"This suite," Ringham continues, "helps us follow through in Charlotte. Gives us a place to invite a customer, put an ice cold Coca-Cola in his hand and get to know him outside of a business atmosphere."

Not all of the clients were interested in racing, but many have become fans.

Duncan doesn't hesitate in describing Charlotte's luxury amenities as the best, even among larger or better known tracks.

"We've made a whole-hearted commitment to it in the past few years, but we've also had the right conditions to make it possible."

He describes Charlotte as sitting in the middle of the home bases of most of the professional racing teams. It's also central to those states with the largest volumes of fans, able to draw from throughout the Southeast.

"I believe we've just hit the tip of the iceberg," he says. "There's the potential for an explosion of growth, and we're just beginning to tap into it."

Illustrating his point is the demand for more track-side condominiums, where units that sold new for $130,000 six years ago now have a resale value of almost three times that much.

Of the 40 First Turn Condominiums, only seven families live in the units full time. The remainder belong to racing's elite, who either use them or lease them during race weeks.

The First Turn Tower, to be completed next fall, sold all 12 units in 18 days including the $500,000 penthouse, a new pinnacle of luxury for the Speedway.

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