When long-time attendees of the Snowball Derby complete their annual pilgrimage to Five Flags Speedway over the next week, they will be greeted by several new amenities to pass the time during the Super Bowl of Short Track Racing.
No, the bathrooms are unchanged at the Gulf Coast half-mile, as are the concession stands and the Stewart family owned memorabilia tent, replete with an appearance by Chevy Clauson.
It’s the fan zone behind the frontstretch grandstands that will have a new look this winter — the first tangible activation of Speed51.com under the influence of new operators, the Race Team Alliance.
A preview of this activation premiered last month at the All-American 400 at Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville with the RTA leveraging its investment in 704 Games to place NASCAR HEAT (console video game) simulators inside the midway at the venerable Tennessee short track.
The midway has been revamped for driver tents, the simulators and traditional vendors.
This is definitely attractive to a younger demo at first glance. pic.twitter.com/bVOVhjM0Wx
— Matt Weaver (@MattWeaverAW) November 3, 2019
Speed51 also premiered a new merchandising trailer outside of the track and tents inside the midway for superstar drivers Bubba Pollard and Travis Braden.
There is still a great sense of bewilderment from the short track industry over why the consortium of elite NASCAR team owners would move to acquire Speed51 — the country’s leading short track content production, news and broadcast entity.
The RTA stated in its initial press release announcing the purchase that its member owners wanted to increase awareness for grassroots racing given that so many drivers, crew members and industry notables started there before applying their crafts on a national touring stage.
The group’s executive director, Jonathan Marshall, confirmed that sentiment to Short Track Scene during NASCAR’s championship weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway while also detailing what the RTA plans to do with Speed51.com moving forward.
“Bob (Dillner, Speed51 founder) has over the years created this very important relationship between what Speed51 does in their coverage of the sport, and what the local track promoter really needs, which is coverage on the sport — the dozens of articles in advance of, for example, the All-American 400,” Marshall said.
“He and his team are completely passionate about delivering a package experience. And so, once we got together collectively, the RTA was already partnered with 704 Games, and they’re trying to move video games and we saw a really good fit.
“Bob is already trying to give fans an engaging experience and we wondered ‘what if we brought the simulators, what would that look like? How would that affect the footprint? And it created an energy. And so, for 2020 that’s what we’ll be doing. You’ll see that execution at the local track, and it was incredibly rewarding for everybody involved at the All-American 400, I think.”
It felt very modern, at least in relation to the status quo.
Fans said the upgraded midway provided fans more entertainment options between practice sessions. The appearance of simulators appealed to the much sought-after younger demographic for a discipline largely followed by graybeards.
Marshall says that fan engagement is at the heart of the Race Team Alliance’s acquisition of Speed51 – bridging the gap between grassroots and national touring.
“We’re recognizing that there is increasingly two different kind of fans,” Marshall said. “One of them is the local short track fan, some of them even used to be NASCAR fans, but is no longer finding that connection they used to.
“Those are the type of fans we want to bring back. So, the teams collectively have this large audience, speaking to millions of people through their social media channels. this is an extension of what the teams are already doing.”
With the acquisition of Speed51, the Race Team Alliance has also entered the race broadcast marketplace. The company broadcasts a large majority of signature Super Late Model events like the Derby, All-American, Winchester 400 and Oxford 250.
This places the RTA in direct competition with NASCAR itself, which has joined forces with TV partner NBC to offer a subscription service in 2020 for ARCA, East, West, Whelen Modified Tour, Pinty’s Series and select signature events like the ValleyStar 300 at Martinsville.
The service is called NBC Gold: TrackPass — something NASCAR president Steve Phelps says he views as complimentary to Speed51’s offerings.
“Any opportunity to service the fans is what we want to do,” Phelps said. “So, whether it’s Speed51 and Bob Dillner, and their group has done a really nice job serving that particular audience with those particular races.
“We have our own races, our own type of production, ways to get it across multiple devices. I think the (two services are) complimentary, frankly. And do I think there will be folks that will do both Speed51 and TrackPass. We’re really excited about what it means for our sport and the different motor sports that we’re representing. I think it’s going to be a huge win for the fans.”
Marshall echoed that sentiment.
“Like Steve said, this is wholly complimentary to what the entire sport is trying to do,” Marshall said. “We were at the All-American 400 and that really feels like racing, right? It was really great racing.
“We see this as totally on-brand. It makes a ton of sense to be involved … Fans are going to be watching this weekend at homestead and many of them are going to be watching the Snowball Derby. It’s the same fan base. So, working cooperatively with NASCAR is absolutely part of our plan. ”
Marshall said it was a no-brainer for the RTA to be involved in the Snowball Derby, given the attention it receives from the drivers in the Cup Series garage. He cited Kyle Busch fielding a car for Chandler Smith or previous winners and short track devotees Chase Elliott and Erik Jones frequent mentioning of the event.
“This should be fun,” Marshall said. “We want to have fun because racing should be fun. And that’s really what we’re trying to spotlight. It wouldn’t surprise me now if you see more involvement from usual with drivers showing up because it.
“One of the things I’ve learned taking this job is that racers love all racing and the teams are racers. And they’ve used services like Speed51 to follow their favorite races. That made it a natural fit.”