BROOKLYN, Mich. — The guy with the big, puffy white hat looked a bit out of place on the dais.
Media day at a super-speedway is for logos and sponsors, for bringing in a couple haulers and trotting out a few drivers, for on-track testing and a hint of fuel fumes, for track executives making huge announcements.
Not often does the executive chef get to sit up with the big boys.
But this is Michigan International Speedway, and the unexpected is often the norm.
Roger Curtis, the MIS president, remembers when marketing an auto race meant adding seats and raising ticket prices.
“Those days are long gone,” he said Tuesday.
At MIS, that strategy topped off about a decade ago with some 135,000 seats, and more often than not they were all filled, twice a summer, regardless of the price.
Then the economy tanked, and so did a lot of disposable income.
“Like a lot of Michigan business and industries, we had a big fall,” Curtis said. “We’re still far from being out of the woods, but I’d say there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
There are still 135,000 seats, but attendance for the Quicken Loans 400 in June and the Pure Michigan 400 in August have routinely dipped into the high five figures.
It has been as bad and maybe worse elsewhere, but few tracks are more fan-friendly and, thus, business-savvy than MIS. They’ve fixed the traffic issues, spent millions on infrastructure and facility improvements during a stretch when other tracks were pinching pennies, and worked hard to improve the race-day fan experience, much of that geared especially to new fans.
Curtis likens all this to baby steps. The old business model will probably never return and the MIS boss is happy to see a new model paying modest dividends.
“Our [ticket] renewals are up about 20 percent over last year, and that’s by far the best return in six or seven years,” Curtis said. “It’s a positive sign that the things we’ve done to attract new fans are paying off. I’d love to just hold the line, keep the fans we have, and see the numbers go up by 1,000 or 2,000 on race day … that would be fantastic.”
Curtis’ big announcement Tuesday was a sponsorship agreement with the Michigan National Guard for the NASCAR Truck Series race in August. Up-and-coming truck series star Joey Coulter was on hand, too, as were Sprint Cup drivers Kurt Busch and Trevor Bayne, testing tires and fuel cells on the track and talking off of it.
But front and center with all of them was Paul Miller, the new MIS executive chef who previously worked at Daytona International Speedway.
He dished out some new concessions menu items, including pierogi burgers and, believe it or not, creamed chipped beef over potato pancakes topped with sour cream and scallions.
He also has put together a smoked-meat collection for campground guests to order, and that includes tri-tip beef, pork, ribs, and chicken. It’s a whole mess of dead animals.
“Concessions doesn’t have to mean the same old boring stuff,” Miller said.
Now, I’m no food critic, but I don’t miss many meals, so I feel semiqualified to say this will do nothing to hurt the fan experience.
And that’s how the guy in the white jacket and tall toque made it onto the dais on media day. Only at MIS.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.