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The Future of Sprint Racing

A thoughtful article on the future of sprint racing
submitted by John Swenson

Editors Note: We appreciate John's courage in providing his insights into what's limiting the growth of sprint racing in the Midwest.   He and I have had many interesting discussions about race management and promotion over the years.  We don't always agree, but I know John absolutely has the best interest of the sport in mind in his evaluation.

John, a 10 dog sprint racer, worked on the front lines of these problems for a couple of years as North Star Sled Dog Club's Race Coordinator.  If you are interested in John's background, read his SDC interview.

/Judy Bergemann

Where Do We Want to See Our Sport At In The Future?

By John Swenson

Working as North Star Sled Dog Club Race Coordinator for the past two years has been, to say the least, a very "eye opening" experience. It has changed my perspective on the current status of sprint racing in the Midwest, and which direction it will go if significant changes are not made in the very near future..

What are the problems?
During my term as race coordinator, I have spoken to race spectators, race giving organizations (RGOs), sponsors, chamber of commerce directors, other event organizers, local dog drivers, and dog drivers from outside of our region. The general consensus shared by these parties is that our current race format is "pretty boring."

The most frequent comments were:

  • Events that last six to seven hours are much too long to hold spectator interest. The attention span of a spectator for an outdoor event is about two to three hours.

  • The main focus of the races is on the race driver, instead of on race fans, local communities, and sponsors.

  • Professional and recreational racers competing in the same event preclude promoting it as a big time "pro" race. It may also discourage beginners and recreational drivers from entering. There should be separate events for each group.

  • Spectators come to a race, watch one or two classes leave the chute, and then go home with no understanding of the sport. We need to create interested, excited race "fans." We need to educate future race fans and develop a format that a fan can easily and enthusiastically follow.

  • The lack of a "main event." People come to a race to watch a race--not seven to ten races--which is the number of classes run at an average Midwest sprint race.

  • Do the limited classes (ten, six, and four dog) provide the "extreme" element needed to create fan excitement?

  • No media coverage through the local media before, during or after race weekend.

  • The lack of a trained professional to promote races and pursue potential sponsors.

  • The appearance of most dog drivers at races does not fulfill the public’s preconceived idea of what a dog driver should look like--someone out of a Jack London novel.

  • Most race development people and dog drivers lack the general understanding of what local communities and sponsors need from a sled dog race.

  • A sled dog event has to create a substantial base of race fans who attend an event and/or follow it through the media. If we can build a substantial base of race fans, the race will develop strong name recognition. Strong name identification will attract the media, increasing the number of media exposures a sponsor’s name or its product’s receives. It also gives the community staging the race strong name recognition which draws increased numbers of people to their community.

Do we have a product to sell?
After reading these comments, please do not take the fatalistic attitude that sprint racing in the Midwest has reached the end of its life cycle.

All indications are that interest in our sport is strong. North Star Sled Dog Club has not lost any of its existing races and several communities have expressed an interest in developing new races. A recent phone conversation with a member of the Wisconsin Trailblazers Sled Dog Club revealed that they also have several communities interested in developing new races.

Community interest in staging a sled dog race has been fairly solid for the past ten years; however, the life cycle of most events has been very short.

Interest is very strong the first few years. Through a great deal of effort the community is able to raise several thousand dollars for race expenses and purse money during the developmental stage of a race. After that, raising the money needed to stage an event becomes increasingly difficult. Races also begin with a healthy base of volunteers, but their numbers diminish quickly after the first year or two.

There are exceptions--races that have continued for many years. Most of these races owe their survival to one or two people who put in an inordinate amount of time. If these people were to quit working on the race, the race would end immediately. We all know who these people are and owe them a huge debt of gratitude. It has been these few dedicated individuals who have kept our sport afloat for the past ten years.

How can we "sell" our product?
In order for our sport to grow we need to view it through more of a marketing perspective.

One goal in marketing is to develop enough interest for the customer to want to try your product. Based upon the interest of communities wanting to stage events, we’re not doing too badly here.

The main goal in marketing is to produce a product that, with proper promotion:

  • the customer will purchase on a long-term basis
  • the customer will talk about
  • the product name becomes an every day, recognized name

Our history indicates that this should be our area of greatest concern. Communities are interested in trying our product, but our product lacks the quality necessary to sustain prolonged interest, even with an adequate amount of promotion.

So, what is wrong with the product we are offering?
Sprint racing in the Midwest has been around for a long time and people have become very comfortable.

Through the years, we have gradually shifted from meeting the needs of race fans and sponsors, to trying to meet the needs of each individual driver.

As racers we like to roll into town, maybe catch the drivers meeting (if it’s convenient), eat where we want (disregarding any community benefit from musher dinners, breakfasts or banquets), be much too busy to talk to race fans or the press, do a little complaining, and pick up our check and leave town.

We like races to be as sterile as possible. A perfect race to most dog drivers allows us to disappear into total isolation right out of the starting chute, run the entire race in total isolation, and cross the finish line in total isolation.

We like to complain about double/triple starts, or any other spectator friendly options that would cause us some discomfort or extra training. And, we now have a class at each race for about every need a driver may have. This multitude of events, along with the long breaks between classes so drivers running in multiple events are not unduly stressed, creates a day of racing that consumes at least five to seven hours.

The attention span for a spectator at an outdoor event is no longer than two to three hours. You do the math!

We need to make a choice.. .
Do we want to shift our race format back to where the race fans and sponsors are our main concern, or maintain the current format where each individual driver’s needs are the main emphasis?

If we want to maintain the status quo, let’s end the charade that we are running purse races and call them what they truly are, "pot races."  Simple arithmetic--total entry fees about equal to purse--indicates this.

Currently, most money raised by an event (excluding entry fees) goes for race expenses, with little or nothing invested in promotions. The danger of not running them as a pot race, which they are, is that an RGO advertises, say, a $4.000 purse and must draw enough drivers to cover this purse or lose money. This is not a situation we want to place our RGOs in. They lose money, we lose the race.

It also places the RGO in a position where quantity of drivers is more important than the quality of their race. No matter which direction we follow, we need to have entry fees cover only race expenses and have all other capital raised split between purse and promotions.

Now comes the difficult part...
It’s easier to find fault with something than it is to expedite change. Change is toilsome for us humans and, in most cases, when it does occur, it progresses very slowly.

However, there are positive changes already occurring at several of our races.  Members attending the previous North Star Sled Dog Club meeting acknowledged changes needed to be made and formed a working committee to explore different options.

Eddy and Amy Streeper, along with the community of Frazee, Minnesota, started a race last year where the needs of the race fan was their number one concern. The race trail was laid out in a fairly open area with a hill between the starting chute and the finish line, giving spectators an extended view of teams starting and finishing the race. The hill also allowed the fans to view teams at different points on the trail throughout the race.

Driver appearance and conduct were stressed at the driver’s meeting. Instead of following the standard Midwest 10 dog format, they ran Open class to provide an "extreme" element to create fan excitement.

Only three classes were run to keep the event within the race fan’s two to three hour attention span. All drivers were required to drive in a dog truck parade down main street to a musher’s banquet/dance. Prize money and appearance money were awarded at the banquet, and in order to receive prize/appearance money, a driver had to be present. This committee has already implemented many more changes for this year’s race and as with the previous year, the race fan is the number one concern.

We have to be careful not to jump to any snap judgments about the format changes this race made after just one year. However, it is the first race in quite sometime to generate a substantial increase in community and sponsor interest after the first year. One can argue that it’s Eddy’s promotional skills that made this race. It goes without saying that he did play a key role, but no matter how good a salesperson you are, you still need a quality product to keep your customer’s interest once they try your product.

Pat Jones and the people from Cannon Falls, Minnesota are another example of a race that is not afraid of change. Pat was the brunt of a joke at a North Star meeting several years back during a discussion on changing our race format to increase fan interest. After everyone agreed upon a format change, someone expressed the concern of which race would be the first to enact it. Right away one of the members said "Pat will try it."  "She is like Mikey from the Life Cereal commercial--she’ll try anything." Changes made at Cannon Falls attempt to strike a balance between the needs of the race fan and driver. It is important to note that Cannon Falls has enjoyed greatest longevity of any North Star race.

We also had a group from Monticello, Minnesota bring a race into our circuit that varied from our standard format. The main emphasis for this race was on the junior, beginner, and recreational classes. It was set up to be a low pressure, fun event. It brought in a lot of new drivers and received strong community support.

Where do we go from here?
When planning race events, we need to realize that every race cannot meet the needs of each individual driver in the club.

We need big events which feature crowd pleasing classes and elite drivers. These are the races where the race fan has to be the top priority. This is where we need to dedicate the greatest share of our promotional resources. If you can create one or two big time events, smaller events will ride their coat tails.

There are drivers out there that do not think this is a fair approach because the class they race, or the level of competition they choose for their kennel, may not qualify them for the big time event.

Should the Daytona 500 allow me to enter, or create a separate class for, my 1992 Dodge Colt? I will be staying at local motels and eating at restaurants just like the big boys. Where I live, I cannot have the large shop required to build a top car. My job does not allow me the time necessary to field a top car. I do not feel comfortable running with that much horsepower... Spectators would not know the difference between my Colt or Jeff Gordon’s Chevy--they’re just here to see the cars.

These are all good arguments except the last one, of course, but I’ve heard something similar to it. The bottom line is sponsors put up the "big bucks" and a large number of race fans view the Daytona 500 to watch the fastest cars and best drivers compete against themselves.

Our sport, like almost all other spectator sports, has room for, and needs more than, just the big time events. We have communities with little or no resources to draw financial support. These communities should be staging races with a low pressure, fun format for recreational and junior drivers, awarding trophies or small prizes to the top finishers. Recreational races should have a strong focus of meeting the needs of the drivers.

Communities with limited financial resources should be running mid level races with a full compliment of professional classes competing for a small purse--not generated through entry fees--or prizes. Mid level races also should include recreational and junior classes. These races need to strike a balance between race fan and driver’s needs. The financial benefits received by communities staging a recreational or mid level race are mostly provided by the race drivers spending the weekend in their town, so a high number of race participants should be encouraged. Mid level races with a high number of race participants need to incorporate double or triple starts with minimal down time between classes to insure the race day does not become too long and tiresome for both race fans and drivers.

Don't Shoot the Messenger...
Almost every dog driver reading this article will find at least some part of it upsetting to them. Please do not shoot the messenger. This is not sprint racing as it should be "according to John." Many changes mentioned in this article are far from advantageous to my kennel. The changes advocated above have been procured from a broad range of sources in and out of the sled dog community.

The suggested changes are not going to rescue our sport on their own. Several of them could fail miserably. The only thing we do know for sure, based on past history, is that sprint racing in the Midwest has experienced a significant decline in popularity over the past ten years, and if we continue under the status quo, there is reason to believe that this decline will continue.

Hopefully several of the changes advocated in this article will be implemented and increase the popularity of our sport. If it does nothing more than enable local club and ISDRA members to admit that we do have a problem--and solving it is more important than one’s individual needs--this article has been a success.

S/John Swenson

As John and I discussed his article we wanted a means of receiving input from others involved in race management and promotion.  It seemed like as good a time as any to institute a discussion area on Sled Dog Central.  Check out SDC Talk!

  • What's working in your area?
  • What do you think the sport can do differently to develop "race fans?"
  • Give us your ideas on how to improve sprint racing from a sponsor/spectator viewpoint.
  • Does the idea of "pro only" events make your blood boil?

We welcome your comments at   SDC Talk!

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