- Jerry Bonkowski, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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JOLIET -- New Chicagoland Speedway president Craig Rust readily admits Saturday night's NASCAR LifeLock 400 will not be sold out. The track will fail to fill its 75,000-seat capacity for only the second time in the nine years it has hosted the Sprint Cup Series.
"We're going to be down, but we're going to have a good crowd," said Rust, who assumed his new position June 15. "We've talked to other tracks that have said they've had bigger walk-ups on Sundays than they've ever had in the past, so we're keeping our fingers crossed and focusing on the execution of the event."
The Chicagoland area has been hit hard by the economy, perhaps not as bad as places such as Michigan and Nevada, but still enough to put a significant dent in Saturday's expected crowd.
As a result, the speedway and its parent company, International Speedway Corp., are looking at various ways to be more creative and fan-friendly in future ticket sales. Most notable is the possible elimination of the controversial Track Pack program, which has been a bone of contention for many race fans for the past several years.
The Track Pack program requires fans wanting a ticket for the annual mid-July Sprint Cup race also to purchase tickets for the Camping World Trucks and Indy Racing League races in September. Even if you're not a Trucks or IRL fan, the only way to see NASCAR stars such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth is to buy the three-ticket Track Pack.
That could change next year for Chicagoland Speedway and Kansas Speedway, both owned by ISC and both also the only tracks on the circuit that require that fans purchase the three-race Track Pack subscription. If the economy continues to struggle or gets worse, the likelihood of the Track Pack's being revised or even eliminated will grow.
Because all the tickets sold so far were part of the Track Pack, which ranges from $195 to $350 per person, Rust discounted the idea of offering single-race tickets for Saturday's race to try to boost the crowd.
"We need to be fair to them," Rust said of current Track Pack holders. "Decisions were made, and we'll stick through them for this season."
But on the flip side, not only are Track Packs still available for purchase for Saturday and the September races but Rust and his staff will give even more effort to enhancing the overall experience for those fans headed to the track this weekend.
"If we take care of this group and they say, 'Wow, we enjoyed it out there, we got a bang for our buck in this economy' and we can continue to have them as long-term fans, we'll be OK," Rust said.
Before assuming his new role, Rust was president of Watkins Glen International, one of two road courses on the Sprint Cup circuit, in upstate New York. Before that, he was director of sales and marketing at Auto Club Speedway in suburban Los Angeles and president of Nazareth Speedway in Pennsylvania.
Rust admits he'll miss the bucolic atmosphere of Watkins Glen.
"Yes, it was [hard to leave]," Rust said. "But from the job and career side, it's a no-brainer. When you're a sports guy, and I started at Madison Square Garden, to do that here is a great opportunity. The personal side is where it's a tough decision. My wife and I have three children, including a daughter in middle school, and for people that haven't been to upstate New York, the Finger Lakes, it's gorgeous. It's lakes and mountains and it's just kind of a slow style of life, and we got very comfortable and enjoyed it.
"So that I will miss, but when we were investigating the opportunity, everyone that we talked to that knows Chicago and the greater Chicagoland area said, 'You'll love it; the people are fantastic and it's a great place to raise a family.' There really was no downside other than the physical move and selling the house."
At the same time, Rust is excited about the challenge at Chicagoland Speedway, as well as its adjacent drag racing facility (Route 66 Raceway) and nearby dirt track.
"We've got the content, we've got the racing, we pretty much have everything you want to run on," Rust said. "That, and the size of the market and being such a great sports market, creates wonderful opportunity."
Although he says it's too early to talk about potentially expanding the 9-year-old speedway, one of his big hopes is to attract a second Sprint Cup race each year to Chicagoland Speedway.
"I think if we're not working towards giving NASCAR or ISC a reason for giving us a second date here, we're not doing our jobs," Rust said. "That's what you've got to strive for. If we do all the things correctly in 2010, 11, 12 and 13, and make good decisions at the same time, continue to invest in the facility and to listen to our fans, why wouldn't NASCAR want to bring a second date to Chicago?
"We need to have the thought in mind that if we do this right, there's no reason we shouldn't be at least able to ask that, hey, we want a second date and the market is showing that it can support it."
At the same time, Rust is no fool. Like any good promoter, he'll try anything within reason to sell more tickets and get more fans in the stands. He already has learned fast:
"I'm a Bears fan and a Cubs fan," he said with a smile.
If that doesn't sell a few more tickets, nothing will.
7mMichael C. Wright