THE VIEW FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COUNTER

 

By John Copeland

Every day someone walks into the shop and asks "Where do they run these things?" and "If I get a kart, where should I go to race?" And every club and track operator nearby expects that the kart shop owner or employee will send those newcomers to their track. Not only do they expect it, but they're mighty unhappy if the kart shop sends these new racers somewhere else. I've heard all sorts of explanations, from accusations of shop owners getting kickbacks from tracks (ridiculous!) to sending new drivers to tracks where competition is weak so they'll feel good (unlikely). The truth is much simpler than that, but it may not be what the club members or track operators want to hear.

At the very heart of the question is this, "How do we attract and keep new racers racing?" It's a matter of some concern to clubs and tracks, but its VITAL to the survival of the kart shops. Our sport has a natural attrition. People quit racing because they get married, or have kids, or change jobs, or lose their jobs, or just get tired of it, or a thousand other good reasons. Without a steady supply of "new blood" coming into the sport, it will dry up and disappear. The industry knows this, and so they stage trade shows, and expos, and generally campaign to make more of the non-karting public aware of what we do and encourage them to join us. The shops know it too, and so they participate in those shows and expos, and look for every opportunity to bring more new racers into the sport. But are the clubs and tracks helping the situation or hurting it?

Let's strip it away to the bare essentials here for a minute. Kart racing is fun, or its supposed to be. And kart shops are not so much in the engine business, or the chassis business, or the parts business, as they are in the FUN business. Our job, as retailers, is to see to it that our customers get what they come to the shop for. And what they come for, my friends, is fun. Its our job to help them to get whatever parts, service, or whatever they need to have the best chance of enjoying what they're doing. If we don't, if they spend their hard earned cash and end up having a lousy time race after race, it won't take them long to say "To hell with this! I'm going to go do something else." Shops that fail to realize what the true nature of the business is will not last long.

On the other hand, the shop that goes out of its way to maximize their customer's chances of enjoying themselves will be rewarded with not only those customer's repeat business, but more new faces from racers' friends and acquaintances. There are too many other diversions out there competing for people's entertainment dollars to risk running them off because they're not having fun. Don't get me wrong. Everybody's going to have a bad day at the track from time to time. That's the nature of racing. The key is make those days easier to take; for the racer to see them as just a bad day, and not a reflection of an unfriendly attitude.

So what can the clubs and tracks do to help the situation? Let me start by asking a question.
What happens when you walk into your local kart shop? Or, for that matter, what happens when you walk into any store? Doesn't someone almost always say "Hello", or "Can I help you find something?" or some other type of greeting? Now, what happens when you drive into a strange racetrack for the first time? And what happens when strangers drive into YOUR track for the first time? I've been to dozens to tracks where strangers are treated with suspicion, and some where they face open hostility. WAKE UP PEOPLE! It doesn't matter how strong you think your club or track is, people are leaving the sport every day, including at your track. If you don't make an active effort to solicit new racers, make them welcome, and make them want to come back, its only a matter of time before your club or track is history. Every karter at every track should make it his or her personal mission to speak to everyone they see that they don't know. Ask if they've ever been there before, and if not, if they have any questions about gearing, race schedule, or whatever. Veteran racers traveling the country from track to track may not need your help, but they'll remember that you were friendly, and when they go to the next track, they'll probably send more racers your way. Beginners and newcomers desperately need your help and, more importantly, need to feel like they're not so all alone.

I hear from racers every week about this racetrack and that racetrack. Lots of experienced racers like the challenge of traveling from track to track to race new competitors every week. And newcomers are trying to get adjusted to a new sport and are looking for a track they like to run. Unfortunately, what I hear too many times is that they were not made to feel welcome. Or they were pretty much ignored and left to figure it out for themselves. (It can be anything from what the class rotation is to where the bathrooms are.) I also hear that strangers are routinely held to a different standard of on-track behavior than the track "regulars". Strangers, particularly if they run well, get man-handled and booted around on the track by the regulars, but earn a black flag if they nudge back. Believe me, the word gets around. Racers tell other racers, and they tell shop owners, who tell other shop owners, and they all tell other racers. No club or track can afford to get that kind of reputation.

The same goes for tech. If a club gets the reputation for gunning for outsiders in the tech shed while they let their locals slide, entries will fall. Tech has to be fair, but firm. And it has to be handled uniformly, regardless of whose engine is on the bench. Some tracks have local option rules that a newcomer may not be aware of. There's another reason to say hello to new faces at the track. I know of one father who found out at teardown that the track they were visiting required a different size junior restrictor than anywhere else they had run. Nobody had bothered to tell him or his son, but everybody in the club knew. Believe me, this father has told everybody in 5 states about how those so-and-sos screwed his son in tech after he beat them on the track.

Every racer at every track should make it his or her business to see to it that their track doesn't develop a bad reputation. And, if you agree that this is as important as as it appears, how about appointing a track host or hostess? Wal-Mart, one of the most successful retailers in history, has someone near the door of every store, greeting customers and offering directions, or whatever other help is needed. Now other businesses are following suit. I stopped at K-Mart a few days ago and they had several people roaming near the check-outs, steering people to the shortest lines, saying hello, stuff like that. Its how you retain customers, and, in the racetrack business, its how you retain racers. If each club picked a volunteer, someone not racing themselves but knowledgeable about the track, to roam around the pits speaking to people, just think how much nicer the atmosphere at the track would be. By having a broader view of who was at the track and what resources might be available, that person could refer racers looking for a particular part, or a welder, or whatever. It could be an incredible plus to YOUR track, the kind of plus that brings racers back again and again.

Make your track the one that visitors want to come back to, the track that they tell their racing friends about and bring them to as well. Shop owners will happily send their new customers to you and everybody benefits. More racers mean more racing. And more racing is almost always better racing. See ya at the track!