When slipping past a car on a tight turn at your favorite track, it’s easy to overlook what made it all possible.
Part of it stems from your driving ability — naturally — but NASA regional directors, who spend hours sweating the small details, make a fun weekend at the track possible. Sure, you pay an entry fee for the privilege, but ask anyone who has had to stage an event, whether it’s a wedding or a car show, and they will tell you how much work it can be.
“It’s like throwing a party at your house,” said Chris Cobetto, director of the NASA Mid-Atlantic Region and HyperFest event. “You have to have good food, good drink, things to entertain people, and make sure people are moving around.”
Now multiply that by a hundred.
Chances are if the race weekend went smoothly—beyond how well you finished—the organizers did their job. NASA’s 16 regions put on more than 150 events during a year and organizing those races is no small task, so we wanted to go behind the scenes to see what it’s like.
From the comforts of home, the process of signing up for an event seems simple. Fill out an online registration form, check the correct boxes, pay the fee with a credit card and a few weeks later show up to the track to race.
Behind the scenes the process is more involved, especially if the racer signs up for an HPDE1 event. It requires organizers to find a qualified instructor and pair them with the right student. Additionally the organizer has to make sure paperwork is correctly filled out and gets to the track.
“We’re planning every single part of the participant’s day ahead of time,” said Will Faules, national event manager for NASA. “When you are a racer you might not realize all that goes into an event until you are on the other side, whether working it or organizing it.”
Technology has helped streamline the process from registration to tracking lap times. NASA has spent more than $500,000 on its electronic capabilities over the past decade, said Ryan Flaherty, national chairman.
“That was done so the member could spend the most amount of personal time at the racetrack,” Flaherty said. “They no longer have to stand in line to go through registration and us asking for their emergency contact information and to show us their license. We can do all of that electronically and not have to bother the member for that.”
Whether a NASA member decides to race in the Great Lakes region and then trailer the car to the Florida region for a competition, they’ll notice many similarities between the events. The national organization felt it was important to use a common registration system as well as one tech sticker that is good across all the regions.
But the one-size-fits-all template doesn’t work at all tracks, especially facilities with noise laws or ordinances that restrict racing on Sunday.
“We have to design our schedule and design the curriculum to fit within those parameters,” Flaherty said. “There is definitely a degree where each track offers different nuances. But in terms of running the HPDE program, we’re going to have X number of sessions during the day and we want to follow this particular curriculum.”
Some regions may choose to add elements such as live music, but the core racing elements remain the same. Concerts or barbecues add to the festival element during the weekend.
Cobetto said that festival element is important, especially at events like HyperFest, the annual July event that attracts upward of 15,000 people.
“I remember a long time ago where you’d go to a race, and it was a race that was the main thing. It wasn’t the stuff all around it that was important,” Cobetto said. “Now people’s attention spans are relatively short and people are used to having instant gratification and their minds stimulated all of the time.
“You have to take that into consideration when doing one of these events. That’s one of the reasons (HyperFest) has been so successful, honestly, because there is so much going on and we keep throwing more at it.”
Just after the cars left the track at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in early July, NASA NorCal and SoCal officials already were preparing for the 2014 event at the track near Monterey, Calif. While that might seem like overkill, preparations start a year or more in advance. Tracks have to be booked, schedules need to be set and sponsors have to be rounded up to make a weekend of racing possible.
“After I finish an event, I’m already looking ahead to next year,” Cobetto said. “Besides picking a date, I’m working on my marketing materials to get sponsors interested in the event. A lot of sponsors are making decisions now (September and October) on what they are going to do next year.”
Sponsors are the key to keeping costs down for the racers. Not only do companies such as Toyo Tires or Hawk Performance offer great contingency programs for the racers, their sponsorship dollars help offset track expenses.
“Our partners are a huge part of our success,” Faules said. “They help keep the cost of the event down.”
Faules said the support of vendors and sponsors goes beyond writing a check. He’s seen on more than one occasion where a vendor helped a driver get parts late at night.
Regional directors like Cobetto know that time is crucial to staging a successful event. The earlier details can be taken care of, the more time they have to deal with unexpected issues or answer last-minute questions.
Cobetto likes to have most of the operational details completed about 20 days prior to an event. “I’m by nature more of a wing it type of person,” he said. “(But) if I can have most of it prepared ahead of time, I won’t have as much at the event that I have to wing.”
Staging an Event
Putting together an event is like having a never-ending list of chores. By the time the first car gets out on the track, hundreds of tasks already have been completed. The list includes major items such as booking the safety team, securing the timing crew and organizing tech inspection. (And that doesn’t even include sponsors and vendors that must be tended to.)
Equipment such as scales, flashlights, cones, timing systems, radios and tools for the inspection process all have to be trailered to the race site. Each region generally has enough equipment to take up about half a garage. That’s why organizers maintain lengthy checklists to make sure nothing is overlooked.
Flaherty points to the tech process at the National Championships and how complicated the process can be.
“We might have cylinder heads and oil pans coming off the cars for inspection of various parts,” he said. “That’s a very in-depth, intrusive process that takes a lot of time, a lot of custody and monitoring of the various parts coming off the car. You have to track and measure the parts to quantify they are legal.”
A regional event with 200 participants will have a staff of approximately 50 officials, the majority of which are volunteers. A HyperFest event with 700 participants can require a staff of 175 or greater, Cobetto said.
All of the race organizers are quick to credit the staff for the success. Without a dedicated group of individuals, the 160 events staged across the various regions wouldn’t be possible. Or at least at the high quality that NASA delivers.
John Lindsey, general counsel for NASA, recalls how different race weekends are now compared to 20 years ago.
“I tended to get yelled at a lot,” Lindsey said. “I took a lot of that to my role as an official and I remember how crummy it made me feel. So I really remember what it’s like to be on the other side of the visor. We try to be very kind and welcoming and always try to see it from the other side.”
That professionalism extends to running events and staying true to the schedule down to the minute. Staying true to the schedule, barring a major incident, is important to the racers. And if there is a delay, keeping the racers informed is equally as important, Faules said
“In a perfect world we’re to the second on the atomic clocks,” Faules said. “For example, if a guy breaks a part in qualifying, he’s going to want to know how much time he has to get his car fixed.”
A Successful Event
At the basic level, the definition of a successful event is one where no one got hurt and the participants had fun. On the business side, hopefully sponsors and vendors made some sales and the promoter walked away with a profit. For the organizer, the best backhanded compliment they can receive is how easy it appears to stage a race. Cobetto compares his role to playing drums in the band.
“You don’t know he’s a good drummer for the most part because his job is to keep things rolling and be invisible,” Cobetto said. “A bad drummer you’ll know right away. The same goes for events. The idea is to try and make it as smooth as possible at least from outward appearances.”
Having run events, Lindsey knows that organizers are often up before sunrise and are still working long after the last car has left the track for the night.
“The analogy I always use is that of a duck,” Lindsey said. “Hopefully all everybody sees is that duck on the surface making stately progress when below the surface its two little legs are paddling like hell to keep moving.”
Do It Yourself Car Show
Useful tips for staging a your own car show.
Putting on a car show at the local community park can be a lot of hard work but also very rewarding if done right.
We spoke with promoters who are responsible for organizing dozens of events each year to get their advice on staging a car show. They suggest attending various events from car shows to triathlons to gather general impressions of what is being done right or can be improved.
Timing is Everything
A three-day holiday weekend seems like a great time to put on a car show, but it can be less than ideal. There’s lots of competition for the entertainment dollar (think concerts and street fairs), plus people often leave town for a long weekend. Since most events take place during the summer, consider late spring or early fall to separate your car show from the crowd.
Whether the car show takes place at the local park or the local shopping center, chances are it’s going to require a permit from the local jurisdiction. The agency will spell out the requirements for insurance, security, restrooms and trash. Some municipalities require that the batteries be removed from cars in static displays.
Event insurance is a must and don’t even think of putting on a car show without it. Consider policy limits of at least $1 million or more and go with a reputable insurance company for coverage.
How are you going to pay for the car show—car entry fees, sponsors, admission tickets or vendors? Set a realistic budget for a first-year show. Sponsors and vendors aren’t going to pay big bucks, especially for an event without a proven attendance record. Set reasonable rates because you want those vendors and sponsors to come back for a second year.
Charging admission comes with its own set of challenges. This usually requires fencing to keep non-paying customers out and a worker/security guard at the front gate to collect money. The better route might be making the event open to the public and creating a charity component. Charity benefits often get reduced fees and some charity groups provide volunteers to help. Plus, some car owners might be more likely to participate for a cause and a potential tax deduction.
Thanks to smartphones and tablets, America’s attention span is pretty short. While the cars are the main draw, it’s the entertainment that will keep attendees around. Consider hiring local bands to play, even though it will require renting a stage and a quality sound system. Give the kids something to do such as carnival games, jumpers or contests.
Crucial to the success is getting the word out to car enthusiasts and the general public. A mix of traditional advertising such as newspaper ads or radio commercials combined with a social media campaign will help raise awareness. Some car shows create high-quality posters and distribute them to area businesses.
Write up press releases and send them to area publications, especially if it has a charity component. There are also free PR websites that will distribute the release, albeit on a limited scale.
Be an Ambassador
As the event gets closer, the number of emails and phone calls increase dramatically. Be prompt in returning calls or responding to requests. Not only might you lose out on a potential sale, it’s important to have goodwill going into an event.
That’s why it’s good practice to complete most of the organizational tasks at least two weeks prior to the show. It allows you to focus on marketing and responding to inquiries.
Organizing a car show can be a lot of stress but take time to have some fun. A successful event is more than just the bottom line but about bringing the community together for the day.