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Saving fun for the races
Cheap thrills draw many to the track
Dave Jones, a truck driver from Gainesville, watches race cars whiz by on the track during SpeedFest 2009. - photo by SARA GUEVARA


What: Pro Late Model 100-lap race followed by Super Late Model SpeedFest 200
When: 2 p.m. today
Where: Lanier National Speedway, 5309 Winder Highway,
Tickets: $30

BRASELTON — Whether it’s at Bristol or Braselton, the sounds, sights and smells of short-track racing remain the same.

On Saturday, 4-year-old Ethan Mays couldn’t tell the difference between the roar of a Super Late Model practice at the 3/8-mile Lanier National Speedway and the NASCAR Sprint Cup action he watches Sundays on TV.

His grandfather, Russ Mays of Buford, has been attending events at Lanier since it opened in 1982. and brought his grandson to Saturday’s practice and qualifying sessions for his first taste of live, loud auto racing.

Mays, who also attends events at stock car racing’s mile-and-a-half megastadiums, likes Lanier for its location, price and scale.

“It’s very affordable, and the track is actually an ideal size,” Mays said. “At those larger tracks, you end up having to use binoculars.”

In the midst of an economic downturn that is likely to have as much an impact on auto racing as any sport, supporters of local short tracks hope the recession brings more fans to events that can cost one-fifth of their big-league counterparts in Hampton, Concord, N.C. and Talladega, Ala.

“For those who want to watch racing live, this is a golden opportunity for the late-model racing world to shine,” said Phil Mullinax of Jasper, who spent Saturday spotting for Bill Elliott protege Casey Roderick.

The economy has hit auto racing hard, with sponsorship dollars evaporating in a sport that is as expensive to sustain as any. Big tracks are cutting prices in the face of shrinking attendance figures, and some short tracks have folded.

Lanier Speedway got this weekend’s SpeedFest after last year’s host venue, USA International Speedway in Lakeland, Fla., closed.

Scott Pinner, a longtime racing announcer for the Big Stick Radio Network who covers short track events across the Southeast, said the economic knife could cut both ways for smaller venues.

“You’re going to have people come to short track events this year that would normally go to a four-day event in Hampton,” Pinner said. “They’ll still see great racing and not spend the same level of money. On the other hand, this year some may be skipping the local events so they can save their money for the NASCAR Cup races.”

The highest ticket price for today’s race at Lanier was $30. The top price for a grandstand ticket at Atlanta Motor Speedway’s spring race is $135, with a limited number of seats discounted to $40.

Chad Kepley, who sells racing souvenirs at 70 to 80 short track events each year, said local track owners have dropped their ticket prices about as much as they can. He believes some fans may support their local tracks more to avoid the travel expenses of attending Cup races.

“I think it might be a little better than the last few years,” Kepley said. “The only thing is now there are so many (televised) Saturday night Cup races being run that compete against the short tracks.”

Kepley said the appeal of short-track racing is obvious.

“It’s better racing,” he said. “It’s not follow-the-leader.”

Pinner, the radio announcer, says there are some fans who will attend races at Lanier and Lanier only.

Then there are others who are so die-hard they won’t let the economy keep them from their favorite pastime.

“Racing fans are the most dedicated fans in the country,” Pinner said. “As long as you give them a quality show, they will find a way to make it.”