Last year I spent the majority of my time during the NASCAR weekend at Watkins Glen International (WGI) focused on my experience as a member of the media and it’s comparison to the fan experience. I have had the opportunity of taking it all in with fresh eyes, with little to no expectations. Since Mike has attended many races at WGI, he has provided insight as to how things “used to be.” Usually I just say okay and move on with the conversation, but this year there have been a few changes that even I have to adjust to. My goal for this weekend is to pause during the chaos, make time to reflect on the changes that effect fans, drivers, and essentially all who attend this weekend’s race.
One of the bigger changes that have taken place at the track this year is the modification of the sale of merchandise. “Back in the good ol’ days,” as Mike would say, NASCAR teams would bring in their haulers full of merchandise, pull them into the middle of the infield, open up and sell to fans. As a fan, you would walk in their pop-up village, find the trailer of your favorite team, and purchase whatever paraphernalia your heart desires. For example, being a Brad Keselowski fan, I would theoretically find the No.2 hauler and behind glass would be all of the 1-64 scale cars a girl could ever wish for, plenty of hoodies and t-shirts for men and women, bumper stickers, car decals, hats, etc. all for a competitive price of the surrounding haulers of different teams.
Nowadays, beginning last week at Pocono, all NASCAR merchandise is arranged in a rather large tent area run by ‘Fanatics.’ Walking through the Fanatics tent you can find anything you could possibly be looking for. Merchandise is organized in a number of ways; such as youth sizes and styles, a ‘Kids Corner,’ by team, by item (i.e. hats). While wandering through, I was absorbing all of the comments I could hear from people. I can promise you I was trying really hard not to blatantly be eaves-dropping, but the way the tent is set up, there is little room for people to look at merchandise and easily maneuver around other shoppers; so overhearing their conversations was not that difficult.
The tent is strategically set up where each section requires you to walk in to the back, turn around to come back to the center aisle and turn the corner for the next section. You cannot move from section to section except one entrance again. If one staff member stood in every section, I feel they would serve more of the purpose of watching for shoplifting while helping people find the merchandise they are looking for.
These sections allow fans to not only view the items for sale, but to feel them and hold them up for size without having the pressure of asking someone to get it from the back for you. In the hauler, if you asked to view an item there was an awkward, unspoken expectation to then purchase said item. With the tent set up, you can hold it and decide that the back of the hat has the netting that you don’t like, and you can put it down without feeling obligated to buy it just because you made someone do their job.
One of the first things I noticed is that the tent area has gates around it, so you are forced to walk in one entrance and essentially one exit. Standing at the entrance/exit are two “ushers” who greet you and search your bags when you are leaving the area. The shopping experience is much different than the previous set up in that you grab a green ‘re-usable’ Fanatics bag (reminds me of the bags I use when grocery shopping to protect the environment by not using plastic bags, you know the kind) and fill it with all sorts of goodies. There are many staff members in the area to help you; however, I feel this position is more on a volunteer basis. We have had encountered several staff members so far this weekend who have been unable to answer our questions, which is why I believe that partaking as staff is a volunteer situation.
It is pretty awesome that going through the Fanatics tent you can find merchandise for many more drivers than you would have for the haulers. The teams individually fund their merchandise haulers; therefore, lower tiered drivers who may not have as much financial support as other teams would not likely be able to afford to haul merchandise haulers around the country. We all know the power of the Underdog and sometimes we just want to be able to buy a t-shirt to proud display our support, but those shirts can feel like they do not even exist. This set-up allows for those teams to make a portion of profits, which is more than they get from selling nothing. I am sure NASCAR is receiving the largest chunk of change from this new set-up.
For Watkins Glen International, though this is not a life or death situation, it is a shame that there is an area of the infield entitled “Turn Ten Village,” which was the site of the hauler circle of merchandise. From a nostalgic point of view, they have paved paradise and put up a parking lot. Yes, this area has now become a place for parking for buses, food trucks, and golf carts.