CALGARY, Alta. –Coming to an oval race track near you: the roar of the diesel, the smell of the crowd -and the excitement of big rigs running wheel to wheel, lap after lap after lap.
Or maybe not. The future of big rig racing in Western Canada is cloudy right now, as organizers and participants strive to find the right sponsorships and venues. Challenges also include many of the same ones that affect non-racing truckers these days: a money crunch, as well as increasing -and sometimes unfair -competition.
But in the meantime, the show goes on.
The North American Big Rig Racing (NABRR) series was formed after the demise of the “GATR” (Great American Truck Racing) series that ran in the eastern US and Canada. Founded in Calgary in 1989, NABRR expanded subsequently to Vancouver Island and Washington State in 1997 and later its influence spread further south, right to California. Long time NABRR racer and series organizer Ron Singer, of Calgary, says some of the GATR events offered over $100,000 US as a pay day for the drivers.
“It’s certainly nothing like what we race for,” he says, “because we never, ever made it to those levels. They also had great sponsorship and support from the eastern manufacturers, names like Mobil Oil and the like.”
Singer says that in those formative days of the NABRR series, he met with a lot of the GATR owners to pick their brains.
“I wanted to know all about the series, all the good, the bad, and the ugly,” he says, noting that “they were pretty wild trucks in those days. The series was very well run and they had big dollars to play with.”
He came away from his consultations with the opinion that the GATR series had lost its lustre in part because the trucks stopped looking like real trucks, in much the same way today’s NASCAR vehicles are Camrys, Fusions and the like in name only. That doesn’t mean today’s big rig racing trucks are stock vehicles driven right off the lot or the job site, however.
“We have evolved,” Singer says. “When we started, guys parked the trailer in the lot and put the truck on the track and that’s how it was. Now, the trucks have been modified to be more racing trucks, but the looks are still genuine OEM -so when you see Mack or a Peterbilt or a Western Star, you don’t have to guess what it is.”
Singer says the trucks are either tweaked or rebuilt completely, depending upon the team and its budget, and are definitely no longer street legal.
“There’s no brake lights or signal lights and no wipers,” he says, “And they run altered suspensions and front axles.”
All this modification doesn’t come cheap. According to Singer, it’s easy for a team to invest $200,000 into a truck. “There’s guys that’ve got $50,000 in and there’s others with $200,000,” he says. “There’s a lot of high-tech stuff and knowledge that goes into what makes the truck go fast and how you can stay on top.”
Another challenge of racing is the way a team has to balance sport with business. “To be successful,” Singer says, “you’ve got to do the same things as it takes to be successful in business. You have to be efficient and very business savvy; you’ve got to be entrepreneurial, with some salesmanship about you.” A racing team can’t succeed, he says, by appealing only to the motor sport fan, but to the sponsors as well, because “They’re the most critical part. Without them, you’re just not running.”
And there’s the rub. Singer says the series has gotten so expensive, with a dollar potential that hasn’t increased for many years, that it’s tough to keep going. And now a cut-rate racing series in the US has been siphoning off NABRR venues by offering to race on the cheap.
“It’s all about dollars and cents,” Singer says. “It’s the same thing that’s happening in the trucking industry itself. We’re being undercut and so those tracks we raced at, while they’re not happy that we’re not there anymore, it only costs half as much to have the other series there.”
That means the series has another challenge: looking for new venues, a major issue indeed. Even long-time tracks such as Calgary’s Race City Motorsport Park are threatened. Race City has been living under a death sentence recently, thanks to a host city that owns the land and wants to use it for its own purposes: expanding a landfill. Race City’s operators have been understandably reluctant to spend a lot of money on the track.
Race City received a temporary stay of execution in late September when Calgary city council decided to allow a renewal of its lease for another five years. And while that may provide some welcome breathing room for many racers and fans, Singer doesn’t think it will do anything for the NABRR, because of the wear and tear the trucks put on tracks.
“I’m really happy for Race City and all the people who use it,” Singer said.
“It’s a good thing for everyone concerned, except for big rigs. I don’t think we’ll be racing there because the track’s just too far gone. We do so much damage, tear it up so bad, and they haven’t put any money into the track and probably don’t intend to.”
The competition for sponsorship dollars -dollars that are also shrinking thanks to the current economic rat race -is also intense. Singer, however, looks on that as an opportunity for more salesmanship and marketing to help the manufacturers and OEMs see big rig racing as a way to reach a captive, friendly audience.
“They spend a lot of advertising dollars every year,” he says. “If we can get them to support us a little bit better, if they will only give us an opportunity, we would guarantee a return on their investment.”
Singer says the series would ensure sponsors’ investments were returned in real dollars and cents, through the teams’ support of their products and by the series encouraging people to use their products. “We would be salesmen for their product all the time,” he says. “We go to all the big rig shows, all the big truck shows and we would sell their wares there, and at race tracks and any other function we were at.”
Singer, whose son now races both his big rig entries and runs the teams for Heavy Metal Motorsports, says he’s sure it would work because Big Rig racing in Europe can attract 250,000 people and big rig racing events at Calgary’s Race City have been very popular.
“We provide the attraction and the tease, we bring the people to the track,” he says, “We fill the seats and the sponsor gets 250,000 people coming to his booth. What they do with them then is up to them.”
It’s kind of a three-pronged deal, he says, with the teams and the promoter supplying the venue and the audience, and the sponsor providing the money.
Meanwhile, Singer says the series brings together some of the best talent and experience in the trucking and motor sport industries -and offers good value for fans.
“It’s just the cheapest entertainment value for your dollar that you could ever find,” Singer says. “You never, ever find any fans that were disappointed. They were always amazed -and the kids just love it.”
So do the participants. “What really attracted me to the sport was the fact that you could have a relationship with people you worked with,” Singer says, “But it wasn’t a work relationship, it was a fun relationship.”
It’s a relationship that carries over from peers to sponsors. “The thing about motor sports is that it is so brand loyal and I never understood why the big OEM manufacturers didn’t support it more. It’s been an untapped opportunity and I hope we can change their minds over time.”
The racing community is working hard at doing that and has managed to change some minds along the way, getting some of the manufacturers involved in the racing. And while money is a vital ingredient, it also takes a lot of time and effort by the race team, without which “you’re nothing. And every part of the team has to be there or you’re not going to be on the winning side.”
Challenges or not, the 2009 season came to a successful conclusion wi
th Glenn Creed driving the number 59 Ford Louisville 9000 LTL to the championship for Glenn Creed and Valley Racing, sponsored by Johal Trucking, Creed Trucking and Nixon Brothers Contracting. But the 2010 season is still in flux.
“We’ll be meeting and talking soon,” Singer says, “And then we’ll contact other tracks regarding schedule dates.” He says there’ll definitely be a 2010 season but where and when the races will be held won’t be known until after next January or February.
“There’s no doubt big rig racing will continue,” Singer says, “but it’s a challenging time.”