The economic woes of the last few years have been tough on many industries, the sports business among them. Sponsorships have been harder to come by as corporations stopped freely cutting checks, and ticket sales have stalled as wary fans conserve cash.
But one local sports event is running counter to the trend. This week's Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta in Braselton, which culminates in an endurance race that starts at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, appears headed to record attendance and sponsorship totals.
Attendance could reach 125,000, race officials said, exceeding the all-time peak of 113,000 in 2008, particularly if the good weather holds. Last year, attendance came in under 100,000, when heavy storms hit the area.
Corporate hospitality is also at an all-time high, officials said, with spending on business entertainment at the track expected to be roughly double last year's as companies spend more lavishly to entertain clients. Exact figures were not available.
And, in the vendor village, the number of companies paying to display their wares is up to about 80, another record, according to race officials.
"We've been pretty fortunate," said Geoff Lee, president of Road Atlanta, a 750-acre multi-purpose motor sports facility north of Atlanta that hosts races, race schools, testing and other events about 340 days a year.
Petit Le Mans, now in its 13th year, is the ninth and last event in the American Le Mans annual racing series It is a thousand-mile, 10-hour long race featuring driver teams and sports cars from around the world including Ferrari, Porsche, Corvette, Jaguar, Audi, Peugeot and BMW. Cars travel at up to 200 miles per hour along the 2.54-mile course.
Founded by Atlanta entrepreneur Don Panoz, the series is a success because of several factors, Lee said. It offers a relatively inexpensive way for a family to view elite racing machines and their drivers up close in a fair-like setting, among other things.
Race day tickets, which are available at the gate, cost $65 for adults, but children under 12 get in free. They can go down to the track and cozy up to the cars, or wander around the village or the course rather than having to stay in one seat.
Eric Wright, vice president of research and development for Joyce Julius & Associates, an Ann Arbor, Mich., firm that evaluates sports sponsorships, said the American Le Mans series, "is ticking along nicely. They are doing a great job."
While the series doesn't have the notoriety of NASCAR, for example, Wright said, "More isn't always better."
Matt Carroll, chief marketing officer for Patron Spirits, said that with its sponsorship of the American Le Mans Series and its "flagship" race, the Petit Le Mans, Patron Tequila gets " so much more for (its) dollar." The company has sponsored NASCAR, he said, but with that series, "It costs so much money to make an impact."
Lee said the Atlanta race and the series can offer corporations much lower-cost sponsorships yet still provide a loyal market with desirable demographics, including high income levels.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com