COLUMBIA -- The old saying "It's the economy, stupid" rings as true today as it did during Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, and Darlington Raceway officials are smart enough to realize that.
Last year's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway marked the first time the event did not sell out since the NASCAR Sprint Cup race moved to Mother's Day weekend in 2005.
"We've seen the economy affect us like everybody else," Darlington spokesman Jake Harris said. "People are paying the bills first, and they're being very careful with their discretionary income."
Although 59,000 tickets were sold last year for the grandstand, which has a capacity of 62,000, track officials were determined not to stand pat. They decided on an aggressive approach last summer to lure fans back for Saturday night's Showtime Southern 500 by cutting prices on 40,000 seats.
That's in addition to the repricing of 9,000 tickets a year ago, which means that 79 percent of tickets being sold this year are cheaper than they were in 2008, with the cheapest tickets priced between $10 and $35. Some tickets were slashed from $85 to $59, with the most expensive tickets priced at $99.
The track, which had its food vendor lower meal and drink prices a year ago, also offers free parking on-site. Fans even can bring their own food and beverages under certain guidelines.
"We've tried to make it easier for folks to get in here and enjoy the race," Harris said. "We've done just about everything we can to make it as affordable as possible."
But race officials know they're continuing to run uphill in tough economic times. A number of NASCAR races have fallen well short of capacity crowds this season, which is being seen across the board in professional sports.
Harris concedes as much when discussing the Southern 500. "To be honest, a sellout for 2010 is probably a long shot," he said.
But he is encouraged by a flurry of recent sales and expects a strong week of walk-up sales, especially as word of lower prices spreads and if anticipated good weather holds.
Tom Regan, a professor in USC's College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management, which has conducted a number of economic-impact studies on Darlington Raceway, points to the competition for the dollars of race fans, even within NASCAR itself. During the past two months, there have been five other races in this region: Atlanta; Bristol, Tenn.; Martinsville, Va.; Talladega, Ala.; and Richmond, Va.
The hardcore fans who used to go to all of them now pick one or two, something Regan said is a result of people having less money and time.
Regan noted that Darlington's pricing strategy could be effective for a number of reasons, whether it's winning over new fans or luring back the grass-roots fans who might have felt priced out.
"Any good business realizes you need to have differential pricing in order to make it work," Regan said.
The fan experience is just as important once they arrive. Harris spoke of expanding family sections -- which are nonsmoking and nondrinking - to include areas on the front stretch and backstretch. Then there are the pre-race entertainment areas and concerts to appeal to those who are there for more than the race.
"You've got to have that overall good experience in order to get fans to return again," Regan said.
He believes an event like the Southern 500 does more than bring tens of millions of dollars into the state's economy, citing the national media spotlight and its place as a rallying point for residents.
"It's essential that states have marquee events," he said. "It brings exposure to what else there is in South Carolina."
For his part, Harris will continue to monitor the ticket windows this week as longtime fans make their way back.
"It's like clockwork," he said. "People get in that habit."