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Going the Distance

Lime Rock Park Launches a Series of Improvements to Rev the Economic Engine
Skip Barber

Skip Barber, owner of Lime Rock Park, is currently focused on improvements to the track that will bring in new audiences.

Fifty years ago, a racetrack opened in Northern Conn. on what was once a potato farm. Today, Lime Rock Park remains one of the most uncommon tracks in the country, but as audiences change and competition mounts, this historic destination is gearing up for a series of improvements and new programs to keep the spectators coming back.

Maria Jannace, chief marketing officer for Lime Rock Park, says that running a racetrack is a detail-oriented venture.

There are gourmet hot dogs to secure, for one. Jannace said Lime Rock, an historic facility set in the foothills of the Berkshires in Lakeville, Conn., is no “Oscar Meyer racetrack.” The iced tea, Harney’s, has some cache, too — it’s the official tea of Buckingham Palace.

Beyond concessions, there are races to plan, sponsors to secure, town noise ordinances to abide, and dozens of one-day events to coordinate.

“The details are important to every single aspect of running this track,” said Jannace, adding that she started coming to Lime Rock as a child with her “racehead” dad.

As a lifelong fan-turned-professional, Jannace said she believes that many people don’t have a true understanding of the business of racing, because it’s such a beloved pastime.

“The racetrack business is unusual,” she explained. “People don’t think about what it takes to plan these kinds of events because, to them, it’s a fun day outside.”

But the fans are also an extremely loyal bunch — to the track and its sponsors — if not a fickle one as well. Jannace said their opinions color every decision at Lime Rock, and work continues behind the scenes to preserve that carefree feel among visitors.

“We take people into consideration with everything we do,” she said. “Many of them are attached to this place.”

And, she hopes, many more soon will be, through a series of ongoing developments at the track aimed at increasing attendance, bolstering an already rich legacy, and diversifying the Lime Rock experience.

The Rubber Meets the Road

The park’s owner, Skip Barber, is keeping an eye on one of the larger projects. Barber became a household name in 1975 when he started Skip Barber Racing Schools (he sold the business five years ago, but it remains headquartered at Lime Rock Park, and it is the track’s best customer). Since then, Barber has gone on to lend his name to an entry-level race series, a national championship, and a master’s national championship for drivers over the age of 40.

On hand opening day in the park’s clubhouse, Barber was busy watching cars that were part of a BMW racing club run the course, and also surveying the newly-seeded lawn.

He’s a stickler for perfect grass.

By June, the park will be looking much different, as a series of upgrades to the track itself, some of its buildings, and the surrounding grounds were launched this month. Roughly $5 million has already been appropriated for the projects, a figure that’s likely to cover the start of repairs, but not all of them.

First, said Barber, frostheaves will be addressed, and the underground causes remedied. The track, already unique in shape, will retain its course, but will be repaved, and a number of ‘optional corners’ are being added to diversify the route.

“Much of this is a safety issue,” he added. “Cars are getting faster and better.”

Finally, renovations are being made now to various buildings on the property, including the Club at Lime Rock, a members-only hospitality area Barber hopes to expand. Currently, there are about 100 members, who can take advantage of not only amenities on race days, but reserved ‘club days’ squeezed into the park’s already tight schedule of events.

“We’ve carved out a chunk of time for the club, because otherwise the track would be full,” Barber said. “We’re in the process of building our membership, and I hope to eventually reach 300 people.”

Members Only

Club membership, similar to a country-club or golf-club model, is one way Lime Rock is taking steps to attract new, younger constituencies.

“We’re looking to develop a new core audience,” said Jannace. “We face an interesting problem here in the foothills; people drive right through. Once we get them here, we know we can get them to come back, but first we need to let people know that this corner of Connecticut is not empty.”

So far, the promotions, events, and activities at the track, both race-related and otherwise, are doing their job to bring in crowds; Jannace said ticket sales increased by 37% in 2007 over the previous year.

The track hosts four major events for the public each year: the Grand-Am GT Classic on Memorial Day weekend, which features races as well as an exotic car show; the American Le Mans Northeast Grand Prix in July; the Mohegan Sun NASCAR Camping World 200 in August; and the Rolex Vintage Festival on Labor Day weekend, featuring a collection of historic cars.

Throughout the track’s season, which begins in April and generally extends through October if weather permits, Lime Rock hosts several types of organizations that rent the course on a daily basis. These include racing and driving schools conducting classes, car clubs, and corporate clients, who can take part in race car-centered team-building activities or simply conduct meetings or hold parties on the expansive grounds.

For children, there’s a bounce house, a kid’s club, and games, while adults can take advantage of an outdoor market called Locals on the Green, which welcomes area vendors of all types of wares to the track for recurring shopping fairs.

Several New England-based companies serve as sponsors at the track, and Jannace said she hopes to cultivate that model as well to create a sort of showcase for regional businesses.

“We’re not looking for mega-brands as much as ‘special attention’ brands,” she said. “Motorsports fans are loyal to sponsors because they understand the expense of the sport. Without sponsors, they realize that there is no operation.

“It’s a viable way to get a brand’s name out there, and we offer an incredible avenue for people to expose their products to a captive audience,” she added.

That attention to detail that Jannace says is so integral to running the racetrack is part of the sponsorship process, too. Just as it’s not an ‘Oscar Meyer’ racetrack, it’s not a Budweiser track, either — its official beer is Boston-made Harpoon. Big Y supermarkets sponsors the kids’ club, a Mohegan Sun car can be seen at some races, and while Coca-Cola is a major sponsor and beverage provider, the park has a clause in its agreement to sell Crystal Rock bottled water, another New England outfit, alongside Coke products.

A Day at the Park

Jannace said Lime Rock is a unique track for these reasons and many others. While Sunday is considered ‘racing day’ by most enthusiasts, for instance, the park never holds a race on a Sunday, in order to comply with Lakeville’s noise restrictions.

Physically, the track is also unique in that it doesn’t offer the typical oval-shaped course, nor does it include grandstand seating.

“It feels like a park — hence the name,” she said. “It’s also the only track in America that has an open hillside for seating instead of grandstands. It creates a very family-friendly atmosphere; often, we see kids flying kites, families spread out with lawn chairs … it really is a day at the park, and we work to maintain that.”

In fact, the family feel created by the open (if not well-manicured) hillside of Lime Rock Park is just one aspect of a larger effort on the part of park staff to position the track as a destination and a entertainment option in an increasingly competitive market.

“This is not the healthiest time for sports car racing, and there are a lot of options out there today. People have a lot of choices,” said Jannace. “We compete with other entertainment venues as well as other sports, but even in good economic times we market ourselves as an entertainment venue.”

These tough economic times are signaling a potential drop in ticket sales this year, but Jannace added that she hopes to counteract this trend through several initiatives aimed at further broadening Lime Rock’s appeal.

She’s actively promoting the track to European travelers, who are expected to take advantage of the weak dollar during key travel periods, and ramping up promotions. Several sponsors have donated prizes for raffles, such as overnight stays at Mohegan Sun, a set of tires, or a two-day driving class offered by BMW, and the track now has a presence on MySpace to cater to younger fans.

Landmark Decisions

Jannace is also looking closely at the arena of historical tourism as another avenue to increase Lime Rock’s visibility. One project she’s particularly excited about is the track’s pending application for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Landmarks. It would be an intriguing addition; presently, there’s only one racetrack listed, the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“I think we have a good chance of getting it,” she said. “We’ve been running nonstop for 50 years, and not many tracks can say that.”

In addition, Lime Rock hosted a race in 1959 that has become one of the most famous events in the sport’s history. Called the Formula Libre, the event marked the first time cars of all different types met on the start line. Jannace said it was a radical concept in racing at the time. “Different types of cars don’t usually mix,” she said.

Foreign sports cars like Ferraris and Maseratis were matched against sprint cars — high-speed, lightweight vehicles designed to run short distances. Rodger Ward, a driver racing in an 11-year-old Kurtis Midget, made history by winning the race, overtaking an Astin Martin. Ward also won the Indianapolis 500 the same year.

There are other notable aspects of the track and its history, too, including its ownership. In addition to Barber’s contributions to the sport, Lime Rock’s first owner, John Fitch, made a name for himself developing safety equipment and systems for both racetracks and traditional streets and highways.

“It’s neat to have had all of those things start here, and they also fit the criteria for a national landmark,” said Jannace.

Far from the Finish

She’ll know if Lime Rock made the cut by October, but in the process of culling the many stories of the track — and every last detail — Jannace said she learned enough about its past to build a lengthy list of facts, strengths, and opportunities that will help guide the racetrack through choppy economic waters and beyond.

“It’s not just about asphalt,” she said. “It’s about creating a sense of place, and the more we learn about the track, the more we realize how varied the reasons are why people love it.”

Barber, still keeping one eye on the grounds and scanning for brown spots on his prized lawn, agreed that it’s a special spot for many race fans, but added a wrinkle.

“People say racing is part of a lifestyle,” he mused. “But I think it’s part of life.”

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at

[email protected]

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