DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Reggie Jenkins stands on a corner across from the entrance outside turn four at Daytona International Speedway with a homemade sign that reads “Buy/Sell Tickets.”
The 47-year-old scalper has been working this spot in early February for almost a decade. It’s usually prime real estate as thousands of fans make their way from the adjacent parking lots into the home of the Daytona 500.
This year, though, things are different. Here it is Friday afternoon, barely 48 hours before the green flag drops in NASCAR’s Super Bowl, and business is decidedly slow.
“Usually, Friday things pick up a little,” said Jenkins, who lives in nearby Deland. “People are looking to upgrade their 500 tickets or try and pick up a couple of tickets to Saturday’s (Nationwide Series) race.”
Instead, all Jenkins appears to be working on is a sunburn.
A car stops to ask him what he’s got and when he says he’ll take $100 for grandstand tickets with a face value of $135, the car quickly pulls away.
“It’s hard to sell ’em when you know there’s so many out there,” he said.
For the first time in years, NASCAR’s biggest race is struggling to fill every seat in Daytona’s massive grandstands, part of the fallout from the nation’s economic collapse.
While NASCAR officials still expect a sellout, they had to cut select ticket prices just days before the race to get there.
“This is a fixture in American culture — this sport,” NASCAR chairman Brian France said last month. “We have seen tough times before. We’re actually optimistic about ’09 for a lot of reasons.”
So is Richard Beverly. The 38-year-old Beverly started coming to the 500 with his father 20 years ago. He’s only missed a handful of races since, and didn’t opt to change plans even as the economy crumbled. He watched Nationwide Series qualifying on Friday afternoon from a deck tucked against the lake in Daytona’s infield.
Beverly bought his tickets for Speedweeks almost a year ago and decided to cut short his vacation last summer to save up a little scratch for sunny Florida in early February.
“How does it get better than this?” said Beverly, who lives in Atlanta. “If this was the only vacation I knew I was going to get all year, I’d still do it.”
Just at a lesser price. Beverly is hardly alone. Things have been decidedly sleepy around Daytona this week, as fans seem to have saved up for the weekend rather than take an entire week off work to ease a case of Spring Fever.
While signs outside nearly every hotel and restaurant along A1A a few miles east of the track read “Welcome race fans,” they almost all have a neon “vacancy” light right next them — something unheard of a few years ago.
Martin’s hotel didn’t even require a minimum stay, usually common practice whenever NASCAR is in town.
The bargains aren’t limited to the hotels. NASCAR cut the prices of some of its most popular concession items. You can pick up an all-beef hot dog for $3 or grab four “Fast Franks” dogs for $10.
Beer, liquor and other track staples are still upward of $5, but there’s a simple solution if that’s too expensive: bring your own cooler.
“What other sport allows you to do that?” said Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage, who joined other track operators at Daytona this week to do publicity for the upcoming 36-week season.
Gossage pointed out that fans who decide to camp at his track for either of its two races can stay for as little as $75 for the entire week, cheaper than one night in most hotels.
Every track, it seems, has a plan:
The hope is if tickets are reasonable, fans will still come and bring enough cash to spread a little around.
Maybe, but it’s not quite business as usual in 2009.
Inside a souvenir store on the infield near pit road you can buy a $3 black marker or a $299 leather jacket. Russell Rabin and his 7-year-old son Jason decided on a pair of Dale Earnhardt Jr. hats at $25 a pop. When they got to the register, Jason grabbed one of the pens near the register and tried to hand it to the cashier.
“Sorry buddy, don’t think we’ll get one,” Rabin said, putting the pen back in the bin.
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