Little Things add up at Mid-Ohio

By Rob McCurdy

July 26, 2012

 Editor's Note: This is the first of three columns looking at the business model of Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and its future under new ownership.

LEXINGTON -- Time flies when you're hosting major league racing events.

Track president Craig Rust is into his second season at the Lexington road course that was bought in the early spring of 2011 by Kim Green and Kevin Savoree, longtime motor sports team owners and promoters.

"It's hard to believe it's been a year," Rust said earlier this season. "It went quick."

It helped that Green Savoree Mid-Ohio didn't have to reinvent the wheel. The Trueman family, owners of Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for 30 years, was a good steward. Under the direction of Michelle Trueman Gajoch, the business model flourished at a time when plenty of tracks and series struggled.

So much of what the new team did was merely a continuation of what came before.

In the mid-aughts, Mid-Ohio underwent multi-million dollar improvements in a short three-year span where the track surface was taken to the ground and rebuilt, walls moved, catch fencing replaced, and infrastructure upgraded.

That meant Rust and company spent part of last year and this season doing cosmetic changes. Painting the guardrails, walls and fences while sprucing up the buildings on the grounds were the major improvements of 2011 and 2012.

"It's not rocket science and it's nothing major, but I think it made the track look much better," Rust said. "Some people didn't realize what it did until we actually watched the IndyCar race on TV. The facility within motor sports is really a place that is like a park when you come out to it."

Most of the changes made at Mid-Ohio over the last season-and-a-half shouldn't be noticed by the patrons. At least that's the goal of new management.

"Most of what we're working on is internal," Rust said. "I'm more comfortable with the staff. I know the personalities a little more. We've adjusted some things internally that I think will make us operate better."

A big thing for Rust is communication.

During his time running Watkins Glen and Chicagoland, the thing he noticed that irked fans most was when they couldn't get satisfactory answers to their questions.

"It's making sure we have a knowledgeable staff," he said. "The Trueman family and the staff did a good job with guest services and in treating the fans well. It's not like I'm coming into something where they were hitting them over the head when they came through the gate and were beating on them. I don't want to give the impression that we had to turn the place on its ear. We don't need to do that."

But they still must communicate.

"You can't continue to have the same issues and say that's just Mid-Ohio," he said, mentioning the temperamental wireless access for media in the Goodyear Tower as a specific issue. "Not everything can get fixed in one year and not everything can get implemented, but that's what makes this fun, solving those problems and doing it in the realm of different events."

While it comes off as seamless on a big weekend, running a track the size and scope of Mid-Ohio is complicated. Making even the slightest change can ripple out to affect staff and fans in ways unintended.

Rust wanted to go to assigned spots around the track for RVs and campers, instead of using the first-come, first-serve approach. But after talking it over with different departments, it was decided they'd hold off for a season in order to warn those fans of what's coming, get their contact information and find out what spot they prefer. Mid-Ohio didn't want fans used to coming to a specific part of the track being told to move because that spot had been bought by somebody else without their knowledge.

That's a recipe for disgruntled patrons.

"Communication is critical," Rust said. "There's just a lot of moving parts."

That's an operational decision that has an impact on the sales and marketing teams as well as guest services. Making an adjustment to the way they've done business may be minor, but it's hardly simple.

"There is a litany of detail and organization," Rust said. "It starts with the communication internally."

The goal of that communication is to ultimately make the Mid-Ohio experience a positive one.

"The people who are coming out we're taking good care of. That will evolve," Rust said. "It could be a new menu board, or what we offer in our concessions, or bringing out a new vendor. It's a lot of little things."

And it's those little things that add up.

Rob McCurdy covers motor sports at the News Journal and can be reached at rmccurdy@gannett.com or 419-521-7241. On Twitter follow him @McMotorsport.

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