Editorial

View from the Topside
We enjoy the PRI Trade Show

   by Rick Benjamin
December 27, 2006

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The PRI Exhibit Floor

It's one of my favorite weeks of the year, this week before the New Year dawns. Christmas has passed, but the neighborhood and at least our part of the world remain quiet. The kids are home from school, the phone isn't ringing nearly as often, and everything seems to be running at about 8/10ths. It's a welcome break from the normal pace of life and work, when we seem to always be on the rev limiter.

This is a great time to look back on what we've seen on and off the race track in this season just past, while also looking ahead to the upcoming 2007 campaign. One of the best ways to get a sense of what lies ahead for those of us who love motorsports is a trip to the Performance Racing Industry trade show, which just marked its 19th year of amazing growth. For the second year, Steve Lewis and his staff staged this racer's Toyland in Orlando, Florida.

The PRI show is an amazing thing to visit and to contemplate. This year PRI nearly filled the huge Orlando Convention Center with cars, engines, tires, tools, and an incredible assortment of displays. Everything and anything you could imagine that pertains to our sport is right in front of you. But to me, the key to PRI lies in the amazing range of racers and industry figures who are in attendance. You could fill a hundred Rolodexes with the names and numbers of the sport's movers, shakers, journalists, and just rank and file participants who have PRI written in boldface on their calendars a full year in advance.


The PRI Opening Breakfast

The biggest news from this year's PRI conclave, in my view, is an observation: as the US economy has remained strong this year, growing at a comfortable pace, so the motorsports economy is growing at what appears to be an even stronger pace. There are surely challenges; I didn't participate in any conversations at PRI this time around that didn't center, in one way or another, on the need for sponsorship of some sort. Few new short tracks are being built. US carmakers are struggling, some more than others. But all that said, a tour of PRI showed an incredible number of new motorsports-related business ventures all carrying projections of viability and success. This is a great time to be in racing.

The move to Florida last year had allowed Steve Lewis, who owns probably the strongest midget team in the country, to stage one of his patented midget/sprint car doubleheaders at the 1/3 mile Orlando Speedworld.

On a cold, damp night late in 2005, the racing was decent and the crowd was sensational. This year, the PRI folks took a few more steps toward creating a true winter Speed-Week around the trade show.

For 2006 the new PRA group brought their paddock full of disenfranchised pavement Silver Crown machines to the 3/4 mile USA International Speedway in Lakeland for a Wednesday night 100 lap event.

The crowd was amazing, on a much warmer Florida evening. I've been to USA for many broadcasts over the years and I don't believe I've ever before seen a completely full frontstretch grandstand, along with at least a half-full backstretch bleacher. The infield was full as well with the 30-plus Big Cars, and a full contingent of Florida Modifieds (think IMCA mods in pavement trim, with rule-specific bodies).

The race itself was notable for a couple of things: a strong run to victory by rising star Bobby Santos III in Carl Edwards' machine, a decent drive (in his first try) by X-Games legend Travis Pastrana, and John Heydenreich's survival of one of the worst open-wheel wrecks seen in a long time when he backed his Sharon Bank car into the first turn concrete after a wheel-banging incident with Tracy Hines.


The kart races were run in heavy rain

PRI also planned an All-Star karting event for the parking lot outside the Convention Center for Thursday night. Unfortunately a hard rainstorm meant virtually no one saw this event, which amazingly enough did run. And Friday night marked the return of the Sprint/Midget doubleheader, with Lewis' usual $50,000 bonus up for a double dip, at Orlando.

Interestingly this year's Friday show was run under mostly USAC rules, though without the USAC sanction, a telling commentary on the current state of that legendary sanctioning body. Next year, look for the Sprint/Midget Friday show to move also to Lakeland, and there are rumblings that there could be more racing on tap for the week of PRI across Central Florida.

But for me the best part of PRI is the people. I love cars, and the technology of racing. But what makes this or any sport appealing are the personalities.


Tony Stewart spoke at the opening breakfast

Any place where you can see drivers as diverse as Tony Stewart, Ken Schrader, Rick Eckert, sports car stars, local heroes, Champ Car figures, drag racers, and more, is a place where I have to be. Plenty of business is discussed and signed at the show; that's why display space is spoken for long in advance of opening day each year. The new DP-01 Champ Car chassis was on display at the Performance Friction booth, and Ford had a large display area highlighting their various race engine packages as well as their race-bred Mustangs.

Unfortunately it's a trade-only show; you must work in the industry to gain admission. But since just about all of us who work in racing love it as fans, PRI is a delight from start to finish. It's the year's last gathering of the clan, so to speak, and a must-see event for all who can acquire one of the precious entrance badges. PRI 2007 will move up a week, lessening the holiday schedule crunch. I've made my reservations already.

Happy New Year. I'll see you in January.

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