Michael Printup, the president of Watkins Glen International, has literally raced around the region the last few weeks promoting NASCAR’s annual visit to the road course at the southern tip of Seneca Lake this weekend.
He was at Pocono for last week’s Sprint Cup race. He’s hit Erie, Pa., and Jamestown. On Tuesday it was Syracuse.
Last week he was in Buffalo, but his 3,400-miles-in-five-weeks schedule has been so packed that the Hamburg native didn’t even have time to visit with his mom when he was in town.
“In Buffalo last week, we had so many interviews, it was absolutely crazy and there wasn’t enough time," Printup said. “I posted something on Facebook, and she busted me.”
Printup does get to Hamburg to visit with his mother, brother and sister, and he said he sees his family “more often than I ever have.” After a career that has taken him to California, Michigan and New York City, he is in his fifth year at Watkins Glen, and it is a tenure that seems to have worked quite well for both the 48-year-old and the facility that annually hosts New York’s largest sporting event.
This year it is on track to be larger than usual. Printup said that ticket sales and trends point to a Sunday crowd approaching 95,000, which would be the track’s largest in 11 years. Last year the track saw a record total of campers. One year after the title sponsor opted out of its contract months ahead of the race, the Glen has, as he said it would, found a fit with a national brand: Sunday’s race is called the Cheez-It 355 at The Glen.
“I think we’ve accomplished a lot,” said Printup. “Since 2009, we’ve turned the facial look of Watkins Glen upside down: new bleachers, bathrooms, showers, campgrounds, a new ticket strategy. We’ve seen slow growth, but we’ve seen a drastic increase this year. We’ve had all the problems the rest of the sports world has had with the economy, so it’s nice to see that turnaround.
“I feel like we have accomplished a few things, but I’m one of those people that is very critical of myself, and I know it’s not enough.”
Tickets and tweeting
Printup credits parent company International Speedway Corporation for supporting the Glen with millions in dollars for capital projects. And he credits the product on the track. The Glen has had outstanding finishes in recent years, including last year’s near-ridiculous final-lap victory by Marcos Ambrose. “Marcos’ finish was just phenomenal,” he said. “It’s just like if a movie is good, it’s going to sell a lot of tickets. If the racing is good, we’ll sell a lot of tickets.
“ISC has been patient as we’ve made those changes, but at the end of the day, if fans aren’t coming, I’m out of a job, and so are a lot of other people. I take that pretty heavily. I love where I am. It couldn’t fit my personality any better.”
That personality means interacting with fans during race weekends (he says it is his favorite part of the job) — and racking up Twitter followers. Printup claimed — with a laugh — that his 26,000-plus follower total is tops among track presidents, something that can be attributed with his interactivity with fans and enthusiasm — not just for his track but for his sport.
And it means hitting the road, especially when research showed that more than a quarter of ticket buyers purchased their tickets to the Glen in the week leading up to the event. That led to Printup’s road rally.
“It used to be that most fans would buy their tickets six months out, but buying has changed,” he said. “You need to adjust to consumer trends.”
NYC loss was Glen’s gain
The upward trends at the Glen under Printup might even be more interesting when you consider a piece of news from earlier this week. On Monday it was announced that International Speedway Corporation sold a 676-acre parcel of land on Staten Island where it had once hoped to build a track. Printup led that project for ISC, which ultimately abandoned it in 2007.
The what-if game is often played in sports. What if that shot went in? What if they got that last out?
Here’s another one: What if NASCAR was able to build that New York City track?
“NASCAR never revealed what we were going to do, but while I was sad then to say the Staten Island project didn’t work out, there’s no question it helped Watkins Glen. Who knows what could have happened? We all could have surmised that we might have lost our Cup date.”
That last “we” for Printup now means the Glen. If the New York City project worked, the Sprint Cup date might be gone downstate while Printup never would have come upstate. Because one of his former projects didn’t work out, it benefits his current track. It’s quite a convoluted path — one perhaps deserving of a Glen promotional tagline that emphasizes its status as a left-and-right-turning road course: “Racing, only twisted.”
Instead, the Glen remains New York’s only NASCAR stop, and Printup has used the connections he nurtured during his downstate lobbying efforts to help the track. One of the connections was with now-Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who will be at the track this weekend, and one of the direct benefits, Printup said, was that the Glen brought on the New York State Lottery and “I Love NY” as sponsors.
One of the major differences at the Glen that has occurred during Printup’s tenure that could be seen as a negative was the departure of the IndyCar series, which held races at the Glen from 2005 to 2010. IndyCar left all four of the ISC-owned tracks it had been running at under now-ousted CEO Randy Bernard. Bernard was critical of attendance at the Glen, but there are plenty who believe the event did quite well despite being held on Fourth of July weekend while the stop was a favorite of drivers.
With the Glen seemingly quite healthy and IndyCar meandering (it has yet to replace Bernard), it was suggested to Printup that perhaps now IndyCar might need the Glen more than the Glen needs IndyCar. Printup promptly slammed on the brakes.
“We both need each other equally,” said Printup, who said that ISC president John Saunders, a former Glen president, has been in communication with IndyCar about possible future scheduling. “They need to be on this classic road course to promote their brand — the series has the best talent since the early ’90s. And I need them to showcase the Glen. It’s definitely 50-50.”
Homing in on hometown
One of Printup’s goals for 2014 and beyond is to increase the track’s promotional efforts in the Buffalo area. In recent years, Syracuse or Rochester were the spots for publicity events like the one last month in Rochester, when fans watched Kyle Busch do burnouts and doughnuts downtown (Printup said an event like that will come to Buffalo next year).
It can’t hurt that there happens to be a Buffalo guy leading one of the country’s 22 NASCAR Sprint Cup tracks just when development-rich Buffalo might be accelerating as a market.
“Buffalo is a key market, and we haven’t learned how to crack the code,” said Printup, who said there will be an announcement at the Glen Friday concerning its 2014 marketing strategy, which will include Buffalo. “Buffalo has the population, and we’ve got to crack the code. We have to crack the stigma that some people think Watkins Glen is way-yyy far away. It’s a day trip. I make it to downtown Buffalo in two hours and 15 minutes.
“Buffalo has been on my list for obvious reasons. But we watch what’s happening in cities — trends, the housing market, unemployment, development. We see what’s going on downtown, with the construction, with the Senecas building the casino. Let’s get in while the getting is good. We might as well be there when everyone else pulls up.”
And if he has his way, the Printups will be at the Glen for a while, leaving plenty of time for visits to Western New York.
“My family and I would love to retire here,” Printup said. “What I go back to, and I don’t want to be Pollyanna, but I don’t take this job for granted. If you do, you’ll get knocked off. If it takes 3,400 miles, that’s what I’ll do.”