Promoting a NASCAR Sprint Cup race used to be straightforward. Open the gates, and the RVs rolled in.
But races like today's Toyota/Save Mart 350 no longer can rely on diehards.
From food to family extras, the fan experience has been revved up in an attempt to woo back capacity crowds.
And it doesn't hurt that Junior Nation has hit full throttle, too. Or that Jeff Gordon is overdue for a victory.
Today's race in Sonoma will feature 16 of the Bay Area's top food trucks, the first time this gourmet trend has appeared at a Sprint Cup event.
Their menus range from ultra crepes to fusion sushi. That's in addition to the track's wine-country ambience, with zinfandel as common as lager.
"The demographic for NASCAR is people who eat," said Steve Page, president of the former Infineon Raceway. "We're giving people plenty to do before the race."
With more than 90,000 fans expected, there will be a State Fair atmosphere. A Ferris wheel towers over a hilltop turn. A 20-minute air show will precede the noon race.
Many fans will tour the garage or meet drivers as part of special promotions, and ride-alongs with drivers will be auctioned this morning.
"We got a lot more creative in the way we package what we offer," Page said. "We used to have the Sunday ticket at a certain price, and everybody was the same. What we found was we weren't catering to demand at both ends of the spectrum."
At one end are families looking for value packages. On the other end are those who want to get closer to the action, take laps on the track or get a sneak peak behind the scenes for a price.
When the economy was soaring, NASCAR had skyrocketing growth; when the economy slumped, NASCAR hit the skids, too. At most tracks, attendance declined sharply, as did TV ratings. California lost one of its three Sprint Cup races after slumping attendance at Fontana's Auto Club Speedway.
Television ratings are still struggling. Ratings for Fox, which broadcast the season's first 13 races, have dropped as much as 23 percent compared to last year. Overall, average ratings have slipped 4 percent to 4.8, down 16 percent since 2008.
But at the track, attendance is picking up thanks partly to creative marketing and competitive racing.
"We went through the doldrums for three years," Page said. "Last year, we bounced back up 10 percent. We found people are waiting very late to buy tickets, but we're seeing a lot of interest."
One boost for attendance has been the wide-open competition; 11 drivers have split 15 victories this season. And today's road-course race one of only two in the Sprint Cup series has had five first-time winners in five years.
Hendrick Motorsports has won four of the last five races, starting with Jimmie Johnson in Darlington on May 12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne added to that streak. The only Hendrick driver who hasn't won this year is five-time Sonoma winner and Vallejo native Jeff Gordon, who starts on the front row today alongside pole sitter Marcos Ambrose.
Team owner Rick Hendrick said NASCAR has made progress by improving its product.
"The bottom line is that racing has to be good and the racing is as competitive or more competitive than I've ever seen it," Hendrick said."They've made a lot of adjustments to give the drivers more opportunities to win. The cars, they're so equal now. You see some pretty aggressive driving. They've let the drivers kind of 'Boys, have at it' a little bit, as long as it doesn't get out of hand. You take all those things together, the racing is better than it's ever been."
Earnhardt's resurgence helps, too. Fans voted him NASCAR's most popular driver for nine consecutive years, even though his victory last week at Michigan was his first since 2008.
"Absolutely (it helps)," said Hendrick, his boss. "Seeing him run up front every week, seeing him win a race, seeing him running for the championship that's going to just build the sport, the TV ratings, fans in the seats. Junior Nation is having Christmas early this year."
And Hendrick expects a huge reception today for Earnhardt, who starts 19th.
"It's good for the sport," Hendrick said. "It's good for him. I think it helps everybody."
Johnson, who starts third today, has seen positive signs, too. The five-time Sprint Cup champion can measure NASCAR's comeback partly through his charity.
His foundation, which supports diverse school programs, brought in a record $655,000 this week at its annual golf tournament near San Diego.
Johnson, a native of El Cajon, hosts special meet-and-greets during Sonoma race weekend as a way to attract fans. His package focuses on kids.
"It's been tough for everyone," Johnson said. "A lot of it is economy-related. Fuel prices still vary week to week. Tracks are trying so hard to create good value for families."
The circuit's biggest asset is its accessibility, said Jill Gregory, NASCAR's vice president of industry services.
In 2008, NASCAR formed a fan council. Now with 12,000 members, the group is polled weekly on everything from rule changes to track concessions. One trend became clear.
"Fans want driver access," Gregory said. "They're the stars. Fans want more than to see them walk by. People want to get closer to the action. We want to bring more fans into the garage and driver meetings. We're getting more aggressive in adding value."
But it all comes down to racing. If NASCAR produces an exciting show, fans will show up and tune in.
"It's more competitive than it's ever been," Hendrick said. "I think the fans are enjoying it."