I’ve been debating whether or not I should talk about this openly for, what feels like, years. It’s something I’ve shared with my fellow photographers and close friends, but with other recent events happening (not related to Evergreen Speedway) I thought this would be a good time to talk about why I’ve only been to a handful of events in the last 18 months or so.
For those of you who don’t know, I was the Media Director for Evergreen Drift for about four years. I took the volunteer position after the previous director stepped down to finish college thinking it help Evergreen Drift (no one else seemed to want the role) and give me some much-needed reinforcement on my resume. Basically, the Media Director is in charge of media safety, running media meetings before and during events, deciding who does and doesn’t get hot-track credentials, and acting as an intermediate between media and the speedway. Most of the responsibilities were trivial when it came to the actual time and effort put in, but I repeatedly ended up banging my head against a wall whenever I tried to make positive headway for the program.
One day, while I was at work, I received a phone call from one of the co-“owners” of Evergreen Speedway (they don’t own it; they lease it from the county) with concerns about the media program. What was the concern? They weren’t seeing a return on their investment. What investment, you ask?
Media passes at Evergreen Drift have traditionally been free. Despite dreams of success and professionalism, Evergreen Drift has always been a launching pad for drivers and media folk who need a safe, fun place to practice. Take Walker and Abbitt Wilkerson. Walker, along with the rest of Team Instant Party, are probably the most OG of Evergreen Drivers. They started out throwing their modified Nissans around the track before there was really an Evergreen Drift to speak of. Walker’s brother Abbitt would film their shenanigans on DV tape. Fast forward a few years, both Abbitt and Walker are some of the best the Northwest has to offer in their respective fields. That’s pretty much the goal of Evergreen Drift. It’s okay to suck, here’s a fun place to hang out with your friends and do some rad shit. Hopefully, you’ll get better over time.
So, this investment? The media program didn’t actually cost anything outside of the media vests I had asked them to order when I first became the Media Director (which they promptly lost after issuing them to NASCAR media); their “investment” was the “lost revenue” from media not purchasing pit passes at $15 each. With safety my top concern, I limited media to around 20 people per event, though this limit was rarely hit after the first few events. 20 pit passes, at $15 each, comes out to $300. Typically we would have around half that many people show up, so a more realistic figure would be at $150.
Okay, so we have a $150-300 “investment” per event. What’s the return on that investment? Photos, videos, and written articles about the events. Essentially, free advertising. The existing audience is more engaged, and a new audience becomes aware and engaged in the program. It puts butts in the seats, making the program more profitable, while also making the program look more professional. It gives drivers something to show their families and sponsors, giving them more leverage to grow as a professional driver, raising their car quality, which makes the program look more professional. Without media to help promote the program it will stagnate, wither, and die.That is the return on investment.
That is the return on investment.
The speedway wasn’t quite happy with that, though. They wanted all media to pay for pit passes. Honestly, it’s not the craziest thing to ask. Most professional racing organizations require photographers and media outlets to pay for media passes. When I shot Formula Drift in 2012 for Mike Phillips and Andrew Coomes I had to pay for my media pass out-of-pocket at a cost of $200 for the season. I can’t complain, though. The amount of access you get with that media pass is unreal, especially when you consider the cost of admission to each event. These types of media passes, “hard cards” that last for multiple events and cost hundreds of dollars, aren’t really meant for aspiring rookies. They’re intended to be purchased by media outlets, race teams, and product manufacturers who see value in investing hundreds or thousands of dollars in these photos and videos.
We’re not talking about that, though. We’re talking about Evergreen Drift. The typical driver has less than $5000 invested in their whole car, is likely missing one or more body panels, and probably shouldn’t have passed tech. These drivers are just passionate car nerds who are looking for a good time on the weekend, throwing their cars into walls with their bros. “Race budgets” are $200 in junkyard tires and the 92 octane gas they put in so they could turn the boost up a little more. Evergreen Drift is inherently not a “professional” racing organization. The top tier racing Evergreen Drift offers is Pro-Am; literally “professional amateur”. These drivers might have some sponsors, but typically this just means discounts on parts and the occasional free part. Rarely does a car have a “title sponsor” that is willing to donate cash, mechanics, drivetrains, and trailers full of tires.
What I’m getting at is, it is impossible to make money shooting at Evergreen. Even if your site is large enough to turn a profit with advertising, even if you can sell the odd photo to a team or sponsor, it’s not going to hold a candle to the cost of the equipment involved, the time spent pouring over photos, picking out the ones that are just right, and the hours spent editing and writing articles to go along with the photos. Unless you’re selling stickers, shirts, or something else on the side, you won’t recoup the cost of gas to get to the event. The photographers are out there because they want to be. Because it’s fun. And the speedway profits from our goofing around. So charging another $15 per event to shoot? An extra $100-200 per season? That’s completely unreasonable.
Luckily, I was able to come up with a solution that worked out for everyone. All media was now required to have a website, including a domain name, with regular content updates. In exchange, they would receive complimentary media passes. Those who were less serious would be charged the $15 pit pass. A few people cried about the new policy, but after being reminded that an $8 per year domain name is half the cost of a single pit pass, they quickly changed their tune. Now the media teams were looking more professional than ever. They could drive traffic to both their social media outlets as well as their website which could host higher quality content, long-form articles, drive ad revenue and product sales. Everyone wins. Except that my weekly list of “these people need to pay for pit passes, these people don’t” never got passed to the right people on time and rarely was anyone ever charged for a pit pass.
That wasn’t good enough. More concern about returns on their “investment”. This time, they were complaining that they weren’t receiving any of the content from the photographers, which was odd, because I had a meeting with speedway staff earlier in the season about that, and had created a Dropbox account to drop photos into that the speedway could use for all their advertising. I was asked to collect en masse all the photos from all the photographers from each event. Practicality aside, I told them at a better method would be to contact individual media outlets and ask about using specific photos for their fliers and other advertising campaigns. The speedway had been downloading low-quality photos from Facebook and using them for event fliers. I still can’t believe the response I got.
“The speedway is private property* and any photos taken at the speedway belong to us. We don’t need to ask for anything. Those photos are our property.”
Well, there’s a few… a lot of issues with that statement. The first being, like I mentioned earlier, the speedway is leased from Snohomish County, who owns the fairgrounds the speedway is on. Legally, it seems they have no rights to the photos unless a contract or waiver was signed beforehand. In the 6 years I’ve been shooting at Evergreen Speedway there has never been any such contract presented to any media person, and even the guidelines on their website say nothing about ownership of photos. But none of that matters. If the speedway had simply emailed any of the photographers and said “Hey, this is a great photo, can we can a high-resolution copy to put on our next event flier”, even with some delusion of ownership of the photo, pretty much anyone would say “Yeah, cool, here ya go.”
Respect is given when respect is received. Screaming that something is mine, mine, mine!, rather than being a polite, civil adult, isn’t going to make anyone want to cooperate. We’re going to look at you, look at this whole situation, and decide if it’s worth our time to be here.
Is that, alone, the reason I left? No, but it was a lot of it. Two years in a row the speedway failed to secure a Formula Drift media pass for their own Media Director. I was asked to collect and disclose personal information for media, at least one photographer was asked to hand over her memory cards as she left. At one point I was in charge of competition scoring, announcing, and running media simultaneously. It goes on and on, and I might have continued to deal with it if media had been treated with respect. But, if it’s not worth going… we won’t go.