Making race spectating fun for our friends and family is tough.
We want them to cheer us on, take action photos, and tell us what happened at the finish line while we were nowhere near it.
However, as friends and family of off-road racers will attest, there is a lot of boredom that comes right after the start of any race.
Sure, the start is exciting.
Unfortunately, once the mass-start roars by and all the racers disappear into the tree line, the only thing left to do is sit and wait — sometimes over an hour — before the bib number you are waiting for makes a quick appearance.
When it does, there is a burst of excitement, cheers, and lots of cowbells.
For the race, this is an awesome source of energy and can help them surge forward against the pain and exhaustion of taking another lap.
However, for the spectator, it’s back to reading that book or chasing that butterfly for yet another hour before this scene is repeated again — possible a few more times.
The end result is a sea of spectators just standing around.
Welcome to yawn city!
To make matters worse, most race directors use low tech timing gear like stopwatches, clipboards, and hand-tracked bib numbers.
This means spectators get no clue where their racer is on the course.
It’s not until after the results come out long after the race is over that you find out that some kind of drama took place.
But they never get to see that drama.
Just the lonely boredom that comes with being a spectator of a non-spectator friendly event.
Does it always have to be this way?
I would argue that there are some spectator-friendly off-road racing formats that don’t get a lot of attention.
And today I want to look at three of them that could get your spectators in on the action.
Just image having a race day where there were more spectators then racers.
What would that be like?
Would you have to charge admission?
How about increased sales from food trucks, concessions, and swag?
Those might not be things you ever considered either.
While I talk about these spectator-friendly formats, I want to you consider the untapped benefits that a massive amount of spectators could have on your bottom line.
There is something about team events that get crowds into the drama of the day.
Relays are no different.
This is a format that you could use for trail running, mountain biking, mountain bike orienteering, and foot orienteering.
The concept is simple.
First, you develop a short course where the about 60-percent of it can be seen by the spectators.
Then you organize your racers into teams that must have all of their team members complete the course.
Finally, once everything is ready to start, the fastest team wins.
Only before each team member can start, they must first receive a baton or lanyard from the finishing racer of their team.
These handoff zones are where the spectators get to see all the action.
Plus, with 40-percent of the course hidden from view, you create a sense of mystery and excitement when the next set of racers burst forth from the tree line.
Nothing creates drama like an underdog passing another team in the forest, then coming out ahead of the team that started before them.
The magic of the relay can be used to provide all sorts of dramatic pressure since the end is never certain when each racers speed is different.
One team could be winning during the first three laps, but then lose it all when the anchor of another team makes up the difference.
The Short Track
Short Track racing can also include both mountain biking or trail running.
This very short cross-country style event that takes a course roughly 0.5- to 1-mile and creates a short, sharply exciting event that is designed to be spectator friendly from the ground up.
Raced on single-track trails as well as fire roads, short track racing combines elements of a road crit or cross-country track event, with the challenge of a dirt course complete with hills and rugged turns.
A good Short Track course will have racers returning to the start/finish line every 1- to 2-minutes so that spectators can see who is still in the lead and who has fallen behind.
This not only keeps the pace red-lined during the entire event but gets the crowd excited as they see the drama of the race unfold before their very eyes.
Especially if they can see most or all of the course during the entire event.
The excitement is additionally primed by the understanding that the pack leading the race is truly the front-runners, making Short Track easy to understand, simple to follow, and continuously entertaining.
Cross-country racers are also challenged by Short Track courses.
Most racers find themselves testing their speed skills against peers in this elbow-to-elbow slug match that often consists of multi-heat, anaerobic throwdowns.
Because short-track events are built on power laps, one race can be over in as little as 25-30 minutes making room for the next set of categories.
This can allow a race director to stack categories into special heats that allow for easy design, easy pickup, and very easy finish line results.
Additionally, because STXC is so quick, races can be run back-to-back without little downtime, keeping the audience entertained for hours.
When thinking of this kind of event as a race promoter, a happy audience is an audience that will stick around for awards, stay for other events, and even buy things from vendors.
All things race directors like to see.
The Intergalactic Pond Crossing
The Colorado Freeride Festival has an a ton of spectator friendly mountain biking events every year.
But out of all the slopestyle and jumping bike events, one spectator-friendly event stands out from all the rest.
It’s called the Intergalactic Pond Crossing.
Yes! The Intergalactic Pond Crossing!
The rules are simple.
A racer starts by rolling down a short ramp.
Then the ramp becomes a narrow floating dock comprised of wooden planks resting on innertubes.
Only the floating dock of wooden planks are about 6-inches wide.
If you can maintain your balance and speed, you might make it across the entire dock.
The racer with the fastest (and driest) time, wins.
Sounds easy, but at speed with the weight of the rider, balance and control make all the difference in just how far someone can get before they fall off into the water.
And that is the spectator fun to be had!
The simplicity of this race includes a ton of difficulty that results in dozens of splashes, near completion, and maybe one or two actual successes.
All a spectator has to do is watch dozens of riders attempt to cross, and enjoy the action as most of them fail.
There is nothing like seeing a mountain biker go head first into the water after almost making it all the way.
For a race director, the concept is a little challenging.
You need to first find a body of water then figure out how to work a plank and innertube/pontoon system that would allow riders to approach, ride, and finish.
If you don’t have a pond, you could try having riders make it across an inlet, or go straight out into a lake.
Anywhere you can find that makes watching it just as accessible as racing it.
With a few well-placed kayaks or canoes around to help bring riders out of the water, you’re ready to start getting people wet.
The bike can be saved by placing special floatation devices or even a basic PFD/life jacket to the frame if the water is too deep.
But no matter how you set up your version of the Intergalactic Pond Crossing, the concept is easy to understand, fun to watch, and most of all, very spectator friendly!
Where are YOUR spectator friendly events?
In an age where every dollar counts, race directors owe it to themselves to consider including spectator friendly onto their race calendar.
These short courses, quick turnaround times, and spectator friendly formats provide all the ingredients needed for a festival-like atmosphere.
Which is exactly what you’re is looking for in your next event.
Spectators might only come to your race to cheer their racer, but who knows?
It’s possible that the speed of a shorter, easy to follow event might get them to stay to cheer on the other racers too.
Additionally, think about all the spectators that DO come to your events.
If you could entertain them along with your racers, could you just imagine how much more customer loyalty you could create?
Spectators could become that new revenue source that you have been overlooking all this time.
Of course, the catch to spectator events is that you will need to be as dedicated to your spectators as you are to your racers.
But, if you can provide enjoyment AND entertainment to both groups, you could possibly create a very new and potentially profitable experience that keeps both racers AND spectators coming back again and again.
And experience might even make the whole family want to come to your next race too.
And now you know.
Listen to the Merchants of Dirt Podcast
Merchants of Dirt, hosted by Reckoneer.com founder Kyle Bondo, is dedicated to helping you start and finish successful outdoor events.
Each episode provides you with Kyle’s exclusive, behind-the-scenes perspective that only his 20+ years of producing endurance, trail, water, orienteering, mountain bike, and adventure races can provide.
The result is a show that can help you start a new event, or build a career that keeps you outside for the rest of your life!
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