How to effectively plan a motorsports event

By Andy Hollis
Mar 2, 2024 | Events | Posted in Features | From the May 2011 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Tom Heath

[Editor's note: This article originally ran in the May 2011 issue of Grassroots Motorsports.] 

Sure, it’s possible to enjoy this hobby on your own. You can go for spirited drives by yourself, run solo laps at your local track, or spend long hours in the garage working on the object of your automotive desire. Even so, sharing that passion with others is what makes it real and takes it to a higher level. That’s why gearhead gatherings are a staple in our world.

While most car-related events are a great way to socialize, they usually revolve around some sort of timed competition. That way, they have an overarching purpose: to allow us to measure our efforts against those of our peers.

But what makes a good event? And, more importantly, how do you put one on? Big and small, local and national, quality events have a number of common themes that organizers need to consider when planning and executing. 

We’ve all been to events that were a total blast and also ones that were a total bust. What went right? What went wrong? How can we do it right all the time? 

Let us guide you through the process of planning, executing and following up on an event. We’ll give you tips on how to handle the logistics, manage your team of assistants, and market your gathering to sponsors and the public. While it may sound like a huge undertaking, hosting an event is essentially a series of smaller tasks that can culminate in a rewarding experience.

Event Architecture

The logistics stage is really quite simple. You just need to answer these questions: Who, what, where, when and how? Piece of cake, right? Okay, maybe it’s not that easy. 

Any time you’re trying to produce a quality product, it helps to first understand your target customer. Who will attend this event? Where will they come from? What are they looking to get out of it? What are they willing to pay in both fees and time? Answering these questions will help to establish the core value of your event and the budget needed to achieve it.

With your customer in mind, you can work on the “what,” “where” and “when” pretty much all at once. Site availability can be very tricky, and trying to match that with optimal time frames to avoid competing events, holidays, seasonal weather issues and the like will typically force you to compromise. 

Working with the site manager to make an early commitment will help you land the best date possible. If your event is a one-off—say a marque club convention—it’s also advisable to put together a backup plan should your site suddenly become unavailable later.

A group meeting can set the tone for your event and get the ball rolling. Keep it concise, as attention spans are finite. Photography Credit: Tom Suddard

The next step is to apply for applicable authorizations, noting any requirements the sanctioning body may have. You’ll also need liability insurance to cover all of the organizers and the site owners should something bad happen. Again, pay particular attention to details here: While this hobby is mainly about having a good time, serious mishaps do occur and lawsuits can ruin lives. The listing for “additional insureds” should include your name.

Once your site and date are secure, flesh out more details of the “what.” A great way to start is to write out a detailed schedule of activities for the entire event from the point of view of the participant. 

Start with a broad outline and then write up a thorough “day of” experience. As attendees arrive, who do they see first? Where do they paddock? How does registration work? Where is tech? When and where do they assemble for the competition? How does the competition flow work—is there some sort of impound? And how do they see how they’re doing, both during and after the competition? 

Ancillary activities also need to be addressed, like the availability of food, rest rooms and spectator viewing areas. And, most important of all, where’s the after-party?

Who’s the Boss?

As your piece of paper fills up, you’ll also start to get an idea of just how big a task it is to organize an event. At this point, the need for help becomes obvious. As this realization sets in, start another list of the types of help you’ll need during all phases of the event production. 

The larger the event, the more help you’ll need. Plus, the more detailed the specific activity, the more you need a competent assistant to focus on it. Start contacting people early in the planning process so you can get commitments before their personal schedules fill up.

Congratulations, you have just become a manager. From the moment another person becomes involved in your endeavor, you must think like a boss to be effective. Start by coming to an agreement with your assistants about the event’s overall goals. You can’t agree on the details when you have different visions of the final product. 

Next, define each of your assistants’ roles in detail, preferably in writing. Establish a clear chain of command, and be as formal as the situation warrants. Every person is different, so customize your managerial approach for each member of your team. 

Keep attendees in the loop by frequently posting results printouts.

Also, specify which paths of communication are appropriate. E-mail lists or forums are great ways to have group discussions with the added benefit of recordkeeping. Phone calls and texts are fine for some details, but follow-up in a written form to help avoid later forgetfulness and finger-pointing. 

As you progress through the planning phase, keep the information flowing to all assistants. This will help them stay motivated and engaged in the process. Public praise can help spur further accomplishment, but communicate the negative stuff directly to the involved parties. Face-to-face interaction is the best way to share criticisms, as your feedback can get lost in translation via e-mail. Deal with issues when they’re small and easier to resolve; put them off, and they will balloon to an irreparable size. 

If you need to have group meetings, keep them on track with an agenda and follow-up minutes. And remember, while an easygoing attitude and a sense of humor can really help ease the flow of information, the larger the group, the smaller the tolerance for wasted time.

As your team’s ideas come together, continue to update your written “attendee viewpoint” plan. Then, use it to create a logistics timeline. For each portion of your event, determine when it will start, when it will end, and where it will be held at the venue. Begin with the event day itself. 

Of course, this step will raise more questions: What equipment needs to be where and when? Who sets it up and staffs it? What supplies are needed? 

You’ll find many things that have to be arranged ahead of time, so work backward to add lead-time as necessary. When should you arrange for the Porta-Potties? Food vendors? An official event photographer? Has the timing equipment been tested recently? Have you purchased the batteries, and are they charged? 

If you don’t write it on your list, you can easily forget about it. Delegation is key here, as it will allow you to share the load and maintain your sanity. However, be sure to follow up and verify that the tasks have been handled. Even the smallest oversight can bring an event to a screeching halt. (“What? You forgot the special cord for the timing display?”) A checklist is a wonderful thing.

Photography Credit: Tom Heath

Make sure vendors are set up in an area with optimal customer traffic. Computerized registration and timing can really speed things up. Photography Credit: Per Schroeder

Aspects like timing, scoring, course and track prep, registration and tech typically benefit from talented middle managers. They’ll need to be just as rigorous and diligent as you, but their responsibilities will be on a much smaller scale. These people will allow you to focus on big-picture items and problem solving. Ideally, your plans and recruitments will work out so well that you’ll have nothing specific to do on event day other than commune with the masses and give out accolades. Yeah, good luck with that!

Problem solving? Sure. Nothing ever goes completely according to plan, so your initial groundwork must include strategies for dealing with unexpected issues. This is where the chain of command, clearly delineated roles, and a dynamic plan come into play.

For example, if a car breaks on the track and a delay is necessary, how will the schedule be affected? Building some slush time into your agenda allows you to absorb small time losses. 

But what will you do when disaster strikes or several smaller issues crop up? If your event is a track day, you may wish to simply shorten all of the sessions or, perhaps, combine two groups into one session. Whatever you decide, clearly communicate it to the participants and officials beforehand.

Spread the Word

Ah, yes, communication. As we mentioned earlier, clear communication is a vital part of making your event come to life. Before your gathering begins, attendees need to know what to expect; during the event, they need to know how it’s progressing; after the event, they need to know how to provide feedback. 

Much of this falls into the category of marketing and sales, since your event is essentially a product that is being sold to these folks. Make this information available with a public relations effort.

Early on in your planning—once you’ve secured the dates and formed a solid vision—start getting the word out to potential participants. For smaller club-style get-togethers, this may be as simple as putting it on a calendar and sending out some e-mails. For most other events, we recommend doing some significant promotion to encourage a positive buzz. 

This is your opportunity to set customer expectations and pump up the excitement. Put on your P.T. Barnum hat and think up some hook or angle that will help set your event apart. Will it be held at a really fast track? Will you employ a well-known course designer? Are celebrity drivers attending? Are any cool cars showing up? Will there be a points race showdown? How about a killer party and free food? Make ’em want to circle that date on their calendars.

The world goes by pretty quickly in an A Modified Solo racer. Make sure safety officials are highly visible and have the means to interact with a driver in a loud, fast car. Safety vests and flags work well. Photography Credit: Perry Bennet

Dedicated websites are pretty much a given part of event promotion these days, so get something good online. Remember, your site’s quality of presentation will immediately set the tone for your gathering. In most people’s minds, a lame website equals a lame event. 

Your site is also the place to expound on that “attendee viewpoint” write-up you did earlier. This will let folks know how the day will progress. Make the info easy to digest, and use bullet-pointed lists and agendas. Oh yeah, and photos—put up lots of photos. Nothing like a few well-chosen pics to set a tone and communicate a message. How many words is a picture worth? Yeah, you got it.

Of course, communicating with your audience isn’t just a one-time thing. Continue updating the website with new information as it becomes available, and send out e-mail reminders to keep your event fresh in people’s minds. In fact, clever marketers are artists when it comes to doling out exciting “news” in just the right quantities and at the just the right times. They build interest to a peak just as registration opens up, and again as the event becomes imminent. Discuss your plans on appropriate forums as well, and don’t forget to set up a Facebook page for the event to harness the power of social media.

On the Money

Speaking of registration, you’ll need a way for people to sign up and provide some much-needed cash for your event bank account. Online registration is pretty standard these days, and it makes life much easier for both the host and the attendees. 

Remember, though, that people are tight with their money and tend to procrastinate unless given incentives. Consider encouraging commitments with early-bird discounts, late fees, special drawings and the like. Also, clearly communicate your cancelation and refund policies. 

Speaking of money, your planning has included formulating a budget, right? From the beginning, you’ll want at least a “back of the envelope” plan outlining big-ticket expenses versus projected cash receipts. As planning progresses, track how your actual costs compare to your projections and make any necessary adjustments. 

Anticipate the obvious questions with easy-to-read signs. Photography Credit: Per Schroeder

Sites and insurance typically cost big bucks, so make sure you can cover those easily. You may also have to pay a deposit, and encouraging early registration can be useful here. It also helps to have some seed money from your club or previous event carryovers. 

That said, event sponsors are often wary of tipping the financial scales in your favor. However, that P.T. Barnum hat will again serve you well as you seek out win-win relationships with appropriate business entities. Cash is great, but it’s the hardest to secure. In-kind contributions are much easier to obtain and can be used as part of your incentive plan for early registration and general participation. Drawings for automotive accessories, parts, and the ubiquitous “free set of tires” will get ’em every time. 

Contingency programs also make wonderful incentives. It’s simply amazing how many thousands of dollars someone will spend to try to win a couple hundred bucks. Use this phenomenon to your benefit.

A word of caution: Be careful with how you handle money so as to keep the IRS and embezzlers at bay. Money makes people do strange things, and stories of event funds disappearing with the host are not that uncommon. Two-signature checks for large amounts and separate business accounts have advantages, as does tax-advantaged corporate status. There are also liability exposure benefits to some of these strategies. If in doubt, consult an attorney. Hopefully there’s one in your club who will help out for free.

The Big Day

As your event nears, your plans should be in place and all of the really hard work should be behind you. You’ve sent out your final pre-event communications to your excited attendees and assistants, checked and double-checked the lead-time items, and prepared for a relaxing automotive get-together, right? Ha! Execution is now the name of the game, so let’s get to it.

A wise man once said, “One can only be early or late. There is no such thing as right on time.” Choose early. If you or any of your people are late, you will likely never catch up. In fact, staying on schedule throughout the day is one of the hallmarks of a great event. 

If your event requires tech inspections, ensure that all inspectors have the necessary tools and a dedicated area to do their job. Photography Credit: Rupert Berrington

Since you’ve delegated all of the hard stuff, your hosting role during the event is chief wheel greaser and problem solver. Stay aware and be ready to help handle any unplanned situations.

Most events employ two main forms of communication: one to keep event staff connected (typically via walkie-talkie) and another to broadcast information to attendees (typically via PA system or, in a pinch at smaller gatherings, via bullhorn). Use these channels to set expectations throughout the day and get feedback on how things are going. In short, show folks where the fun is, tell them how much fun they’re having, remove obstacles to the fun, and then remind them how much fun they had when the event is over.

All’s Well That Ends Well

When the day is winding down, it’s time to transition into follow-up mode. You and your assistants will benefit from informally canvassing participants as they’re packing up. How’d it go? How was the course? Get enough to eat? Did you see the cool cars out there? 

Not only does this give you valuable feedback to improve on your next event, but it also makes attendees feel like part of the solution if there were any problems. In fact, if an attendee raises an issue, the standard response should be, “How could we do that better?” Don’t get defensive—the customer is always right.

Now on to the good stuff: The after-party is a time-honored tradition in the motorsports world, and it’s a great way to pay back your assistants for their efforts. A round of drinks or a free meal goes a long way toward sharing the love, so budget for this expense. This is also the time to start publicly acknowledging sponsors, assistants and attendees, and you should continue this process in the days ahead. Recognition is free, so give it abundantly.

Volunteers are the backbone of many large events. Make sure they keep hydrated, take frequent breaks, and stay on the same page when it comes to course procedures and rules enforcement. Photography Credit: Rupert Berrington

Attendees will start discussing your event online almost immediately after they leave. Read their posts and take it all in. Again, look for ways to improve, not defend. That said, correcting facts is always important, as false information posted on the Internet can develop a life of its own. 

Help keep up the positive buzz by cross-posting pictures and threads related to your event on other lists. This is where the seeds of your next event are sown, so plant them wisely.

Solid Foundation

While we have presented a fairly rigorous approach to event hosting, it’s meant only as a guide. The basic concepts work for events of all sizes and organizers of any experience level. The bigger the event, the more details, staff members and work it requires. 

Thanks to detailed and dynamic planning, good execution, and strong follow-up, your event will leave attendees with great memories. Plus, your hosting team will be stronger for the next gathering.

Whether you’re masterminding a local autocross or a national championship extravaganza, planning is the key to success. Photography Credit: Tom Heath

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zordak Reader
11/5/20 9:27 a.m.

You forgot to mention not putting a group of newbies on a work crew together with no instruction and expecting any kind of results.

Shawn_D New Reader
3/7/21 11:23 a.m.

In reply to zordak :

I'm the autocross chairman for a BMW CCA chapter and after some debacles because of not accounting for this, I now only pair noobs with folks who have a decent amount of experience and assign work duties by name (this also helps to determine who failed to show for their work assignment).

Frank Wissman
Frank Wissman New Reader
4/10/22 9:57 p.m.

Getting insurance is not trivial. Tracks do a good job of codifying the requirements, finding a carrier for this is not easy. Does anyone have a lead for insuring track days that are not run by an organization?

codrus (Forum Supporter)
codrus (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
4/10/22 11:30 p.m.
Frank Wissman said:

Getting insurance is not trivial. Tracks do a good job of codifying the requirements, finding a carrier for this is not easy. Does anyone have a lead for insuring track days that are not run by an organization?

Necro thread, but have you tried asking the track?  They can probably point you in the right direction of carriers that they've worked with in the past.


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