Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Auto Racing At A Crossroads

Stewart's dirt race was one of the few success stories of 2013
Our sport of auto racing is at a crossroads.

If you’re an auto racing fan – and if you’re reading this blog you must be – you’ve got to be concerned about the future of our sport.  You probably have been for the past couple of years.   

NASCAR, IndyCar, sports car racing, drag racing, Formula One; take your pick.  There is not a major racing series in the world that is in a good place right now.  Attendance is down.  Television viewership is down.  Sponsorship is down.  IndyCar and is looking for a title sponsor for the 2014 season and Nationwide has already informed NASCAR if won't be back as sponsor of the secondary series when its contract is up at the end of next year.

The NASCAR season was dogged with controversy from start to finish.  A smoldering engine sitting in the grandstands alongside fans after the Daytona Nationwide race had people asking if the Daytona 500 should go on.  A racer was fined for saying there wasn’t enough racing.  Then Spingate took attention away from the Chase.  The most successful NASCAR race of the year was a throwback event on a dirt track.  Daytona and Talladega, once the crown jewels of the series, are in danger of becoming a family embarrassment.

IndyCar may be staging the best races right now, but has so alienated fans, no one sees them.  The series is being led by its third management team in five years.  At the moment, that team is circling the wagons around its most valuable component, the Indianapolis 500.  The reality is, outside of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, which is more of an event than a race, there is no IndyCar series, at least as far as fans are concerned.  The IndyCar “series” is in danger of becoming an irrelevant, made for (cable) television, sideshow.

The 2014 IndyCar schedule jams 18 races (including three doubleheader weekends) into a five month period, designed to wrap up by the end of August to avoid conflict with football.  Mario Andretti has vowed to fight the new leadership over the schedule, saying “it’s not plausible” and that the attempt to avoid football is “diminishing the series.”  Losing Dario Franchitti, one of the biggest names in IndyCar racing, isn’t going to help. 

In drag racing, there is no bigger name than John Force.  Joined in recent years by his daughters, the family has dominated the NHRA and he captured his 16th championship this past year.  Yet the team’s two biggest supporters, Ford and Castrol, have both announced they won’t be back next year.  Ford is pulling out of drag racing altogether.

In American road racing, a peace treaty has been signed, uniting previously competing series under the control of NASCAR, bringing an end to the civil war.  But it remains to be seen if reconstruction will be successful.  With less than two months until the first race at Daytona, new regulations designed to level the playing field for DP and LMP2 cars are still being written in pencil.  Only a handful of entries turned out for pre-season practice sessions, which had to be curtailed when two DP cars went flying through the air at Daytona.

In Formula One, the corruption trial of czar Bernie Ecelstone continues.  McLaren, long one of the sport’s premier teams, lost $5 million last year and has lost both its engine supplier and primary sponsor for next season.  At least two drivers drove without pay last season and a 19-year Russian is making the jump from GP3 to F1 thanks to petro-dollar sponsorship.  "There are only five teams which are financially secure and the rest of them are all struggling,” said former driver and current TV commentator Martin Brundle.  “So they are following the money and not the talent.”

Are you beginning to see a trend here?  The root of the problem with racing right now is – not surprisingly – money.  But it goes deeper than that.

Many in racing’s leadership circles blame the Great Recession for the problems the sport is facing.  If they really believe that, they're fooling themselves.  It started before recession, back when racing, led by NASCAR, was literally the Golden Sport.  In an effort to make even more money and protect what they had, however, major racing series and car owners banded together to write rules so narrow, innovation was all but eliminated.  The COT and rules establishing team franchises and protecting starting positions were designed to limit outside competition and put in place well before the recession.  NASCAR (and GrandAm) was the first to go down that road.   IndyCar quickly followed suit.  After all, if it was good for NASCAR, it had to be good for IndyCar – right?  Meanwhile, the cost for fans to attend races skyrocketed.

This lack of innovation and competition, along with the high cost of going to a race, began driving fans away from the sport before the recession.  The recession only exasperated the situation.  Five years later, with the economy ever so slowly beginning to show some improvement, many fans have found other things to do with their money.

There’s still plenty of money to be made in the sport, however.  Lots of it.  NASCAR’s staggering, 10-year, $8.2 billion television deal is just the latest example.  Most series, tracks, drivers and team owners are making good money.  NASCAR races are still cash cows for hotels and restaurants in places like Bristol and elsewhere.

I wrote before that NASCAR and its partners (drivers, owners, tracks) should reinvest some of its newfound billions back into the sport.  So far, there is no indication of a willingness to do so.  NASCAR has already resisted major changes for next year.  IndyCar owners have successfully delayed the use aero kits in the series, designed to introduce some innovation into the series and give the cars a distinctive and varied look, until 2015 at the earliest. They say it's too expensive.  Meanwhile, grandstands sit empty.

So all is lost?

No way, not by a long shot.  There is hope.  There is much about racing that is right.  There’s a reason we still tune in every weekend and search for those elusive cable channels that are showing whatever the race of the day is.

Next week I’ll look at what I see as right in racing and why there is still hope for the sport we love.

6 comments:

  1. Well put! Do you know if the grandstand project is still a go for Daytona?

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  2. The nice part is that grassroots racing seems to be on the rebound (sprints, midgets, late models, hobby stocks, modifieds, etc.) at LOCAL racetracks. People have cut back on attending the overpriced events (NASCAR, INDY, F1) and are using that $$$ to attend EVENTS at local speedways like The Williams Grove National Open (PA), the World of Outlaws World Finals (NC), the Knoxville Nationals (IA), the World 100 (OH), the Gold Cup Race of Champions (CA) and many, many more.

    Until grassroots racing gets back to where it was in the late 1980's and early 1990's, you will continue to see a decline in the upper series (those fans from the late 1980's and early 1990's became the NASCAR fans in the mid to late 90's and early 2000's. When they starting going away, there was no one to replace them (or less to replace them) as the short tracks were already seeing a downturn in attendance in the early 1990's). Where were new fans to NASCAR going to come from?? Racefans are just like drivers, they always yearn for that next step (they used to attend Track X that had seating for 500 and cars racing for $100 to win to track XX that had seating for 3000 and cars racing for $1500 to win to track XXX that had seating for 7000 and cars racing for $3500 to win, and on and on).

    When the pipeline wasn't filled with fans clamoring to move up, the stands at ALL tracks starting getting emptier and emptier.

    Hopefully that trend will start reversing itself in 2014, but NASCAR won't really see it until 2025 or so......

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  3. Check your information again, I believe you will find Nationwide is not leaving as sponsor of the series until the end of 2014.

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    1. You're absolutely right. My mistake. Sorry.

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  4. Very well written.. I have said the same things. it is "Follow the money", anyone not saying that is a fool! The local tracks are seeing a rebound. The big league of NASCAR won't see it for a good long while! TV does too good of a job, the prices are 'right' at home or with friends at a sports TV bar; at the track it's just too darn expensive.
    You are right again when it comes to innovation unless a team has millions to pay in fines if the 2-way radio is in the wrong location! I would love to see a qualifying field of 50 for the 43 spots in a Cup race.. A local track rule of a 'claimer price' on any car would drop the price and triple the innovation within an hour of the adoption of that rule, and new car owners could enjoy the sport. I hope the sport lives on and falls no further

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  5. .Nice article and I'd agree with most of your points...

    One exception, ISC's $400 million investment into DIS certainly qualifies as "investing in the sport"...

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