KIRBY ON RACING: BEING RELEVANT
The Way It Is/ Searching for relevance
by Gordon Kirby
It took a few years to take root but the big question in the racing business these days is, how can the sport rediscover itself and become relevant in the rapidly-changing world of the 21st century? Every form of racing--NASCAR, NHRA, IndyCar, ALMS/Grand-Am, even Formula One--is engaging in some form of introspection, struggling with the same basic question about a lack of relevance. What is the right formula or way forward to engage with today's hyper-connected world and the youth market in particular, whose interest in cars and driving is in decline?
I first heard the word 'relevant' used in NASCAR's garage area a few years ago as people gazed at the increasing flow of empty seats at many Cup races. Crowds have continued to dwindle over the past few years with swaths of empty seats at many races, a disturbing and sometimes self-fulfilling trend.
As the Chase for the Cup went down to the wire this year NASCAR continued to pull disappointing TV ratings. Overall, the ratings were down around ten percent from last year and barely half the numbers enjoyed during NASCAR's glory days only five or six years ago. It's sobering to reflect that a decade and a half ago CART drew better ratings at the time than NASCAR pulls today.
NASCAR hopes its new-look 2013 car with more brand identity will help turn the tide in fading interest. Hoping to attract new fans and bring back some disaffected old fans NASCAR and its manufacturers have invested lots of time and effort into the new Cup cars. So it will be interesting to see if the new cars move the needle on NASCAR's overall measure of popularity.
Yet NASCAR remains the big dog of American racing, profiting from a well-developed ladder system reaching down to the grass roots across the country. Like its ladder system, one of the many things NASCAR built and developed over the decades is its presence on radio, reaching every corner of the country through MRN and PRN on as many as 500 radio stations nationwide. No other form of American racing has nurtured its fan base anything like as well as NASCAR and it's because of the comprehensive management of its entire product over many years that NASCAR has become the brand name for racing in America.
Meanwhile, as we all know, American open wheel and sports car racing occupy tiny positions in today's free-flowing media world and the American sports market in general. Over the past fifteen years IndyCar has lost almost all brand identity in the wider world and the ALMS and Grand-Am have struggled to establish their brands beyond their hard-core audiences. The ALMS enjoys a whiff of technical relevance and has been the last hope for America's road racing fans, but IndyCar and Grand-Am seem to have lost both the plot and any serious audience.
While IndyCar struggles to find the right leadership and way forward, the ALMS and Grand-Am are searching for the right combined formula for 2014. The correct solutions may be difficult to find, but everyone hopes they will achieve these elusive goals and enjoy renewed relevancy in the years ahead.
Over the decades, American racing has witnessed the rise and fall of many different sanctioning bodies and forms of racing. For my part, I covered the original Can-Am series back in 1973 and '74 and watched its sad demise. The Can-Am's legend has grown over time and I have fond memories of watching Mark Donohue in action in Penske's Porsche 917/30K and of the superb UOP Shadows driven by George Follmer and Jackie Oliver in the Can-Am's final year. But the Can-Am lasted only nine years, failing because of the sanctioning body's inability to deal effectively with regulating new, rapidly-changing technology and also failing to properly promote and market the series in a changing world. Sound familiar?
For a few years I also covered the SCCA's Formula 5000 series. At its height, in 1975, F5000 drew 46 cars and drivers to the inaugural Long Beach GP. It was a great series, but equally mismanaged by the SCCA, also lasting just nine years from 1968-'76. There was a mythical belief that closed-wheel cars would recreate the original Can-Am's popularity and F5000 was turned in 1977 into the 'new era' Can-Am. The new series had its charms and enjoyed a few good seasons before petering out, also surviving barely ten years.
During the seventies and eighties we also saw the rise of IMSA under John Bishop's leadership. After a frustrated departure from the SCCA, Bishop founded IMSA with Bill France's help and ushered in a spectacular era of American sports car racing defined by impressive GTP cars from the likes of Porsche, Nissan, Jaguar and Toyota.
IMSA's Camel GT series was well-promoted and marketed by Camel cigarettes but it was too good to last and after Camel departed and Bishop retired, US sports car racing was thrown to the wolves, emerging as a pair of rival series in the ALMS and Grand-Am. With their merger, we await American sports car racing's new chapter, starting in 2014.
What we now call Indy car racing was run from the sport's early days through 1955 by the AAA and from 1956-'78 by USAC, an antecedent of the AAA. Then came CART's owners' revolution in 1979 and for some time there were hopes that the owners would do a better job than the traditional old clubs, USAC and the SCCA. CART's Indy Car World Series of the eighties and nineties was an unplanned melding of oval and road racing in the wake of the failure of the Can-Am, F5000 and the 'new era' Can-Am. A flood of road racing teams, drivers and tracks turned to CART and a new fangled form of Indy car racing became something special for a few years to fans across the United States, Canada, Mexico and around the world.
When Nigel Mansell turned his back on Formula One in 1993 to race for Newman/Haas in CART's Indy Car World Series he brought with him a pack English newspaper reporters, racheting-up Indy car racing's worldwide coverage to new heights. At Indianapolis that year they had to build an extension to the old press room to house the flock of 'Fleet Street' writers and a bunch of other international reporters intent on covering the defending F1 World Champion's exploits at the Speedway.
Indeed, in the '90s when CART was at its height, I covered Indy car racing for, among others, Autosport, Racer, Road & Track, RaceWeek (a fax newsletter), the Marlboro Racing News Service (an early Internet breaking news provider), The London Sunday Times and Newsweek's Pacific Rim edition. One-off assignments or requests for stories regularly came in from around the world from France, Germany, the UK, Japan and Australia.
But all that business began to erode and then plummet as CART slowly but steadily imploded in the face of Tony George's burgeoning but ill-conceived Indy Racing League. As Indy car racing's popularity fell away work covering the sport dried up and I witnessed a slow, then rapid decline in the number of writers and reporters populating the press rooms at Indy car races in particular, but at other American races too.
While the CART/IRL war raged, a massive change also overtook the media business with the arrival and expansion of the Internet and the Web's assault on traditional print media. As a result, the business model for newspapers and magazines has been under increasing attack for ten years and Indy car racing and American racing in general--NASCAR included--found itself near or at the bottom of the emerging new media food chain, seriously lacking relevance in a time of tornadic change.
In recent years budgets for covering racing in the USA have all but vanished and IndyCar and ALMS/Grand-Am have little or no presence in the ocean of media surrounding us. Today, there's little or no paying work for writers or reporters covering IndyCar, ALMS or Grand-Am and I find myself focused happily on a new stage in my career as an author and historian for Racemaker Press, although I keep my hand in here in this space each week, and in the pages of Motor Sport and on the magazine's website too.
Paul Tracy fondly remembers the heydays of CART, when he battled with Nigel Mansell in 1993 for the CART championship. Tracy is among those who shake their heads over American open-wheel racing's sad decline.
"Indy car racing is irrelevant," Tracy says quietly. "For the younger generation, it's not cool. They're into drifting and rallycross and extreme sports. It's really sad to look up into the grandstands and see how few people are there. It's hard to remember how packed the races used to be back in the nineties and into the turn of the century. Whether we were in Toronto or Long Beach or the California Speedway, the grandstands were packed and the crowds were thick all weekend long.
"We had plenty of media from across the United States, Canada and around the world. In Mansell's days and when Zanardi was around too, the media centers rocked, and in Canada we had myself, Villeneuve and Greg Moore. Between us three and Molsons, Indy car racing was huge all across Canada. Now, the crowds are way down and the media centers seem to be pretty pretty much deserted."
Jim McGee is Indy car racing's most successful crew chief with 90 wins between 1965-2005. McGee agrees with Tracy.
"It's sad to see what's happened," McGee remarked. "I don't know what the solution is. I wish I did, but I don't. They've got to really keep costs under control because nobody can afford it, and they've lost the fans and the media. I don't know how they're going to get any of them back. They're going to have to pay the media to cover the races. I don't see any other way it's going to happen."
Another factor in Indy car racing's decline is the demise of the country's once great open-wheel racing industry. From the Duesenberg brothers and Harry Miller through Fred Offenhauser and the likes of Frank Kurtis, A.J. Watson, Ted Halibrand, George Bignotti, All American Racers, Vel's Parnelli Jones and many other engine, chassis and component builders Indy car racing enjoyed a thriving cottage industry of homegrown talent.
Over many decades the industry infused Indy car racing with pride and helped provide a fan base among the employees, family and friends of these car and engine builders. It also helped generate plenty of commercial interest from the American automobile industry.
But over the last twenty years all that has been lost to overseas car and engine builders and engineers. It's hard to say whether or not it was an inevitable evolution or something that a more savvy leadership might have been able to manage more effectively, but it's certainly true that the focus of today's American racing industry has migrated to North Carolina and NASCAR.
There's also been a considerable evolution of what we now call the open-wheel ladder system while NASCAR has worked with the likes of ARCA and local tracks across the country to provide a more stable base for stock car racing. Through the forties, fifties and into the sixties, midget and sprint car racing played a big role in Indy car racing's popularity. For many years midget and sprint car racing were equally popular on east and west coasts as well as across the midwest.
Through the post-WWII period midget and sprint car racing supplied fertile ground for American talent to move into Indy car racing as well as nurturing and providing a deep fan base for open-wheel racing. But USAC failed to properly manage or promote midget and sprint car racing, just like they failed to respond to the changing times in Indy car racing, ultimately becoming merely a regional sanctioning body rather than the major force they once were in the sport.
At the same time, the rear engine revolution of the sixties brought in a new era as Formula Ford, Super Vee and Atlantic replaced midget and sprint car racing as the training grounds for Indy car drivers and crewmen. The new system wasn't planned in any way but it supplanted the old system and worked well for twenty or thirty years.
Super Vee benefitted from the support of Volkswagen and Bosch, but Formula Ford and Atlantic didn't enjoy much help from the traditional sanctioning bodies or many commercial partners. Toyota helped Atlantic for quite a few years and more recently Mazda aided Atlantic's fleeting rebirth before the category's apparent final failure a few years ago amid the IRL/Champ Car merger.
Today, Atlantic and Super Vee are dead and Formula Ford is a mere shadow of its once roaring self. The latest version of the 'Road to Indy' includes the Star Mazda and Cooper Tires F2000 series as well as the Jim Russell and Skip Barber entry level series. At the top of the ladder system is Indy Lights, but the Lights series is a tough sell as high costs and very little overall media coverage have contributed to the small fields of recent years and dearth of American talent on the grid.
Meanwhile, it's interesting that Keith Wiggins, owner of IndyCar team HVM Racing, looks likely to turn his team's attention from IndyCar to the World Endurance Championship because it has a stable formula and a worldwide market. Wiggins is shying away from the ALMS/Grand-Am because the formula for the future isn't clear. His thinking is sound, based on business principles rather than wishful thinking.
On the positive side, all of us were pleased to see the radical new Delta Wing car showing its stuff this year at Le Mans and Road Atlanta and we congratulate the ALMS for embracing the Delta Wing for 2013. Here's hoping it has a big impact on American sports car racing and that the combined 2014 series will find a way to encourage future development of the concept.
The Delta Wing also opened our eyes to the possibilities of introducing Open Source engineering to motor racing. Exactly how to adopt the principle has yet to be defined but it's an exciting idea. I discussed it a little in this space last year and will return to the subject in the near future. Open source was also discussed by Chip Ganassi in a recent Road & Track column.
"Open source racing is a disruptive idea," Ganassi wrote at the end of his column. "But I think it's our best shot at once again making automobile competition a beacon for the world's best and brightest minds. The ideas and talent are out there. All we have to do is harness them."
More than a few people I know also talk about staging a 1,000 mile fuel efficiency race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a limited supply of energy. They see such a race as a way to push racing into the spotlight in a concerned, relevant manner.
Indeed, there's no lack of talk or ideas out there about how racing can once again become a relevant sport and enjoy a renaissance. Without doubt, there's been a serious lack of leadership for many years and it will be interesting to see if some fresh thinking can emerge to take hold of the sport and push it forward into a new age.