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Lines Which Racing Series Can’t Afford To Cross

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, April 24 2014

The sound of Formula One has hit a sour note with fans. (File photo courtesy of the Circuit of the Americas)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

A friend asked the other day: What’s the big deal about the sound of the new Formula One engines? Who the hell cares what kind of sound engines make?

The answers is: Race fans the hell care. A lot. And not just the purist of the pure. Fans – and not just F1 fans – care because racing, like many other sports used to be, is about more than just the score. It’s about seemingly insignificant things adding up to a wonderful whole.

The F1 controversy, of course, was stirred by the FIA’s decision to junk screaming V-8 engines in favor of soft-spoken V-6 hybrids for 2014 for reasons of a cleaner environment. Not that I am against greening up the world – my views on the eco movement would likely get me beat bloody in the infield at Darlington – but moves like this are the kinds of things which convert traditional traditional fans into former fans.

For some of us, Formula One was the ultimate form of racing not so long ago.

It was the technology: Witnessing fighter-jet innovations put the relatively peaceful uses on race tracks was fascinating for those who had even mild interests in physics. It was dang cool to watch racing scientists and engineers trying to outflank the opposition and rule makers alike not from year to year, but from race to race.

It was the driving skill: Back in the day, F1 could legitimately claim that it was the destination of The Best drivers on the planet. When you saw Fangio or Senna or Rosberg on a track, you knew it was because they had driving powers far above drivers who were merely great.

It was the scene: Less-than-perfect circuits like Monza and Silverstone and Watkins Glen demanded that teams and drivers be at peak levels every single turn. At the same time, those places created an atmosphere which facilitated the mingling of a populist fan base with the aristocratic elite.

And it was, yes, the sensory vulgarities: Loud, stressing engine screams mixed with the smell of rubber and motor oil were all part of the addiction. (Ah, the smell of Castrol in the morning practice.) Even when the introduction of turbochargers scrubbed off some of the roar, the sound was still raw enough to thrill.

Then, the “improvements” began assaulting all of the above.

The rule-makers got heavy-handed (RIP, big venturi tunnels); driving prestige was diluted by ride-buying (could Mario get a ride today?); immaculately groomed tracks built simly to attract Ecclestone’s version of F1 sprang up in odd places (is that Bahrain on TV or a video game?); now, hybrid V-6s.

Yes, the economic reasons for the changes are tough to argue against: Competitive reasons which serve the sport by keeping teams participating and the racing interesting; and economic reasons which keep producing obscene amounts of money for all but the ticket-buying public.

But some of the “improvements” have only served to disgruntle a fan base which, history shows, has its limits. “Improvements” like the new engine package has some drivers and, even F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone complaining about an erosion of the experience.

Reportedly, FIA is looking for answers.

Other series’ officials would do well to be following the F1 engine situation. They need to pay close attention when determining what is needed change and what strikes at the heart of the sport.

Old friend Frank is a road racing freak. F1 but also sports cars and Indy cars too. He annually would host Breakfast at Indy at his place in Colorado after the 500 began being aired live in the 1980s.

These days, he may be watching or he may not be when called on race day for the 500. It wasn’t the IndyCar-CART war itself that did it. It was the environment of the winning IndyCar side that did it. Less technology, ugly cars, increased disregard for tradition, greed and the drone of the Oldsmobile V-8s were all too much for him. Been afraid to ask him about the new qualifying procedures which dump things like Bump Day and Pole Day into the crapper.

And Frank not only embodies who built the sport, but who racing should be chasing with a net: He yaks the sport and buys a lot of racing gear.

The changes over in NASCAR have been coming in machine-gun bursts the last 10 years.

It’s tough to accurately gauge if the goal of attracting new fans is being met. I do know new fans. Some have become quite jacked about NASCAR. But jacked should not be confused with devoted. Jacked race fans are just one pretty face away from becoming jacked about soccer.

NASCAR is reportedly considering yet another change that some may consider minor but necessary; smaller engines. Gone would be the big old iron 358 cubers and in would be, well, TBD. It’s probably a good business move, but will it prove to be a good move vis a vis increasing devotion to the sport?

There’s a good chance it will not have much of an effect on the devoted because most of those folks have have already hit exits.

But the engine controversy in F1 sends a clear signal that there are still lines in the sand which race fans will not allow their sport to cross.

Ironically, yet another reason to keep loving this sport.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, April 24 2014
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  • frak says:

    And, btw, “Breakfast at Indy” still occurs yearly..we haven’t missed one although your presence has been sorely missed for years!!!