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Flat Spot On: Which Way Forward?

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, February 27 2016
There is good news and bad news for auto racing in America. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

There is good news and bad news for auto racing in America. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

HAMPTON, Ga. – In case you think this is just a story on NASCAR, it’s not. Please continue, because there is some straight talk here (hello Robin Miller!) that I think all racing fans might find worthwhile.

On a Friday at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, rarely has there been as much optimism prior to the running bugopinionof a 500-mile race on Sunday. There’s a February warm front rolling in under clear skies and the rule change outlook is high. The rosy glow of the Daytona 500 still looks good in the rearview mirror, but Atlanta is the start of the throttle tracks – versus restrictor plates – that dominate the schedule.

Low downforce, Goodyears tires with “give up” and the wide open high banks of a true oval bode well for the racing on Sunday – plus sunny weather that will keep the track relatively slick. The drivers, said Carl Edwards, “will be steering right as much as left.”

If the race measures up to the sunlit, late afternoon qualifying that had drivers showing quick hands in the wheelhouse, it’s gonna be good. So how will television viewers, many still dealing with winter weather, and fans respond? The numbers in the ratings and grandstands will not be what they used to be.

There’s the bad news. The only other news is that NASCAR’s Sprint Cup is not much different than other major motor racing series. Generally there’s good racing, decreasing viewership and ticket sales.

There is some good news, if stock car racing happens to be your thing. NASCAR’s long-term planning assures a good future. That includes a 10-year TV contract and a five-year deal with charter team owners, not to mention an approach to rules that has manufacturers, teams and drivers on the same page. Tangentially, the Daytona International Speedway has been re-envisioned as a modern sports stadium.

Will those big numbers from the turn of the century ever come back? Nope. Older folks are tuning out due to alienation with a sport that, like life itself, has changed from its previous days. Remember writing letters, for instance, or long distance calls and cameras with film? Young people, who never knew this other world, are absorbing sports in a variety of electronic platforms and there’s a lot of competition for their disposable ticket-spending money.

Major league motor racing continues to offer the four fundamentals.  It’s authentic in the same way as other sports; it has compelling individuals participating; there’s excellent automotive competition and a historic legacy.  (OK, I know what you’re thinking. Teams and manufacturers fudge on the rules to gain advantage and the sanctioning bodies sometimes do what’s only in their self-interest in circumstances that might be deemed suspect; but these are hardly new developments and are part of the sport’s legacy, if not authenticity.)

Whether it’s Formula 1, IndyCar or NASCAR, these four qualities are present, plus they have marquee events known around the world. And they share the same problems of declining interest as measured by standards like TV viewership and in many instances ticket sales.

We all know the way people absorb sports has changed, e.g. hundreds of TV channels now competing with multiple electronic platforms such as Apple TV and Hulu on various delivery systems including phones and computers. People no longer arrange their schedules around watching an entire sports event. On the other hand, the electronic numbers may not be so bad after all when the entire universe is considered.

But in a highly competitive sports universe (puh-lease, it’s not entertainment) the criteria still need to be fine tuned about what things are working and what’s not.

In Formula 1, for instance, the competition is not working, because Mercedes has stolen a march. Love him or loathe him, Lewis Hamilton can’t make up for the competition gap when it comes to the sport’s appeal. It’s the same gap, only now broader, that started with the dominance of Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel, who like Hamilton also needed more competition to keep fans engaged.

There have been times when one team and manufacturer have dominated – such as McLaren and Honda in the late 1980s. But never have they been sustained for such a long period of time as the Red Bull and Mercedes hegemonies. Combine this with changing viewership habits and presto! You’ve got ratings problems. But even if the business model is changed to account for what a sponsorship is worth in terms of all electronic communication, for example, the competition is currently the key element. This angle seems to have caught the attention of the people in charge according to the various bombshell ideas being tossed around.

IndyCar suffers from a generation gap. Older people no longer relate to the sport they once knew and younger people do not relate well enough to what’s out there now. Of if they do, it’s not reflected in TV ratings or in attendance at the Indianpolis Motor Speedway.

The legacy broke down during the CART vs. IRL years due to poor management decisions on both sides while NASCAR was going from regional sport to a national one. But I don’t think anybody can sell 230,000 tickets to a single sporting event – including NASCAR at the Brickyard – anymore. You don’t have to be there, anymore, to experience it!

The competition in IndyCar is razor sharp and the drivers behind the wheel are compelling guys and gals, including enough Americans to make it work.  It’s as authentic as any motor sport can possibly be. That legacy thing is the key problem and how do you fix it?

If it were me sitting on multi-millions, I’d consider constructing purpose-built stadia with 50,000 seats in key markets, historic and otherwise, and jettison the eternal search for the next big street race. And yes, I’m thinking short ovals of 0.75-miles to 1.0 miles in length. Build one a year for the next 10 years. I’d also re-model the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In other words, take charge of one’s own destiny and legacy.

What about other big automotive categories? In a time when live television numbers are declining, the NHRA has hooked its niche sport star to live telecasts of final eliminations on FOX.  Interesting, but not a game changer. The California-based organization will still depend on its legacy of weekend warriors racing at the division level and track ownership. If those weren’t sundered by the Great Recession, the future can’t be too imperiled. (I write this while discounting numbers emanating from NHRA offices on various fronts, which are too often baloney.)

And sports car racing? It’s a designated niche motor sport now under NASCAR ownership and dependent upon manufacturer participation, wealthy gentlemen drivers and big endurance events. It’s an excellent marketing platform for auto makers and related businesses. As such, it will endure despite paltry TV ratings.

Which circles (ahem!) back to NASCAR’s Sprint Cup. The NASCAR management has already made its commitment to the way forward. For those who say it’s not the way it used to be, well, they’re right. Disdaining what’s out there right now is its own reward.  

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, February 27 2016
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