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Can Racing Survive the 21st Century?
Is traditional motorsport equipped to face the future? Or will it be left on the sidelines by a fan base that’s moved on?
BY PRESTON LERNER NOV 30, 2017
The crowd is unlike anything I’ve ever seen at a big-time pro race, less a congregation of gearheads and speed junkies than the broader collection of humanity you’d expect to find strolling Central Park on a scorching summer afternoon. Next to a sprinkling of car guys wearing McLaren T-shirts and Ferrari caps are bearded hipsters in knit beanies, women sporting artistic tattoos, young couples eating vegan ice cream from a food truck parked near an Earth Day booth, and an astonishing number of families—not just dads and their Hot Wheels-crazy sons, but parents dragging around broods of adolescents and pushing supply-laden strollers—all without a single set of earplugs in sight.
Because here at the inaugural Qualcomm New York City ePrix, the cars don’t make any noise (or pollution) to speak of. In Formula E, cars are powered by electric motors, and the loudest sound is the furious whisper of tires under hard cornering. Formula E is the FIA’s vision for bringing motorsport into the digital age. Automakers have bought into the fledgling series in a big way, with Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Peugeot, Porsche, and Renault all committed. Sponsors, too, are climbing onboard. Fans? Not so much. The turnout in Brooklyn appears more impressive than it actually is, because grandstand seating is so limited. But it’s not like people were clamoring for an ePrix either. The cars look like oddly anemic Formula 1 derivatives. Shoehorning the track into the middle of the city forced promoters to design a narrow, cramped circuit where the cars top out at just 135 mph. There are no support series, the paddock is a no-fly zone for anybody other than VIPs, and there are hardly any trash-and-trinkets vendors to amuse the masses. But worst of all, when the cars are on track, there are none of the ferocious sounds, pungent smells, and dazzling speeds that get motorsport traditionalists jazzed about racing in the first place.
Formula E has come a long way since it started three years ago, and the racing itself is actually quite good, with strong drivers supported by well-funded teams fighting hard. But as I watch—and listen—I can’t help wondering about the future of the sport so many of us love, the sport that’s produced so many heroes and generated so many epic stories—the sport that gave birth to this very magazine. Is racing on the verge of reinventing itself, or is this how it ends, with kooky-looking cars circulating silently around a tiny track in a city where millions of people aren’t paying any attention?
The Search for Significance
By many measures, racing has never been healthier. Everywhere you turn, another new racetrack or race series is springing up. The cars are more sophisticated than they’ve ever been. The drivers are fitter and better trained. Competition is fiercer. It’s not uncommon for races to be decided on the final lap and championships at the final race—sometimes the last corner of the last race.
Yet, despite all the evidence to the contrary, a feeling of malaise hangs over the sport, a sense that racing has lost its mojo. Television numbers are down. Attendance is trending in the wrong direction. The fan base is aging, and new blood isn’t being injected quickly enough to keep the sport healthy. Millennials tend to be blasé about automobiles. Cars are increasingly seen as a utilitarian means to an end, and the romance has been sucked out of driving. “Mobility,” the buzzword of the day, doesn’t exactly conjure sights and sounds of heated competition. “Something that scared the crap out of me was reading a study that found that 16-year-olds wanted a smartphone more than a driver’s license,” says Tanner Foust, who’s earned a lucrative living racing on the edges of motorsport, first in Formula Drift and now in Global Rallycross.
Motor racing is a 20th-century construct struggling to reinvent itself for 21st-century fans. The sport appears to be everywhere, and yet that very ubiquity has somehow made it seem smaller, not bigger. Also, more remote. The drivers are strapped so securely into their cars and attended to by so many engineers and technicians that they appear to have more in common with Ham, the NASA space chimp, than Gilles Villeneuve. Thanks to the wonders of downforce and an array of cutting-edge technologies, the cars look like they are cornering on rails. The effect is especially perverse on ovals. In the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, drivers wrestle 3300-pound sleds around every corner, yet from ouside the car, the exercise looks about as daunting as motoring along an interstate with adaptive cruise control engaged. “There needs to be a way for the drivers to demonstrate their ability when they’re racing with each other,” says Ben Bowlby, designer of the DeltaWing. Although Bowlby’s signature creation is now remembered mostly for its bizarre shape and unprecedented aerodynamic efficiency, his original goal was to invent a car that could be driven at Indianapolis with slip angles large enough to be visible from the grandstands—sort of like a sprint car on pavement. The idea, in other words, was to make IndyCar racing look as awe-inspiring as MotoGP or Supercross, sports where even clueless spectators can see that the athletes are displaying supernatural talent and courage. “Nowadays drivers are so buried in the car that you can’t see what they’re doing,” Bowlby says. “You can’t see their faces. You can’t see anything. It looks too easy. We need racing to look impressive.”
The sense of magic and aura of mystery that used to make the sport special have all but evaporated. Fifty years ago, racing was dubbed “the cruel sport” because the consequences of making a mistake at, say, Indy were so much more destructive than striking out in Yankee Stadium. The fundamental nature of racing changed after the fatal accidents of Ayrton Senna at Imola in 1994 and Dale Earnhardt at Daytona in 2001. Motorsport 2.0 has adopted a zero-tolerance attitude toward driver fatalities. This is clearly a good thing, and no one wants a return to the bad old days when drivers had the life expectancy of F-105 pilots during the Vietnam War. But this shouldn’t also blind us to a self-evident truth: Advances on the safety front have watered down some of racing’s appeal.
Pure entertainment aside, racing traditionally has been able to market itself as a laboratory for technological development—the improving-the-breed rationale. The rearview mirror, disc brakes, and aerodynamic aids are just some of the innovations proven on racetracks. But today, just about the only truly leading-edge pieces of technology are the hybrid systems in F1 cars and Le Mans prototypes, and they’re so complex and opaque that hardly anybody other than the people who operate them understands—or cares—how they work. In virtually every other category of racing, the rules are now more concerned with slowing cars down to maintain parity rather than speeding them up. “In some senses,” says Ford executive vice president Raj Nair, who ramrodded the Ford GT program, “the technology in a road car is significantly more advanced than in a race car.”
How does racing sell itself in a world where consumers have more choices and shorter attention spans? How does it appeal to its traditional fans while attracting new ones? How does it stay true to itself while adapting to the times? These are the questions we’ve been asking motorsport professionals for the past few months. Turns out, they’re asking themselves the same questions.
The Big Leagues
Formula 1, NASCAR, and IndyCar are the Big Three of professional motorsport. Each is a three-legged stool supported by entrants, sponsors, and fans. Because the costs are so high, entrants need sponsors—often automakers—to pay most of the funding. What sponsors want to see is fans, enough to make it worth their while to spend money on the sport. Spectators at the track are nice, but the metric that sponsors really care about is eyeballs watching on TV. And those eyeballs are increasingly pointed elsewhere. NASCAR averages nearly 5 million viewers per race. But ratings were down 12 percent in the first half of 2017 compared with the previous year. F1 loves to crow that it has an audience of 400 million worldwide. But in the States, five years on from the establishment of the U.S. Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas, F1 races barely get more than one one-thousandth that number of viewers.
A possible solution is to follow the migration of viewers to smaller screens. “One of the false paradigms is that young people aren’t interested in ‘fill in the blank,’ ” says C. J. O’Donnell, IndyCar’s chief marketing officer. “That doesn’t mean they’re not interested in ‘fill in the blank.’ It means they don’t watch ‘fill in the blank’ on TV. We have to bring the product to them where and when they want to consume it. Livestreaming, virtual reality, video on demand, 30-minute cuts of the race, five-minute highlight reels—people will watch this stuff, but when they want it and where they want to see it.” American open-wheel racing, still recovering from the self-inflicted wounds caused by the split between CART and the Indy Racing League in 1996, has embarked on an aggressive social-media strategy to claw back lapsed fans and win new ones. It’s starting to pay dividends. Livestreaming of the first practice session at Watkins Glen drew 300,000 viewers. First practice! Seven drivers had a shot at winning the IndyCar championship at the last race of the season in Sonoma. The title ultimately went to Josef Newgarden—young, handsome, articulate, and charismatic. IndyCar couldn’t have scripted it better if it had tried.
Fan engagement is suddenly a priority even in F1, where enthusiasts have long been treated with disdain verging on contempt. Last January, F1 was bought by Liberty Media, which owns the Atlanta Braves baseball team and most of Sirius XM radio and is also involved in film and television production and concert promotion. Liberty Media is making what appears to be a good-faith effort to broaden its appeal. “It’s a fact: People need to get more for their money,” says managing director Ross Brawn, who’s leading an in-house team that’s looking at strategies to upgrade the show. Paddock access has been expanded and social-media restrictions relaxed. Some events have included concerts and a full slate of support races. In July, Liberty Media drove a stake through former F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone’s figurative heart by staging a spectacular F1 exhibition in downtown London. One hundred thousand fans showed up on short notice to watch cars do donuts around Trafalgar Square.
NASCAR has done the best job of attracting fans, but also highlights the risks of reaching too far to do so. In the late Nineties, regular TV coverage and the near-demise of open-wheel racing allowed stock-car racing to achieve a level of popularity that, frankly, nobody predicted. Much of this growth was fueled by the influx of newcomers. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But many of the newbies were enticed by the trappings of the sport—the personalities of the drivers, the weekly battle for bragging rights, team clothing, logo merchandise. For the most part, they weren’t invested in the culture of racing. The problem with fair-weather fans is that they eventually get bored and gravitate to newer and shinier alternatives. The series has instituted a bunch of changes to revive flagging interest in stock-car racing. Thus, we’ve seen the Chase for the Championship, the “have at it, boys” driver code, the establishment of a Fan & Media Engagement Center—that’s the actual name—and then a more complicated playoff system, and, most recently, dividing races into stages. What next? A lottery to set the starting grid?
“They’ve focused on getting people who aren’t interested in racing interested in racing,” says Paul Pfanner, founder of Racer magazine. “But they forgot who their core audience was.”
The New Schools
Of course, asking today’s big series about the future of racing may be a little like asking typesetters about the future of communication. Especially since there are more voices in the room than ever. After a century of following the same basic template, racing is suddenly awash in niches and subgenres ranging from sim racing to Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks series, a self-promoted extravaganza best thought of as the Baja 1000 by way of World Wrestling Entertainment. Unlike Formula E, most of these new forms of racing grew out of grassroots enthusiasm. Drifting is Exhibit A. Here in the States, Formula Drift has harnessed the passion for sliding around corners and packaged it into a three-ring circus that encompasses everything from action on the track to music and a vendor village. “It’s an experience as much as it’s competition,” sponsorship manager Bryan Olfert says.
Whereas the old series are belatedly adjusting to social media, these new forms are inherently suited for them, with high-intensity, quick-hit formats that snag views on YouTube and stream smoothly on smartphones. Global Rallycross heats are essentially five to 10 minutes of mayhem—perfect for fans with short attention spans. “A two-hour sports event that you have to follow every minute isn’t going to work with younger viewers,” says Nick Horbaczewski, founder of the Drone Racing League (DRL). Yes, there’s a professional league devoted to squirrelly little quadcopters controlled by guys wearing geeky goggles. A DRL broadcast on a Saturday in late June outdrew both the F1 and IndyCar telecasts the next day. “Our goal is to create the next major racing sport,” Horbaczewski says. Sim racing is aiming at the same target. Nissan has used video games to identify potential drivers for years, and McLaren recently inaugurated a similar program. Now, sim racing is developing into a legitimate spectator sport that supports professional participants. At Le Mans this year, the makers of the Forza Motorsport Xbox racing-game franchise staged a virtual race while the 24-hour classic was going on. “I don’t think we ought to exactly mimic what I’m seeing on the [live TV] screen, because that’s already such a great form of entertainment,” says Alan Hartman, studio head of Turn 10 Studios, which developed the game. “Forza Motorsport creates a different race dynamic.”
Professional gaming, a.k.a. eSports, is expected to generate $696 million in revenue in 2017, and the global audience is estimated at 191 million enthusiasts. But much of the action is in first-person shooter games. It’s not clear whether—or why—large numbers of people would watch a gamer race in a virtual Monaco Grand Prix when they could just as easily see Lewis Hamilton drive in the real thing. So the FIA, which is by far the biggest and most influential racing organization in the world, is pushing for a very different future. “The idea is to promote a technology that is relevant,” says Jean Todt, who ran Ferrari’s F1 team before becoming president of the FIA. “Racing is about passion, but it is also about being responsible.”
Formula E is the FIA’s Hail Mary to reposition racing as a socially conscious sport at the forefront of a technological revolution. Automakers love it for two reasons. First, it’s cheap; because of limits on technical development, annual budgets are said to be in the $10 million to $20 million range, or less than Audi probably spent on hospitality at Le Mans. Better still, it allows automakers to enjoy the cachet of racing while basking in the glow that comes from being green. “I love the racing in NASCAR, but this is the only series that’s looking 10, 15, 20 years into the future,” says Nelson Piquet Jr., who came to Formula E after stints in F1, the NASCAR Nationwide series, and Global Rallycross. “If all the manufacturers are involved, what does that tell you? They’re not stupid. The cars look futuristic. We’re racing in the heart of Paris, Berlin, and New York—places there’s never been racing before. This is just the beginning. Remember, we’re just in our third year. Last century, it was all about how fast you could go. The new century, it’s all about how efficient you can be.” There may come a time in the not-too-distant future when most of the cars on the road are EVs. If so, there won’t be an existential problem with electric cars racing in F1, at Indy, or even in NASCAR. “We race what manufacturers produce,” says Stéphane Ratel, founder of the Blancpain GT series and the inventor, effectively, of the GT3 and GT4 classes of racing. “So if production is all about hybrids or even electric cars, then we will be racing them.” Battery limitations would seem to make EVs in endurance racing a stretch, but racing’s favorite contrarian, Don Panoz, hopes to have one at Le Mans next year. “Why can’t the people who think green have a race car they can love?” he says. No reason at all, so long as the cars and the competition speak to the core impulses that make racing exciting. “The most important thing in my mind is being real,” Pfanner says. “When racing is overly managed and contrived, it becomes Cirque du Soleil. Yeah, it’s exciting, and it’s impressive. But you expect the performers to do certain things. The spike in interest comes when the unexpected is possible. You get this tension in the air. Young people want to be part of a scene. To touch a culture. To co-create something cool. It’s not about relevance. It’s about being relatable. If you are true and authentic, you will attract a young audience. If you offer something risky and emotional, you can capture people’s hearts and minds.”
People have been agonizing over the future of motorsport virtually since the dawn of automobile racing. Outraged critics demanded a ban on racing after at least seven people were killed in the aborted Paris–Madrid road race in 1903. Indy-car racing suffered a near-death experience during the Depression, when the so-called junk formula mandating dumbed-down race cars was created to keep the sport alive. More recently, racing took a major hit when tobacco advertising went away. Automakers have come and gone, and race series have risen and fallen along with them.
I got bit by the motorsport bug in the Seventies. Racing was a magical, mysterious, and dangerous spectacle that unfolded in faraway locales with evocative names like Nürburgring, Devil’s Bowl Speedway, and Smoky Mountain Raceway. Unless somebody was killed, newspaper coverage was limited to results in agate type. To most Americans, racing was a bottom-feeder sport, a curiosity, a fringe diversion appreciated only by the initiated. The arrival of live TV coverage in the Nineties caused a huge—though temporary—surge in popularity. That may have created false expectations. No matter how well it’s marketed, racing is never going to be mainstream enough to compete head-to-head with baseball, basketball, or football. Which is fine; not everyone can be P1. The good news is that more people—a lot more—are participating in motorsport than ever before, mostly because the bar to entry has been lowered. A generation ago, if you wanted to go club racing, the SCCA was pretty much the only game in town. Now, there are several rival organizations. Or if wheel-to-wheel action isn’t your thing, track days are open to just about anybody and anything. And if racing a minivan with a cutout of Snoopy on the roof is your idea of fun, there’s always the 24 Hours of Lemons or its marginally more serious rival, ChumpCar. “It continues, much to my amazement and horror, to chug along and expand,” says Lemons founder and self-styled “chief perp” Jay Lamm. “It shows that there’s a desire for racing that comes from the bottom up.” The health of amateur racing is more than an interesting data point. It’s also crucial to the success of professional sports-car racing. The dirty little secret of the endurance classics at Le Mans, Daytona, and Sebring is that, while a handful of factory teams occupy the pointy end of the grid, the fields are filled by gentlemen drivers—the favored euphemism for “rich amateurs”—who pay most of the freight. The rest of the heavy lifting in sports cars is done by the OEMs, which see sports-car racing as a way to display their wares and burnish the brand. Why do you think Aston Martin, Chevrolet, Ferrari, Ford, and Porsche were at Le Mans this year? Not so much for the glory as for the marketing.
As noted in our May 2017 motorsport issue, we’re living in a golden age of sports-car racing. Never have there been so many cars from so many different manufacturers with so many opportunities to race them. In North America, Pirelli World Challenge and IMSA’s two series—the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge—are riding a wave, thanks to record participation by professional teams with factory backing and nonfactory teams funded by gentlemen drivers. Nobody’s going to confuse these series with NASCAR. But as IMSA president Scott Atherton says: “I wouldn’t trade our position in the motorsport landscape with anybody.” Increased participation doesn’t mean everyone will get equal say. Nonwing, 1000-hp single-seaters with H-pattern shifters, no driver aids, and rear tires the width of Wyoming would be pretty exciting. When I mention this to Todt in Brooklyn, he makes a face suggesting that I may be the dumbest person he’s ever met during a lifetime of meeting dumb people. And he may be right. But the days of top-down motorsport are numbered. No one is going to watch a particular form of racing just because somebody insists it’s good for them. During the next decade, we’ll likely see more growth in unconventional forms of motorsport supported by fan bases that develop organically. The pie will be sliced into ever-smaller pieces as promoters double down on the niche-ification of the sport. Maybe we should stop thinking of things like drifting or rallycross as gateway drugs or the next big thing and start thinking of them as destinations. The idea used to be that fans, like drivers, would work their way up the pyramid, starting with races at their local track and eventually getting to Daytona or Indy or wherever. Those 800-pound gorillas aren’t going anywhere, but they’re no longer alone. Almost everybody I spoke with offered a variation on this theme: Times are tough, but we’re doing okay. They may be whistling past the graveyard. Or maybe they’re right. A media revolution is coming, and the way racing—and all sports entertainment—is captured and consumed is bound to change in ways we can’t imagine. But the desire to see who’s faster is an atavistic impulse that dates back thousands of years. If manufacturers are still involved, they’re going to want to race cars similar to the ones they sell. And the tracks, far from becoming irrelevant, are now providing a refuge for people who care about driving. In other words, the future of racing may include more of the same, but it will also offer more, period. And that ought to be good for everybody.
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