Highlights - Motorsports roundtable at Princeton U.
Motorsports in general has gone through some hard times trying to weather the recession and some very smart people have been trying to figure out how to fix it. So it was perhaps appropriate that some of the best minds in motorsports were gathered in the very place where Albert Einstein developed his Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, Nobel Prize winning mathematician Professor John Nash worked his mathematical genius, and John von Neumann, the charismatic mathematician who helped develop the modern computer as well as the mathematical theory behind the H-bomb.
Nash, who from time to time, can still be seen around the campus was the subject of the Hollywood movie A Beautiful Mind. The film, loosely based on the biography of the same name, focuses on Nash's mathematical genius and struggle with paranoid schizophrenia. An interesting side note about Nash - after he finished his Master's Degree at Princeton he applied to Harvard for his doctorate degree. Nash's advisor and former Carnegie Tech professor, R.J. Duffin, wrote a letter of recommendation consisting of a single sentence: "This man is a genius."
Although he was accepted at Harvard he decided to continue his studies at Princeton University where he received his doctorate and would continue on as a Professor in Mathematics. In Princeton campus legend, Nash became "The Phantom of Fine Hall" (Princeton's mathematics center), a shadowy figure who would scribble arcane equations on blackboards in the middle of the night.
An interesting side note about Einstein. When I attended Rutgers University (just up the road from Princeton) for my undergraduate and graduate degrees in Engineering, we used to visit my roommate's mother for dinner. She was Albert Einstein's secretary at Princeton University and would tell us stories about his sometimes peculiar behavior. What is it about these geniuses that we find in many walks of life that are super intelligent yet suffer other mental and dysfunctional disorders?
Well back to the topic at hand - motorsports and how to fix some of its ailments. While the paneled gather may not be geniuses like Einstein and Nash, they certainly seem to have their finger on the pulse of American motorsports.
For the record, the speakers were:
I present you with some thoughts I took away from this symposium.
$1 trillion business - In his opening remarks Lencheski told the mostly stick-and-ball crowd in attendance that motorsports worldwide was a $1 trillion business, which shocked the majority of them. When you combine all the various forms of motorsports worldwide it is the biggest sport by a fairly wide margin from a commercial aspect.
Revenue Sharing - The idea of revenue sharing to help lesser teams to become more competitive was raised for the NHL. While the winning teams would resist giving up some of their winning revenue, there was general agreement that revenue sharing would help the overall level of competition on the ice. Does that make any sense for motorsports. Should a Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi be forced to forego some of their revenue to help the Dale Coyne's and Eric Bachelart's of the world? One can argue that in a true free trade, global marketplace model pushed by the democratic societies of the world, only the strong survive, and revenue sharing might make them lazy.....so some thought would have to go into how to make revenue sharing effective.
Franchise system - it works for stick and ball sports, why can't it work for motorsports? That got me thinking, you know, stick and ball teams are tied to cities. And while a franchise system has nothing to do with being associated with cities, and develop a local sense of pride around their team. Racing is a team sport, yet it has no franchise system and the teams are not tied to cities, so it no local media coverage on a regular basis. Racing is a cottage industry with most teams located in one city - Indy for IndyCars and Charlotte for NASCAR. But does it really have to be that way? For years Penske ran a successful Indy operation out of Reading, PA and Newman/Haas still operates out of Chicago. Their secret - low staff turnover because they are too far from the other teams to have their good employees poached.
Spec Series don't work - At least not at the top rung of the sport. Randy Bernard talked about how IndyCar was never a spec series until the split, when in order to survive both CART and the IRL had to adopt a spec series formula. But Indy (and the Indy 500) was never a spec series. It always was a development platform for the automotive industry, so with three engine manufacturers and 5 or 6 body kits, IndyCar in 2012 can once again see a return of innovation in the series.
IndyCar is not a 'Champagne' crowd - Randy Bernard made a point of the fact that the perception that IndyCar is a 'champagne' crowd (vs. the NASCAR 'Beer' crowd) is simply not true and he will work to change that perception. Bernard views all sports as a threat to IndyCar, but perhaps the biggest threat is what he called 'technology convenience.' Technology has become so good that a fan can today enjoy a race better from home than from the grandstands. IndyCar's challenge will be to make the experience at the track for fan so good that they will want to attend in person.
Secret to Newman/Haas' success - Brian Lisles talked about one of the key to the success of Newman/Haas Racing over the years was its ability to retain staff. Carl Haas would always seek out the best people and then have those people seek out the best people to work under them. Being in Chicago also meant that the other teams based in and around Indianapolis were too far away to poach their best talent. Lisles made a point of saying that more than half the staff has been with the team over 15 years.
Go faster with less - Brian Lisles talked about the fact that before the split, the technology on IndyCars was more advanced than passenger cars, but today IndyCar has fallen way behind passenger cars and it is no longer the technology development platform for the car industry. The next challenge - who fastest and farthest with less. The sport needs to retool and advance racing but from a 'green' point of view.
How to fix NASCAR - Joe Mattioli said to fix NASCAR he would switch over to cars that kids drive. Though he was not specific he led us to believe he meant 'tuner' cars. Hmm....Not so sure that's the solution. He was right about one thing - Racing must get more into the schools and get the youth following racing at a young age. They are exposed to stick and ball sports in schools, but not racing. Could go-karting or Formula Ford racing ever become a school sport? And he says that NASCAR should not forget where they came from - Places like Fontana, California just don't seem to work.
Racing should be used to test alternate fuels - Danny Marshall said that racing should be used to test alternate fuels to wean the western world off of fossil fuels. Green energy is an opportunity for racing. Of course he comes from a France Family owned series where green is only an afterthought. IndyCar has run on methanol and ethanol for decades and the ALMS is big on green energy. NASCAR and Grand-Am are still all about polluting the environment with fossil fuels.
Racing needs Benevolent Dictators - Rod Campbell says the secret to the success of F1 and NASCAR is the fact that they are run by dictators as in Bernie Ecclestone (F1) and the France Family (NASCAR). You need smart people who set good rules and then enforce them.
Communications are too splintered - If anyone understands the topic of communications for racing it's Rod Campbell. He's worried that communications today is too splintered. There’s Facebook, Twitter, text messaging, email, newspapers, websites, and magazines. You name it. The industry is still trying to find its way in that regard, so it represents a risk.
More American drivers - Some felt that American Racing needs more American drivers, insinuating that Americans must be xenophobic. While a certain percentage maybe, I prefer to give Americans the benefit of the doubt, Guys like Alex Zanardi, Mario Andretti, Juan Montoya, Nigel Mansell and the like were foreign born drivers that Americans loved. Why? Because they were winners and they could relate to the fans, i.e. they had a command of the English language and a good personality. So one can argue in a purist's world that only the best drivers should be hired to race. Isn't that what professional stick and balls sports do? But far too often American racing relies on foreign ride-buyers just to survive because the teams do not have the wherewithal to get sponsorship on their own, and that's just wrong.
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