Putting the glamour back in
Open Wheel Racing
by Tim Wohlford
summer, the promoter of the vintage Indy car exhibit at Michigan
International Speedway said something that disturbed me: "Racing long ago ceased to be
about technology. Modern racing is all about entertainment."
Unfortunately for many racing fans on AutoRacing1.com, he's right.
Modern racing is about entertainment, and is
probably best compared to broadcast programming. Like TV and
radio, which entertain us enough that we stick around during
sponsor's ads, we watch racing that is geared to having us see
advertising dollars at work in a
favorable way. Sponsorship determines what you see and hear in
broadcasts as well as on the track.
Modern racing's "economic law" is the same as broadcast
programming, and is as firm as the law of gravity. The cost of putting
on, and participating in, the show needs to be equal to or less than the
amount of sponsor's money spent on the event. The amount of ad money
spent is based upon the sponsors best guesstimate as to the number of
people who will see that "billboard", as well as the impact of seeing
that in a "glamorous" auto racing environment. If this law of racing
economics isn't obeyed then the series soon dies.
NASCAR caught on with sponsors in large part because of
the massive amount of sponsor space on a stock car, providing a platform
where a fan can see a logo on a car from anyplace on the track. Not
only can sponsorship be viewed by all the fans in the stands, but TV
cameras also pick up the logos as they cover the action. As marketing
departments realized that their company's logo could be seen on a
national broadcast without paying for TV ads the sponsorship money
poured in for the teams. NASCAR became bigger than any other auto racing
series in American history.
Champ Cars and IRL cars have much less surface area than
NASCAR vehicles, and move much faster. At venues like Michigan neither
grandstand fans nor trackside cameras see sponsor logos or car numbers
while the cars are at speed. In fact, without in-car cameras fans
wouldn't have a clue about the sponsorship while the cars are at speed.
The problem is compounded at Indy and on road courses where the cars are
not visible 100% of the time to all fans or to TV cameras.
F1 is not exempt from this economic law. While possibly
an exception of the "racing is about entertaining" maxim, they still
have to limit technology in an attempt to hold down costs. Venue
selection is purely an economic consideration. While the cars and logos
are not easily seen, the glamour of F1 means that any sponsor seen on
anything in any F1 race brings a large amount of world-wide bang for the
buck. At least for now F1 still has glamour mystique, and so those
fleeting glimpses at logos have a lot more impact per view than in an
American open-wheel race.
Perhaps CART's greatest strength was that they had both
the Indy 500 (with 500 winners) as well as several F1 World Champions in
its ranks and, therefore, had a high glamour factor. When the Indy 500
was no longer on their schedule, and as their lineup of F1 World
Champions and Indy 500 winners in their ranks declined, their fate was
sealed as the economic law became impossible to meet.
The unified series must then obey the racing economic
equation. In order for sponsors to spend the kind of money you'd want
for a premier series the sponsorship needs to be glamorous enough to
replace the lost logo shots. Sadly the only current race with any
glamour is the Indy 500.
Perhaps a unified series can be good enough to attract
Michael Schumacher when he retires from F1, or perhaps a couple more
future drivers will look good in bikini photos. Perhaps someone in open
wheel racing can provide the marketing guidance that Winston provided to
NASCAR in the 1980s. But until that glamour factor is established the
unified series, like IRL, Champ Car and CART, will be scampering to
promote their sponsors enough to avoid the fate of CART.
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