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Putting the glamour back in Open Wheel Racing
by Tim Wohlford

 March 8, 2006

Last 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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