Editorial

Open Wheel Racing is in serious need of consolidation
Reckless expansions are hurting the sport

 by Mark Cipolloni and Cássio Côrtes
July 31, 2004

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Every time we look it seems like a new open wheel racing series is popping up somewhere.  In addition to there being a lot of open wheel series, racing confuses the customer even more with road racing, oval racing, rally, drag racing, sports cars, saloon cars, sprint races, endurance races. It's enough to make one's head spin.  If we in the industry are confused, imagine what the customers must think.

The study of mass communications will force you to, sooner or later, stumble across Al Ries and Jack Trout’s polemic 1994 book, “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing”, a piece of very ambitious writing that seeks to define the formula for success in today’s globalized economy. It’s a must read for anyone who is interested in business, and a probable dozer for all of those who are not.

Yet given the myriad of tribulations of open-wheel racing’s economics today, seeking help from a couple of marketing gurus seems like a reasonable thought.

On their #7 never-changing law, Ries and Trout warn about the dangers of brand extensions.

The authors make their point well by pointing out how Budweiser’s overall market share actually diminished after the company launched variations such as Bud Light; same thing for GM, that used to sell a lot more cars when it offered fewer models. The idea is that, when the market is swollen with options that relate to the same “parent” concept, the latter is weakened rather than strengthened.

Ries and Trout would likely be flipping out on their backs if they ever glanced at what the market for worldwide open-wheel racing series looks like today.

How about this quick race fan trivia? Name the last race winner of each the following series:

International F3000
European F3000
Nissan World Series
Toyota Atlantic Championship
Infiniti Pro Series
Formula Nippon
Australian F4000

Not a lot of success? Wait until next year, and you might want to add the GP2 championship, A1 Grand Prix and the rumored Renault-backed Nissan World Series spin-off. If you look further down the ladder in open wheel you find an even greater proliferation of open wheel racing series. Star Mazda, Formula Ford (many flavors), Renault 2000, Formula BMW, Formula Palmer Audi, F3 (many flavors), Zytek, etc. In go-karting there are even more categories and divisions.

Now have a look at these numbers:
 

Series

Starters in most recent event

International F3000

18

European F3000

13

Nissan World Series

15

Toyota Atlantic Championship

12

Infiniti Pro Series

  9

Formula Nippon

16

Australian F4000

12

Rewind your tape back to 1995, the year before the open-wheel split in North America, and a time when only two of the above series existed (International F3000 and Toyota Atlantic). The closing of the F3000 championship in Magny-Cours saw 26 cars on the grid, the exact same number that lined up at Laguna Seca for the last round of that year’s Atlantic series. That’s 52 cars overall - you’d have to count every starter in almost a whole season’s worth of Infiniti Pro racing to get to this number nowadays.

Of course, this discussion could be expanded to the 26 cars that raced in the 1995 F1 and Indy Car seasons, or the fact that Indy was so competitive that year that Marlboro Team Penske failed to qualify.

The main point is, the profusion of open-wheel racing series today has done more to alienate fans than to bring newer audiences to the sport. The fact that there are more races has only stretched a relatively stagnant audience, and, quite simply, hurt open-wheel racing as a whole.

Not only is there a dilution of talent and quantity of cars because of so many series, there is a dilution of the fan base and the sponsor base. And it’s not unique to the lower ranks. Look what happened to Indy Car racing when Tony George started the IRL. By dividing the sport in half he created two weaker series and this brand extension has literally killed the sport.

But does the quality of the product decrease with so many “brand extensions”? In the case of Budweiser, probably not. When open-wheel racing is concerned, though, the answer given by the number of fans in the stands and in front of their TV sets is a resounding yes. Slim fields aren’t but an expression of lack of sponsor interest, which for its turn is a reflection of low fan interest. There’s a poetic license to this article’s argument; that is, consider open-wheel racing as a single entity, instead of the multiple, sometimes conflicting interests that actually govern it.

And fans have lost interest partially because, when there are so many series around, each one of them seems less important in comparison. For, as Ries and Trout’s #5 law claims, “Marketing is a battle of perceptions, not products”, and most fans’ overall perception of the importance of open-wheel racing has dwindled, no matter how good the on-track product still is.

Then again, the gurus’ #2 commandment states that “If you can't be first in a category, change the nature of the category or set up a new category you can be first in” - pretty much what every honcho in open-wheel has seemingly being trying to do for the past few years.

Apparently, not even marketing experts can grasp the logics of open wheel racing these days. 

What's the solution? Eventually simple economics will put some of the series out of business, but then new ones will pop up. 

Maybe someone, someday, will put together a summit and call the leaders of all the open wheel series together to address this serious issue. One topic on the agenda should be - What series can, and should be combined?  Just getting them talking about it might lead to some much needed mergers.

And it can't happen soon enough.

The authors can be contacted at feedback@autoracing1.com

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