America’s dying love affair with the automobile

1978 MG Midget 1500

I cannot effectively articulate why I keep it.

It occupies precious space, drains valuable income, and serves little practical purpose. Sure, I’ll break it out for the occasional car show, or take it for a spin on a gorgeous spring day. However, when it comes to everyday life the elegant, diminutive 1978 MG Midget 1500 that sits in my garage about fifty feet away from where I type, has little value aside from the sentimental.

First purchased in 1992, the year I turned 16, I can remember events attached to that car with vivid recall. Whether it was negotiating the car’s previous owner down to a more favorable price, the numerous places it broke down, and the numerous trips to parties, football games, all seem like yesterday. And my primary material attachment to those times remains the Midget.

Of course, part of the Midget’s charm was driving it. With no power steering, no anti-lock brakes, and no airbag you were always more alert in the Midget, more aware of your surroundings. Seated low to the ground and incredibly close to the engine, you could hear the motor stress as you went through the gears, and feel the contours of the road. On cold winter mornings, the proximity to the engine was something of an unintended convenience, as the Midget did not have heating or air-conditioner.

And although you might think a British car would handle well in the rain, well, this particular one did not. No, the relatively high rear end, meant fish tailing was often the modus operandi in the Midget. And yes, as any teen would, I “tested," the handling capabilities of the car.

That was of course, when it started.

Yes, whether it was blown gaskets, broken accelerator cables, or failed alternators, the Midget provided a litany of headaches. Never a certainty to start, it was necessary “choke," the thing in the winter, and be careful to not overdrive during humid Maryland summers for fear you might cook the engine.

While some friends of mine drove more reliable Ford Escorts, Toyota Tercels, or Honda Accords, they were all jealous. They marveled at the unique characteristics of the Midget such at its three windshield wipers. Some will even ask to this day, if I still have “that cool, little British sports car."

I do. And despite the Midget’s complete impracticality, I probably will for quite a while.

Now, why do I bring up my 50-horsepower car that constantly broke down you might ask. This is after all, a racing website, not a platform for some writer to wax poetic about the glory of his youth. Further, I’m not the only person to ever harbor a romantic attachment to an automobile, and I certainly will not be the last. However, if recent studies are to be believed, people such as myself are becoming more of a rarity. And the example of my MG Midget provides an excellent backdrop in referencing how perspectives have changed.

See, similar to how I romanticize my MG, prior generations have romanticized other cars. For example, the Baby Boom Generation (those born between 1946-1963) may have romanticized Chevelles, Chargers, and the other muscle cars of the 1960s. Loud and obnoxious, yet also elegant, these powerful, high horsepower machines represent symbols of a simpler, more innocent time to many.

However, it seems Priuses and Volts aren’t exactly moving the nostalgia meter in a similar fashion. Yes, a preponderance of evidence suggests younger people don’t have the same love affair with the automobile as prior generations. And if that is the case, this is a huge concern for racing, all types of racing, going forward. And it helps explain why attendance has been dropping for almost all racing series.

Today, in part 1 of a two-part series, we will analyze the declining interest in the automobile. Particularly, we will outline Generation Y’s (those born between 1980-1995) perspective on the automobile, and how that perspective is vastly different from that of the Boomers and Generation X (1964-1979). Next week, in Part 2 we will discuss what all of this ultimately means for racing, and how various racing organizations can make themselves more relevant to Gen Y.

Now, I want to make clear the goal of this piece is not to lampoon racing organizations as out of touch with the modern consumer. Nor is it to brandish an entire generation of young people, as vapid, spoiled ignoramuses, who could never possibly understand the romance of driving an MG Midget in the rain. Such thinking is lazy, nor will it do anything to make racing more relevant to them. Further, every generation of young people, mine included, has heard the “when we your age, we walked five miles to school in the snow, uphill both ways," fruitless diatribe from its elders.

Rather, the objective here will be to understand the younger consumer. Clearly, the Gen Y consumer is much different than the Boomers and even the Gen Xers like myself, and will therefore require a different strategy in appealing to them.

But first let us outline the actual problem.

The obvious place to start with the current Gen Y consumer is acknowledging the simple fact, they possess greater technological resources than any previous generation. While you could say this about any generation, this particular technological affluence has rendered the automobile not meaningless, but certainly less important.

If you go back a mere twenty years to when I was in high school, that MG Midget opened a world previously unavailable to me. When it started, I could go on dates, see friends, attend games, head to the mall, whatever. I didn’t need to have mom or dad drive me. I could simply do it myself, and with the MG, do it will a little panache. The car, aside from its aesthetic attributes, meant freedom.

Today, the car isn’t really necessary for that. Rather, from the palm of your hand, anyone can connect with friends via Facebook, Twitter, or text. Sure, they will want to see their peers face-to-face at some point. While a car might be helpful in that regard it’s not necessary.

After all, statistics show young people have been flocking to urban and suburban areas both of which offer greater access to public transportation than before. And if you want to know when the next bus is, well, there’s an app for that. Check the app, see the bus is coming in 15 minutes, send your buddy a text that you’ll be there in a half hour. In the meantime, you can update your Facebook status, text or tweet. Remember, those things are harder to do if you’re driving.

Part of the issue is also, economic. Cars are well, expensive. Not only is there a significant upfront investment, but also maintenance, insurance, deeds, title, etc., which studies suggest are a deterrent to young people. And remember a phone only costs about $200.

Also, the notion of a cheap used car without the bells and whistles holds little appeal. Remember, many of the Gen Y crowd grew up watching DVDs in minivans and SUVs in comfortable, sometimes reclined seating. Since younger people are accustomed to a greater level of comfort in an automobile, an inexpensive used car, which they may see as a step down, doesn’t really resonate

Nor does brand loyalty. To illustrate this let’s revisit the example of phones.

For example, when someone wants a new phone, they don’t keep the old phone around as some item of nostalgia. When Apple comes out with the iPhone 5, consumers trade-in their iPhone 4 and “upgrade." There is little connection to the actual object, as I have with the MG, or a particular car lover may have to a Ford or Chevrolet. A car may evoke memories of a first date, first kiss, or a road trip taken with friends.

Phones don’t really do that. In short, there is no sense of ownership. The phone is essentially borrowed, temporary, similar to how a bus ride is a temporary means to an end.

And we haven’t even gotten into the environmental factor. Yes, those powerful Chevelles and Chargers that so many of the Boomers may romanticize are viewed as impractical, obnoxious, gas guzzling, polluting, relics.

So, what does this all mean?

Well, for one, fewer young people are driving. In fact, according to the Federal Highway Administration 21% of people between the ages of 20 and 34 do not have a driver’s license up from 10% in 2000.

And the result of fewer people driving is a relatively simple one for racing: young people are losing connection to the principle object used in racing.

Granted, racing has always been different in that conveying the skill and strain of the participants is difficult. For example, I’ve played basketball, and if I turn on a basketball game, I see Lebron James play basketball in a way I could never possibly imagine. Likewise, I play golf, and if I turn on golf, I see Tiger Woods hit drives 100 yards further than I can. Simply put, an appreciation for the skills of James or Woods are easily decipherable to the viewer, partially because many people have played golf or basketball.

But how does the viewer understand the strain Ryan Hunter-Reay is under on a hot day at Mid-Ohio? Sure, the television commentator can tell me RHR is really fit, and working really hard. Sure, an in-car camera can show the movement of his hands or give an impression of the track’s bumpiness. However, the strain and skill of the drivers does not translate well to the television set.

This age-old problem is not being helped by the fact fewer people are driving. As a result fewer of them are fish tailing MG Midgets in the rain with no anti-lock brakes and no power steering. Fewer young people are feeling the sensation of power that comes from a Chevelle accelerating through the gears. If they do happen to be driving, they’re looking for ways to do so efficiently.

What they’re not doing is creating memories, attachments and associations with the automobile. If the automobile is used, it is a means to an end; a means to obtain an end as efficiently as possible.

In part 2, we will take a further look at what this dynamic means for racing going forward. Clearly, the consumer is vastly different than he or she was two decades ago. We will explore the various options available to racing organizations in meeting the demands of the new consumer.

While there will be no simple answers, these are questions the racing community must explore, as the sport’s survival depends on it.

A Few Quick Things:

• I agree that Saturday night’s IndyCar race at Texas was not exactly a classic. However, in terms of quality shows IndyCar is 7 of 8 so far in 2013, and I’m more than willing to give the series a pass here. It’s just unfortunate that the dullest race of the season had to come in the ABC prime-time event.
• Speaking of ABC, I’m way past ranting and raving about their continued indifferent, unprofessional and insulting coverage of this sport I love. Rather, I just want someone to tell me how this “partnership" as currently constituted between ABC and INDYCAR benefits either party.
• Ryan Hunter-Reay should be the favorite to win the 2013 title. If RHR had any weaknesses coming into this year, it would have been qualifying and big ovals. Well, RHR has the best qualifying average of any full-time driver, and scored his first two podiums on ovals larger than 1 mile with a third at Indy and second at Texas. Also, keep in mind we are entering a stretch of the season where RHR came to life in 2012.

Brian Carroccio is an IndyCar Columnist for AutoRacing1. He lives in Rockville, MD with his wife Allison, and their two children.

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