Racing in a vacuum to oblivion

Editor's Note: When Peter first wrote this column back in October, it resonated throughout the racing industry, drawing favorable – albeit sobering – comments from far and wide. We felt it was important to run it again, especially now that the dust has settled from the season-ending NASCAR and INDYCAR championship banquets, in order that the discussion and reflection can continue.

By Peter M. De Lorenzo

Detroit. After another tedious NASCAR restrictor-plate race at Talladega, an almost spectator-less finale for the INDYCAR season at California Speedway, and a fitting swan song for the American Le Mans Series at Road Atlanta, I'm left with a sinking feeling that of the two so-called pillars of American racing – NASCAR and INDYCAR – one is mired in an ever-growing paralysis, and the other is threatening to disappear altogether in a cloud of indifference.

When NASCAR announced their 2014 season to great fanfare last week, it landed with a resounding thud on the American racing landscape when it became apparent yet again that NASCAR was not going to change a damn thing. Oh, there were a few date and time adjustments, but generally the powers that be in NASCAR have pronounced everything all good, and that they saw no need for a shortened schedule, a road race during their "Chase" for the Sprint Cup championship, or any unseemly disruptions that might alter what they do, although they floated out a "we'll see" about possible changes in the future, when NBC becomes one of the television partners for the 2015 season.

That this is intransigence on a grand scale is an understatement of this or any other year. NASCAR's brain trust is so utterly devoid of the kind of vision necessary to see that the organization remains even remotely relevant in the future that it isn't even shocking anymore. They are hell-bent on riding the current downward slide – the declining in-person attendance, the death march of a schedule that rivals the NBA and the NHL schedules for lunacy (with serial redundancy added in for good measure) and the declining TV numbers – to oblivion. And it isn't going to be pretty when it comes apart either. You can almost envision the recriminations and finger-pointing sure to come to the surface when it all comes crashing down, and the France family will inevitably suffer a major fissure of some kind when it becomes obvious that their lack of vision and inability to embrace change killed the golden money train.

When I hear NASCAR operatives hinting about the possibility of meaningful change coming in time for the 2015 schedule, it reminds me of when I used to listen to auto industry executives in Detroit saying that the "turnaround" was just around the corner back in the early 2000s. We all know how that turned out, with two of the three U.S.-based automakers forced to file bankruptcies in the most humiliating way, requiring a Federal taxpayer buyout to keep one of America's essential industries afloat. I dare say there won't be that much hue and cry when the NASCAR train finally derails.

An organization famous for the guiding principle of "it's a family owned business and we can do whatever we damn well please," one that races in a hermetically sealed vacuum made up of its own proclivities and idiosyncrasies and one that remains steadfast and defiant – and totally oblivious – to the outside world, will finally be forced to do their least favorite thing, which will be to dig deep into their own pockets and bail themselves out. And I will be the first to remind them that they were warned, repeatedly.

As for INDYCAR, what more can possibly be said about the embarrassment that went on at the California Speedway (Auto Club) last Saturday night? The stage was set for a compelling evening of racing with an INDYCAR championship at stake, yet the in-person attendance could be best described as a "smattering" of fans, looking for all the world like a ragtag group of people who meandered over to the speedway on a Saturday night wondering why the lights were on. This wasn't a championship evening, folks. It wasn't even fitting for a local high school football game. Instead, it was a pathetic display that was just plain sad to watch.

Yet once again the competitors raced their guts out and put on a race worth watching. I remain convinced that if it weren't for the participants and a few key owners and sponsors, INDYCAR would simply fade from the scene altogether. I warned a few columns ago that Indy-style racing would eventually be confined to the Indianapolis 500 – which would become an invitational event – and a maybe a handful of other events that would make up a "season" of racing. I envisioned this happening down the road at some point in the future, but I have no doubt we've already reached the point of no return.

Every single person and corporate entity deeply involved in INDYCAR has to realize that racing in a vacuum for their own edification will not sustain the sport. Yeah, it's cool racing, and I have the utmost respect for the drivers, team owners and crews who are standing on the gas every day trying to make a go of their sport, but it's not even close to being enough. In commenting to the Associated Press on his company's move into global markets and withdrawal from sponsoring one of Andretti Autosport's Indy cars, GoDaddy CEO Blake Irving had this to say: "We looked at our customer acquisition costs and it's an audience size issue. The customer acquisition costs between the web, between regular TV and between NASCAR and IndyCar, IndyCar is the most expensive acquisition vehicle we have. It was pretty expensive on a per customer cost."

In other words, his message was very clear: INDYCAR is not a viable proposition when compared to other marketing endeavors. Unfortunately, and as much as it pains me, truer words were never spoken. The compelling reason for sponsors to be in INDYCAR – other than the Indianapolis 500 – is rapidly coming to a close.

Racing in a vacuum will eventually severely cripple NASCAR and it will prove to be the inevitable demise of INDYCAR. The only compelling racing event last weekend was at Road Atlanta, with the American Le Mans series putting on a tremendous display of what racing should be all about. Far from racing in a vacuum, this was a dead series racing for the pure sport of it, as the ALMS gets set to be absorbed into the NASCAR-controlled Tudor United Sports Car Championship beginning next year.

I will go on record right now and say that if you really love racing, I mean really, really love racing, I'm afraid I have to tell you that we are at an ominous point in the sport's history. The biggest thing in American racing in terms of corporate acceptability and sponsorship money – NASCAR – has become such a moribund, repetitive example of the true definition of crazy, as in doing something over and over again while expecting different results, that it defies description.

And the people who are responsible for turning major league racing in America into a predictable quagmire of repetitiveness and "managed" competition have just been handed the keys to major league sports car racing in this country for good measure. And to top it all off, the biggest single racing event in the world – the Indianapolis 500 – is hanging by a thread because an entire form of motor sport has become marginalized and made undesirable to the point that it might just cease to exist altogether.

Racing in a vacuum? No, that doesn't quite do justice to what's happening to the sport of racing in this country.

Racing itself is in fact racing to oblivion.

And there doesn't seem to be a proper sense of urgency on anyone's part to do one damn thing about it, either.

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