Auto Racing is at a crossroads

Our sport of auto racing is at a crossroads.

If you’re an auto racing fan – and if you’re reading this blog you must be – you’ve got to be concerned about the future of our sport. You probably have been for the past couple of years.

NASCAR, IndyCar, sports car racing, drag racing, Formula One; take your pick. There is not a major racing series in the world that is in a good place right now. Attendance is down. Television viewership is down. Sponsorship is down. IndyCar and the NASCAR series formerly known as Nationwide, are both looking for title sponsors just months before the start of the 2014 season. Not long ago there were bidding wars for those opportunities.

The NASCAR season was dogged with controversy from start to finish. A smoldering engine sitting in the grandstands alongside fans after the Daytona Nationwide race had people asking if the Daytona 500 should go on. A racer was fined for saying there wasn’t enough racing. Then Spingate took attention away from the Chase. The most successful NASCAR race of the year was a throwback event on a dirt track. Daytona and Talladega, once the crown jewels of the series, are in danger of becoming a family embarrassment.

IndyCar may be staging the best races right now, but has so alienated fans, no one sees them. The series is being led by its third management team in five years. At the moment, that team is circling the wagons around its most valuable component, the Indianapolis 500. The reality is, outside of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, which is more of an event than a race, there is no IndyCar series, at least as far as fans are concerned. The IndyCar “series" is in danger of becoming an irrelevant, made for (cable) television, sideshow.

The 2014 IndyCar schedule jams 18 races (including three doubleheader weekends) into a five month period, designed to wrap up by the end of August to avoid conflict with football. Mario Andretti has vowed to fight the new leadership over the schedule, saying “it’s not plausible" and that the attempt to avoid football is “diminishing the series." Losing Dario Franchitti, one of the biggest names in IndyCar racing, isn’t going to help.

In drag racing, there is no bigger name than John Force. Joined in recent years by his daughters, the family has dominated the NHRA and he captured his 16th championship this past year. Yet the team’s two biggest supporters, Ford and Castrol, have both announced they won’t be back next year. Ford is pulling out of drag racing altogether.

In American road racing, a peace treaty has been signed, uniting previously competing series under the control of NASCAR, bringing an end to the civil war. But it remains to be seen if reconstruction will be successful. With less than two months until the first race at Daytona, new regulations designed to level the playing field for DP and LMP2 cars are still being written in pencil. Only a handful of entries turned out for pre-season practice sessions, which had to be curtailed when two DP cars went flying through the air at Daytona.

In Formula One, the corruption trial of czar Bernie Ecclestone continues. McLaren, long one of the sport’s premier teams, lost $5 million last year and has lost both its engine supplier and primary sponsor for next season. At least two drivers drove without pay last season and a 19-year Russian is making the jump from GP3 to F1 thanks to petro-dollar sponsorship. "There are only five teams which are financially secure and the rest of them are all struggling," said former driver and current TV commentator Martin Brundle. “So they are following the money and not the talent."

Are you beginning to see a trend here? The root of the problem with racing right now is – not surprisingly – money. But it goes deeper than that.

Many in racing’s leadership circles blame the Great Recession for the problems the sport is facing. If they really believe that, they're fooling themselves. It started before recession, back when racing, led by NASCAR, was literally the Golden Sport. In an effort to make even more money and protect what they had, however, major racing series and car owners banded together to write rules so narrow, innovation was all but eliminated. The COT and rules establishing team franchises and protecting starting positions were designed to limit outside competition and put in place well before the recession. NASCAR (and GrandAm) was the first to go down that road. IndyCar quickly followed suit. After all, if it was good for NASCAR, it had to be good for IndyCar – right? Meanwhile, the cost for fans to attend races skyrocketed.

This lack of innovation and competition, along with the high cost of going to a race, began driving fans away from the sport before the recession. The recession only exasperated the situation. Five years later, with the economy ever so slowly beginning to show some improvement, many fans have found other things to do with their money.

There’s still plenty of money to be made in the sport, however. Lots of it. NASCAR’s staggering, 10-year, $8.2 billion television deal is just the latest example. Most series, tracks, drivers and team owners are making good money. NASCAR races are still cash cows for hotels and restaurants in places like Bristol and elsewhere.

I wrote before that NASCAR and its partners (drivers, owners, tracks) should reinvest some of its newfound billions back into the sport. So far, there is no indication of a willingness to do so. NASCAR has already resisted major changes for next year. IndyCar owners have successfully delayed the use aero kits in the series, designed to introduce some innovation into the series and give the cars a distinctive and varied look, until 2015 at the earliest. They say it's too expensive. Meanwhile, grandstands sit empty.

So all is lost?

No way, not by a long shot. There is hope. There is much about racing that is right. There’s a reason we still tune in every weekend and search for those elusive cable channels that are showing whatever the race of the day is.

Next week I’ll look at what I see as right in racing and why there is still hope for the sport we love. AutoracingReview.BlogSpot.Com

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