Editor's Note: Before Peter starts cranking out his motorsport column in earnest, we thought we'd revisit his Fumes column from October 29th, because it is still extremely topical going into this new racing year. - WG
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Rather than writing a new column this week, I'm taking the time to respond to some of your comments and queries.
Thank you for your weekly insight into the automotive world. And particularly thank you for giving us a view that few, if any, others will. My question is, as we continue to see both attendance and TV ratings decline, at what point does it become unsustainable? Not to the Frances or the Eccelstones, but to the manufacturers and to the sponsors? I suppose that B-to-B relationships are more important than I realize, but is there a tipping point? Again thank you and I look forward to more.
Interesting and timely subject to say the least. As I've said previously, what’s happening in racing now just isn’t sustainable. The current situation that defines modern professional racing, with the various racing series conducting their races for the participating owners, drivers and sponsors, with a smattering of fans in the stands and a gaggle of viewers out in TV Land thrown in for good measure (particularly in IndyCar and USCC) is not sustainable. That’s what I mean by “racing in a vacuum” and it simply has no future. The tipping point is looming, because we will reach a point where the B-to-B foundation of modern racing, with sponsors participating in the hopes of nurturing business relationships only - while not really caring about fan interest or viewer interest for that matter - will simply fade away. And then it will be up to the manufacturers as to what happens from there.
Right now, the NASCAR model is being justified and subsidized to the tune of $300 million annually by the three participating manufacturers (Ford, GM, Toyota). What they get from that participation is up for debate, because the hoary "Win On Sunday, Sell On Monday" mantra was relegated to the history books long ago. I would venture that two of the participating manufacturers in NASCAR - Ford and GM - sell more trucks than anything else from their participation. While Toyota is involved because of their obsession - which has driven the company since its beginnings here - with becoming a visible part of the American fabric. Toyota views it as an image play, pure and simple, which makes sense considering the average Camry buyer couldn't care less about NASCAR.
Manufacturer participation is key to every single form of motorsport, from F1 to NASCAR and from IndyCar to major league sports car racing. For instance, without the manufacturer involvement - and the front-line teams' heavily subsidized $400 million annual budgets - F1 would simply wither away and die. It's the same for Le Mans as well. Let's face it, if Porsche, Audi and Toyota walked away from Le Mans, no one would care. Yes, one could argue that other manufacturers would step-up to fill the void as in years past, but what if they didn't? Le Mans would turn into a localized club race with a glorious history, devoid of any compelling fan interest. Look at IndyCar, which to me is the ultimate example of "racing in a vacuum." Neglible TV ratings, intermittent-to-fading fan interest and a series that conducts races for the edification of its key, participating teams and for what business relationships can be established among its sponsors. It's ridiculous when you think about it. GM and Honda supply engines - for now - but what if they didn't? The Indianapolis 500 might survive into the future - probably as an invitational race only - but the rest of the IndyCar series is a recurring joke, and almost completely invisible to the mainstream media, and it would simply fade away as well.
The tipping point? When the manufacturers lose interest. NASCAR used to believe that it is bigger than any one participating manufacturer, but I think that's a pipedream left over from the "Big Bill" France days because today it is not a given that a Honda, or a Hyundai, or a Nissan would automatically step-in if Ford, or GM, or Toyota walked away. Back in the old days, companies funded massive racing programs because one or more executives at the top of the company loved racing and wanted to do it. Today it is a labyrinthine hell of ROI (Return On Investment) justification that ebbs and flows with the political winds inside these companies. Right now, NASCAR is in good stead with GM, Ford and Toyota, but believe me that could change at any moment, even though the NASCAR brain trust doesn't believe it. (NASCAR has hired four executives from GM in the last 36 months to "encourage" the company's continuing participation, as I've reported.)
As for F1 and major league sports car racing, right now the big-ticket manufacturers want to be there and for some, at no matter what the cost. But that will change eventually. And then what? Will racing fall back on fan interest? As I've stated many times before "fan interest" is a declining proposition in this digital age we live in. Young people don't associate the automobile with freedom or interpersonal connectivity, their myriad handheld electronic devices having emphatically put put paid to that quaint notion. Unfortunately, the over-50 age demographic is sustaining the interest in racing at the moment. Yes, there are new types of racing that have drawn interest from young people - Global RallyCross being my personal new favorite type of racing, I might add - but that's not enough. The "car thing" that defined so much of our lives is receding into the history books. And what survives or emerges after that is the multi-trillion dollar question. But I do I fear for the future of the sport of racing. We may be witnessing the sport's eventual fade-out except for those pockets of enthusiasm that will steadfastly remain into the future. - PMD
I don't get it. Why do you even bother writing anything about NASCAR? You clearly hate the sport and everyone in it and you go out of your way to talk negative shit about it every week. And by the way, you're an asshole and nobody cares what you have to say anyway.
Charlotte, North Carolina
I get email like this every week, and there's not a day that goes by where someone isn't calling me an asshole, or worse. It comes with the territory and it is of no consequence to me. But let's review the facts, shall we? Just a couple of weeks ago I had this to say about NASCAR: "Let me be clear right up front here, I have nothing but the utmost respect for the teams, the drivers, the technical people and the 'doers' who make that sport hum today. There is a tremendous amount of talent in the NASCAR garage area and in and around Charlotte, and they deserve recognition." And that's all true. The talent in NASCAR-ville runs deep and strong, and there's no denying it and I have tremendous respect for the people involved in the sport.
But, as I've stated repeatedly, I refuse to extend the same goodwill or respect to the powers that be in Daytona Beach that run NASCAR, because they don't deserve it. In fact their relentless bumbling is well documented and continues on unabated. NASCAR was a regional series that used the unrelenting largesse of the Reynolds Tobacco Company to propel it to new heights in its golden "Winston Cup" era. From there the sport grew away from its regional roots fueled by the ambitions held by the France family that it would someday be the biggest sport next to the NFL. And during its heyday - roughly from 2002 to 2007 - it enjoyed tremendous popularity. But with that popularity came an arrogance that led to bad decisions, decisions that still haunt the racing entity to this day.
They added tracks, many with a similar layout so the racing could be predictable and controlled, because after all, the France family is all about control. They walked away from classic venues and dates because they wanted to add new venues to broaden the exposure, and with it came the most ridiculous death-march of a schedule in all of sports, and that’s saying something when you factor the NBA and the NHL into the mix. With too many races and too many repeat visits to the same tracks, it’s the very definition of insanity, with even some of the drivers dropping hints that maybe it’s too much.
And how about the interminably long races? Unable to edit themselves, the powers that be in NASCAR think a never-ending series of 400-mile races on cookie-cutter tracks that drone on for hours on end is a good thing. Instead it’s flat-out stupid. And there isn’t a more elegant way to put it either. The two most popular races to watch on the NASCAR schedule – other than the Daytona 500, of course – are the two road races at Watkins Glen and Sonoma. I’ve advocated for years that NASCAR could reduce the number of races and add at least three additional road races to the schedule – for a total of five – by applying some simple logic, as in don’t have two races at the same track within six weeks of each other. Right off the bat you could delete a half-dozen second races (Pocono and Michigan just to name two), which would improve things considerably, add a little breathing room to the schedule and adding more of its popular road races while they're at it. But no, this is NASCAR we’re talking about, The Land of Excuses and Moribund Thinking that’s rumbling, bumbling and stumbling their way to mediocrity.
I’m often asked this: If NASCAR race attendance has been on a downward spiral since 2007, and the TV viewing numbers have been in steady decline, why don’t they make any substantive changes to help things improve? And how do they keep landing those ridiculously overpriced TV contracts? And the answer is, in this 24/7 digital content-driven world we live in today there are still TV networks and their associated entities out there that are willing to pay the very definition of stupid money for the privilege of broadcasting NASCAR races. Unfortunately the NASCAR brain trust thinks this is because they’re doing something right and that they don’t need to change anything, but the reality is that it’s only because the TV network conglomerates have become omnivores on the prowl for anything they can get their hands on to satisfy their insatiable programming needs. Thus we live in a world of NASCAR oversaturation, while the idea of watching a live sports car race is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.
Will NASCAR change anything? Not unless it’s by gunpoint. Remember the fiasco with the much-ballyhooed “Car of Tomorrow” – the idea that single-handedly turned off NASCAR’s hard-core fan base because the cars were identical save for the decals indicating headlights and grille openings? NASCAR had no intention of changing that car, it was only because two of the four participating manufacturers at the time threatened to pull out of NASCAR if Daytona Beach didn’t allow for more differentiation between the cars.
If the powers that be in Daytona Beach were smart, they’d cut their schedule and embark on a more realistic racing cadence, with no more than 25 race weekends a year, with five of those races being on America’s premier road racing circuits. And they would investigate going to smaller engines on the "big" tracks while taking the restrictors off, and removing about the first 30 rows of seats at every superspeedway they run on. (That absurd nastiness called restrictor-plate racing has to stop before somebody gets killed.)
Of course all of this would be predicated on NASCAR getting serious about the realities of its declining fortunes, and that’s not going to happen anytime soon, I’m afraid. The participating manufacturers could get together and pound some sense into NASCAR, but that would require them to act like real automobile companies instead of NASCAR’s compliant enablers, and that’s not going to happen anytime soon either, apparently.
For the racing enthusiast the ugly reality is that the “stick-and-ball” mainstream media thinks that NASCAR is the only racing that exists in this country. And for all intents and purposes that's true. No other form of racing garners any media attention except for the Indianapolis 500. Even the major sports car races at Daytona and Sebring merit little more than a couple of blurbs in the wrap-up section of most sports sections, whether they be in newspapers or on the Internet.
The sad thing in all of this? NASCAR doesn't have a clue as to what to do with its inherited leadership position in the sport of racing. They can't manage their own sport, and now they're mismanaging the sport of major league sports car racing in this country too, which is a complete travesty.
As for the "nobody cares what you have to say anyway" comment? I am happy to say that I'm reminded of the reach and influence of my commentaries in this sport every week. - PMD
Why do you think HERF didn't work out?
My proposal for a new form of racing - the Hydrogen Electric Racing Federation - was introduced to a star-studded audience comprised of manufacturers and racing VIPs in January 2007, in suburban Detroit. This new racing entity was going to attack the developmental issues associated with making hydrogen-fueled electric cars feasible for mass production. I proposed that the issues of hydrogen fuel storage, re-fueling, the controlling of the intensely high temperatures and other details could be solved if we let the bright minds involved in racing have at it. And HERF was going to provide a forum for that in a demonstration race that hopefully would take place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the week before the 500, every year.
The most interesting aspects of HERF? There were no rules other than the cars had to fit in a dimensional box and had to ride on four wheels. Everything else was “free.” The idea was to promote a competition among the manufacturers, unleashing the full force of the talent and creativity on their technical staffs. Cookie-cutter cars would not be welcome. Another crucial distinction? I wasn’t interested in glorified slot-car sounds on the race track, because to me, racing without noise wasn’t racing. So every manufacturer had to design a “sound signature” that could be generated electronically and augmented by the airflow rushing over the bodywork.
Unfortunately the manufacturers got cold feet (there was great interest from GM and Toyota at the time, in fact Bob Lutz introduced me at the event) and the proposal died a silent death, fading away in the gathering economic gloom. It was too much, too soon, and though some of the creative minds at these companies understood the vision of HERF, they wouldn't commit any of their R&D budgets to it. Since that time I have pulled back from the idea quite a bit. Though I do believe we have to solve the problems associated with the mass-production of hydrogen-electric vehicles, I’m not sure racing is the answer. As I said, racing without noise is slot car stuff, and for someone who watched the Can-Am cars in period – with those brutal big-block V8s echoing in the trees down through the Moraine Sweep at Road America, the sun glints glittering off of the massive rear wings – well, slot car nostalgia is not for me. - PMD
Publisher's Note: As part of our continuing series celebrating the "Glory Days" of racing, we're proud to present another noteworthy image from the Ford Racing Archives. - PMD
(Photo courtesy of the Ford Racing Archives)
New York, March, 1964. A Ford GT40 Mk I arrives at JFK airport in New York. One of the first of two GT40's built by Eric Broadley at Lola, this GT40 was flown to New York for inspection by Ford executives. Upon approval it was immediately returned to England to be prepared for practice for the 24 Hours of Le Mans that April.
Publisher's Note: Like these Ford racing photos? Check out www.fordimages.com. Be forewarned, however, because you won't be able to go there and not order something. - PMD