What Has Happened to Racing?

 What has happened to automobile racing?  Like many professional sports it has become focused on the individual instead of the team.  The drivers have become personalities where it is almost more important for them to showboat than it is for them to drive.  In American football you had ball carriers that would dance in the end zone and spike the football to draw attention to their accomplishment.  Now you have drivers climb the chain link fence to wave at the crowd, or do summersaults off their cars, or do doughnuts on the track after a race. 

Maybe this is the result of the fact that most professional racing has become spec series racing.  How can you focus on a car’s marquee if they are virtually all the same?  NASCAR was once known as stock car racing.  For those of you unfamiliar with their origins, that means that the race cars used to be made from the same car you could buy off the showroom floor.  They started on dirt tracks and evolved to tarmac circle tracks so that the fans could get the best view possible.  It is important to remember that the early stock car drivers got their training eluding Federal revenue agents on winding back country roads in heavily modified cars that looked like plain Jane road cars.  What we would call “sleepers’ today.

In the early days the competitors brought all this to stock car racing.  They brought their talent for driving on the edge as well as their talent for finding creative ways to work around the rule book. 

Today all the NASCAR cars have the same tubular frame chassis and body work.  Only stickers and decals try to make them look like a Pontiac or Dodge.  Sure the engines are unique, sort of.  They are “brand” specific, but bear little or no resemblance to what you will find when you open the hood of a car in a dealership showroom.  Carburetors?  You would have a hard time finding a dealership mechanic that would know how to adjust or rebuild a carburetor.  You won’t find an ECU or fuel injection in the Car of Tomorrow that circles the NASCAR tracks today.

At one time the Indianapolis 500 was “the” racing event of the year. It was where drivers from all over the world would compete just to enter.  These were drivers from Formula One racing as well as American drivers.  The same went for the cars as you would find front engine roadsters competing with the new European mid-engined cars.  It was a magnet for technology change right from the beginning when a team decided that it would do without the extra weight of a mechanic sitting beside the driver an installed the first rear view mirror.

Today you look at the IRL (Indy Racing League) series and find that everyone uses the same car.  They use the same engine.  Teams don’t even own the engines.  They don’t get to touch them and tweak them.  That is the province of the Honda tech with the laptop. The tires are also provided from the same source.  Practice and race days you can watch as stacks of wheels and tires are mounted and distributed to the teams only to be gathered up and returned for analysis by the manufacturer after they have been used.  The analysis is done by the tire company, not the race team.  About all that the race team can do is make some chassis adjustments and wing adjustments.  Everything else is dictated by the rule books.

I remember when Indy cars all looked pretty different on race day.  Some teams would sport a set of aerodynamic devices that no one else had thought of before.  Sometimes these worked and sometimes they were a handicap that the drivers had to fight their way through.  You would find years of dramatic changes such as the introduction of turbine powered cars and all wheel drive.  There were Indy race cars that had six wheels and tires.  They even had diesel engines.  Superchargers and turbochargers were tried on four cylinder engines and V8’s.

The drivers were innovative as well.  You would find them in all kinds of racing.  The same driver that raced on weekend in a stock car could very well be found on a dirt track racing a midget and then be belting into and Indy race car a few days later.  These guys drove at Le Mans as well in Formula One.  Today drivers are seen as crossing the line if they move from IRL to NASCAR.  You don’t see them get in different kinds of race cars at all.  They are specialists.

So what changed all this creativity?  Why don’t we see this innovation today?   The reason I have been given is that all this innovation ended up turning the sport into a game where whoever had the most money would win.  Constant aerodynamic improvements required wind tunnel time and high paid engineering talent. New engine designs sucked up millions of development dollars.  Sponsorship was so vital that the days of cars painted in a country’s colors interrupted by only a circle with a number in it were gone.  Cars became brightly colored billboards selling every square inch for a price. 

Suddenly hospitality lounges became a necessity so that the sponsors could be entertained, not by their car roaring across the finish line, but by big screened TV’s and food and drinks served by smiling cuties in a private enclave where the drivers, now personalities, would laugh at their sponsors jokes and prepare for their next interview that would be conducted by an ex-model turned sports commentator.

So is this what we have to look forward to as the future of car racing unfolds?  Cookie cutter cars, and drivers that could part-time as fashion models?  I hope not.

I think there is hope for a racing environment where there is innovation and ingenuity as well as talented drivers that can strap themselves into just about anything and provide lively competition that race fans can enjoy more than the tailgate party in the parking lot.

How about a racing formula where competing teams are not constrained to participate in a spec series and yet, don’t have to prostitute themselves for enough sponsorship dollars to stay in the running?  Is that even possible?  I think so.

Just take a look at Grassroots Motorsports 200X Challenge for a model that could bring racing back to where it should be.  The concept is pretty simple.  Limit the amount of money a race team can spend in procuring and preparing their race car.  That’s it.  Basically no other limits.

The 2007 Challenge show just how creative and competitive this can become.  The budget is limited to $2007.  You can recoup up to half the budget by selling parts from their build and putting the funds back into the project.  They compete in autocross, drag racing, and are judged on how attractive and well engineered their entry is.

The Challenge isn’t about cars as much as it is about how resourceful and clever the build team can be.  Labor is free so the budget is primarily a parts budget.  If you want a good example of just how clever a build team can be then take a look at one of this year’s top entries. 

They found a Corvette C4 in Auto Trader selling for $2000 and talked the price down to $1400.  The Chevy V8 was given a boost by the addition of a pair of T25 turbo chargers.  These turbos are known by the DSM (Diamond Star Motors) crowd as the T-too small turbo that came on the second generation Eclipse GST and GSX.  They were just the right size to provide a five pound boost and more horsepower for the C4.  But that was just the start.

The name they gave their entry was the “Cheaperral”.  That is your hint.  In a brilliant move of creativity they obtained a used snowmobile engine for $182.50 that would provide the drive for and exhaust blower from an M1 Abrams tank purchased for $26.50.  Those items were installed in the passenger compartment and with some ducting they were able to generate 1000 pounds of downforce at all speeds.

While this was without question the most dramatic example of budget ingenuity, it was not unique.  All of the 2007 Challenge competitors found ways to stay within the budget and yet campaign some very impressive rides.

So why not expand this concept to the other forms of “big time” racing?  How about an IRL series that simply limits the budget allowed to be spent on car construction and development?  How about a NASCAR where real showroom obtainable cars can be raced? 

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8 Responses to What Has Happened to Racing?

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  4. Noel says:

    I’ll have more thoughts on this, but my first reaction is that it’s all about ad dollars, sponsorships, and bringing more people to the expensive seats at the tracks (or stadiums). Auto racing is no different than any other major sport: the sponsors pay big bucks to see their car and driver, ball player, tennis star or whatever do well. Or even just be seen. They even think it sells product, and sure, there are some people who buy a given automotive product because Homer Hotshoe has the company’s patch on his Nomex suit and roof, but I seriously doubt it makes up for the investment in racing. That investment is largely corporate ego and branding on the part of the company. Nothing wrong with that, it’s just the way it is. These types of marketing investments are virtually impossible to track and measure, and from a branding point of view it doesn’t matter anyway.

    In racing, the teams operate by the rule of “charge as much as you can without laughing” when selling sponsorships, so they can afford the 7- and 8- figure salaries of the drivers. Then there are the separate endorsements the drivers get from the advertisers who use them in ads. Look at tennis, which is an incredibly simple sport. Maria Sharapova makes a lot more money from Canon, cosmetics and whatever company makes her racquet and clothing than she does from tennis, and she’s number 1 or 2 in the world, taking in several million a year in winnings.

    As for the individual vs the team, I really don’t have a problem with that. (bear in mind that I find all team sports totally boring and a waste of time). But face it, the topline people in any sport don’t get there without a large ego and a lot of hard work, so it’s natural that they show off. I think a lot of their antics –playing the celebrity– are over the top, but it’s how most do things these days. This is exacerbated by the corporate advertising and branding (see above), which has also made the drivers, ball players, tennis jocks or skiers, etc., brands in themselves. And the companies then leverage their own brands with those of the athletes.

    As for racing, I don’t watch it much on TV, and haven’t been to a race in ages. Since I don’t get SpeedChannel there isn’t much to choose from and if you see 15 minutes of one NASCAR race you’ve basically seen them all, crashes notwithstanding. I don’t mind the cars being the same because it does put a premium on driving, but it seems to me the finish is awfully predictable (1 of 6 guys will win), and I don’t know how to change that, other than actually allowing innovation back into racing. I think it’s a lot more interesting and fun to watch a dirt track race or one of the sportsmen series races with a bunch of guys you’ve never heard of because in those races anything seems possible. And they are driving cars they built and work on themselves. And their funding is from the local donut shop or something. That grassroots stuff is great. As for other auto racing, something like FactoryFive’s series for the company’s Cobras is a good example of what could be done. These are spec racers, but it’s relatively affordable.

    Auto racing is not alone in the heavy genericizing of its racers. Look at the America’s Cup. They used to be “12-meter” boats –a class with specific design rules– but lots was left to the imagination. Until the Aussies came up with a winged keel and cleaned the clock of the US team. So the rule changed and there is now the America’s Cup class boat, largely formularized, so it’s pure sailing ability and no innovation. And ALL the boats are covered with sponsors’ logos and branding runs amuck.

    More later.

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  6. Noel says:

    Jumping back in (I told you I’d be back) I think about what brings people to races? Or any sport, for that matter?

    There are a lot of reasons people like to watch a sport, and many sports fans will happily go into detail about what could make a given sport better. Should the basket be higher in basketball, since so many players can easily dunk the ball while five feet in the air? Should singles players in tennis use the whole court because the speed of the game has become so much faster? Should football and basketball have a fixed time limit, like soccer? There are plenty of questions.

    In auto racing, what makes for good racing? It sure is a lot more interesting when the lead keeps changing and you can also see what’s going on a few cars further back in the field. With cars built basically as spec racers you tend to see less of this and it is much of the reason why, say, NASCAR racing, is such a yawn to watch. The top few guys are the best, so they dice it out with each other. Further back the next group are doing the same, but probably aren’t going to get up front, or at least not for very long.

    Now compare this to a sportsman series race or even a dirt track race. I watched a few of these in a hotel one night when I was on the road. When the green flag went down everyone charged off and for the whole race you could never tell who was going to come out on top. The favored guy got into a shunt and was out, along with a couple others. The guy who won was a driver who’d been plugging along all season, barely staying competitive, but always in the running and he pulled it all together in that race. It was really fun to watch and with the short track and a wide range of talent out there, there was a lot going on.

    You just don’t get this at the top pro levels of the sport. All the top guys are so good, and the built-to-spec cars so equal, that it makes the racing kinda bland.

    I think a lot of good racing is out there, but it’s just not well televised. The feeders to IRL and NASCAR are the sportsman, dirt track and small track events. The feeders to big time road racing are sports cars and formula cars at the club level, like SCCA. Then there’s IMSA and it’s pro series. Those are the places where there’s REAL racing going on, and IMHO it’d be great to see more coverage of those kinds of events.

    But the sponsorship dollars aren’t there, so the TV coverage doesn’t happen, and the average racing enthusiast is more interested in watching the big dogs of the sport than the wannabees and the up and comers. The star factor is such a draw. For example, would you want to watch a F1 race with the mega-dollar cars and a look at the whole F1 circus or say, the Skip Barber series. Or a SCCA National?

    I think the good racing is there, but it’s just not where the sponsors who drive the whole thing are willing to spend money. Like I said in my earlier post, so much of racing (and all sports) is driven by advertising and marketing. And I’m not sure it can really be fixed.

  7. markitude says:

    My opinion is that the masses came to racing and that is what changed it…

    It became a business and the appeal needed to be broadened beyond the dedicated gear heads that knew about and really connected with the machinery, or those that understood what it took to really drive and watched for the line that the drivers took on a road course.

    When corporate thinking get’s involved, it’s about how to get more money. More people, broader appeal, more safety, more rules, etc. It’s what leads the focus to the outward appearance rather than the inner substance. It’s about the glammour, the press boxes, the big screen TVs, the huge sponsorships, the big money race teams that field two or three drivers and cars…

    There is still low budget racing going on here and there. There are still “good old buddy” subcultures that one can run into down at the local parts store. At one such store nearby, a father works as the commercial sales counter employee and runs a great machine shop at his home. He builds the 2300 cc Ford 4 cylinder engines that a lot of folks run in a series of small circle track cars run locally here. One of his sons drives a car, and also works at the parts store. The racing is real – I saw the son with his left arm in a cast following a crash. Everyone runs the same engine, but I have the distinct impression that how the head is ported, or many of the other ways to gain advantage are still fair game. I haven’t been to the father’s shop for a number of years, but I’ll bet he has plenty of tricks up his sleeve.

  8. You had a very insightful reaction to the present situation in racing. It has become profit-oriented and the passion seems to be fading away little by little.I hope the pros realize this before the true essence diminish.

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