Should Racing Think Small?

This photo of Daytona International Speedway is courtesy of TripAdvisor.

Attendance at most major motorsports activities has been falling in recent years, and every sanctioning body subject to these decreases is looking for a rationale. At the same time, all of motor sport has seen reductions in sponsorships, which reduces driver salaries and, after that, crew pay.

In the case of NASCAR, which has experienced more fan and sponsor departure than, perhaps, any other organization, the push-back has been to change rules. Regularly. Where once NASCAR Cup racers would hold a single, definitive competition, they are now subject to stages and their points, races and their points, as discerning who’s running well and who’s not becomes a head-scratcher for all but the most involved fans.

INDYCAR, which has been trying to recover its fan base since the 1996 inception of the Indy Racing League (IRL), finally reunified with Champ Car (nee CART) in 2008, but attendance for all but its marquee competitions – Indianapolis 500, Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (TGPLB), newly revived races at Road America and Gateway – has been falling, even as more participants join the series and competition is at its highest level since the early-to-mid 1990s.

As it continues to tout its “sold-out” dates at many venues this year, NHRA’s drag racing fields continue to shrink, not expand. And with the announcement earlier this week that the U.S. Army is leaving both NHRA and Don Schumacher Racing, where it has a large presence with all three of DSR’s Top Fuel dragsters for Tony Schumacher, Antron Brown and Leah Pritchett, there’s a huge void to fill, both on the manufacturer midway and on those very expensive dragsters.

IMSA, which has no true television presence, has a good fan base that regularly shows up to watch racing and get stupid crazy at its biggest competitions: Rolex 24 at Daytona; Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring; Motul Petit Le Mans. The fans come to party, see exotic racecars in action and show off their own, branded machines. Television is an after-thought; new fans are made, it seems, strictly through family and friend participation.

Should Racing Think Small?

INDYCAR is losing its naming sponsor at the close of the year as Verizon departs; it’s unknown how long Monster will stick around at NASCAR. And just this week Tequila Patron announced it’s leaving both the Extreme Speed Motorsports (ESM) team and IMSA, the International Motor Sports Association. Tequila Patron sponsors both the team and the series’ North American Endurance Championship through to the close of the 2018 season.

That’s only the beginning for these mainstream motorsports activities. They’re not appealing to youth who have grown up with minute-to-minute types of entertainment. Entire days spent at a racetrack require more than racing for many younger fans. Sitting and watching isn’t the way anymore.

So what’s the answer? Smaller competitions at smaller venues can help make an event more of a festival. Formula Drift manages to do this by opening its doors to the public once the preliminary function of practice is complete. The tracks are small, the venues limited, the distractions plenty for fans of Formula Drift. They can wander the paddock before, during and after competition; the events themselves are quick, with little downtime – and when fans leave, they don’t have to contend with 100,000 as they might at a major motorsports event.

So should racing “think small?”

A few weeks ago, I attended the Dew Tour Long Beach, a skateboarder’s dream that had a variety of judged competitions on a newly-constructed pair of “parks.” The Tour invited audience participation in skateboarding (there were venues within the venue) and had competitions that play both to television and to those watching from small grandstands surrounding the circuits. True, it’s not motorsports, but it’s competition between athletes, judged much like Formula Drift is judged.

Should Racing Think Small?

There was intense manufacturer interest throughout the venue, held in a small portion of the parking lot that serves as part of the Formula Drift and TGPLB paddock every spring. Subaru in particular embraced the Dew Tour and youth activities; one of its display cars had “carpool karaoke” backseat activity; there were building blocks at the display entry for kids to play with and sofas provided a getaway from the everlasting California sunshine.

As expected, Mountain Dew had a big display (although not as large as Subaru’s or Army’s interactive settings), as did telecom firms Frontier Communications and Boost Mobile, tool-maker Stanley, Otter Pops, Vans “Off the Wall”, Red Bull and various shoe and clothing companies. The Dew Tour also celebrated earlier competitors and board artists throughout the two-day meeting, with the veterans taking skate time on both courses.

Will racing work in a smaller environment? Would it be more attractive to large companies like those cited above? Is television more important than having good attendance these days? Those are some questions that come too mind after seeing empty grandstands, diminishing returns from partners and stagnant sanctioning bodies that are performing “the way we always have.”

About Anne Proffit 540 Articles
Anne Proffit traces her love of racing - in particular drag racing - to her childhood days in Philadelphia, where Atco Dragway, Englishtown and Maple Grove Raceway were destinations just made for her. As a diversion, she was the first editor of IMSA’s Arrow newsletter, and now writes about and photographs sports cars, Indy cars, Formula 1, MotoGP, NASCAR, Formula Drift, Red Bull Global Rallycross - in addition to her first love of NHRA drag racing. A specialty is a particular admiration for the people that build and tune drag racing engines.

14 Comments on Should Racing Think Small?

  1. You can’t hold a super speedway race at a smaller venue. There’s so many issues with racing these days and it’s much more than one problem. For one thing, a sponsors costs are so much higher these days. The cost of racing is insane. Young people don’t have the attention span or the interest to invest a whole day for a race either. Army sponsors to get recruits and if there are no young people at the races then they have no one to recruit. Verizon, in a way, has helped kill Indy’s fan base. If they didn’t have smart phones there would probably be more young people at races instead of sitting around staring at their phones. There is no silver bullet or everything would be fixed by now.

  2. What would help is to simplify the rules, so that everyone could understand them, and it wouldn’t cost millions for the teams and owners to find every loophole.
    Also, find a way to reduce the cost of the venues. I’m a road-racer, and even the entry fees are getting ridiculous, largely due to the cost of liability insurance for every idiot in the track.
    How about just requiring a waiver that holds the venue harmless from damages, for spectators and racers alike, which should cut the insurance costs drastically.

    • My son and I are also road racers and yes it’s very hard to come up with $500 for a weekend of racing besides a set of tires and racing fuel. I also was a corner worker for 25 years before that and I can remember seeing 50 cars all in the same class out on track racing, now they have to group many class together just to get 20-30 cars if that. Something needs to be done or only the very rich will be able to afford to go racing and us regular guys will just have to sit on the sidelines.

  3. Get back to racing, the winner wins, forget the so called playoffs, cars don’t have playoffs, the people who are in charge of these races have gone off the deep end, get back to racing and the fans will come back and then the sponsors will come back

  4. Drag racing was huge in the “60”s when people could relate to super stock. They could buy their favorite car. Now, drag race professional cars bear little resemblemce to what a person can buy. People cannot relate to what they are watching.
    People like heads up racing and real looking cars. Look at the popularity of Street Outlaws and Nostalgia cars. Lots of brands, heads up racing.

  5. I believe a few drag racers figured this out about 7 years ago! Look no further than all the nostalgia Gasser, Pro Stock, FC and FED groups. I can vouch for the Southeast Gassers Association; they are packing the small venues and the track owners are loving it!

  6. I am a lifelong car guy and true NASCAR fan having attended my first race is 1976 as a ten tear old kid. I am a car guy cruising in local shows and cruise in’s in my 57 belair.
    Last year I posted a comment online about NASCAR and was invited to join a NASCAR fan council. We answer questions every week about the race, hot topics, and even comment on marketing commercials before they go on air. I consider this a real responsibility and have been fortunate to see some of the inside data.
    First let’s calibrate, NASCAR is declining in attendance and viewership as are all sports, true. Having said that, attendance this year will average a weekly viewership of 1.5-3 million per race and over 90000 in attendance (JAYSKI). The flagship, Daytona 500 has sold out for the last 4 years- average price 250.00 per ticket (SOURCE DIS). The top 2 drivers earn over $20MM per year and the remaining top 13 over $10MM (SOURCE: FORBES).
    The problems: Huge reduction in local tracks cultivating the sport. Kids today don’t love cars as much as prior generations. The NASCAR tracks have facilitated less competitive racing (the 1.5 miles). Several top NASCAR stars have retired in the last 5 years (Dale, Jr, Tony S, Jeff G, Carl Edwards, etc.. and been replaced with 20 somethings with very few wins and fan appeal.

    No easy answers but 9/10 people who go to a cruise in /car show or race with me love it.

  7. Nascar ”’ racing is a event where all competitors go as fast as they can to complete all the laps. When you throw a caution for no reason, your just letting the loser’s catch up ( nascar does it to cause wrecks ) I like to see races caution free. I quit watching Nascar when they went to competition cautions.

  8. NASCAR shot themselves in the foot years ago when stock car racing somehow became pop culture for a while. It was the late 90s/early 2000s when this occured and went on for quite a few years. The ticket prices went crazy, rules got changed, the flavor of he month folks started wearing all the NASCAR gear and the real fans from the Winston Cup days gave up. Now that all the pop culture fans have moved on to something else (as they always do) not many fans left to fill the seats. If you could turn the clock back to 1990 I would be a fan of NASCAR again. I think a lot of former fans feel the same.

  9. The reason is simple. Cars that people can buy are not what is raced. Race fans are not the idiots sanctioning bodies think they are. Who cares that silhouette “A” is faster then silhouette “B”? Other than the silhouette driver and their competition who care who wins? Where is the connection for the general public? I even remember my disappointment as a child of 10 yrs old when I saw my first “Stock” car up close. The first impression was that’s not a car.

    I bet fans that enjoy Indy or Formula 1 have grown their interest from other normal car racing. No real cars being races equals less fans to pull up to the higher tiers.

  10. It’s too late. with the older generations dying off and todays kids not caring about cars as much, they might as well being racing covered wagons. just think, a child born today will not have to own, maintain or learn to drive a car!

  11. It’s a bit of an oversimplification to say the reason young people aren’t at the track is because of short attention spans (which has been said of every generation by their elders), and their cell phones. Their tastes are different, definitely. Motorsports series need to develop new ways to engage younger fans and appeal in more ways than the traditional. Make things more interactive, more access to more things, more “hands on”. I can meet any driver I want to at a Formula Drift event if they’re not preoccupied. I can and have talked to the team engineers and mechanics. I can wonder around the cars, looking at the little details you just don’t see in other series except in TV features.

    I also think television and it’s quality these days plays a big part in the decline. It’s by far the best seat in the house for viewing (obviously not for sound and experience. No replacement for that!) The cost of a day out is pretty steep at the big events these days. Transportation to the venue, parking fees, food, drinks, souvenirs and whatever else. It adds up.

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