Two for the Road is a hangout for mystery writers Tammy Kaehler and Simon Wood to chat, reminisce, gossip, speculate and argue about all things motorsport.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Road Ahead

SIMON: I’ve been wondering about the future of motorsport—developmentally, ecologically, commercially.

Motorsport has been a stable sport for the past 60 years or so, but the rising price of gas and dwindling stockpiles, I’m not sure where the sport will be in twenty years. For the sport to survive, I do think the sport will have to adapt—whether than means switching to alternative fuels, alternative power plants—whatever they may be. We've already seen it when it comes to diesel engines, but the sport might have to be more radical than that for its own good. If the sport can find a way of being on the cutting edge of technology that'll go some way alleviating the sports less than green credentials.

But I do have a fear that the money will run out before the world’s oil supply runs out. I entered racing in 1990 just as the last major economic recession. Grids were healthy, but sponsorship was scant. But as the recession got its teeth into the disposable income, grids dwindled. I remember F3 grids dropping to less than 20 cars and even F1 couldn’t fill a grid. Well, I’ve noticed the grids are shrinking again. Touring cars and F3 can’t boast the competition level they did 20 years ago. It’s understandable. The cars are more expensive to buy and operate. And I don’t think all the euro and international series haven’t helped. Britain, Germany, France, etc. had very strong domestic championships, but once a euro series usurped them, costs ballooned and domestic championships suffered. I do wonder for the sport to flourish it will have shrink its ambitions.

That’s my thoughts, how about you, Tammy.

TAMMY: Racing really is stereotypically about conspicuous consumption, it's it? I find it especially fascinating to consider the sport (and business) of racing from an outsider's perspective, which is where I started just a handful of years ago. My husband (who doesn't care for sports much and prefers building to tearing down) still shakes his head over the "waste" of destroyed/wrecked cars and equipment (and even people). One one level, I'm also concerned about if racing will survive a shrinking economy and scarcity of resources. Maybe we'll lose the middle tier, and only have the top and bottom levels where those (aka, factory efforts) with the most and least resources compete. For instance, events like the 24 Hours of Le Mons races do very well these days, with their cap on $500 cars. That's something anyone can get involved in, easily.

On the whole, however, I think racing will find its way, will be reinvented as it needs to be in order to continue. People love to race (right, Steve Ulfelder and others?), and they're going to participate with their extra $500, $5,000, or $500,000. They also like to be entertained, and whether it's the crashes or the technology and skill (or both) that keeps them watching, racing has millions, maybe billions, of fans. I don't see the industry fading away with that kind of interest.

I also think there's something to the marketing and research and development value of racing. Marketing is easy: NASCAR fans will buy products that sponsor their favorite teams, and I bet many of the rest of us are at least influenced by what companies choose to put their money in our favorite form of racing. That's also the old "race on Sunday, sell on Monday" philosophy, that proving the car in a race will make the street model more attractive to consumers. Perhaps that's less true these days, but it's true to an extent. I believe, too, that manufacturers can develop and test equipment in a race environment that will eventually benefit street cars (that's one of the main points Corvette Racing will make, given half a chance), and I think car companies and suppliers will continue to see value there.

But I agree with Simon that the sport will have to work on its "green cred." It'll have to start leading the way developing energy sources, instead of just consuming them at an alarming rate. (The ALMS is the leader in that so far, I think, with its partnership with the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency and a challenge for the greenest racers at each event.)

But what do the rest of you think? Will racing adapt and survive? Where will it go from here?


  1. I recall the same concerns back in 1974, during the first major OPEC oil shortage. Can-Am was still a big deal, with unlimited engines and budgets to match.

    NASCAR reduced the length of their races by 10%, starting a 500 lap race at Martinsville, for instance, on Lap 50.

    I was driving six-cylinder dirt cars at Starlite, Concord, and Metrolina Speedways around Charlotte at the time, and there was even talk of cutting back on our racing or eliminating classes.

    Can-Am died, of course, but not necessarily because of the gas shortage. The dwindling fields trying to keep up with the McLaren juggernaut had the biggest impact. McLaren had an astronomical budget (for the time) and backing from Chevrolet, and the other teams just spent themselves out of business trying to compete. Everyone got tired of the Bruce and Denny show each week.

    One factor that has presented a challenge to racing is the big money. Helms' third law states that "Big Money Ultimately Corrupts and Destroys Everything It Touches". It was big money that drove a wedge between CART and IRL in the '90s.

    In NASCAR, I recall a time when you could build a singlecar in your backyard garage for about $10,000 and go off and race with Richard Petty and Bobby Allison. I did it, with Rick Newsom's team in 1975-1976. Today, you can't even get in the pit gate without a two million dollar yearly budget and a dozen cars back at the shop.

    Racing goes through these ebbs and flows. The good news is that you can still build a Late Model and go racing at your local NASCAR track for about $10,000-$15,000 (maybe $20,000 if you want to run up front), and the racing is just as good there as it is anywhere in the world.

    You can build a Ford Focus Midget for about $15,000 and run most of a season before needing to rebuild the engine.

    Then there's SCCA, where you can spend as little as $3000 for an IT car and race yourself silly in IT Enduros.

    And there's karting. Anyone who has driven a water-cooled shifter kart can tell you that the experience is every bit as exciting as running a Formula 1 car. In fact, most F1 drivers keep sharp by racing karts in the off season. They're relatively cheap, can run on renewable alcohol fuels, and hypercompetitive.

    Racing is racing, whether it's for million dollar purses or trophies and braggin' rights.

    One thing I'd love to see is a move to ethanol as the universal racing fuel. That would do away with the arguments that racing is wasteful with limited petroleum-based fuels. After all, most racing cars already use synthetic oils. Changing to a renewable fuel would be just one easy next step.

    My point is that people predicted the death of auto racing almost forty years ago, and it survived. The sport will continue to adapt and survice, even if it means running sprint car style heat/feature races with electric cars powered by advanced replaceable lithium batteries.

    Racing will find a way.

  2. Tammy & Rick: you both make good points and I think the sport will find a way, but I think we'll see changes in the next 5yrs. I am saddened to see some great championships like the DTM & the BTCC with small line ups.

  3. I know that people still mourn Can Am too, Simon (though have you seen the efforts to do an arrive-and-drive version of Can Am next year? we'll see how that works). I think Rick's right that racing will survive, and I'll add that some doors (series) will close, while others will open. I'm sure it'll continue to be interesting!