Passion Players………………….Bill Oursler on the scene in the U.S.
I was watching television the other day and happened to catch one of the
“industry” programs so popular on The Speed Channel these days where Detroit-
based experts dissect the American automobile business. Normally I bypass
these shows because for me they hold all the excitement of watching grass grow.
Yet, this one caught my attention; it’s topic being manufacturer involvement in
motorsport, and whether the car companies were getting the “bang” they
deserved for the money they had invested.
Here we are now, entertain us…
What became apparent quite quickly was a lack of understanding what racing
truly is in the current environment. In North America it is nothing more than
entertainment, competing for dollars and attention with a host of other, similarly
entertainment-based professional sports. This is a far cry from other parts of the
world where motorsport retains enough of a “sporting” image that the rewards of
success still translate in “chips” which can be utilized to boost both owner loyalty
and new customer sales.
Automatic, air, cruise, CD, wash, spin, rinse, dry….
Here, the drivers are the stars, particularly in such arenas as NASCAR.
Nameplates have been reduced, very deliberately, to a secondary role. And why?
The answer is that in North America where most of society is built around the
automobile, the car is an appliance – even to all but the most dedicated fan.
Elsewhere owners tend to not only know about the workings of their vehicles, they
tend also to care for them, if not always lovingly, at least with the attention they
would give their cats. In America, what the large majority of the populations wants
from their automobile is that it starts, the CD or stereo works, and that, depending
on the season, the passenger compartment is filled with either very cold, or very
hot air. After that, it should not break down, or rust too much before the lease is
up, or the car payments finished.
In short, while American race fans have a passion for the excitement of the sport,
they don’t necessarily have the same passion for the vehicles, which help provide
that excitement. Therefore, why should manufacturers here be surprised that
winning on Sunday doesn’t always generate sales on Monday, particularly if the
product the car maker is trying to sell has been on the market for a while like the
Ford Taurus or Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Of course, road racing fans will say that is
something, which only applies to the oval track sect, not the sports cars, and
single seaters, which are the heart and soul of their universe.
Servin' up those pies!
And, it is this which leads us to the fundamental difference between the
American Le Mans Series and the Rolex Grand American tour, the former
believing that the car is important to the equation, the latter taking the opposite
viewpoint that tight competition is the wellspring for financial success. So who’s
right? The answer is “it depends.” In the short term, the ALMS and its international
counterparts have the formula for the present because the current road racing
enthusiast is vehicle oriented. The trouble is that in terms of the North American
motorsport pie, the size of the road course piece is relatively slim, about six or
seven per cent. The Grand AM's position is that to ensure a long-term future one
needs to expand the size of that piece. To do that, the Grand AM says one needs
to reach out to the more casual fan, the one looking to be entertained above all
The rules structure of the Grand AM has been a subject matter for this column in
the past and need not be gone into here. However, it is accurate to note that
whatever the rational behind it, the regulations have produced the kind of tight
competition usually not seen in road racing. Indeed, the last major series to
display the kind of competitive equality was the original Trans-Am, which ironically
was a haven for Detroit manufacturers to promote the pony muscle cars in the
latter part of the 1960’s. During that era, the Trans-Am provided the same kind of
body crunching, wheel-to-wheel racing that has made today’s NASCAR formula
such a success.
Indeed, what the Grand AM has done with its Daytona Prototype category has
created a semi-spec vehicle, much like the old Super Vee open wheelers, where,
instead of having the same engines with major differences in chassis design, you
have essentially the same running gear and chassis dimensions, but a choice of
powerplants. Either way, performance is equated. And, that has produced during
the past two seasons good entertainment. Still, as noted in previous columns, the
issue with the Grand AM's Rolex tour is to give a meaning to the show, which is
tricky since, unlike NASCAR, nearly all the drivers, including the majority of the
professionals involved, are not household names among the general population
of race fans.
Now appearing at a race track near you…
Series officials understand this and have brought in “guest” NASCAR Nextel Cup
regulars to help counteract the problem and boost enthusiasm. Over the long
haul, the Grand AM, as well as the ALMS, is going to have to put much more effort
into establishing their own “homegrown” headliners, which means marketing
their drivers through such means as video games, clothing ventures, etc. All this
is not easy. Yet, when racing started on cable television, it did so because it was
relatively cheap to put on the air. With Major League baseball, NFL football and
NBA basketball players all getting huge sums for personal endorsements, it
would not seem beyond belief that the Grand Am or the ALMS could not use the
“low cost” of their regulars to get them involved in the endorsement business as
Spreading “the word,” especially among the younger generation, just as the U.S.
Military currently does in its drive for recruits, will do much to boost the audience
size for what is now a tiny, niche market, no matter what the alphabet soup
making up the name. Putting it bluntly, road racing here has spent too much of its
time fighting what has amounted to a continuing turf war, and too little on
promoting its basic interests. We all have said from time to time that there isn’t
enough room for two major professional road course championship series to
exist side-by-side. And, although the present size of the sandbox may make that
true, if one where to expand that sandbox, then perhaps one could see two, or
even more prospering and growing.
Don’t step on the grass Sam
The issue isn’t turf; it’s interest. To get it, one is going to have to provide
entertainment, at least if one ultimately wants to be successful in America. To
garner that success, one is going to have to do what racers have always done:
work hard to get it. Manufacturers, or no manufacturers, the ALMS and the Grand
Am (not to mention the IRL and Champ Car) are going to have to start to become
both aggressive and creative in the way they promote themselves and their