In the 1960’s, during the golden era of the original Can-Am series, success was
measured by the number of spectators who attended the events, and the amount
of ink those events generated in the print media. Television at the time, at least as
motor sport was concerned was little more than a dream. Other than a few
syndicated programs laid down on film, and the half hearted attention of the ABC
Network, which interspersed racing segments among the other, more mundane
athletic competitions on its weekly Wide World of Sports show on Saturday
afternoons, the industry was ignored.
Only when there was a death, preferably the more gruesome the better, did the
electronic community dare to put in on air, usually with the warning that caution
should be taken to preserve the vulnerable sensibilities of both children and
women who might be shocked by the graphic nature of what they were watching.
That was then, now, we live in a different time, one where the traditional networks
must face the challenge of cable television, whose appetite for subject matter is
The Truman Show
In short, we are a live in a time of specialization. Cooking, golf, gardening, and
alike all have their own dedicated cable channels. However, no industry has
benefited more greatly from the explosion of cable TV than motorsport. Starting
with ESPN in the early 1980’s, racing made its way into the living rooms not only
of our nation, but nations throughout the world. It was an ideal marriage. Cable
needed programming for not much money. Motorsport needed a home, and could
provide that programming at a cost effective price.
The Cable Guys
What has come from all that is a growth that would have been unimagined in the
golden era of the 1960’s. Cable television in effect made the racing industry
mainstream; so much so that today in the United States NASCAR’s current $2.4
billion TV contract that embraces The Fox Network, NBC and Turner Network
Television, has made racing one of the three, particularly the Nextel Cup, most
watched sports in North America, What television has done for the industry has
been breathtaking. However, in the process it has changed the very nature of the
Brought to you by….
America’s dean of motorsport journalists, National Speed Sport News Publisher,
Chris Economaki has long maintained that racing is a charitable exercise, living
beyond its means because of the huge, expensive technology-driven budgets that
permeate its universe, As Economaki sees its, that charity comes in the form of
the equally outrageous sponsorships that fund those budgets. Yet, for the
sponsors, the money spent is anything but a gift. Rather, it is, in their mind a
sound way of doing business. The numbers, in terms of audience size, generated
by television coverage of motorsport today are staggering, and not just for the high
profile series, but the lesser one’s as well.
A Sprint to the Finish
Take for example sprint car racing, a traditional American oval short track staple.
Most of the venues if filled to capacity can hold a maximum average of roughly five
thousand people. Put a sprint car event on television and that audience jumps
one hundred fold. Given figures such as these it is clear how important television
is to the wellbeing of the sport. Unfortunately, that well being comes at a price.
The piper in this case is the group of people who have invested their money for
the precise purpose of getting television exposure. For the most part the quality of
the telecast, while not unimportant is secondary to their agenda of making their
point, or getting their product shown to the TV audience. Unhappily, if one is to sell
to that audience, on has to keep that audience interested in what they are seeing,
and to do that, one has to tell a good story. The conflict here revolves around the
fact that telling a good story, more often than not means paying less attention to
some of the agendas being pushed forward by those doing the paying.
All this is difficult enough if there is only one category of car competing. It gets far
more difficult, when so often is the case in road racing, there are multiple classes
running. From a story viewpoint the action for the overall lead might be riveting.
However, from a manufacturer’s, or from a team’s point running in one of the
lesser divisions, the attention paid to what’s happening up front detracts from
what they feel their investment entitles them to.
The Road Show
The result? All too often the decision is made to fulfill their wishes at the expense
of the story the audience really wants to watch. And, the result of that all too often
is that the audience tunes out. It is a fine line for those who produce motorsport
television. Is one creating a “show,” or is one airing what amounts to an
“infomercial?” Road racing in particular is built around romance; romance about
the cars, people and speed; not how many times one mentions one’s sponsor’s
name, or cuts away to a car out of contention simply to satisfy an agenda.
Television has become more than a critical factor in the future of the sport, it has
become THE factor in its continued survival and growth. It is a resource to be
used wisely, or in the end it will not matter how it is used, and that will be a
disaster for all who care about the sport.