Auto Racing: NASCAR, Formula One Stumble Into The Future
The good news is that the world now has 4,627 full time television channels that carry content meant to entertain us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The bad news is that all those choices have deeply fragmented the viewing audience. Sports fans now have a choice of watching basketball, curling, baseball, football, rugby, soccer, sumo wrestling, or auto racing every moment of every day.
Entertainment overload has meant a decline in the number of people watching any particular sporting event at any particular time. Even the mighty NFL may have finally reached the saturation point. Its TV ratings are down nearly 10% for the year. NASCAR TV ratings and fan attendance are down. Formula One is struggling to find ways to feed its voracious appetite for the money teams need to compete.
This week, Manor Racing announced that it has failed to find a buyer for the team and will fail to start the Formula One 2017 season when the series opens in Melbourne, Australia in early March. The team’s assets have been in the hands of a receiver since last year. On January 28, Geoff Rowley, Manor’s administrator announced, “It is deeply regrettable that the team has had to cease trading and close its doors. The administration process provided a moratorium to allow for attempts to secure a long term viable solution for the team within a very limited time-frame, but sadly no solution could be achieved to allow for the business to continue in its current form,” according to a report at Grand Prix.com.
Meanwhile, Liberty Media Group, the new owners of the commercial rights to Formula One has announced plans to pump up the sports online presence, something former owner Bernie Ecclestone wanted nothing to do with. Formula One currently has one full time employee dedicated to digital media. NASCAR has over 100.
Liberty is interested in adding more races in the US and says it wants to have as many as 25 races a year. The objective is to make every one of those race weekends the equivalent of the Super Bowl in terms of hype, hoopla, and hyperbole. One can only hope there is some room left over for actual racing between all the celebrity interviews, breathless reporting from the pit lane, and spotlight features on the drivers.
One thing Liberty says they are going to address is how the money the sport makes is distributed to the teams. Under the current format, only those teams that finish in the top 10 in the constructors championship share in the pie. Ferrari has gotten an extra $100 million a year for a number of years, a bribe paid to them by Bernie Ecclestone to keep them in the sport. The arrangement means that teams like Manor get nothing from their participation in the sport.
Formula One has made a big show about attracting new teams to fill out the grid on race day, but in fact has taken steps to insure none of them could ever succeed financially. It’s part of the quixotic management style practiced by Bernie Ecclestone. Under his care and tutelage, the sport has deteriorated to the point where there are only 4 teams capable of competing at the highest level. The rest are there just to give the illusion of a full grid. The “show” that Ecclestone was always so focused on was really nothing more than a shell game in which he played the teams and various promoters off against each other in order to enrich himself.
Now NASCAR has decided to reformat its racing series in an effort to bring fans back. It will award points for track position at the one third point of a race, again at the two thirds point, and finally at the end of the race. In theory, the change will reinvigorate fan interest and make drivers work harder to be in the top ten at all stages of a race rather than only at the finish. The formula is complicated and complex. Formula One has drawn criticism for its dense and detailed technical rules that are far too complicated for many fans to understand. In a similar vein, the new NASCAR points scheme may be a stretch for racing fans to comprehend.
Which brings us to our last bit of auto racing news. The world of motorsports is abuzz with a rumor that Bernie Ecclestone and his old comrade, Flavio Briattore, may be involved in a scheme to create a new racing series based on more traditional race cars with normally aspirated engines. No hybrids, batteries, turbos, or fake “push to pass” devices. A throwback series, if you will, to a simpler time when racing was as much about the driver as the machine.
Ecclestone hotly denies the rumor, but Formula One is sailing into uncharted waters. High on its “to do” list is a budget cap to rein in the outrageous amount of money the teams spend to be competitive. The top teams are unlikely to be receptive to that idea. Ferrari may have a snit if it loses its special $100 million a year allocation. If it takes its ball and goes home, Formula One as we know it could cease to exist and an alternative series could find a lot of support.
It’s a shame that so many racing series feel they need to resort to gimmicks and tricks to get people to watch the action, but it may the logical result of the digital age. 40 years ago, Neil Postman wrote a book entitled Amusing Ourselves To Death. In it, he predicted the splintering of society by technology that we see playing out today. Many people today prefer to play video games that simulate racing rather than watch the real thing. There may be no way to put the electronic genie back in the bottle.
For older racing fans, CanAm racing represented the pinnacle of motorsport. It has been a long slide into relative oblivion since then. The famous old tracks like Bridgehampton on Long Island and Riverside in southern California are condominiums or strip malls today. The world has moved on and left Formula One and NASCAR to play catch up. It is an open question whether either will long survive.