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Motorsports and the Icarus Syndrome

Bill Koenig
By Bill Koenig Senior Editor, SME Media

Major forms of motorsports – Formula One, NASCAR and IndyCar – may be like Icarus. Their ambitions were high but they may have flown too close to the sun.

Now, the motorsports series face a challenge similar to the one facing the automakers that support them. Newer audiences haven’t caught the motorsports bug the way previous generations did. That’s reflected in the empty seats at major venues.

In the case of NASCAR, major tracks have taken out thousands of seats they once installed to accommodate growing crowds. But now they can’t take the seats out fast enough to keep up with disappearing fans.

Now, the France family, which has ruled NASCAR since its inception, may be looking to get out. Reuters reported May 7 the Frances are exploring their options, including selling a majority stake.

The international Formula One series for decades had been ruled by Bernie Ecclestone, who was adept at squeezing every last penny from nations anxious to host a Grand Prix race. Still, all things must end. Ecclestone, 87, was removed last year after US-based Liberty Media took over F-1 for $8 billion.

IndyCar has been recovering the past decade from a civil war for control of that series that begin in the 1990. The Hulman-George family, owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 1945, eventually emerged the winner of the conflict. But Tony George, the family member who started the war, was removed from control by his family. Professional managers were put in control.

At one point, Indianapolis was the crossroads for all three series. F-1 used the Indianapolis speedway as a way to return to the United States in 2000 after a long absence. But it didn’t work out. The speedway, over the long run, couldn’t keep up with F-1’s financial demands. F-1’s new management is making a renewed effort at selling F-1 in the United States.

Meanwhile, the NASCAR race in Indianapolis went from a smashing success in the 1990s to shadow of itself in less than 15 years. A recurring question is whether NASCAR will dump the Brickyard.

At one time, motorsports were seen as a laboratory for automakers. Sophisticated telemetry and electronics were perfected on race cars before being introduced on everyday cars and trucks.

Going further back, competing in motorsports was a way to experiment. In the 1960s, in Indy-style cars, turbine engines were devised. During that decade at the Indianapolis 500, turbines dominated races before breaking down shortly before the finish.

More recently? There hasn’t been much experimentation.

NASCAR (which stands for National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) moved away from true stock cars long ago. Once, cars in the showroom were adapted for racing. That hasn’t been true for decades. Now, they’re purpose-built cars that only have a passing resemblance to the cars seen on the show room floor.

Generational Challenge

Automakers are grappling with a generational challenge. People used to love to drive. That doesn’t appear to be true of millennials. In urban environments, driving is less enjoyable. Now, the industry focus is on self-driving cars and driving services.

When driving isn’t so enjoyable, newer audiences have less connection to motorsports. Movie stars such as James Garner, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen used to drive fast cars on the side. Today? Many millennials would be hard pressed to tell you who Garner, Newman and McQueen were.

Why ask such questions now? Well, May 27 is when three of the biggest racing events – the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 – take place. Those events are a reminder of the heights motorsports can achieve. If not now, when?

Bill Koenig, a senior editor of Manufacturing Engineering, covered the business of auto racing beat at the Indianapolis Star from 1995 through 2000.

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