At its zenith, especially from 1910 to the 1940s, nearly every new innovation in the auto industry came from a desire to win at the racetrack. The enthusiasm around the automobile, and the excitement around those who were brave enough to race one, captivated our culture. The men who drove were international heroes.
From transmissions to suspensions and disc brakes to safety features, innovation in consumer automobiles happened on track. And as a result, fans flocked to the sport to see what was coming next. The sport rode that wave of popularity even into the 1980s and 1990s when auto innovation started shifting from the racetrack to the engineering lab.
Racing also produced heroes whose bigger-than-life personas broke through mainstream consciousness and rose to the status of real cultural icons, like Earnhardt, Andretti, Bernstein, Rutherford, Petty, Foyt and Prudhomme. We can debate whether the sport made them or they made the sport. However, their impact on the sport’s soaring popularity and commercial success is indisputable.
Today, the racing industry is faced with fewer fans tuning in and walking through turnstiles, and struggles to find sponsorship. After decades of greatness, auto racing now faces a difficult path to renewed success. How does it stay relevant in an evolving landscape that continues to get more competitive with each passing day? How does it return to the growth trajectory of a decade (or more) ago?
Before we can answer these questions, let’s start by identifying the sport’s most significant current challenges.
Challenge 1: We don’t love cars like we used to
It is no accident that the rise of auto racing corresponded directly with the prominence of the automobile as a transformative feature of culture and society. People, especially in the United States, had a deep love affair with cars. Especially, their own cars.
The Hot Wheels generation couldn’t wait to ogle over the dozens of new diecasts hitting the market each year. Our fathers (and sometimes mothers) went to auto parts stores on Saturday and taught us basic auto repair and maintenance in the finest DIY tradition. We cared for our car like it was a member of the family because it was a member of our family.
However, our culture now takes a more indifferent view of the car and its role in our lives. Cars have lost their family status, and are mere commodity appliances. With services like Uber and Lyft, millennials and Gen Zers, apathetic about when they earn a driver’s license, no longer view cars as objects of love, reverence or envy. Getting your license isn’t as big of a deal as it once was.
With the car being less important in our lives, shouldn’t we expect that people find it less valuable to watch cars race? Unfortunately, viewership and attendance data bears this out.
Challenge 2: Spec formulas lower cost and interest
Starting in the late 1990s, racing increasingly turned to spec formulas to contain cost. As sponsorship and other commercial revenue dried up, the pace of this cost-saving trend increased.
One could argue that spec formulas increase fan interest in the men and women that pilot these cars. (I’ll address that below). However, it has taken out all the wonder and the excitement in the car-as-exciting-technology storyline of the sport. One less element of fan interest; one less reason for a fan to tune in or attend a race.
Today, most modern series have some spec formula aspect with cost containment. However, while beneficial to the health of race teams, this trend has only exacerbated the tendency to view cars as passionless commodities. Furthermore, auto makers, under increasing strain to create more ROI for their marketing dollars, struggle with formulas barely relevant to their road car inventory. To the extent that a racing series is less relevant to the consumer, it is less relevant to a car company.
Challenge 3: Where are the heroes?
Once upon a time, the stars who drove the cars had as much sway as the biggest names in baseball, football and basketball. Just as cars have become more commoditized, it seems that the heroes of the sport appear more generic.
What has caused this? First, there is far more competition for consumer attention than 20 or 30 years ago. Think of all the new sports (esports, X-Games) and celebrity personality categories (Twitter, YouTube, Instagram) that did not exist until recently. Second, in pursuit of corporate sponsor dollars, we have beat the individuality out of drivers for the safety of political correctness. A generic driver is a passionless one, hardly worthy of a robust fan following. Third, more than a few of today’s drivers are unwilling to put in the time and effort off the track that their famous predecessors did.
As a result, we have a cadre of supremely talented drivers that fans can’t relate to or envy. We have great racing, but racing is no longer as great as it once was.
Now that we’ve identified some of the challenges, let’s talk solutions. Without question, the auto racing industry has the ability to transform itself with the appropriate vision and skillful execution.
Solution 1: Redefine relevance through modern values and technologies
I have been involved in the motorsports industry since the last century. While that sounds like a hundred years, it was only been 17 years since Y2K. In that time, we have seen virtually no change to the racing experience, the values it represents and the technologies it showcases. We should remember that auto racing’s real strength in the 1900s was that it defined our values before they found their way into pop culture and technology. (Think auto safety innovations invented on the racetracks of the world).
An industry that was built on technology, especially automotive technology, currently reflects the thinking of the baby boom generation. So why are we surprised that millennial and Gen Z fans are not flocking to the racetrack?
Sanctioning bodies must ensure that the auto racing experience reflects modern values and technology. If I had to sum up the new brand positioning for sanctioning bodies, tracks and drivers it would be the “future now.” racetracks should be expressions of new thinking and technologies. Zero carbon footprint events, recycling opportunities, cause marketing programs, new technologies in concession production and delivery, and midway tech displays should be integrated into the fan experience. We shouldn’t merely try to keep up with the most recently-constructed NFL stadium. We should find cost-effective ways to surpass their 21st century brand position. The brand of “future now” has been owned by auto racing for over 100 years, but its grip is slipping.
As for the race car, the industry should be focused on engine technologies of the future, as carbon emissions continue to decrease (to the point of zero emissions one day in the near future). Car technologies also continue to push the cutting-edge of advancement. Safety innovations have made significant progress in limiting death and major injuries on racetracks. The car was once a real tech showcase for millions of fans, and it can be again.
Finally, and most importantly, we need to position drivers as star fighters, not antique pilots. They should be revered not only for their skill, but because these men and women look and act like 2037, not 2017. Their attitudes, race suits, helmets and behavior should reflect the future. If they resemble the drivers of the 1960s operating vehicles of the 20th century, the sport has failed to capture the future and future fans.
Solution 2: Invest in immersive experiences
Only the oldest and most loyal fans come to a race just to sit in the grandstands, drink a beer and eat a hot dog. Every sport is investing in stadium and mobile technologies creating experiences for fans of every age. This extends to ticketing, mobile information, hospitality and concessions technology, as well as the interactive technologies in fan zones. Some racetracks are doing this, but it’s neither widespread nor deep enough.
For example, a trip to today’s racetrack midway resembles any county fair in a rural area. T-shirt giveaways, corn hole games, and spin-the-wheel-for-a-prize games dominate the type of experiences fans can expect on raceday. Race promoters aren’t entirely to blame, as sponsor investment does not currently exist for more than these common event marketing tools.
However, we know that younger fans demand experiences, not just events. Therefore, the sport must invest in immersive experiences courting this younger audience. To me, the most productive partnerships will be with the tech industry, if motorsports creates authentic showcase opportunities.
Imagine a sport that develops meaningful integrations for companies like Microsoft, Apple, Intel, HP and Oracle. That could lead to millions of dollars of potential sponsorship and partner investment. Since motorsports has been and can be so tech heavy, opportunities exist in tracks, cars and drivers for authentic integrations. The biggest prize will go to the motorsports group that pulls together the “Future>>>Now” Festival, a traveling consumer road show of the latest consumer gadgetry that is not yet available to the market. The racetracks that feature this authentic offering for tech-hungry race fans may be as popular as the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Whether it involves virtual reality, augmented reality, videogaming or pace car ride-alongs, every effort should be made to connect fans with the essential excitement and spark of motorsports. If one fan leaves a race without first-hand knowledge of the thrill of the sport, the industry has failed. This includes how fans consume motorsports in their living rooms.
Solution 3: Be better storytellers at every level
In the end, the success of a sport is directly correlated to its ability to tell great stories conveying a competitive dynamic. This is how sports connect with fans.
In many ways, motorsports publicists and broadcasts do an excellent job of storytelling. However, it seems that many of these stories have not evolved to fit the life experiences of a modern fan. Some sanctioning bodies have taken on the challenge of building the next generation of stars one driver as a time. However, as a sport, the industry would do well to remember that fans cheer for people more than cars.
If the sport is to survive and thrive into this century, our athletes must embrace the process of building their brands to cultivate larger audiences. The sport needs heroes. But if the applicants for these heroic positions would rather not invest the substantial time to promote their brand and build their sport, they should be encouraged to pursue other careers. As every team owner knows, there is no shortage of drivers banging down their door for a shot at glory.
Everyone in racing from sponsors to tracks, teams, agencies and sanctioning bodies must do a better job of defining the brands of drivers, telling exciting stories and building them into stars. We can create three-dimensional portraits of who these young men and women are and what they stand for.
The thrill of competition, the excitement of near-danger and the exultation of victory against all odds – the industry must tell these stories better, more succinctly, more dynamically and in a way aimed at a younger audience.
Where does the industry go from here?
With the auto industry changing, our view of cars, our culture and our generations changing, the motorsports industry cannot sit still. The future for motorsports must be on the top of meeting agendas for all sanctioning bodies and leadership teams.
This is not simply a question of how can the industry market more effectively or garner more public relations for racing events. It is a systemic misalignment between the brand of motorsports and future of our culture and economy. While this sounds too serious to solve, the strategic ideas outlined above could serve as a more solid foundation to build 21st century motorsports. If the industry can mitigate its current challenges, there’s an excellent chance that the sport thrives well into its second century of existence.
Ken Ungar is the founder and president of sports marketing agency CHARGE. He’s the author of “Ahead of the Game: What Every Athlete Needs to Know About Sports Business” and has consulted with marquee brands in sports and entertainment. He has served as Chief of Staff of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Senior Vice President of IndyCar and an executive committee member of the National Motorsports Council.