INSIGHT: (Off) Road to resurrection

Image by Mint 400

INSIGHT: (Off) Road to resurrection

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: (Off) Road to resurrection


For a moment, let’s move beyond the bleakness toward a brighter tomorrow.

The world’s compression into forced hibernation has given more relevance to one universal concept above all others. It’s not flattening a curve or hitting an apex, which both sit too close to our collective motorsports vernacular. Forget the idea of a “new normal,” today’s most annoying and over-used cliché.

Nope, what our world needs now, besides love, sweet love, is the embracement of a single powerful word. It’s all about resurrection.

Every racer, promoter and fan now sit in the same quagmire of 2020 uncertainty. All but the most skeptical are looking toward summer bringing about the delayed renewal of springtime in motorsports. Considering that situation, the counterculture of off-road racing may well become the bridge toward racing’s future.

Why? For those unbaptized in the vibrant and admittedly unusual 50-plus year history of world-class off-road motorsports, there are several factors behind this also admittedly optimistic outlook.

Consider this: If social distancing is still a thing come June, then the ultimate of wide-open spaces is certainly the desert. This is especially true in Baja and part of Nevada, where modern civilization has bypassed endless expanses of dirt, rocks and coronavirus-free oxygen. Sure, there would have to be the implementation of temporary new ways of managing drivers’ meetings, technical inspection and, in the case of Baja, too many locals crowding city streets. Once you are in the desert, however, the world of dueling news networks and grandstanding press briefings is far, far way.

Moreover, the entire business model for off-road motorsports is as distinctive as it gets. In desert racing, the desert, the main mechanism for top sanctioning groups like SCORE International, Best-in-the-Desert and NORRA to survive is based largely on the ability to attract customers (racers) willing to pay thousands of dollars at each race for the privilege of destroying their maniacally prepped machinery. In most cases, there is no gate or concession money involved in the bottom line. Event sponsorship is often thrown into a chicken and egg cycle that promotes and livestreams the event so that, in turn, the sponsors garner what they perceive is a reasonable ROI.

It’s not an easy way to make a living. Without paying customers or the ability to broadcast a live stream for corporate partners that have contracts and have paid to support series’ events, the sport’s entire foundation gets softer.

The good news, however, is that race teams are primarily small, self-funded and staffed by friends and family. Unlike the Formula 1 or NASCAR model, for example, there are no massive staffs of professionals and facilities to support. In 2020, this basic tenet of the sport offers a much more flexible situation in getting back to racing quickly.

Without huge overhead and full-time staffing, the unique, more grounded make-up of off-road racing may prove a saving grace in 2020. Image by Mint 400

Happily, for now, most of off-road racing’s builders, parts suppliers and fabrication/prep shops have managed to stay open in most states thanks to falling under a broad-reaching umbrella of automotive entities being an “essential business.”

Unlike the desert, short-course off-road racing has more challenges. In the past, the Lucas Oil Off-Road Series has essentially operated as a bit of a hybrid, in which the high cost of execution is deferred through a mix of front and back gate, large corporate sponsorship and content for the MAVTV and other networks. The Midwest’s pie chart is a bit different, with more permanent, long-established venues lowering the series’ operating costs but relying more heavily on large crowds, local volunteer support and on-track concessions to make it all work.

Like everything else, the biggest question right now is when. Currently the next big desert race on the calendar is SCORE International’s BFGoodrich Baja 500, set for June 19-21, but there is a caveat stating that date may be extended until July. Best-in-the-Desert’s VT Construction Silver State 300 in Nevada has not firmed up a date as series organizers look toward June or July, promising its racers a 30-day notice once a final decision is made.

As of right now, Lucas Oil’s official stance is that it is getting ready to open its season May 8-9 at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in Chandler, Arizona. If that happens, it would be the first major motorsports event to occur since the recent Yokohama Sonora Rally ushered in today’s stagnant racing universe. With just over three weeks left before the green flag is set to be dropped, it’s going to be race within the larger economic race to make it happen in any form.

While there are no guarantees, the 2020 debut of the new Championship Off Road (COR) series at Crandon International Raceway is still in the works as well. Set for the same weekend as the Baja 500 (June 19-21), the Crandon Forest County Potawatomi Brush Run may also be the first off-road race to happen. The legendary track sits in Wisconsin’s Forest County, which as of today has the distinction of not seeing one reported case of COVID-19. It must be something in the cheese curds.

It may be a while before crowds can again pack the grandstands at Crandon International Raceway, but then again who knows?

As fine as the efforts in promoting a virtual motorsports reality have been, it’s the resurrection of life as we loved it that offers the biggest sense of hope. Getting to that place will rely on facts but will be driven by passion. Thankfully, motorsports in general and off-road racing in particular have that powerful force in spades.

Maybe now more than ever, the sport’s inherent reliance on self-reliance and fulfilling a timeless need for unbridled freedom could be the ultimate trump cards. It is the common root in all our dusty lives.