When something happens three times, a trend may be forming. Over the past few months, three stand-out successes in auto racing have raised the eyebrows of many in the sports business: the 2021 Formula 1 Pirelli British Grand Prix, NASCAR’s Cup Series event at Road America, and the debut of the Camping World SRX Series. Interestingly, the same business strategies made these events successful. Together, they point to a significant window of opportunity for motorsports.
The most recent of this summer’s success stories was the 2021 British Grand Prix. Despite the ongoing public health battle with COVID-19, the UK government’s Event Research Program enabled Silverstone to operate at full steam. F1 racing fans, weary of pandemic restrictions on all sports, broke their cabin fever and showed up in force. An estimated three-day crowd of 365,000 was treated to a new sprint race format, a hot rivalry between Hamilton and Verstappen, a significant first lap crash, and a come-from-behind win. Did I mention a crowd of 365,000?
Over 3,200 miles away from Silverstone, at Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut, the Camping World SRX Series made its debut in June. I’ll be the first to admit to being a skeptic of the SRX Series concept. All-star events, in general, feel contrived. While fans appreciate when the “greats” gather in one field, it doesn’t necessarily yield a great event. The “quirky” SRX Series proved skeptics (including me) wrong. Excellent attendance, solid CBS primetime television ratings, and positive media reviews put this new series debut on a solid footing.
Meanwhile, in the American Midwest, NASCAR returned to the storied Elkhart Lake road course for the first time since 1956. Despite competition with the July 4th holiday, 100,000 fans welcomed the NASCAR Cup Series to Wisconsin. Like other racers who discover this track for the first time, Cup drivers marveled at Road America’s immensity and the feeling that fans seemed to be everywhere along the circuit.
The Three Reasons
Three business strategies laid the foundation for the success of these events:
1. Leadership had the confidence to experiment.
It’s tempting to live by the adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, the best organizations know that innovation is the key to growth in a sport, staying relevant with fans, and creating differentiation from competitors. Even if motorsports does not evolve, everything around it is constantly changing. Fan demographics, the role of technology, and how people consume sports look different today than 10 years ago. The sports that don’t innovate risk being left behind.
That’s all easy to say because executives sometimes lose jobs over botched experiments. Nevertheless, we saw examples this summer of how experimentation can yield success. The hyper-competitive F1 field took on an entirely new format for them. NASCAR continues to add road courses to its schedule. SRX returned to a more romantic time in racing’s past, even if the design leaned into “entertainment” versus “pure sport.” All three confidently put their experiments on the track and were judged victories by their fans.
2. Novelty brings energy and excitement.
I’ll be honest. After attending hundreds of races, they tend to blur together for me. Even though it’s my business to attend sports events, fans feel the same way about seeing the same product repeatedly. For this reason, a slight change of pace injects excitement into an event. It’s not enough for fans to show up at a racetrack or in front of a race broadcast. Event excitement creates fan energy to talk about motorsports at work with colleagues, a bar with friends, or dinner with family.
All three of these events changed it up. There were different formats, different combinations of drivers, or different venues. Whether or not you’re a fan of the sprint qualifying format, no one can deny that the F1 Sprint created a valuable buzz around its British GP. Coupled with the week-long controversy about the Hamilton-Verstappen first lap crash, this event turbocharged global discussion and interest in Formula 1.
3. At its core, pro sport is still about entertainment
As SRX co-founder Ray Evernham told the AP’s Jenna Fryer, “It’s motorsports entertainment. Nobody is sitting here saying this is a super-serious series that’s going to the next level.” What set SRX apart from its summer competition were the stories and drama around its racing, including the father-son duel between Bill and Chase Elliott. The series represented a unique and engaging mix of retired and new stars, national and local heroes, and traditional and new communications technologies.
An amateur sport becomes professional when its athletes receive a paycheck. That money ultimately comes from fans who fork over hard-earned cash because they expect entertainment. We can argue what constitutes the definition of “pure sport.” Sports would lose its soul with “contrived competition” and pre-ordained outcomes. However, if the rules of a sport ensure an entertaining product, the sport thrives with fans and sponsors. The SRX Series reminded all of us of what fans missed about auto racing.
Why It Matters
A sport will connect with fans when it stands for something. To many of us, auto racing has been a symbol of how we overcome our fears to chase our dreams. Auto racing is brave to its core, as is its fans. During the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, auto racing led the sports world back to action with NASCAR being the first to go green. The grit demonstrated by racers and their teams inspires fans still battling the end of COVID in this pivotal moment for our communities.
Fans have reacted to 2020 and 2021 by reengaging with the sport in record numbers as RACER Publisher Paul Pfanner noted when he observed we’re in post-pandemic golden age of motorsports. In fact, such strong fan engagement likely motivated NBC to continue its media relationship with INDYCAR and increase the number of races on the NBC Network.
Auto racing as a source of inspiration represents awesome commercial potential. However, as Margaret Atwood once said, “potential has a shelf life.” This potential must be acted upon now with the types of strategies we’ve seen this summer, including taking risks, experimenting with new ideas, and remembering that the sport must be entertaining, as well as inspiring. My expectation is that we’ll continue to see this summer’s successes replicated in all forms of motorsports. All of us like to navigate with roadmaps. Fortunately, this summer’s events have charted a clearer course for the sport.