PFANNER: Racing's opportunity amid an Uncivil War

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PFANNER: Racing's opportunity amid an Uncivil War

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PFANNER: Racing's opportunity amid an Uncivil War

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Thank you to everyone for taking the time to give me feedback following yesterday’s commentary. It’s clear that NASCAR’s unique event at the Coliseum continues to energize and polarize RACER’s fast-growing audience. In addition to the many positive comments the column received there were some negative gems that suggested I am an elitist or that I like lattes with soy milk. Ouch. Nobody has ever accused me of either of those felonies.

I’ll respond by revealing that I particularly enjoy percolator-brewed black coffee and I will admit that I received my initial elitist training by being a parking lot attendant at the long-gone Ontario Motor Speedway in the hot, smoggy summer of 1971. The most important lesson I learned was that full parking lots at racetracks are a very good thing regardless of the genders, cultural or ethnic backgrounds of the occupants of the cars. I also learned that I needed to find a way to have media credentials so I could park closer to the entrance and get free sodas in the press room. I even made a film series about this misdemeanor-laced adventure, but I digress.

So far it has worked out, but this column could end it all given the insane Uncivil War raging in our society today that unfortunately touches our racing community.

After a grueling five-week college career, my elitist education progressed to include working in a souvenir stand outside of Turn 9 at the much-loved Riverside International Raceway during the NASCAR Winston Western 500 in January 1973. While freezing my ass off and losing my hearing during the five-hour race, I soon realized that the best way to grow the sport is to bring new fans to a race and find ways to help them remember and appreciate what they have witnessed.

I saw a lot of that happening with newbie fans last Sunday at the L.A. Coliseum, which certainly made me happy, but apparently not everyone shared my joy in this. Perhaps it could be because they don’t like change of any sort, or perhaps they don’t like people who are not like themselves, which I will come back to later.

A moment of opportunity for our sport

First I want to share why I believe our sport is in a period of remarkable growth and opportunity, and offer a few insights about what we are seeing and learning about our own growth along with my hopes for this pivotal year ahead.

I’ll start with some core metrics. In 2021 RACER.com users grew by 61.67% over 2020. We attracted 10,657,532 individual users last year versus 6,592,058 in 2020 which represents a whopping increase of 4,065,474 users.

But for me, the most meaningful metrics comparison is to pre-pandemic 2019. RACER.com’s annual user tally is up a stunning 132.93% when you compare 2021 to 2019, which represents an increase of 6,082,030 users. Most important in all is the fact that the fastest-growing audience segment is the 18-24 age group, which surged by 284.88% during the past two years.

So, thank you to our new and our long-time readers for trusting us as your racing news and commentary source. Although I believe our hard-working RACER.com team is clearly doing all the right things, something bigger is also happening beyond us in the greater world.

One of the most important lessons of the pandemic is that people readjusted their priorities and found time to focus on the things they love. They also found time to discover new passions. Clearly racing is benefiting from this – as it should.

I believe last weekend’s event at the L.A. Coliseum was important because NASCAR went outside of its comfort zone and did something I never thought it would do. It built a temporary circuit and brought the racing to the audience, and in doing so embraced the diverse cultures of the L.A. basin rather than focusing on only one core (predictable) demographic. It also did not expect to attract new fans by asking them to travel for an hour to a race track well outside of Los Angeles. That, aside I do hope these new fans liked what they saw and hopefully, some will come to Auto Club Speedway later this month to witness all that NASCAR has to offer in its natural habitat.

Learning from “Coach”

Now, it must be pointed out that my elitist training also included a period when the agency side of our company, (once known and Pfanner Communications but now known as Racer Studio) served as the branding and marketing agency for the successful launch of California Speedway (today known as Auto Club Speedway) in June 1997. Our client was Penske Motorsports, Inc. and we had the pleasure of working with Roger and Greg Penske, PMI President Rich Peters and VP of Marketing Bill Miller (who is now a senior executive at SEMA). We also worked with the legendary Les Richter, who was then serving as a senior advisor to NASCAR’s sister company, the International Speedway Corporation that was a shareholding partner in Penske Motorsports and eventually purchased the business in 1999.

We all called Les “Coach” because he went from a storied career as an L.A. Rams linebacker to running Riverside International Raceway (where I’d met him during my early elitist training in the Turn 9 souvenir stand). Coach also helped create the original IROC Series and later led the operations side of NASCAR during a period of phenomenal growth for the sport.

Most importantly, Coach was a very wise and kind man whom I was fortunate to know from a young age.  He took the long view on most challenges, but one thing he would talk about with urgency during our lunches at a local BBQ place near the speedway was the pressing need to engage younger people in our sport. He’d done this at Riverside International Raceway by forming relationships with scouting groups in exchange for services they provided. He would also passionately speak at schools and to youth groups to connect our sport to the local communities and to the next generation he so valued.

As we departed the speedway for one of these fun and memorable lunches, Coach shared that his close friend Bill France, Jr. had been hospitalized that morning with a serious medical issue that was about to become public and would certainly shake up the racing world. He then shared that Bill’s Jr.’s advice to him when he began working for NASCAR was to start thinking about his own replacement, because that would be one of his most important contributions to the company. I was stunned by this.

I thought about Coach this past Sunday morning as I walked into L.A. Memorial Coliseum where Les once played so magnificently for the Rams and where NASCAR was making a huge bet on the vision of Bill Jr’s great-grandson, Ben Kennedy, along with the heroic efforts of NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ tireless and dedicated team who were about to launch their all-new competition package, and with it, a new era for their sport. As it was for Coach when he lined-up with his Rams teammates on the playing field in the Coliseum, there was nowhere to hide for NASCAR’s teams as they lined up for their date with destiny. I could not help but wonder what Coach would have thought of this unique moment in a place he knew so well… and of the fact his Rams made it to the Super Bowl!

Now, it must be said that the Busch Light Clash was not perfect and there are many areas that I am sure NASCAR leadership would like to improve upon, but what they did do perfectly for the first time was prove they can go to the heart of a metro market – anywhere in the world — just like any other major league sport. They also proved that NASCAR car can adapt, evolve, and still surprise us. This is a key factor in the shifting media landscape where audiences have unlimited choices and control of what they engage in.

I submit that this comes just in the nick of time for NASCAR as its leadership team is the midst of sorting its next lucrative broadcast and streaming rights deals.  The excellent TV rating from the 2022 Busch Light Clash certainly helped in this regard.

After nearly three decades of dominating the racing sector in the USA, NASCAR is not only competing with the major stick-and-ball sports, it is now in an intense race for audience, influence and commercial success with challengers from inside motorsports as the landscape continually shifts around it.

This comes at the same time that F1 is dramatically expanding its audience in North America with a new race in downtown Miami, 290 miles south of Daytona Beach this coming May. Unlike the Busch Light Clash, the Miami Grand Prix sold out almost immediately, and it is likely the same thing will happen when the Las Vegas F1 race is formally announced, in addition to the hugely successful and repeatedly sold-out USGP at COTA, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

NASCAR is also under competitive pressure from significant gains in live audiences, broadcast audiences and digital audiences by IndyCar that were further underscored by the successful running of the inaugural Music City Grand Prix in Nashville last August. As everyone knows, Roger Penske only competes to win.

It will be very interesting to see how the 2022 Daytona 500 rolls out and the races beyond, because they are the long-term measures of NASCAR’s new strategy.

Back to the future

So back to something that I mentioned earlier. For those of us who don’t like change, I have a tip: Change is relentless, and it doesn’t care if you like it or not. If you are a racer, change is what you are constantly managing, and your job is to do this faster and better than your competition. Those who complain about change are usually losing or have already lost.

When it comes to those who don’t want others who are not like themselves to be part of our sport, I don’t understand why this is even a thing and how this can ever lead to success.

Racing belongs to everyone. It is the one sport where your gender or physical stature don’t matter, but your courage and your unwavering commitment define you — and where dollars certainly matter. That starts with the courage to be open and welcoming to all. That is best part of what I am seeing with the new NASCAR’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. It also makes perfect sense to all of NASCAR’s many top-level commercial partners that provide the money that fuels the growth of the sport.

Which brings me to the ongoing Uncivil War taking place in our comments sections and in our social media channels. Some of this is based in valid discussions about the competition, marketing and positioning of racing or the future of racing overall in the context of modern society where the foundations of mobility are shifting profoundly. However, some recent comments have been tinged with ugly, inappropriate, and unwelcome statements regarding cultural or ethnic heritage, as if it is somehow wrong to expand the potential audience for racing. I fail to understand the “reasoning” in this.

I am the son of an immigrant married to the beautiful daughter of an immigrant. On my father’s side of the family, our ancestor Oliver Wolcott Sr. signed the United States Declaration of Independence, so I guess you could say he was a troublemaker. He took a big risk and made a winning bet on the future, so I’ll join him in doing so now.

Another one of my ancestors on my father’s side, Lt. John D. Martin, served in the Union Army during the American Civil War, and he wrote this on May 23, 1863 in a letter to his beloved wife Emily during the pivotal battle of Vicksburg, Mississippi:

“On Tuesday, the Rebels raised a flag of truce for the purpose of bringing in the dead killed by sharpshooters they met outside the fort and had a general jubilee shook hands and drank whiskey and talked together as friendly as if there was nothing better there. I heard of brothers meeting brothers and friends used to be, meeting friends and acquaintances separating to kill one another whenever the opportunity would offer. It is very hard to tell how long it will take to storm them out perhaps a good while. But our final success is certain.”

The siege of Vicksburg lasted 47 days, ending on July 4, 1863 and together with the victory at Gettysburg the day before, it was a turning point for the Union Army.

This amazing letter is a treasure that never fails to stir my emotions and it also is a fitting metaphor for the divisive moment in society we now share. We all have choices when it comes to how we behave and how we treat each other. We also can’t stop the future that our children and grandchildren will live in, but we can make it better by the example we chose to set. Racing is more than an entertainment business. It is instead a powerful inspiration business that teaches us lessons about technology, about life and about our own boundless human spirits.

After 50 years in this awe-inspiring inspiration business, my fondest hope is that racing in all its diverse and exciting forms continues to grow and inspire new generations by embracing and including all genders, cultures, and ethnic backgrounds. From the beginning, racing has been about getting to the future, faster. This is our collective race to win because I continue to believe that racing is truth — along with the truths we hold to be self-evident in the U.S. Bill of Rights.

For me, racing’s ultimate truth is that victory travels at the speed of thought — especially for each of us who carry the best interest of the sport in our hearts. If we continue do the right things, our final success is as certain as the Union Army’s victory at Vicksburg on July 4, 1863.

MX-5 CUP | ROUND 9 – ROAD AMERICA

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