Presented by Racemaker Press

"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ American racing's many challenges

by Gordon Kirby
The last weekend of summer on September 17th and 18th should have been a big event for motor racing in America. The weekend included the opening round of NASCAR's Chase for the Cup at the Chicago Speedway, IndyCar's championship deciding season finale at Sonoma, and a sports car twin-bill at CotA with the WEC making a rare American appearance in company with IMSA's Weathertech series.

But the results were disappointing. NBCSN's telecast of the Sprint Cup race from Chicagoland earned a 1.6 rating with 2.7 million viewers. That was down from a 1.9 rating last year and a 2.7 on ESPN in 2014. Thus continued a steady decline in ratings for NASCAR this year as the Sprint Cup series records new all-time low TV numbers.

The Verizon IndyCar Series finale at Sonoma followed NASCAR on NBCSN late on Sunday afternoon into primetime evening viewing hours but it drew only a 0.34 rating and 536,000 viewers down from a 0.53 rating and 841,000 viewers last year.

Meanwhile the ratings for the WEC/IMSA twin bill in Texas were shockingly small. Saturday's IMSA race attracted a measly 33,000 viewers on Fox Sports 2 while the WEC race on Saturday evening averaged only 23,000 viewers. Also, there were as few spectators at CotA both this year and last than we've ever seen at a professional motor race emphasizing sports car racing's tiny footprint in America today.

For the record, the Singapore GP on the same weekend earned a 0.28 rating with some 419,000 viewers on NBCSN compared to a 0.33 rating and 510,000 viewers last year. In contrast, NASCAR's Xfinity race from Chicagoland benefitted from a switch this year from NBCSN to NBC scoring a 1.1 rating with 1.7 million viewers which was up from a 0.73 rating and 1.1 million viewers in 2015. NASCAR's Truck race on Friday night from Chicagoland drew 523,000 viewers about the same as IndyCar's finale on Sunday afternoon.

And Monday morning's New York Times sports pages were devoid of a single line of coverage of any of these races. In the world's media capital, automobile racing does not exist.

It's very clear therefore that all forms of racing in America have a lot of work to do if they wish to thrive in the longterm as serious professional entities. Sports car and Indy car racing fell off American popular culture's radar screen many years ago amid extended struggles for control and an utter loss of brand identity or star power. More recently over the past eight or nine years NASCAR has slipped into a steady decline, losing crowds and TV ratings.

From my perspective as the US editor for Motor Sport magazine in the UK and a correspondent for Autosprint in Italy and Autosport Japan and also for Autocourse, the world's leading annual review of Formula 1 and international motor racing, it's sad to report that the level of interest in American racing as a whole is at its lowest ebb in the 44 years I've covered the sport.

Everybody's scratching their heads, trying to figure out a plan to reverse the downward spiral. What can be done?

Over the years I've written endlessly about the loss of the sport's driving forces. Innovation, free-thinking and aesthetically pleasing elegant looks have been replaced by the plague of spec cars, cost controls and an elusive pursuit of the level playing field. Everyone has adopted NASCAR's restrictor plate mentality creating artificially close, competitive racing that's as far as removed as you can imagine from the spectacle and appeal of the likes of Stirling Moss or Dan Gurney negotiating their way around the Nurburgring.

In IndyCar we constantly hear the participants rave about how fiercely competitive their series is but the TV ratings and crowds for most of IndyCar's oval races are abysmal. In the late nineties and into the turn of century CART's races at Fontana, Michigan and Milwaukee drew huge crowds to watch elegantly beautiful, big horsepower, high performance race cars put on very different races than we see today.

The message about what appeals to the public and what doesn't is abundantly clear. But it's unlikely that a modern, CART-like formula can be recreated because the spec car plague has decimated America's Indy car building industry while crowds, media coverage, TV ratings and the star power of the drivers have suffered a sharp decline over the past fifteen years. So the delicate equation needed to produce big-time motor racing no longer exists

and IndyCar's most accomplished contemporary drivers are unknown to the general public.

IndyCar hopes to revitalize itself and attract a third manufacturer to compete against Chevrolet and Honda by freezing aero kits for next year and introducing a new, more attractive and effective common aero package for 2018. Given the parlous financial state of IndyCar today, this is a sensible move, but it also means that IndyCar will continue to be defined as a low tech, spec car formula trailing a long way behind Formula 1 and the WEC in international racing's pecking order.

NASCAR continues to enjoy star power from its top drivers but it's going through a big transition right now with Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart retiring and Dale Earnhardt Jr. possibly facing the end of his career. Without doubt, Gordon, Stewart and Earnhardt are NASCAR's biggest modern stars and it appears that their departure from the track is already having an effect on crowds and TV ratings.

Neither the likes of Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch or Brad Keselowski seem to inspire the same passion from the fans and it will be interesting to see if Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott or some of NASCAR's other up-and-comers are capable of emerging as major personalities or superstars.

As far as NASCAR's technical formula is concerned, it's difficult to imagine any major changes occurring. You have to give them credit for experimenting with and adopting a low downforce package this year. In this way, NASCAR has done a much better job than any other sanctioning body.

But there appear to be no thoughts or inclination in NASCAR of revolutionizing the sport with small capacity turbo engines, hybrids or carbon fiber chassis. The existing tube frame, V-8-powered cars are likely to continue for decades to come, thus falling further and further behind the technology of the times. This surely is a factor in NASCAR's decline that needs to be seriously addressed and thought about.

Meanwhile, NASCAR enjoys American racing's biggest and best TV package by far with plenty of income from handsome rights fees and acres and acres of TV time and space. IndyCar and IMSA are seriously hobbled on this front with little more than race coverage and no leverage to negotiate better rights fees. NASCAR on the other hand is in the opening years of a pair of ten year contracts with NBC and Fox through 2024 worth more than $8 billion in all. So NASCAR enjoys plenty of room to find a way to rebound before the time comes to renew its TV contracts with NBC and Fox. If the current decline continues the rights fees are sure to be much smaller.

It also has to be said that given the many hours of time devoted to pre and post-race NASCAR TV shows the ratings for the race broadcasts are very uninspiring. Or perhaps you can say that IndyCar's ratings are not too bad considering their complete lack of coverage beyond the races.

IMSA's WeatherTech sports car series should enjoy a boost next year with new factory-backed prototypes from Nissan, Mazda and Cadillac. Also, Penske may enter the series either late in 2017 or in 2018 with a Honda-powered prototype.

Last year, the FIA, ACO and IMSA worked together to choose four chassis constructors to build cars to compete in the FIA's LMP2 category and IMSA's new Daytona Prototype International class. The four car builders selected were ORECA, Onroak Automotive (Ligier), Dallara and a joint Riley/Multimatic project.

In each of the WEC, European and Asian Le Mans series these chassis will race in the LMP2 class and all cars will be powered by spec Gibson V-8 engines. In IMSA's WeatherTech series, the ACO/FIA configuration is eligible to compete in the new DPi category which will take over as IMSA's premier formula. The old Daytona Prototypes will finally be parked and current P2 cars will be allowed to race in IMSA for one more year under a grandfather clause.

In IMSA the LMP2 cars will compete in the same prototype category with the new DPi cars. They will use the same four chassis but will be powered by engines from different manufacturers and will also be required to use bodywork that's specific to each manufacturer.

Veteran IMSA technical director Mark Raffauf expects engines from four different manufacturers to be tested and benchmarked at NASCAR's R&D center in North Carolina over the fall and winter so IMSA can define its 'BoP' rules for 2017.

Meanwhile, Team Penske is said to be close to reaching an agreement with Honda to race in IMSA either next year or in 2018. There's no guarantee Penske will be involved with a Honda DPi, but if it were to happen it would bring to IMSA a much-needed major team with serious credibility and publicity value.

Amid all these challenges Bernie Ecclestone may have found the perfect buyer for Formula 1 in John Malone's Liberty Media group. Liberty is buying into F1 initially for around $1.8 billion with the total value of F1 said to be worth more than $9 billion. Liberty is a massive global entity with the resources to make F1 even bigger around the world and will also put a lot of money and effort into expanding F1's position and reach in America. This will only make NASCAR, IndyCar and IMSA's fight for recognition and media space even more difficult.

So the next few years will be critically intriguing for American motor racing. Who will turn the tides of decline and how will they do it?

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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