Racing in America is Alive, and Mostly Well

Four weekends, four markedly different forms of motorsport: That’s how I spent my September, and despite all the doomsday talk about the future of racing, I came away optimistic. The passion to build fast cars and put them in competition against others still burns strong at every level across America. The sport has more rules, fewer sponsorship dollars and a whole lot less character than it used to. But the call of “Drivers, start your engines!” obviously still resonates with many.

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First up was NASCAR at Darlington Raceway, which drew a solid if not sellout crowd to one of the most historic stock car tracks of them all. The common wisdom over the last couple of years is that NASCAR is in deeper trouble than most other forms of motorsport, and that was the case long before the current national firestorm over peaceful protest using the U.S. Anthem as a vehicle was ever under way and NASCAR team owners Richard Petty and Richard Childress inserted themselves into the controversy.

Certainly NASCAR has suffered far bigger and more noticeable decreases in sponsorship, attendance and television ratings than other forms of racing, but Darlington didn’t appear to be hit as hard as other venues on the Cup Series tour. Did you get a glimpse of the grandstands at New Hampshire or Dover? Ouch!

I think venues like Darlington and Talladega continue to thrive because they have much deeper tradition and history in the sport than many rival tracks. The amenities may be nicer at places like Texas and Kansas, but I wonder much value the traditional NASCAR fan places on things like that. NASCAR fan seems happier waiting in line for a Martinsville Hot Dog than in getting access to the hors d’oeuvre buffet in a fancy suite.

NASCAR gained popularity through a combination of rough-edged personalities racing at rural southern venues, tied together with by a strong streak of patriotism. NASCAR’s desire to expand from a regional phenomenon into a national cash cow worked well in the 1990s into the 2000s, but the big sponsorship dollars and most of the name-brand drivers have gone away. And patriotism and national pride are a shaky platform to work from during a time when the most basic definitions of those ideas are being fiercely debated in America. Diversity has long been a double-edged sword for NASCAR, and the organization is being put to the test in that regard right now like no other time in its near 70-year history.

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Next up on my September tour was the Figure 8 World Championships at the Indianapolis Speedrome, grassroots racing at its finest. A capacity crowd of some 6,000 fans turned out for the Speedrome’s biggest event of the season, justifying the confidence the 76-year old track’s new owner Kevin Garrigus maintains that grassroots racing is still alive and well in America. Track president Jonathan Byrd II told the Indianapolis Business Journal that attendance and concession stand revenue doubled in 2017, and race participation was up 20 percent.

As someone who covers 20-25 professional racing events at the highest level on an annual basis, spending time at the Figure 8s (or any weekend warrior short track event, for that matter) is like a busman’s holiday. It’s a pleasure to watch the competition just for the sake of enjoyment, without taking notes in preparation for writing a column or race report. Just grab a tenderloin and a beer from concessions, sit in the stands and say, “OK, I’m pulling for the blue No. 28,” purely on whim without knowing any of the competitor’s backstory. I feel lucky that I’ve made a decent living writing about racing for the last 25 years, but just watching cars being driven in anger in competition still gives me joy.

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I shared some of that joy with my sister at the IndyCar finale at Sonoma Raceway. Since I didn’t have to file a column on a tight deadline, we walked around the track, watching the action from several corners. For those who equate a racetrack to a stadium surrounding an oval, a scenic road course like Sonoma is an eye-opener. I often think of going to places like Mid-Ohio or Road America as visiting a state park where there happens to be a race and I think my sister enjoyed what was, to her, a new experience.

IndyCar is struggling to find the right time and place to close out its season and its domestic television audience is still miniscule in comparison to NASCAR. But the series continues to trend slowly upward at a time when NASCAR and Formula 1 are in a period of noticeable decline.

Bold and brash on the track, cool and confident on camera, Josef Newgarden is the perfect champion for accelerating Indy car racing’s growth and the introduction of a more attractive look for next year’s car can only help. With a new broadcast platform in the works for 2019 (will IndyCar be the first major sport to commit to streaming the majority of its events with Amazon with only the Indy 500 on ABC television, or will it take a more traditional route with NBC Sports?), this is a critical time and opportunity for Mark Miles and the INDYCAR management team.

On the other side of the street at 16th and Polco, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosted the SCCA Runoffs for the first time. With a thousand entries, give or take, it was the largest event from a participation standpoint in the 108-year history of IMS. And speaking as a Town of Speedway local, I can vouch for the Runoffs’ “Big Event” status. The restaurants and bars on Main Street were packed every night, clearly demonstrating the kind of direct economic impact that every form of racing (or other sport or source of traveling entertainment) can have.

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I’ve spent probably two years of my life at IMS so the novelty of the venue has mostly worn off. But it’s always neat to hear stories from first-time visitors, and every one of the SCCA competitors I talked to was thrilled and awed by racing at IMS. I enjoyed the event in the same casual race-fan way that I enjoyed the Figure 8s at the Speedrome. My son and I rode our bikes over a couple times over the course of the weekend to watch the action from the stands or the grass spectator mounds and it was fun to pick a car to root for and chart its progress. Patrick’s only disappointment was seeing 72 cars funnel through Turn 1 at the start of the Spec Miata race without a single spin on crash!

 

So there you go. A variety of events, spanning the breadth of motorsport from coast to coast, showed that reports of the death of auto racing have been somewhat exaggerated. Certainly things are changing – and not necessarily always for the better – and some forms of the sport have bigger problems to solve than others. But I’m not yet convinced that racing, as we know it, will be going away anytime soon.