How in the hell did we get here? I have been asking myself that for the better part of the last decade. How did we go from the dirt and grim, high school educated, to the neat and clean corporate board rooms of America? Have we actually allowed greed to destroy our sport? The answer isn’t an easy as you may think.
If we take a long look back at what NHRA and NASCAR used to be, we’d find a much different product and a much different fan than what we find now. We will also find that everything about marketing and branding both these outlets is vastly different than it was even at the turn of this century. Instead of local speed shops and garages, it’s all about the corporate structure.
Now I am not going to sit here and rant about how times have changed and how I don’t like it. There are aspects to the product now that I truly do love. Things like live streaming, social media, etc. There are also things that I hate about the industry. Things like people being in decision making roles that have no idea what’s best for their product, the industry, the fan, or the racer. Just because you have a fancy title or an MBA, doesn’t mean that you have the slightest clue about our industry.
Drag racing, and NASCAR as well were built off the backs of young men and women who for the most part had maybe a high school diploma and a love for the automobile. They were racing to win just enough to do it again next weekend. They may not have always been business savvy, but they were able to turn what they did know into the industry we follow today. Where did it go wrong though?
Corporate sponsors isn’t where it went wrong, though many would like to believe that the PC of the industry is caused by the sponsors. Part of that is right, and part isn’t. Where we started to go wrong is more of a generational issue than a money issue. It’s the Baby Boomers, who put the industry on the map, versus the mentality of the Millennials. Now before all the Millennials get bent out of shape, calm down and keep reading.
The Baby Boomers were from a much different mindset than the generations that followed them. They were born after WWII and really excelled at creating things. There was no entitlement, and anything they wanted they worked for. You didn’t just log on the computer and buy something. If your speed shop didn’t have it, chances are you made it yourself. You learned the skills to do that do doing it or having a friend help you do it. Millennials on the other hand, some not all, seem to feel a source of entitlement. They also have the ability to just fire up a computer or reach in their pocket and order something for their build. They don’t have the need or want to create.
Then there is the corporate America structure. This is where we went all kinds of sideways over our love of money. NHRA did it, NASCAR did it, the drivers did it, and the fans embraced it. No longer were the drivers out there with cool names like Snake, Mongoose, The Intimidator, etc. Now it’s Jimmy Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowes sponsored Chevrolet or it’s Courtney Force, driver of the Advance Auto Parts sponsored Chevrolet Camaro. Someone please tell me what’s exciting about that. There is nothing fun about being described like that, at least from my perspective.
Now, I understand that we are talking about hundreds of millions and sometimes billions of dollars at stake here. Maybe that’s the problem. The greed got to all of us. We continuously wanted more, and in turn this is the product that we end up with. This is the product that pushes the small teams out because they can’t keep up. You want to talk and the have and have not, look no further than motorsports. It’s all about the have and have nots, while a lot of the time the have nots are the ones that have the love, passion, and ability, yet lack the funding because some idiot with a CMO or MBA behind their name says you don’t have a large enough social media following so we aren’t going to spend money on you.
Take a look at the NHRA Nitro fields for a moment. This is the most extreme sport on the planet. They go 330+ mph in less than 4 seconds. The sound alone rattles your brain and the fuel burns your eyes. It’s an experience that TV will never be able to properly provide the fan. It’s also a class where each ride costs millions of dollars every year to go racing and is dominated by the have almost all the time. And if you think that a Funny Car is expensive, look at what the cost is for a NASCAR team.
Another issue is that the haves are the ones dictating cost within the industry. They are the ones with the machine shops that other teams buy from. The sanctioning bodies are not helping this epidemic either though. When that happens, you start to get what we are now seeing. We are seeing for the first time since I can remember, NHRA can’t get full fields in their pro classes, NASCAR can’t sellout every seat, and fans aren’t invested anymore. No longer are teams like Pedregon, Wilkerson, Palmer, and others playing on a level field.
What about the fans though. This is where the greed in almost every sanctioning body has taken over. For some reason the sanctioning bodies treat their events like a rock concert. Overcharging the consumer for everything that they can, including $35 T Shirts, $9 burgers, $4 bottle water, and that doesn’t include the $75 or more just to watch the event. No wonder half the stands are empty. There are a few exceptions though, and you might be surprised. If you look at successful promoters within the motorsports industry, they know how to treat fans and give them an experience. No one is going to mind paying $75 for an event, when the product is good enough to justify it. I will let you as the reader determine what “good enough” is though.
There are things that we need to bring our industry back. We, especially in drag racing, need to bring the cost down. Whether it is parts cost, entry cost, or fans cost. In drag racing, we need the fan passion that NASCAR fans used to have for their driver. When they show up and park next to a fan of another driver and the two debate the merits of their chosen driver all weekend with a fervor seen back in the 70’s and 80’s.
True rivalries are something that we don’t have in motorsports because it’s not encouraged. It may “hurt” the drivers brand or reflect badly on their sponsors. That’s the biggest pile of crap I have ever heard. I don’t see Boston players and NY players huddled around a camp fire singing together soon. As a driver, team owner, promoter, etc. you don’t have to like everyone. This is motorsports, not snowflake sewing! Look at what made our industry great, and that is exactly what we have gotten away from over the last 20 years. It’s time to go back to that. You see more people at a Friday night dirt track race or a Saturday T&T, than you do at sanctioned 3 day races. Putting the right people in the right places is what needs to be done, and needs to be done immediately! At the rate we are going, next year at this time I am going to have to write a follow up about how we have fallen even further back than we are right now.