An interesting comment on another blog got me to thinking: why don’t the youngsters seem to get into racing?
Well, of course, there’s more competition for attention now. The rise of the Internet and cable/satellite TV has given everyone easy access to a flood of information, entertainment, and other sports — including some sports that didn’t even exist a generation ago.
Which leads to the question, what are racing’s challenges in competing for attention? Ah, the billion-dollar question. As the father of an 18 and 22-year-old, some stream-of-consciousness thoughts.
My daughters watch very little TV. Social networks like Facebook and increasingly Twitter/Instagram/Snap Chat and whatever is NEW tomorrow have displaced a lot of television in their lives. If they do sit/lie one spot for more than 30 minutes is usually with their phones in their faces. At any given time my daughters are texting someone, snap chatting another person and tweeting with a couple more. Who has time for TV?
What drives the social media attachment? Relationships. I think this is the good news of social media. They are interacting with other people — albeit through electronic means and sometimes negatively — far more than I did at their age. Even adjusting for my introversion, “kids these days” are in more constant contact with their friends and acquaintances than my generation ever was, in large part because they can be today and we couldn’t be back then. It’s a constant flow of small bites of interaction, as opposed to my generation where people were in each other’s physical company and did stuff or whatever.
My daughters still do that too. They “hang out” with whomever. And when they hang out they are more likely to watch movies together than sports. At least my daughters are.
It seems to me their entertainment needs relatively short duration and definite structure. Movies (the group entertainment activity of choice, it seems) have a beginning, middle and end, they have intentional messages, they tell stories that start and end within a two-hour timeframe. When you’re done with a movie, you’ve consumed it like a meal, and you’re on your way to other stuff. Sports are more of a chapter in a decades-long story. I suspect that taxes the modern attention span far too much. My kids watch virtually no sports. I don’t think I’ve seen either of them watch any sporting event start to finish on TV, ever.
Racing, in specific, is too repetitive for today’s youth. If you look at racing at the 20,000-foot view, it’s repetitious — cars going around a track, albeit oval or twisty. It’s a case of the green car being ahead for a while, then the red car, then the blue car, but they continue to do the same thing, over and over, for hours and hours in NASCAR’s case.
Compare that to more popular sports the almighty NFL. While the goal of football is the same as it has been for generations— get a first down, score a touchdown or field goal, stop the other team from doing all those things — the means to that end are almost infinitely varied. Sure, you run or pass, block and tackle, but there are a billion running plays and a billion variations on passing plays, with new formations all the time. So … what will the team do to get the first down? Throw deep? Plow up the middle? Screen pass? Who will make a tackle? Who will miss a block? Who will make a spectacular play/catch/run/interception? Every time the ball is snapped so many different things could happen.
Meanwhile, racing is cars going around a track for 100 to 500 laps.
Now, the race fan knows there are a bunch of nuances going on in races as driver, pit crew, crew chief work on strategy and fine-tuning on the cars. But this, I believe, puts racing in the category of soccer. Same stuff goes on in soccer. Strategy plays out throughout the game. What looks like people kicking a ball around from the highest level is really teams trying different things, capitalizing on the other team's mistakes, probing for weaknesses. I like to watch soccer occasionally for that reason, but from the untrained view it is “people kicking a ball around and nobody scoring.”
So, racing and soccer face the same challenge: get fans to come down from the 20,000-foot view and see what’s really going on. Soccer’s advantage: youth soccer. More and more Americans have played soccer sometime in their lives (my daughters both played, my oldest played into college, yet neither of them watch it on TV). So they get that the game is far more complex than it first appears, and the action is in the 1 v. 1, 3 v. 3 battles that go on constantly around the field, and the beauty is the flow and development and risk vs. reward nature of the game.
Sounds familiar to racing … BUT there but youth racing is far far far rarer than youth soccer, so kids don’t learn that first-hand.
Today’s generation craves the new. Fresh and new. My daughters have grown up in an era of unprecedented changes. My oldest was born in 1991 when the Internet was in its relative infancy and cell phones were rare monstrosities. Look at the Internet and cell phones now, just 22 years later. We’ve gone from VCRs to streaming Netflix during their lives. Virtually every day there’s something NEW!! I think they have grown up with an appetite for NEW!! Racing’s issue is at the highest level (and that’s the level that first attracts new fans, if we’re honest), it lacks a lot of new-ness.
The celebrity culture has mushroomed. All that access to information has heightened the focus on celebrity lives. Given my daughters’ social focus — both via social media and “hanging out” — it fits that anything about the lifestyle of celebrities have gained dramatically more attention. Reality TV is an outgrowth of this. Most of reality TV has HUGE elements of how people interact socially, especially in conflict.
I think this explains the continuing advocacy of promoting drivers as individuals. Danica Patrick is the archetype here. Danica, more than any other race car driver ever, has made the jump into celebrity. Whether that’s good or bad is an argument for another day. But her celebrity status and her value to NASCAR and security in her Go Daddy ride go hand in hand in hand.
Then there’s the machine. Racing like no other sport (I can think of, anyway) injects technology in the form of a machine into the equation. The quality of the machine has a HUGE impact on the success of the human in racing. Perhaps that barrier turns off some would-be fans. After all, it’s not just someone training hard and capitalizing on his or her natural gives and WANTING IT MORE. They need the right machine to make it happen. In this way, ironically, racing is among the most team of all team sports, which is kind of incongruous with the promotion of the driver as star.
On the plus side, the presence of the machine allows women to compete equally with men in racing like virtually no other sport other non-horsepowered sport (including horse racing). On the minus side, everyone over age 16 or so can drive car, so what’s the big deal? We know at the go-kart track the guy who gets the fastest cart wins.
Race fans know the relationship between the human and the machine is far more complicated than people imagine, and that the best drivers become a Borg-like combination of human and machine, wherein the machine becomes an extension of the human, and when that’s all wired up tight it’s an amazing thing to behold. So, ironically, while the presence of the machine may cause people to say drivers aren’t athletes and racing isn’t sport, for fans the presence of the machine is a big part of the attraction, indeed, there would be no sport without the machine. Still, the best driver can’t win with a crappy car, and a crappy driver rarely wins with the best car, unless the car is far superior to the rest.
Right here is where the much discussed decline of the American car culture fits in as a possible reason for the decline in racing’s popularity as well.
Also in here is the role of money in racing (necessitated by the existence of the machine). In the most popular stick-and-ball sports the players with the best talent make it big. Yeah, there’s a money factor, because some of the great players are great because they could afford to be in the expensive youth organizations or coaching (soccer in America and tennis come to mind). But football, baseball, basketball, merit is 95% of it. Not so in much of racing. The ability of a driver to have rich parents or find his or her own sponsors remains a big part of it for the majority of racers. America loves meritocracy, and while the new fan is probably oblivious to the role of money in racing, I’d argue the role of money creates a lot of ex-racing fans.
I think all of the above explains a few things, like the “thrill” fans seem to get from plate racing like Talladega where cars are in a pack and anything (unexpected, unpredicted!) can happen. Unexpected, unpredictable,visually spectacular also explains the attraction of crashes. A lot of long-time fans like me don’t like crashes, because we know from experience that people can actually die in crashes, but for the very casual fans crashes are spectacularly unpredictable. The need for a steady stream of thrill also explains why 20 laps of no-passing green stirs up a chorus of BORING!!! tweets that grows stronger as the laps tick away.
Although it’s less novel today, women competing equally with and directly against men is something unique to racing, hence the interest women drivers attract. Clearly, drivers like Danica Patrick and Sarah Fisher before her have brought more women into the sport. I’d wager there are far more women in go-kart and other youth racing leagues today than ever, thanks in large part to Danica, Sarah and others, past and present. I believe Danica’s impact on future female drivers is vastly unappreciated.
So, what can racing do? Again, the billion-dollar question. Well, you can’t change the fundamental of racing, which is person and machine going around a track (oval or otherwise) repeatedly. But I think this crave for the new is why NASCAR keeps tweaking things it can tweak, much to the chagrin of a large number of fans. It also explains their strong focus on marketing drivers as individuals. NASCAR has its issues, but it’s still the second-most-watched sport on TV (second only to the Mighty NFL). It may also help explain why IndyCar, which seems loath to make big changes, is flat-lining in audience numbers.
NASCAR and IndyCar both fight never-ending battle to try and encourage side-by-side battles for the lead and throughout the pack. I don’t like wrecks, but I’m not going to lie and say I don’t find the last 15 laps of a plate track heart-rate-elevating. WHO WILL WIN? WHAT WILL HAPPEN? WHEN WILL THE BIG ONE HAPPEN? Like an impending train wreck you wish wouldn’t happen, you still can’t look away. But trying to ensure a Festival of Two-Wide Racing on tracks via tweaks to the car aero, etc. is like trying to hit a coked-up jackrabbit with a BB gun.
At the track fan experience. There’s something there. My youngest daughter won’t watch a race on TV at gunpoint, but she likes to go to Knoxville. Why? Sights, sounds, the smell of methanol exhaust in the air. She also likes the short duration of sprint car races. Twelve short races in a night is a lot more NEW!! than one long one. The physical experiences of attending a race is unlike any other sport.
Access is another advantage. IndyCar has an advantage here that, in my opinion, they refuse to press as agressively as they should. It’s hard to give fans access to NASCAR garages because the cars drive in and out during practice, which means people could get run over if everyone isn’t careful. IndyCar’s a pushed out to pit lane before and after practice, so fans can mill about, and they also have far greater access to drivers than NASCAR fans, and racing fans in general have greater racces to the athletes than fans of other sports. At Knoxville as with a thousand other tracks around the country, post-race you're encouraged to go into the pit and sit in cars, touch them, lean on them, whatever.
NASCAR has done some good things to increase virtual access. Their web-based Race View products help fans willing to pay more get inside the car with drivers via in-car cameras and the monitoring of drivers' radios. IndyCar has virtually no web-based equivalent offering, despite pleading from many fans (including me). Perhaps IndyCar doesn't see enough potential for return on the investment it would take to improve their virtual access.
Somehow, racing has to be social, continuously fresh and new and emphasize the in-person experience, or replicate it for the home viewer as much as possible. It’s a big challenge. Driver and science brain Colette Davis has hit on the idea that racing is rolling STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Therefore, maybe racing can capitalize on the national push to encourage kids to get into STEM fields through some kind of educational outreach. NASCAR does a good job of trying to involve fans where it can, through voting for this and that. The key remains to focus on engaging fans above all things.
I wish I had answers, at least more than the ideas I posted here, but then again if I did wouldn’t be just cranking it out on the blog, would I? Perhaps you have some ideas to share in the comments?