Gordon Kirby

Time for America to sharpen up

In recent years major league American motor racing has suffered a precipitous decline in crowds and TV ratings. NASCAR of course is by far the most popular and successful form of professional racing in America. It boomed through the Nineties and into the 21st century as many new tracks were built around the country, but since the recession of 2008-09 the sport has been struggling. 

Over the last half-dozen years NASCAR’s TV numbers have dwindled by more than a half and the downward trend continued in 2016. Many races were down substantially from 2015 and the year’s last dozen races, including all the ‘Chase for the Cup’ events, plunged to record low ratings.

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 missing almost half of the 2016 season because of a concussion injury (although he’s been cleared to return at the start of next season). Without doubt, Gordon, Stewart and Earnhardt are NASCAR’s biggest modern stars and it appears that their departure/absence has already had an effect on crowds and TV ratings. 

NASCAR enjoys US racing’s biggest and best TV package. It is in the opening years of a pair of 10-year contracts, worth more than $8 billion through 2024 with NBC and Fox. So NASCAR has time to find a way to rebound before the time comes to renew its TV deals. 

Monster energy drink comes on board in 2017 as NASCAR’s new series sponsor, replacing Sprint. There are hopes that Monster will add some marketing power and help develop NASCAR’s dwindling youth audience – something all forms of motor racing are struggling to attract.

Meanwhile, the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar have been battling an even steeper decline in popularity than NASCAR as a result of a civil war between two competing leagues, CART and IRL, that went on from 1996-2007. This battle all but destroyed Indycar racing. More than 40 individual races failed during this time. Amid an embattled environment, the series lost brand identity, credibility and media coverage. The Indy 500 still draws a big crowd, but many regular events are struggling.

Another result of the CART/IRL civil war was the decimation of America’s Indycar industry. Today’s chassis are built to a low-cost formula by Dallara in Italy. In fact, the last time an American-built car won the Indy 500 was in 1982, a third of a century ago. 

And on the international stage American cars, drivers and teams have become equally irrelevant. The last time an all-American combination of cars, team and drivers won the Le Mans 24 Hours was back in 1967 – 50 years ago next June – when Dan Gurney and AJ Foyt scored a historic win for Ford. The last time an American driver won the Formula 1 world championship was Mario Andretti in 1978 – almost 40 years ago – and the last time an American stood on the podium at an F1 race was when Mario’s son Michael finished third in the 1993 Italian Grand Prix.

Across America and around the world there’s more participation than ever in a wide range of motor sports. More than 200 sanctioning bodies run automobile racing series across the United States, for every imaginable type of car. 

American racing enjoys tremendous diversity, but this is also its biggest weakness. Everyone fights for their own turf without any overall strategy, so the industry desperately needs a serious leader capable of pushing it in the right direction.