In motorsports, the winter months are often a time for reflection and preparation for the upcoming season. Anticipation builds as team announcements provide a fix for racing junkies during the dog days of winter. But this year, it's a completely different story. Instead of hearing about new additions or returning rivalries, the headlines are flooded by news of manufacturers and teams retreating from the sport.
The global economic situation has impacted us all, but it has already put a major dent in the auto racing community. The hits have kept on coming, and they're not likely to let up any time soon.
The first real bombshell came two weeks ago when Honda announced its exit from Formula One. That same day, Audi pulled the plug on its American Le Mans Series and European-based Le Mans Series programs. Then came Subaru's and Suzuki's departures from the World Rally Championship. Even NASCAR hasn't been immune from the crisis, as many teams have downsized and merged with other operations, leaving hundreds of employees without jobs in the midst of the holiday season.
The most recent blow came this week with the cancellation of the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, the Motor City's revived street race featuring the IndyCar Series and the ALMS. As America's "big three" automakers plea for rescue plans on Capitol Hill, uncertainty looms over its motorsports involvement.
GM has already slashed significant amounts of sponsorship dollars in NASCAR, as have Ford and Chrysler. But with two of those companies on the brink of bankruptcy, will that be enough?
What does the future hold for auto racing? Will automakers still approve the millions of dollars of investments that go annually to motorsport programs? Many have already rethought its involvement during these tough economic times. What will be the next domino to fall?
Some of those questions won't be answered in the next few weeks, but rather over the next few years. But in order for factory backed motor racing to survive, it will have to change its game face, and it has to happen now.
Auto racing, to the general public, is often considered a gas-guzzling, polluting form of entertainment. For the most part, they are correct. NASCAR, for instance, just recently switched to unleaded fuel. And nearly every series in the world relies on the use of internal combustion engines. This could very well be a thing of the past.
Automakers may be forced to cut their budgets in racing because of the sport's environmental impacts. Why go race something that's not supporting the global "green" push? That's where it needs to change. Auto racing across the board has to be rethought in order to sustain manufacturers' support.
A handful of series are already leading the way in eco-friendly initiatives. The ALMS has encouraged teams and manufacturers to embrace green racing through a variety of methods, including the use of cellulosic E85 ethanol, clean diesel fuel and hybrid technology. The IndyCar Series, meanwhile, will use 100 percent sugar-cane ethanol to power all of its cars in 2009, and similar initiatives have started to pop up in drag racing and in other levels of motorsports. While this is a step in the right direction, it's not the ultimate solution.
Ask anyone in the automotive industry and they will point towards pure electric or fuel cell technology as the future not only on the racetrack, but also on the road. In fact, we're already seeing it in production cars today with electric vehicles (EV) such as the Tesla Roadster and the Chevrolet Volt, which is planned to hit showroom floors in 2010. Others will follow and could help usher in a new era in the history of the automobile.
And that's where motorsports will come back into play. Just as seen in the past, lessons learned on the racetrack will transition into the production cars of tomorrow. Racing will actually have a purpose and meaning, as already proven in series such as the ALMS. This will be a place where technology will drive the innovations, and manufacturers will embrace the sport for this very reason.
Imagine seeing a 43-car field of EVs on the high banks of Daytona, or a mix of fuel cell and electric-powered prototypes battling each other down the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans. While these visions may sound unconventional right now, it's the way of the future and auto racing's only hope of survival.
While there may be some rough roads ahead, it's time to think about the long term. Perhaps this global recession serves as a wake-up call for all involved in the motorsports world. It's time to get our acts together and build towards the future. Racing as we know it has changed, and it's never going to look the same again.