Where will the next generation of racing fans come from? And what sort of racing will they embrace?
If you are reading this column, you are among the converted – someone with sufficient interest in motorsports to visit a web site called Motorsport.com.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about who Motorsport.com’s audience will be in 10 years. In 20 years. And I’m concerned.
Not for Motorsport.com so much, but for motorsports.
Here’s an example of why: A former colleague, the mother of what she insists is a “typical” teenaged son, recently wrote about the fact that finally, he consented to getting his driver’s license – at her insistence. Apparently the kid has no real interest in driving in general, cars in particular. Apparently she and her husband were tired of driving him and his friends around. Or of his license-related inability to pick up younger siblings from soccer practice, or run to the store for a gallon of milk.
This kid will never be a Motorsport.com reader. Or a reader of any racing- or car-related publication, electronic of otherwise.
Is he an aberration? No, and that’s the concern. Two years ago, an AAA-commissioned survey suggested that just 44 percent of respondents, who were between 18 and 20, got a driver's license within one year of the minimum age for doing so in their state. Only 54 percent said they got a license before turning 18. By all indications, that trend is continuing, and increasing.
Does that mean it’s absolutely a given that we will eventually see a parallel between the lack of interest in cars and driving, and a decline of interest in motorsports? What do you think? When I turned 16, it seemed almost mandatory that you slice up the birthday cake in the morning, then you make a trip to the motor vehicle department to get your driver’s license that afternoon. No longer.
Manufacturers are taking notice
This is not something that has escaped the attention of auto manufacturers. In the top car magazines, there is a three-page ad this month for the 2015 Chevrolet Equinox, the company’s freshened-up small SUV. On the first page, there’s one paragraph that mentions the Equinox’s four-cylinder engine and its 32-mpg highway fuel mileage. It also mentions how roomy the inside is to carry your stuff.
Turn the page, and the remaining two-page spread talks only about “connectivity,” and how you can connect up to seven mobile devices to the 4G LTE built-in Wi-Fi. About how you can get Sirius XM Travel Link, Siri Eyes-Free and OnStar with Remote Link, meaning you can start the engine from anywhere, using your smart phone.
This ad is not in Popular Mechanics, or Wired, or Rolling Stone – it’s in Motor Trend and Car and Driver, where you’d expect to see ads that tout horsepower, handling, styling, and possibly the manufacturer’s connection to motorsports. It is designed to appeal to younger customers – who care far less about horsepower, handling, styling and motorsports than previous generations.
Three series that are working hard to be relevant
That said, there are three types of motorsports that, I submit, are trying to buck that trend by re-writing the rules.
One is Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Truck series, which rolls into town like a circus, sets up a simple track on the cheap – on public roads, in a parking lot, at an actual race track – with dirt and jumps and lots of body contact. The trucks are generic, nameless, loud 600-horsepower vehicles that are essentially radio-controlled toy trucks come to life, an appropriate comparison since Traxxas, which makes those RC trucks, sponsors the series.
Another is the Red Bull Rallycross Championship, which uses hot-rodded cars based on models that young people can theoretically afford (Ford Fiestas, Hyundai Velosters, Chevrolet Sonics), driven by social media-friendly drivers like Ken Block, Bucky Lasek, Travis Pastrana, Scott Speed and Tanner Foust, with a dose of young female drivers like Emma Gilmour and Sarah Burgess. Like Stadium Super Trucks, Rallycross rolls into town, stages a show at RFK Stadium one week, Daytona International Speedway on another, all under the large and very savvy Red Bull umbrella like a little dose of the X Games in your home town.
And finally, there is Formula E, which has yet to stage its first race. To say it is Formula One with electric motors is oversimplifying it, but I suspect that is the public perception. Which is fine: The technology is amazing, and could well appeal to both traditional racing fans, and people who have never thought of attending a NASCAR race.
I’m not saying that Motorsport.com will dump F1, NASCAR, IndyCar, NHRA and sports car racing for Formula E, SST and Rallycross, but count on continuing coverage of those three series. Not just to ensure our survival, but because those series are making news. And if it makes news and involves racing, we cover it.
As for Motorsport.com, we’re doing fine… check our numbers against any of our competitors on any analytic site you want, and you’ll likely find that what Trafficestimate.com says is typical: Our monthly visitor traffic, the site says, is up 86.5 percent year over year.
But to keep that momentum, we can’t just follow the curve, we have to stay ahead of it. As for where that curve is leading – your guess is as good as ours is.
In fact, what IS your guess? Comment below if you feel so inclined.