Wither (Whither?) Club Racing?
Opinion copyright (c) 1994 by John P. M. Dillon; Uploaded by the author.
********************** This article was originally published in the January (?), 1995, issue of MotoRacing magazine. MotoRacing is currently on sale at selected newstands in the west, or you can call 1-800-58-KELLY to subscribe ($18 per year). **********************
I've been told that statistics have shown a decline in SCCA race entries over the past several years. At many of the smaller regionals, some classes are entirely uncontested or have only one or two cars. Even (especially?) in National races, to win in class means you finished half the laps.
In years past it's been easy to "blame the economy." California in particular has been bludgeoned by the shifting world politics that have (many would say) reduced the need for heavy aerospace expenditures. The state, with its high-tech reputation and work force, is struggling to convert its brain power to commercial ventures, while its brains are struggling to feed their families by flipping burgers or leaving town.
But, I'll submit, the economy has masked (and exascerbated) the deeper roots of the broblem. In short, the SCCA is robbing itself of regional entries by endorsing and encouraging quasi-pro series. Our club (the SCCA) has 24 National classes and an additional stack of regional-only classes. Several of these classes have SCCA-approved pro classes associated with them. To name a few, there's Nasport (GT3 and GT4) Pro Shelby (ShelCan), Pro Spec Racer (Spec Racer Ford) and the American Cities Racing League (Sports 2000). Additionally, alternative sanctioning bodies offer some club racers other venues, including USAC's FF2000, FVA's Pro Vee series, the new IRRA Sports Racer series for Spec Racers, IMSA's Firehawk and Supercar series, and so on.
But why would a club racer consider a "pro" race? The answer is undoubtably obvious, but before we answer it, we as an organization need to answer some questions. First of all, who is the club racing customer? I propose it's the driver. Secondly, if we are losing customers, are we having them drop out of racing completely or just losing them to other venues? Thirdly, if drivers--excuse me, customers--are going to other organizations, then we need to find out why. What are they offering that we're not? Lastly, once we've isolated the problem areas, we must ask ourselves that most important question--what can we do to bring them back?
Having voiced these concerns, I'll now toss out some ideas, but let me hasten to add the usual modifier: There are no quick and easy fixes. If there were, hopefully they would have been recognized and implemented long ago.
So why are competitors forsaking club racing for pro series? Money looks like the big reason. When I got started as a flagger in the SCCA, I was told "wave a $50 bill in front of a driver and he'll do the craziest stuff to win it." How many $1000 prizes have cost ten grand to win? Despite this seeming anomaly, racers appear to go where prize money is awarded.
If, on the other hand, we're losing drivers completely (instead of just losing them to other venues), we nonetheless have to think of the money. While many personal incomes are declining, the cost of racing continues to climb. From basic costs like increased license, membership and entry fees, to tires, to vehicle-specific competition costs, to surcharges for new racetracks like Thunderhill and Buttonwillow (which, no matter how noble the cause, are still an additional racing "tax"), to compliance fees, everything is getting more expensive.
What other reasons, if any, are causing drivers to move away from the SCCA? It's been said that our club is too bureaucratic now. The officials are often officious, the hassles overcome the fun, and the Board of Directors is making decisions in a vaccuum, fixing things that aren't broke or breaking things that don't need fixin'. Nor can we blame just the leadership. The level of competitor-to-competitor sniping is also on the rise (as measured by the number of protests filed.) From one driver complaining about another's missing wiper blades to one driver claiming another was pregnant (!) protests are popping up more and more frequently. To oversimplify our system, we have rotating stewards, protest hearings and courts, and nice fat collection of rules called the GCR. In contrast, other series often have a single steward serving as a "benevolent dictator" who has earned the respect of the competitors and who's decisions are final. Is their system better? Probably not, but some drivers think so.
So, what can be done to restore regional and national entry levels? As stated, there are no quick and simple solutions.
However, a good first step would be to reflect on our positive qualities and maximize and emphasize those. These qualities include 1) our membership and cameraderie, 2) our family-oriented nature, 3) our "low-bucks" classes, and 4) the opportunities for people to be involved in racing as non-drivers at events around the country.
1) In the best of times and in adversity, our club is filled with wonderful, caring people. You need look no further that at the contributions that flowed into Cal Club after the Northridge earthquake. Even under more mundane circumstances, you'll see people helping each other in the pits, one competitor providing another with that spare tool and extra hand needed to make the racing more exciting.
2) Our club is a family-oriented racing community. At most tracks, for example Laguna Seca or Mid Ohio, camping is the perfect way to enjoy our sport. You can meet new neighbors while having the kids along for something that requires neither television nor Nintendo. Further, proposals are being considered that would allow youngsters to be even more involved, either as workers or as drivers.
3) In some classes our club offers tremendous competition at "reasonable" cost. San Diego is experimenting with a Spec RX-7 class, where a competitive car runs at about $3000, while Cal Club is reviewing a Ron Ostlund proposal of a "Spec Stock Toyota" based on a 75-79 Corolla that he says could be built as cheaply as $900. Proponents of more established classes like Formula Vee, Spec Racer, and Improved Touring, all tout relatively inexpensive formulae as well.
4) Lastly, our club offers excellent opportunities for non-drivers to be active in our sport through the various worker specialties. You can get up close and personal at race tracks all across the country, both at SCCA-sanctioned events and at other, more-televised venues like IndyCar and IMSA races.
While some of this may seem like a digression from our real question of "how do we retain drivers," I think we see some strengths we can continue to develop. Those areas deemed problems by the departing drivers need to be addressed head-on by the SCCA.
Communication is no doubt the key to making this endeavor successful. As for the prize money issue, this author will leave that question to others to discuss. However, it's possible that SCCA needs to rethink it's support of quasi-pro series. Either that, or maybe all races should be given quasi-pro status and support.
Perhaps this is a bold concept, too radical for implementation, but we've got to at least consider alternative proposals. Drastic times call for drastic measures. It's my feeling that marketing our strengths, solving our problems, and--most importantly--implementing creative ideas will be the key to restoring the vitality of our club and the interest of our membership.