(Formula 1 World Driving Champion Lewis Hamilton in his McLaren Mercedes race car; F1 is by far the world's most-expensive motorsport).
Motor racing of all types became a huge draw during the First Great Depression, from 1929 until the start of WWII.
Today, though, in this Second Great Depression, motor racing is being hit hard, not just in the US, but worldwide.
Every major racing series, from the quintessentially American series like NHRA drag racing, IndyCar and NASCAR to world events like Formula 1, the exciting and interesting new A1 Grand Prix series to World Rally, European Touring Cars and all the motorcycle sports, too, are trying to cut costs through new rules including canceling or shortening on-track test sessions and cutting-back on other expensive development costs, like testing a vehicle's aerodynamics in a wind tunnel.
A year ago, a lot of NASCAR fans started showing up at races dressed as empty seats, while attendance at most all other series dropped, too. This year, there's little if any hope for improvement at the gates of America's race tracks; there were even plenty of empty seats at last year's Indy 500, something unthinkable throughout much of that track's 100-year history.
(This JC Agajanian-owned Indy race car won the event in 1963 with Parnelli Jones in the cockpit; costs for racing were just starting their meteoric rise; that's Agajanian in his trademark Stetson and Parnelli Jones is to the right).
NASCAR has just finished a decade-long run of phenomenal growth which included sell-outs at many, if not most races and a current TV contract on a high-dollar par with the National Football League. Those big-money days are now officially over, at least through this year and probably next.
If attendance at racing was so strong during the First Great Depression, then why not now?
The answer: costs. For example, tickets for popular racing series can cost over $150 per person per day, with food, drink, parking and souvenirs adding another $1,000 or more throughout a typical three-day race weekend for a family of four. Sure, we make more money than in the 1930s, but costs for entertainment like racing have far out-stripped inflation on a dollar-per-dollar basis.
(Toyota's recent entry into NASCAR's three professional series upped the ante for every team in the sport; engine development and other R&D costs have since skyrocketed, as Dodge, Chevrolet and Ford teams try to keep up with the Japanese giant ).
Some other indicators that costs are just out of hand:
- NASCAR fans were shocked recently to see four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon going through airport security, removing his shoes for inspection and taking his seat on a commercial airliner, rather than taking the typical NASCAR star flight mode of being driven directly on the tarmac and dropped next to a waiting private jet;
- Honda has pulled their team out of Formula 1 for 2009, the series considered motorsports' greatest technical challenge and certainly its costliest, saving the company an estimated $250 million a year (you read right) by dropping their two-car team;
- Every major racing team in the US has had to lay people off (except for Roger Penske Racing, at least so far); other teams have been shuttered and the most-famous name and team in NASCAR, Richard Petty and his Petty Enterprises, begun over 50 years ago by the family's racing patriarch, Lee Petty, no longer exists. Petty merged with another team, Gillett Evernham Motorsports, and Richard Petty is the new team's figurehead. Showing the effects of the crashing economy can affect the wealthy, too, Petty's popular driver/TV announcer son, Kyle, has quit the team and, apparently, his family, too. The new team is now called RPM (Richard Petty Motorsports).
(Experts say Honda is saving about $250 million by pulling their two-car team out of F1 racing for this year; the photo shows one of the company's Very Light Jets - VLJs - Toyota is developing some similar aircraft, and remains in F1 this season).
But there could be a silver lining in all this, something racing and fans could benefit from for decades to come.
In the 1960s, racing became a way-too-expensive business, and it's never stopped dinging its participants more each year. Michael Schumacher, the seven-time world driving champion from Formula 1, was, in his last year with the Ferrari team, the world's highest-paid athlete. Top NASCAR racers earn as much as $20 million a year, not including personal service contracts, and few earn less than $5 million. An Indy 500 winner can take home $5 million in prize money alone, without tallying their product endorsement, advertising and personal appearance fees.
The truth is that the race fans, at the track and at home, don't care about how fast these cars and motorcycles can go. Ultimately, all they really want to see is tight, close, fair, safe and competitive racing.
For sheer top speed, annual events at Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats and at similar dry lakes around the world exist for all comers to take on those land speed record (LSR) challenges.
Years ago I was involved with Speedway motorcycle racing at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, CA. Speedway bikes, whose history goes back to the 1920s, is one of the most-popular motorsports in the world outside the US, and have single-cylinder four-stroke 500cc engines which run on nitromethane, are slid around the corners of an oval dirt track (turn right to go left) and, oh yeah, they have no brakes.
(Speedway motorcycles put on one of the best shows in motorsports; in winter, they add metal studs to the tires and race on ice).
Those Friday night races drew over 9,000 people every week in the 1970s, packing the grandstands around a true "bull ring" track of perhaps ¼-mile in length.
And the action, in almost every four-lap race, of which there were over 20 a night, was fast, furious and thrilling. The fans were told that the bikes were going 60 miles per hour.
One night, we brought a radar gun to the track. We found that the Speedway motorcycles were actually going an average of 12 miles per hour. But as far as the fans were concerned, it sure looked like 60!
Now there's finally agreement among everyone in the sport, from promoters to team owners to track owners to TV networks and the drivers, riders, and fans, too, that costs must be drastically cut and then maintained at lower levels than today.
(The late TV host Johnny Carson is in the cockpit, preparing to take a few laps around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the revolutionary turbine-powered race car; sponsor STP's Andy Granatelli is on the left; Parnelli Jones drove the car in the 1967 race and was in the lead near the end of the event when the failure of a $5 part stopped the car cold. Cost-cutting rules developed after the turbine car did so well kept it out of competition after 1967).)
Over the next two or three years, major revisions in rulebooks and the specifications for racing cars and motorcycles could help create a new golden age of motor racing - with the goals of tight, competitive racing, a real concern for the environment and, of course, the safety of competitors and fans.
Doing all that, and more, should result in lower tickets prices, old and new fans who appreciate aggressive racing and, perhaps most beguiling, a real shot at victory not only for the same three or four teams which dominate in every form of racing today, but for everyone good enough to be on the race track in the first place.