Is our sport of auto racing on the brink of extinction? Every week we can turn on the television to almost any auto race (NASCAR, ARCA, etc.) and as the television shots go by displaying the action on the racetrack in the background we can see all the empty seats. Bring it home and with the advent of Facebook Live we can see the same thing the empty seats in the local race tracks. Only a few select specials (NASCAR Trucks at Eldora) and a few local select specials (Show Me 100, Diamond of the Dirt, Grant Junghan Memorial) will see full grandstands. What happened?
During the decade of the 1990s this was the fastest growing sport in America! There was also something else that was the fastest growing at the same time – technology, specifically, internet technology. To think this timeframe was even before Facebook was developed. Let that settle for a moment! The last American street vehicle produced with a carburetor was the 1990 or 1991. With that stated it was not until 2012 that the Cup cars in NASCAR switched to fuel injection. So you could say we are two decades, 20 years, behind in street technology. Whatever happened to Win on Sunday sell on Monday?
The answer was we specialized in all forms of racing! The cars, trucks, and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) which we purchase at our favorite dealership (for me McCarthy Chevrolet they support racing) no longer compare to the cars and trucks on the racetrack. How much have we specialized, in the 1980s the IMCA Modifieds were introduced into the Kansas City racing community by Larry Kaster. These cars were closed wheel rears with open wheel fronts, the perfect cross for the open wheel versus stock car fans. Many resembled cars on the road, Pintos, Vegas, even an AMC bodied racecar. Who can remember Pat Gann competing and winning a championship in a Vega bodied station wagon Modified at the original Lakeside Speedway.
Late Models on dirt changed even more! During the 1980s they adopted the wedge body and while this was allowed for a few years the cars no longer resembled any production car on the street. To this day, the dirt late model’s closest resemblance to street car is the stick on headlights. Slowly but surely, we were separating racing from the auto makers.
NASCAR was following suit or maybe they were leading the way. They are currently on Generation 6 of the racecar bodies. Generation 1 was from 1948 through 1966 and included the following rules, strictly stock frame and body, doors strapped shut, seat belts required, heavy-duty rear axle required to keep cars from flipping during the race. Generation 2 was from 1967-1980 with the following requirements: stock body with a modified frame because the automakers had switched to the unibody construction. Modified chassis became part of the spot with Holman-Moody, Banjo Matthews and Hutchenson-Pagan building chassis for teams. The Generation 3 body was in force from 1981-1991 with the following rules, wheel base reduced to 110 inches, car was downsized to closer resemble cars on the showroom floor and the body panels were still purchased through manufacturers. The Generation 4 racecar was from 1992-2006 and was a highly-modified body with teams spending hours in wind tunnel testing to gain an aerodynamic edge and the nose and tail were made of molded fiberglass based on production counterparts. The 1998 Ford Taurus was the first four-door approved racecar, of course the racecar itself did not have four doors the production model did. Generation 5 introduced a new era of safety into the cars, moving the driver more toward the center, began the common body and chassis for all manufacturers thus reducing the need for track-specific race cars and introduced the front splitter and rear wing which provided the teams aerodynamic adjustment options. Generation 6 was effective starting in 2013 through the present day, it added manufacturer specific body panels on the standard chassis so that the cars would more closely resemble the cars on the dealership showroom floor.
Let’s jump forward to the hey days of Lakeside Speedway, better known as the Marc Olson years when he was the track owner and promoter from 2002 through 2012. Marc believed in three distinct classes that the casual fan could tell the difference was competing. We had Modifieds, Grand Nationals (looked like Late Models) and Factory Stocks. The important point was the casual fan, those who love the sport but don’t have the passion to attend every week and or jump into the sport as a competitor, official, pit crew, etc. Most of your casual fans are the those attending the racing events at the large speedways. Marc’s belief was the casual fans should be able to understand our sport simply by the different appearance of the three classes. Looking back he was on the money, the grandstands on most Friday nights were full, the classes averaged 40 plus Modifieds, 30 plus Grand Nationals and upwards of 50 plus Factory Stocks. Again, what happened?
We (I include all of us in this we, not just officials, but racers, car owners, touring series promoters, track promoters, everyone) started dividing up the classes. We now have three different classes of modifieds, A, B, and E with their separate rules packages, but guess what they sure look the same. Grand Nationals have withered away because of the B Mods a much less costly class to race. Factory Stocks disappeared for awhile, now making a comeback as the Pure Stock class at many race tracks and is one of the fastest growing classes in the area. The Stock class has been divided into at least three different versions (Stock Car, Hobby Stock, and Pure or Factory Stock). Where we formerly had 50 plus we now average less than 15 per class.
Want to know why purses have not kept up over the decades of racing. Look at how many times we have divided the classes over the years. Imagine just for a second where we would be if we only had one modified class, one stock class, one late model class, one sprint car class, one mini-sprint class, just imagine. For the racers imagine if we only had one class what the purse could be, just imagine.
What does the future hold for our sport? It ain’t pretty! Look at most of the people at a racetrack, white hair is the standard anymore! Mostly old racers, old officials, and old fans. Less people are in attendance because more and more white haired people are moving on to the next life. At Daytona this year we observed the kids in free for the truck race, that was encouraging, but we need more of that at all the tracks, after all that empty seat is not buying a drink or a popcorn or a hot dog. The other reason I say it is not pretty and we are nearing extinction is because of technology. My son made this point to me and it is scary, he asked do you realize your grandsons may not drive? Wow never gave that a thought but look at technology today driverless cars. Think that is a ways away, think again, did you read this blog on your phone?