Is The Future Of Auto Racing In Danger?
Normally, I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to what comes out of NPR. Let’s just say that I don’t fit into their demographics or target audience. But I came across an article from NPR last week that got my attention. It was about the upcoming generation of millennials and their disdain for the automobile. The article focused on how this affected the auto industry, but I got to thinking how it would translate into the future of motorsports.
This is not about the doom and gloom of the IndyCar series. God only knows there is enough of that out there, without me adding to it. This is simply pondering the future of all motorsports across the board and its appeal or lack thereof to the upcoming generation.
There is some debate over when the age of the millennials started. For our purposes, let’s say that it encompasses anyone born between 1985 and 2000 – a range that includes both of my kids; my daughter was born in 1988 and my son in 1989. As the article points out; the millennials make up about eighty million of the US population and they represent the greatest number today besides the baby-boomers, which I am a member of.
Next month, I will hit the milestone of fifty-five, which means I will be eligible for a senior-citizen discount at movie theaters and some fine dining establishments such as Denny’s. To make me feel even more like a dinosaur – I share the demographic of baby-boomer with those that were born as early as 1946 through 1964. It is small consolation that I am on the younger end of the baby-boom spectrum. Like most my age, I am delusional and convince myself into thinking that I’m really more like the thirty-somethings more than I am the sixty-somethings. But the truth of the matter is, I’m enough of a curmudgeon and an old fuddy-duddy that I could pass for an octogenarian (Get off my lawn!).
Whatever the case, I have a hard time relating to the mindset of the millennials. I realize that every generation claims that the one coming behind them will destroy the earth as we know it. Consequently, every new generation claims that they are part of a revolution that will completely overthrow conventional thinking. Sometimes, there is truth in both claims.
I don’t care to discuss what is perceived as the poor work-ethics, strange values and bizarre goals of the millennials. That’s for someone else to dwell on at another site. What does concern me as far as the future of IndyCar and motorsports in general, is the way the new generation views auto racing.
Like many, I have personal experience being involved with my kids growing up. My son played T-Ball, where they didn’t keep score and everyone got a trophy. In Little League, winning was de-emphasized. It was only important to have fun, instead of trying to win. Later on, I was exposed to meetings with teachers where it was apparent that competition was looked upon as evil and something to be avoided at all cost. Consequently, my son is now twenty-four and lives in an unreal world where no one should be rewarded for hard work, everyone should be entitled to everything and we are all equal. This is not only his mindset, but the vast majority of his friends and co-workers.
I grew up in the sixties. To quote Charles Dickens; it was the best of times and the worst of times. Unlike the placid fifties, there was civil unrest, violence and riots in the sixties. Those that were of college age focused on social issues much more so than in any other previous generation. The result was a massive shift in culture by the end of the decade – for better or worse, depending on your perspective.
But sports were a huge part of the sixties, as well. In my opinion, that was the birth of the modern sports era – mainly due to television. For the first time, the World Series was available for everyone to watch. The Super Bowl was born in the late sixties. The world got its first real expanded look at the Indianapolis 500 through ABC’s Wide World of Sports. The Olympics were televised and many saw the events for the first time ever. Competition was still considered a good thing in those days, for the most part.
Auto racing gained immense popularity in the sixties. Muscle cars were the envy of every prepubescent male on the planet. With the introduction of the Mustang, Camaro, GTO and Firebird, to go along with the still affordable Corvette – car enthusiasts were in a virtual heaven. On weekends, they would try to catch just a glimpse of Formula One or USAC Championship racing on television. “Car guys” were insatiable. Another benefit to being a car guy was that the cooler car you had, the better looking girl you got. Gasoline was plentiful at thirty-five cents a gallon. It didn’t take a huge bite from your wallet to fill your car and go cruising. America had a love affair with its cars. Life was good.
I was too young to drive in the sixties. I didn’t turn sixteen until 1974. But by the time I was eight years old, I could glance at a car and tell you if it was a 1966 or 1967 Mustang. The culture in those days required that kids my age learn the subtle differences between all makes of cars. To not be able to pick a 1968 GTO out of a group of cars, brought your manhood into question.
Today, things are different – way different. The NPR article reinforced what I already knew. Today’s kids, teenagers and young adults aren’t interested in cars. They are viewed as expensive contraptions meant only to get you from Point-A to Point-B in a very efficient and green manner. Perhaps what is most perplexing to me and those of my age is how many of today’s kids have no desire to get their driver’s license. For months, I counted down the days to my sixteenth birthday. I still remember it was a sunny Thursday afternoon when my mother took me to the DMV to take my driving test on my birthday after school. After passing the test, I took my mother home and I was off to the races – literally. That was pretty much the norm.
My son turned sixteen in 2005. Yet, for whatever reason, he didn’t get his license until about two months later. Susan’s oldest son finally got his license about six months after his sixteenth birthday. Her youngest waited until he was almost eighteen before she essentially forced him to get it. What’s up with that? I’ve seen reports where kids today would much rather be driven around instead of ever getting behind the wheel. They don’t want to get their license. I cannot even process that way of thinking.
Unfortunately, there is also a fast growing segment of today’s youth that are completely uninterested in sports. Even the mainstream sports of football, baseball and basketball are not holding the attention of today’s youth as in years past. Yes, there are still plenty of kids who are fanatical about one of the traditional stick & ball sports – but the waning in popularity is growing. Perhaps the message that competition is bad is starting to take hold in some of the population.
The combination in the lack of interest in cars among the millennials and the decrease of popularity in sports among today’s youth presents a troubling picture for the future of motorsports. No longer do young men drool over the sight of a monster-sized polished engine. The smell of racing fuel is not intoxicating as it used to be. The sight of a sleek racing machine at speed is no longer mesmerizing to most young men or women. Throw in the fact that people can still lose their lives while competing against each other to see who can go the fastest, and you get questions why anyone would do that instead of being awestruck by those that compete. Just as my generation had no interest in boxing, this new generation may look at racing as a sport whose time has passed.
Much has been said and written on this site and many other places about going after the casual fan or the young fan. The assumption is that if they get exposed to any form of racing, they’ll immediately fall in love with it. Why? Because that’s what happened to us. If it worked as a tonic on us, surely it will do the same to our kids. Right? Wrong.
Like most racing-fan parents, I took my kids to races. At age three, my son could name two-thirds of the starting field of the 1992 Indianapolis 500 – just by looking at the pictures of the cars. In the early to mid-nineties, he was almost as passionate about IndyCar racing as I was. But his peers didn’t get racing and they drug him away from it. His last race was the 2005 Indianapolis 500 – which was a great race. I think if he never went back, it would suit him just fine. He no longer follows sports and sees no point in cars racing against each other. And I think his way of thinking is probably a good representation of his age group.
The baby-boomers will be around to carry IndyCar, NASCAR and Formula One through another decade or so, but what about the future?
Andretti Autosport has announced plans to compete in the Formula E championship in 2014. If you are unfamiliar with Formula E, it is an eco-friendly championship running totally electric race cars in ten cities around the world. This is being hailed as the future of motorsports. Michael Andretti was quoted as saying that this will keep auto racing relevant. The batteries will only last for twenty-five minutes. As the batteries run down, the driver will come into the pits and run 100 meters to a freshly charged car.
I know I’m reverting to my octogenarian phase again, but if that’s what it takes to keep auto racing relevant in the future – count me out. What about savoring the smell of methanol/ethanol in the air? Where is the exhilarating sound? One of the things that I didn’t care for with the turbine cars at Indianapolis in 1967-68, was the irritating whine that replaced the thunderous roar of an Offenhauser or the throaty sound of a Ford V-8. As cool as I thought those cars were at the age of ten, I knew they sorely lacked the sound of a real engine.
So is the long-term future of auto racing doomed as we know it? Not exactly.
When I was growing up in the late sixties, I was terrified at the thought of going to college and dealing with riots, violence and unrest. By the time I got there in 1976, the pendulum had swung the other way. The long-haired hippies in tie-dye of the late sixties were replaced by short-haired kids in khakis, buttoned-down shirts and penny-loafers who actually bathed regularly.
Just because, at this moment, it appears that there is a profound lack of interest in the automobile among young people; does not mean it will always be that way. Just as there were many of us who stayed silent that didn’t necessarily agree with the hippie movement – I think there are still a lot of closet car fans out there. It is no longer politically correct among their peers to say they are into gas-guzzling machines that they would like to race – but they are still out there.
Perhaps the pendulum will swing again, just as it did about forty years ago when I was coming of age. The cultural difference between 1969 and 1979 was huge. It’s hard to believe that the mindset of the nation and the world could change that quickly.
So who knows? Things could change where it’s suddenly cool again to covet someone else’s set of wheels. Stranger things have happened. If there is a resurgence of interest among young people in the automobile, I think auto racing will stay relevant in this country for a long time.