Are Motorsports In Trouble?
This is not a new topic for me, but reading this article in USA Today last week confirmed what I have been saying for a while now. For some time, I’ve been voicing my concern for motorsports for the long term. I’m not talking strictly about IndyCar, but NASCAR and Formula One and motorsports across the board. I’ve been basing my concern off of more of a gut feeling, but this article backs up my fears with data.
In a nutshell, it reports that millennials have shown a sharp decline in any interest in getting their driver’s license. How sharp? In 1983, almost 92% of Americans between the ages of 20-24 held a driver’s license. Today, it’s barely over 75% (76.7%). In 2011, it was almost 80% and in 2008 the number was 82%. The conclusion is that cars are quickly becoming unimportant to millennials.
Even more alarming is that less than 25% of all sixteen-year-olds had a driver’s license in 2014, as compared to over 46% in 1983. What’s wrong with these kids?
When I was an eager teenager with raging hormones, I counted the days and then the hours until I turned sixteen and could get my driver’s license. Nothing told me that I had successfully transferred into adulthood and independence more than that paper card with only my name and address (and no photo) that I was carrying in my wallet.
As I recall, I got my license on a Thursday. By Saturday, I had already taken my car to the longest stretch of isolated road in Madison County to open her up and see how fast she would go. After that, I sought out the windiest road in the area to see how well she cornered and quickly established a baseline of limits. Then as I got more experience behind the wheel, I would test those limits and push them. I found driving to be exhilarating. Looking back, I was lucky to have never had a serious accident from pushing those limits. My only wreck in high school was running into the back of a car at a stop light as I fiddled with my 8-Track.
This is not the rambling of a frustrated old man reminiscing about how much better things were in my day, but more of an observation of the obvious shift in the interests of young people today.
My children are both millennials. For clarification, the Pew Research center defines millennials as those born between 1981 and 1996. My kids were born in 1988 and 1989. Susan’s were born in 1990 and 1994. So our blended family consists of four millennials. I have a lot of personal observations to draw on to form some of my gut-feeling conclusions.
Those that fall into that category say they hate that term. Believe me, it’s much more flattering than the other terms I’ve heard to describe their age group. The “Stupid Generation”, the “Selfish Generation” and the “Me Generation” have all made the rounds; so I don’t think I’d balk at the term “millennials” if I were one of them. I don’t know that it’s any worse than the term to describe my age group – the “Baby-Boomers”
There are also different traits that define this group with varying degrees of kindness. Some refer to this group as Trophy Kids, because actual competition was de-emphasized while they were growing up and equal trophies were given to all participants just for showing up. They tend to be more civic minded, both locally and globally. While most of us baby-boomers tend to scoff at those trying to save the planet, it’s a way of life with the millennials.
These two traits don’t seem to have much to do with one another, unless you are looking at them from a racing standpoint. Being civic-minded and caring about the planet are not normally looked upon as bad traits. Like most, I consider myself civic-minded; but I wouldn’t say that the welfare of our planet is foremost in my mind. Does that make me a bad person? In my mind, no – but millennials may answer that question differently.
Trophy-kids that care about the planet is a bad combination if you care about the future of motorsports. Eschewing any sort of competition is becoming more of the norm in today’s society. I will hear from many in that age group that will dispute that and will say that they are as competitive as anyone. That may be true, but you are the exception for your generation, not the norm. Couple that with a disdain for anything that burns fuel and subsequently fills the air with pollutants and noise while pursuing competition – well, you’ve got a despicable product on your hands in the eyes of millennials.
I’m obviously exaggerating here a little, but by how much is up for debate. But am I really being that extreme by claiming that most millennials will never become racing fans? I don’t think so.
The article points out that automakers have taken note of this trend. They also fear that millennials are less inclined to travel to see their friends, as opposed to staying in touch through social media and smartphones. This is a separate soap box for me; the fear that our upcoming adults have no ability to interact with each other face-to-face and without a keyboard or keypad to hide behind – but I won’t get into that one here today.
For years I have been saying that our newest generation of adults see cars completely different than we did forty and fifty years ago. No matter how cheap or ratty our cars were, we saw them as extensions of ourselves and our personalities. I swear there were times when I felt my car and I were one in the same. All I had to do was think and the car would go there. Driving, to me, was an absolute thrill – and it still is.
There is a 20-mile stretch of winding road on I-40 at the Tennessee/North Carolina state line. Some people I know completely dread driving on that stretch of road. They will go out of their way to avoid it. I, on the other hand, will go out of my way to drive it. Every time I finish driving that stretch, my blood is pumping and I can feel the adrenaline rush through my body. That’s the thrill I get from driving and is probably the root of my love of motorsports – lying to myself that I could do what professional drivers do. I imagine that I am not alone and that’s why many have come to love motorsports.
Today’s young adult does not share that love or passion for the automobile. They see it as strictly a way to get from Point-A to Point-B. It is a necessary evil that they no longer find necessary. Bicycles, Uber and Lyft are becoming desired options over owning and driving a car. I would imagine that it is hard to enjoy watching cars race when you have no interest in cars.
The shifting interest among millennials is not just limited to motorsports. Stick and ball sports do not have the same appeal to millennials as they had with previous generations. There are many theories for this. Is it because the majority of them grew up playing soccer instead of football or baseball, and soccer still has a limited following in the US? Is it because competition has been de-emphasized? Perhaps it’s because it now costs so much to attend these games in person that they are no longer exposed to live major sporting events, and therefore have no interests in them. Whatever the case, NFL attendance and TV viewership among this age group is down and it is even a concern to the behemoth that is the NFL.
I think motorsports will be OK for the next decade or so, but I’m most concerned about what the landscape will look like in twenty years or more, when the millennials reach middle age and represent the demographic with the most buying power.
This year we celebrate the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. The 125th running will hopefully take place in 2041, when I will be eighty-two years old. I would like to think I’ll still be around by then, but will the Indianapolis 500? It’s a scary thought, but I’m not quite sure. I’m not trying to be Mister Doom & Gloom here, but this is a legitimate concern. I also don’t want to stick my head in the sand and claim everything to be rosy.
Usually, right about now, we would chastise Mark Miles and Company for not doing anything about this. But in this case, I’m not sure what he or anyone else can do. Purposely changing the shifts in interests of a population is a daunting task. It’s a runaway train that not one single entity can stop. We can’t force millennials to suddenly like something they’ve grown to have a disdain for. Maybe we should just enjoy what we have while we have it.