Motorsports? Not A Fan

Heresy? Perhaps.

Whether its WRC, Formula 1, CART, DTM, or NASCAR, I have trouble getting excited over watching someone else drive. Nor do I understand how anyone enjoys football, soccer, hockey, or baseball on television. It’s like a video game without the interactivity and control.

Baseball has a handful of positives. The stadium experience cultivates a sense of civic pride and the activity level on the field is so sparse it gives plenty of time to socialize, enjoy the weather, and drink overpriced beer. Same for college football — the young, inebriated crowd is the primary source of excitement. The game itself has too much stop and go.

Basketball gets a bit of a pass since it’s high-scoring and constantly moving, and hockey tries to compensate for the boredom with physical confrontations. Rallying also has its moments — the high jumps, the deep mud, and the epic crashes into people, trees, and farm animals.

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Last month’s issue of Automobile Magazine covered a rallying event up north. The writers took three luxury convertibles, top-down, to Michigan in the dead of winter. A local racing enthusiast recalled a story:
“Deon Rice, who hasn’t missed a Sno*Drift since the inaugural event in 1973, is at Parc Expose with his four young sons and his dad, Jerry. They don’t watch from designated spectator areas, instead setting up their own stations along the course. Rally America asks fans to view the event from six designated spectator areas — five of which have no admission fee — but with 132 miles of competition roads, it’s impossible for rally marshals to stop devoted fans from finding their own spots. “We hide behind trees and stand four feet away from cars going 80 mph,” Deon reveals. “While we wait for the cars to come by, we target-shoot BB guns and twenty-twos.”
“When Pastrana hit the deer, we were on the stage waiting for him. We knew something was going on because he hadn’t come through. After the wrecker went by with his car, we walked down the stage, found the deer, dragged it back to our campfire. I had a pocketknife, so I processed it right there.”
“So, you took the deer home?” I ask.
“No, we ate it right then and there,” Deon responds, clearly annoyed to hear such an ignorant question from a downstater. “Cooked it over the fire and went back to shootin’ guns and watc
hin’ race cars.”

It’s a great story, but I hate to admit as an auto enthusiast that I neglect to understand the appeal. I’d certainly attend if someone invited me just to say I did it, but it’s nothing I’d otherwise endure Michigan winters for. There’s the sounds, the sights, and the smell of fuel, but I can’t imagine enduring that much misery for a few moments of excitement. I suppose that’s the essence of being a fan, enduring a bit of misery for a few moments of glory.

I’m willing to concede that maybe it’s a defect on my part. I don’t comprehend the heroism of racing drivers or the risk and training involved. Additionally, television makes it all look so easy and slow. 150 mph is far slower on a 32” television than it is behind the wheel.

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In Bob Lutz’s latest book, “Car Guys vs Bean Counters,” the veteran BMW, Ford, GM, and Chrysler executive explains his lack of interest in manufacturer-sponsored motorsports. Lutz believes they contribute little at all to an automaker’s bottom line.

For example, an “Impala” built for NASCAR is so far-removed from the sedan sold at Chevy dealers that customers are unlikely to make the connection between the NASCAR vehicle and the rolling appliance they rent at the airport. It’s difficult to imagine anyone taking home a V6 Impala simply because it bears a loose [VERY loose] resemblance to the decorated stock car they saw racing on Sunday.

wpid-nascarimpalass02_biga-2012-06-1-00-54.jpg

Arguably, NASCAR participation could be considered a form of marketing for Chevrolet, increasing the brand’s loyalty and notoriety among millions of racing fans — NASCAR is America’s fastest-growing sport. But that justification seems to lack substance when cars like the Kia Optima and Hyundai Sonata, both entirely lacking in performance credentials, manage to sell so briskly on the simple notion of value, and their turbocharged powertrains are far more powerful and fuel-efficient than the 3.8L OHV mill that powers most Impalas.
[The 2012 Impala did finally receive GM’s 3.6L DOHC VVT V6.]

That said, racing technology eventually trickles down to street cars. An engine that’s “track proven” is believed to have the ability to handle anything on the street, so say marketers and racing teams. And at General Motors, powertrain engineers participate directly in factory-sponsored racing programs to gain hands-on experience, so not only does the technology trickle down to consumer cars, the knowledge and experience finds its way into vehicle development programs.

From Engineering.com:
“Honda has made good use of its R&D efforts on racing circuits to enhance its consumer products. According to Robert Clarke, General Manager of Honda Performance, “One of the most prominent examples of racing technology finding its way into street vehicles is the variable valve timing system found on our VTEC engines.”

Clearly, Honda’s reputation for forward engineering would be nowhere today without the development of VTEC, and VTEC would be nowhere without Honda’s involvement in motorsports.

Perhaps Bob Lutz was wrong. Perhaps manufacturer involvement does have value beyond mere showmanship.

Now, autocross is quite a bit different. Unlike professional racing, amateur events seldom involve teams or engineers. It’s you, your used car, your handful of mods and upgrades (or none if you prefer), and your skills. It doesn’t matter whether you show up with an Ariel Atom on a flatbed or, in a friend’s case, arrive at the track in a 4000-lb Cadillac Seville. The enjoyment is in being an active participant rather than a distant observer and developing a closer relationship between you and your car.


The sights and sounds aren’t very exotic (unless you get a kick out of orange cones and parking lots), but being behind the wheel beats sitting in the stands or watching Speed Channel any day of the week. Additionally, participants gain a direct understanding of the handling and braking limits of their cars, priceless in emergency situations on the street, and there’s a huge aftermarket that caters to amateur racers.

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My primary interest in automobiles is in the act of motoring — traveling, seeing new sights, meeting new people, and enjoying automobiles as products of human inspiration. Secondarily, I’m drawn to the economics and inner workings of the auto business — development, design, management, international deals, negotiations, and sales processes. It’s why you’ll rarely see me review a vehicle with much discussion on engineering, why I primarily talk about heritage, design, luxury, and practicalities.

That said, I still can’t understand why anyone enjoys racing (or any sports) on television, but I can appreciate the engineering advancements gained from manufacturer participation.




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