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Motorsports on the Ropes?



Fans fill the bleachers. TV coverage seems to run virtually non-stop on one network or another. Sponsors can’t ante up enough cash. It might seem, at first blush, that motorsports are more popular and powerful than ever.

If so, then, why are some of the biggest names in racing, including the head of Toyota’s well-funded Formula One team, as well as the legendary racer, Parnelli Jones, fretting that racing may be wearing out its welcome, facing the prospect of becoming not only “boring,” but out of touch with changing times?


Those were the surprisingly unsettling concerns raised during a conference held at the Laguna Seca Raceway, in Salinas, Calif. , prior to the annual Monterey Historics. That event gathers some of the sport’s most famous drivers – along with the cars they may have raced in – for three days of gentleman’s rules racing.


The motorsports seminar, dubbed “Evolution to Revolution,” began on a seemingly celebratory note, a panel of drivers, engineers, managers, and other motor sports masters outlining the improvements racing has made over the years.


“Safety,” proclaimed Richard Cregan, manager of Toyota ’s huge Formula One program, “has improved tremendously…at every level.” Drivers now walk away from crashes that once seemed unsurvivable, echoed Herb Fishel, the long-time director of General Motors’ motorsports program.


Victory, in motorsports, is often measured in inches and hundredths of a second, and often, breakthroughs come in surprising places. Aerodynamics, for example, and the computers that have revolutionized engine and chassis operations. Then there’s the lowly tire, suggested Mario Illien, founder of Illmor Engineering.


“Today’s tires have saved us two-and-a-half seconds a lap,” he explained, “even when engines might be able to cut just a few tenths.”


Part of the problem, Illien continued, is that increasingly strict regulations have made it more and more difficult – but conversely, far more expensive – to make any real performance gains where one might expect, “under the hood.”


“Formula One used to be very exciting, but today, it’s over-regulated,” said Illien, his panel colleagues quickly complaining that it is becoming increasingly difficult to have the sort of balls-out racing that marked the origins of the sport.


“All the engineering is optimized,” added Fishel. “There isn’t any creativity on the track. It’s just optimization.”


That won a round of applause from several drivers on hand for the conference, noted Al Unser, the repeat winner of the Indianapolis 500. “The computer has gone too far and taken over all the feel from the driver.”


American motorsports, especially NASCAR, came in for its share of criticism, since regulators have now restricted almost every detail of what a team can do to gain a competitive edge. But even in Europe, where the panelists agreed there’s more focus on getting a technical edge, there’s something seriously wrong.


With virtual no passing in Formula One, said Toyota ’s Cregan, and with little doubt who will win after the start of a race, the series is becoming more predictable and less interesting.


So how to reinvigorate the sport? Certainly, no one wants to go back to the old days, when cars constantly crashed, often with fatal results. But the panelists did feel there were some opportunities to add excitement – and relevance – to racing.


Surprisingly, most of the panelists saw hope in what would seem an unlikely place: the growing green car movement. Then again, it might seem so far-fetched, considering the success that Audi has had with its Le Mans-series R10 racer, developed in cooperation with the energy giant, Shell.


“Diesel racing, because of its efficiency, is something for the future,” contended Richard Karstedler, director of Shell Performance Fuels.


One version of the future, anyway. As might be expected, Cregan saw some potential for racing Toyota’s well-publicized hybrid-electric technology, while other members of the panel spoke about other alternative fuels, including hydrogen – which, it was pointed out, just powered a Ford prototype to a world record 207 mph run at the legendary Bonneville Salt Flats, in Utah.


“We have an opportunity,” said Illmor’s Illien, “to really open things up with things like hybrids” to reach a mass audience that has either grown disinterested in racing or may never have connected with motor sports at all. “As long as it goes fast and makes noise, it’s exciting.”


Ironically, a switch to alternative forms of power could help bring the sport back to its roots, the panelists agreed. In the early days, racing helped manufacturers improve their technology – bringing track tested hardware into mainstream production – and to build demand for their products. That’s exactly what is needed now, as the industry moves away from the time-tested gasoline engine, insisted former GM racing boss Fishel.


“I think there’s life beyond NASCAR and Formula One and it will come as we see new forms of racing evolve.”

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