Editor's note: Robert Clarke is the former president of Honda Performance Development, Inc., and also served as CEO at de Ferran Motorsports
following his retirement from Honda.
Is the future of motorsport in question?
Once a hugely popular sport and entertainment activity, driven by man's passion for competition and a spirit of automotive innovation, motorsport has become increasingly irrelevant and lacking in any valued reason to exist.
Over time, through the well-intentioned (mostly) but mistaken efforts of sanctioning bodies, competitors and other constituents – primarily under the guise of safety, cost and parity – the race product has become generic, dumbed down and spec (standardized), the racing itself contrived. Fans following the sport's numerous variants represent an aging, diminishing and decreasingly influential demographic.
Any positive evolution of the sport has been countered by a misguided priority of putting the needs and desires of the participants above those of the public for whom they claim to race. In essence, motorsport has failed to evolve at all, resulting in a sporting and entertainment product which is truly neither, and which lacks a strong connection to the very product from which it grew – the contemporary automobile. One could say that motorsport is no longer applicable to, or appropriate for, society itself, since it serves no real need.
At the dawn of the 1900s, when the automobile was in its infancy, motorsport grew from our natural desire to compete with one another, and to meet the marketing needs of the then-blossoming auto industry. The car was rapidly transitioning from being an exclusive toy of the rich to a product that provided relatively affordable and practical transportation for the masses in a way that was fun and fashionable. It instilled a sense of pride in ownership that came from the significance of the investment and the smart brand marketing by the manufacturers. The popularity of the automobile fueled an explosion of technical innovation, new manufacturing techniques and a level of styling and marketing prowess that had never been seen before.
Since those early days, the automobile has become one of, if not the most influential product in our lives, and the auto industry one of the cornerstones of the global economy. So much so that, without cars and the industry that produces them, our world could not function and there would be social and economic collapse. It is difficult to identify another product that affects our daily lives as much as the automobile.
Our love for the automobile comes from its styling, performance and features; the freedom of mobility and the driving excitement that it provides; how it makes us look and how we look in it, and other reasons and justifications.
The automobile is, for most of us, a brand-driven purchase, and there are few products that are more brand-focused in our lives. Born from a desire to travel more quickly and comfortably, the automobile, from its very conception, was a “social” product as much as it was a means of transportation, and it's from those social aspects that the special relationship between man and automobile developed. It remains unchanged.
Society, on the other hand, has changed. How we live, interact and communicate with one another and how we entertain ourselves are all vastly different from the way we did in the 1900s. Therefore, it should surprise no one that motorsport's popularity has diminished, considering the mismatch between today's social environment and a sport or entertainment activity that remains mostly unchanged from the 1950s.
Today, however, the moons have realigned, much as they did on the eve of the auto industry revolution that powered the birth, acceptance and rapid growth of motorsport. Our struggling global economy and energy crisis are forcing the buying public to think and act differently – they are smarter, more informed and aware; more selective with how they use their time; highly interactive socially, on a global scale, in strange new ways; and they are extremely brand- and product-aware.
The auto industry is making a comeback from near-collapse, with each manufacturer fiercely fighting for market share with exciting, state-of-the-art products that are carefully positioned in niche markets. In addition, as a leading cause of the energy crisis (at least, that's the perception), the industry is positioned to take a leadership role in demonstrating how all industries can develop and market smart, fuel efficient/energy-responsible products that perform as well or better than their energy-sucking, polluting equivalents.
The future of motorsport hinges, firstly, on the sport's ability to recognize the need for speedy and aggressive change and, secondly, on seizing the opportunities that exist to harness the power of the automobile and the auto industry (as it did in the past) and combining them with contemporary society's desires for entertainment, communication and social activity.
Motorsport of tomorrow will position the automobile in a manner that uses its true power – its power of social and world influence – for a reason much, much bigger than the singular act of racing cars around in circles, satisfying its competitors more than its audience.
A motorsport event will be a multi-faceted experience that is as enlightening as it is entertaining; it will draw the public to a happening that feels great to be part of and to support; it will be something that promotes change and welcomes innovative and courageous thinking and the development and use of new and alternative technologies.
And diehard racing aficionados of today need not fear, as motorsport will continue to be about fierce competition between man and machine, and winning.
Hmm. Actually, putting it like that, the future of motorsport looks brighter and more exciting than ever!
• Robert Clarke's opinion column originally appeared in May's 20th Anniversary issue of RACER magazine, which introduces the magazine's all-new look with an In Focus photo shoot and technical analysis of the Nissan DeltaWing among its content-packed 120 pages! CLICK HERE to subscribe now at a special discount rate!