If motor racing wants to build a new audience base, grow its TV ratings and attendance, and in general, restore a bit of prominence to the sport beyond the shrinking, hardcore niche, then what's needed is some conflict and resolution. Since the dawn of man, conflict and resolution has been at the root of everything that captures our attention – love, money, power, intrigue, heroism. New cars, new rules, new drivers are all well and good, but they are ephemeral. New inevitably becomes old, sometimes, sooner than hoped. So if the solution is always “new,” then the cost and effort will never keep pace ahead of the return. Conflict and resolution, however, is ever present, but it needs to be communicated better.
Sport is the very essence of conflict and resolution. Competitors enter an arena of competition as adversaries and unlike politics or romance, a clear resolution results after some predefined span of time where there is a winner and loser(s). Not only that, but in most sports the overall conflict and resolution is broken down into smaller acts that sustain our attention until the final determination of victory is made.
In football there are downs, in baseball there are outs, in golf there are holes and in tennis there are games. Each of these has even broader subsets of conflict and resolution that further elaborates on the story of conquest and resolution. In each of these sports, our attention as fans is held because we can break the game down into these micro conflicts and resolutions that clearly end with a winner and loser.
Now, motor racing has its own act of micro conflict and resolution. It's called the lap (or a heat in drag racing). The field races around a prescribed course and the first one to return to the start has won that lap. It couldn't be more simple.
The problem is that the fan, particularly the uninitiated fan, can't quite grasp the level of conflict and resolution. Sure, at the end of the lap there is resolution insofar as we know who completed it first, second, third and so on, but what we lack is the conflict that makes us care about the resolution.
Watching a race live or on TV, the fan is generally removed from clearly understanding the effort that is being put forth to lead or to close the gap to the lead. In football, we have a clear sense of the progress or failure made by the offense on each down because the start and endpoint is clearly marked on the field. We see the brute force and precision required to make any sort of gain. We can gauge the effort and the intensity in the posture of the players on the field. The tension in the conflict and the effort to gain a satisfactory resolution is palpable. Yes, in racing we can see that the leader has gained or lost time to the one behind, but it doesn't translate into effort so obviously. We can't “see” or “feel” the effort. The result is a diminished appreciation of the effort on display.
The irony of all this is that motor racing, more than any other form of sport, can actually quantify the effort with laser precision, yet we in the audience are not privy. Every team on the pit wall knows exactly what effort their driver is putting forth. They know exactly where they are gaining and losing time, and generally, they even know why. If motor racing is to inspire its fan base and recruit new fans to the sport, and if it is to deliver on its promise of technology and sophistication, then it must embrace the idea of allowing the audience to get meaningful information in real time in order to truly appreciate the conflict and resolution on display.
Sanctioning bodies, teams, drivers and broadcast partners must work together, availing themselves of all the data available, to paint a painfully clear picture of how fast or slow a driver is so that we in turn can attempt to feel the pain of the driver himself. Moreover it presents the ultimate opportunity for multi-platform broadcasts that can combine live TV, or, with a robust Wi-Fi network, a live audience with a simultaneous online experience. Even without data streaming live from the car itself, why hasn't TV embraced ghosting technology that can overlay one or more cars through a corner or in pit stop to graphically see the advantage or deficit? It's one thing to be told that one car's pit stop was a tenth of a second quicker than another, but it would be even better to see that tenth of a second represented in actual distance gained or lost.
This isn't exactly revolutionary. World Rally Championship broadcasts employ this technology, although they do it through computer animated graphics, which may not be as compelling ghosting actual footage. NASCAR broadcasts highlight two or three cars within a battle and display each car's speed in real time. And, ALMS, has tried through its documentary-style broadcasts to get the viewer on the pit wall a bit more. But, there is so much more that can be done and the incidence of using this information is hardly commonplace. Teams will dig their heels in and claim that all this data is proprietary – and if they continue to do so they won't have to worry about it, because there will be no audience left and as a result no teams to compete against.
So we can invest in new cars, that will one day not be so new anymore. We continually rewrite rules that never seem to break the status quo, but do succeed in confusing fans. We can create new series that promise to revolutionize the sport and just end fracturing it further. Or, we can attempt to engage our fans rather than further disenfranchise them by giving them the tools to gain a real insight into the effort, skill and artistry that's already right before their eyes. We live in the “Information Technology” age, it's time our sport caught up. George Tamayo is a principal at Manifest, a creative services and brand positioning agency focusing on motorsports. Manifest's clients include teams, marketing partners, events and organizations active within NASCAR, IndyCar, ALMS, Grand-Am and Formula 1 and others. Details at manifestgroup.com.