Writer asks: Is NASCAR, other forms of motorsports doomed?

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On the surface, Tuesday’s announcement by International Speedway Corp., promising a palatial $400 million makeover of Daytona International Speedway sounded great.

But the fact the track will have 46,000 less seats once the project is completed in 2016 — a decrease of more than 30,000 from its current capacity of 147,000 — has caused at least one writer to ponder the future of NASCAR and other forms of motorsports.

In Wednesday’s AutoWeek.com column titled “Daytona International Speedway cutting 45,000 seats; is this a sign motorsports is doomed?”, respected veteran automotive writer Steven Cole Smith suggests while some of the luster and popularity of auto racing has waned in recent years, Tuesday’s news out of Daytona does not mean Tony Stewart or Dale Earnhardt Jr. will soon be working changing oil at Jiffy Lube.

Smith writes:

“Is motorsports doomed? No. Has it peaked? Probably. Has Has baseball peaked? Golf? Football? Basketball? Tennis? Probably. Because any live, pay-to-attend sport faces the same challenge racing does: There are other things to spend your money on, and when you can buy a 46-inch HDTV at Walmart for $358, there’s an overwhelming temptation to sit at home and watch the increasingly high-tech TV coverage.”

Smith asked DIS president Joie Chitwood III whether the elimination of the track’s “Superstretch” — the 45,000-seat grandstand on Daytona’s backstretch — and the precipitous drop in overall capacity is a bad sign about the future for NASCAR and motorsports as a whole.

To his credit, Chitwood answered honestly and fairly. He understands that it’s a different world today than when DIS opened in 1959. While Chitwood used the example of how things have changed in Central Florida over the last half-century, his take can be applied to the country, if not the world, as a whole.

“People can decide this afternoon that they want to go to an Orlando Magic game tonight,” Chitwood said. “They don’t have to make plans, book rooms, arrange transportation.”

Chitwood’s message is simple: There are so many forms of entertainment out there fighting for the average consumer’s wallet, that facilities such as Daytona need to change with the times, even if it means substantially cutting back on capacity. After all, even drawing 100,000 fans to the season-opening Daytona 500 is a success in most any sports marketer’s playbook.

“No question the motorsports business must begin to think outside the box, and focus on what IS working, such as the fact that Tony Stewart’s NASCAR Camping World Truck race at his Eldora Speedway has been sold out for months,” Smith wrote.

When the leaner and more efficient DIS pulls back the tarp off the completed makeover in 2016, fans can’t help but wonder if as seating capacity goes down, will ticket prices markedly go up to compensate for revenue lost from the eliminated seats?

Not so, Chitwood told Smith, saying only that ticket prices will be “adjusted” — whatever that means.

“We are not transferring this downstream to our fans,” he said.

Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.