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.

Street race in Vietnam could lead Formula One’s Asia expansion

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TOKYO (AP) — Formula One is expected to add more races in Asia, including a street circuit in the capital of Vietnam, a country with little auto racing history that is on the verge of getting a marquee event.

“We think Hanoi could come on in the next couple of years, and we’re working with the Hanoi government to that end,” Sean Bratches, Formula One’s managing director of commercial operations, told the Associated Press.

There is even speculation it could be on the schedule next season, which Bratches rebuffed.

Vietnam would join countries like Azerbaijan, Russia and Bahrain, which have Grand Prix races, little history in the sport, and authoritarian governments with deep pockets that serve F1 as it tries to expand into new markets.

“This (Hanoi) is a street race where we can go downtown, where we can activate a large fan base,” Bratches said. “And you have extraordinary iconography from a television standpoint.”

A second race in China is also likely and would join Shanghai on the F1 calendar. Bratches said deciding where to stage the GP will “be left to local Chinese partners” – Beijing is a strong candidate.

Bratches runs the commercial side of Formula One, which was acquired last year by U.S.-based Liberty Media from long-time operator Bernie Ecclestone.

Formula One’s long-term goal is to have 24-25 races – up from the present 21 – and arrange them in three geographical segments: Asia, Europe and the Americas. Bratches said the Europe-based races would stay in middle of the calendar, with Asia or the Americas opening or ending the season.

He said their positioning had not been decided, and getting this done will be slowed by current contracts that mandate specific places on the calendar for several races. This means eventually that all the races in Asia would be run together, as would races in Europe and the Americas.

The F1 schedule is now an inefficient jumble, allowing Bratches to take a good-natured poke at how the sport was run under Ecclestone.

“We’ve acquired an undermanaged asset that’s 67-years-old, but effectively a start-up,” Bratches said.

Early-season races in Australia and China this year were conducted either side of a trip to Bahrain in the Middle East. Late in the season Formula One returns to Asia with races in Japan and Singapore.

The Canadian GP this season is run in the middle of the European swing, separated by four months from the other races in the Americas – the United States, Mexico and Brazil. These three are followed by the season-ending race in Abu Dhabi, which means another trip across the globe.

“With the right economics, with the right structure and cadence of events across territories, 24 or 25 is probably where we’d like to be from a longer-term standpoint,” Bratches said.

Big changes are not likely to happen until the 2020 season ends. This is when many current rules and contracts expire as F1’s new owners try to redistribute some income to allow smaller teams to compete.

“There’s more interest than we have capacity in the schedule,” Bratches said, firing off Berlin, Paris or London as potentially attractive venues. “We want to be very selective.”

“Those cites from an economic impact standpoint would find us value, as do others around the world,” Bratches added. “It’s very important for us as we move forward to go to locations that are a credit to the Formula One brand.”

An expanded schedule would have to be approved by the teams, which will be stretched by the travel and the wear-and-tear on their crews. The burden will fall on the smaller teams, which have significantly smaller revenue compared with Ferrari, Mercedes or Red Bull.

Bratches also envisions another race in the U.S., joining the United States Grand Prix held annually in Austin, Texas. A street race in Miami is a strong candidate, as are possible venues like Las Vegas or New York.

“We see the United States and China as countries that could support two races,” he said.

Liberty Media has reported Formula One’s total annual revenue at $1.8 billion, generated by fees paid by promoters, broadcast rights, advertising and sponsorship. Race promotion fees also tend to be higher in Asia, which makes the area attractive – along with a largely untapped fan base.

In a four-year cycle, F1 generates more revenue than FIFA or the International Olympic Committee, which rely almost entirely on one-time showcase events.

Reports suggest Vietnamese promoters may pay between $50-60 million annually as a race fee, with those fees paid by the government. Bratches said 19 of 21 Formula One races are supported by government payments.

“The race promotion fee being derived from the government … is a model that has worked historically,” Bratches said.