Whatever happened to a good oldfashion day at the races, I ask you? I’m talking a Sunday when you parked your butt trackside to enjoy a quick- re program of 15-18 sprints from both the headline act and as many as six support categories. You would set up shop where you could see a goodly proportion of the track and settle in for the day.
Our AMSCAR history features this issue (the Group A years) and last (Group C) really rammed home to me just how much motor racing spectating has changed over the last two decades. And not necessarily for the better for the people who leave their loungerooms (and keyboards) and actually head to the track.
From the sixties through to the early noughties, crowds had the excitement of seeing multiple starts from the main attraction and more than a dozen starts from the support acts. Short, sharp and action-packed. As the chequered ag ew on one category and cars led back into the paddock, the next group of competitors was already exiting pitlane on their warm-up lap. Unless there was a crash to clean up, the on-track action didn’t stop.
Races were simple to follow. Cars rarely made pitstops, unless they struck trouble. The only strategy involved was going as fast as possible, while trying to pass the car ahead and defending from the rear.
So what happened? Why now do motor racing promoters, who are otherwise eager to attract a big turnout to events, treat paying punters as after thoughts? How did racing reach the point where 30-40 minute gaps between support races became an accepted practice? Why are paying punters now only seeing three maybe four races in as many hours? And one long main race.
Also, what has led us to the point where a distant view of just one corner or a 200 metre stretch from your vantage point is par for the course?
Much of the shift can be traced back to the in uence of television, street circuits and the growth of the nanny state in society generally.
Back in the pre-V8 Supercars days, ATCC rounds generally comprised three 20 minute sprints. As Tony Cochrane and Co grew the sport’s popularity and commercial base in the early years of the new millennium, AVESCO/V8 Supercars Australia successfully drove up the value of the category’s TV rights. In return for paying more for the rights to broadcast the sport, TV companies demanded longer races and telecasts into which they could place more advertisements. Those longer races could be rather dreary affairs, so compulsory pitstops were introduced to mix things up. First, one stop was introduced, then sometimes another. But this just made the racing more confusing, particular for those trackside.
Then the TV producers demanded longer breaks between each race on the day’s program so their techos could do what techos do. A really big break before the day’s main race was introduced for pre-race on-grid interviews. This period was great for corporate guests who got to walk on the grid, but not so great so for the trackside spectators twiddling their thumbs.
All this left spectators with more races that were confusing to follow, less events to watch over the course of the day, and longer breaks between them.
As street circuits – where spectators often only caught a glimpse of the action – became more common, those running the sport must have come to believe that punters were quite happy seeing the cars ash by them every 90 seconds or so.
Circuit safety improvements were also to the detriment of the trackside experience. Bigger runoff areas saw spectators moved further away from the action, often peering through catch-fencing.
Thus, over time, spectators’ needs fell down the priority list when new circuits were designed or old ones ‘improved’. Longer tracks might appeal to drivers, but shorter layouts are in many ways better for punters, as the cars pass one’s vantage point more often. Less can be more.
Finally, because the people running motor racing in this country rarely if ever experienced spectating at smaller circuits with great viewing – like Amaroo Park, Oran Park or Wanneroo before the new pit complex was built – few have any clue why big crowds turned out to relatively minor events. While other sports are moving to improving facilities for crowds, motorsport has made visiting a circuit less enticing.