Most Saturday nights during summer, my neighbourhood hums to the sweet sound of high-revving speedway machines blasting that dirt oval. While I enjoy wrenching away to this soundtrack, it does get me wondering why the hell speedway has maintained such a good following (even with its terrible food) when other forms of motorsport have seen big declines in spectator numbers over the past 10 years. What exactly are the issues that have driven the sport to lacklustre crowds, minimal corporate sponsorship spend, and race cars gathering dust in sheds all over the country? Have fans lost interest in eating hot chips as they swelter under the hot summer sun watching tin-tops bash wheel to wheel? No, I don’t think they have — well, not entirely. What I do think has happened is that the ‘show’ aspect of these weekends has slowly but surely dwindled away.
Hard-core race fans are just that, and it’s unlikely they will ever stop going, as the entertainment for them is walking the pits, drinking in the technical details, and following the racing with a hawk eye. It’s the mumand-dad casual race fans who are the majority, and it’s these folk who need to be convinced that it’s money well spent and a good use of their precious weekends. Recent talks about the need for a new category to fix the broken existing ones perplexed me, as I feel that another new class will fall flat on its face if it’s not being slotted into an exciting event format. Sadly, most race weekends have now become simply about providing a race format for drivers, not about putting on one hell of a show for the crowd, which has stopped coming.
Think I’m wrong? Look at any motorsport event with big crowds either here or around the world, and you will see that it is put on as entertainment and not simply as a racers’ weekend.
People want entertainment, so why did that stop happening? Grid walks, signings, on-track shows during dead track time, decent trader alleys, things the kids enjoy, promo girls, interviews, and proper commentary are all activities that most race weekends seem to lack. Sure, all this stuff takes huge amounts of effort to pull together, but for events that knuckle down and get it done, nine times out of 10, a big crowd of happy punters is the just reward.
Look at events like D1NZ, World Time Attack Challenge (WTAC), Leadfoot, Drift Shifters, and the Hamptons 101 — all of these put a huge effort into making them shows rather than just race weekends. These events have maintained a large fan base, and kept the interest alive, even when the likes of D1NZ have cars around 20-odd years old in competition. And hey, racers win, too — they get cheaper entry, as the increased gate revenue will cover some of the weekend’s running costs, and the opportunity for sponsorship is also increased. But, for the drivers to reap these rewards, they also need to step up to the plate in terms of social media and the like.
Sure, the cars are a big part of ‘what’s wrong with New Zealand motorsport’, but, rather than worrying about a new class right now, why not put together one hell of a show with the existing classes the New Zealand public are interested in, and build from there? Yes, we should have a top-tier touring-car class, but unless it’s a stacked grid, it’s not the silver bullet that will suddenly see grandstands packed. It’s 2017, the game has changed, and doing the same shit we did 20 years ago will not fill those stands.
We need exciting machines and exciting drivers to do exciting driving at exciting events, and the numbers will return. So, to co-opt the immortal and most over-used phrase of 2017, ‘let’s make racing great again’, and do it by copying the format of other successful events the world over.