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Who's Going To Pay For These Races?

Sponsorship Reform

Revster's View by Jay A. Carina, June 4, 1996

Motorsport has certainly changed over the years. From the days of rich men driving expensive sports cars for fun to the billion dollar marketing bonanza of today, it has changed. The racing is not particularly different, though. It's still the same idea. Best your rivals and take the checkered flag.

The means and the motivation, though, are different. Motorsport is big business today. Very big. From NASCAR to Indy Car to Formula 1, the name of the game is money. Amidst the champagne spraying, the roar of the cars, and the cheers of the crowd, is the subtle sound of shuffling money.

There's money in everything for sure, but they've taken it to extremes in modern racing. You need only take a look at a race to see it. Everywhere you see logos and sponsors. On helmets, drivers, cars, billboards lining the track, even on the asphalt itself. We've taken it all for granted. It's part of the sport now.

But does it have to be? I'm just too young to remember a time when it wasn't. In those days, the cars and drivers themselves were the attraction. Ferrari, Bugatti, Maserati; the folks flocked to see these fabulous sports cars driven in anger.

Over time, though, the sport evolved economically. I don't know exactly who and when, but somebody saw there was money to be made. Sounds innocent enough, no? But there's a problem. It's just too much today. How much is too much? What difference does it make? The last question is a drivers one. If you watch a race in person or on TV, do you really care how they manage to stage it? Probably not. You just tune in to check out the action. So what if the cars are littered with logos and corporate scribblings. So what? Here's something to ponder: how come teams in the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB don't have personal sponsors? It's not that way in Japan, Greece, or even the Philippines. If those leagues can function like that, how come motorsport can't be done in the same manner? Wouldn't it be great to just have McLaren and not Marlboro McLaren Mercedes? Or Williams instead of Rothmans Williams Renault?

These examples are tame compared to the ridiculous team names we have in NASCAR and Indy Car racing. What happens when the sponsor leaves the team? All of a sudden, the team adopts a new sponsor and along with it different colors and a new team name. Can you imagine if the New York Yankess abandoned their fabled pinstripes? How come this is a drivers thing in motorsport? Lots of people talk about tradition, but no one seems to care when teams go by the wayside just because of money. How can you start a tradition if you can't get started?

Part of the problem is TV, a global mass medium. What better way to advertise than on TV? Racing, unfortunately, is tailor made for this. Let's take a look at NASCAR to see why. The cars are huge. Lots of area to have your logo plastered. Figure out a way to run the race for long periods of time on a track where the camera can follow the cars without obstruction and you have the perfect medium for advertising. Yup, that's why NASCAR races are 400 to 600 miles long on tracks from half a mile to two and a half miles of circular length. Yuck. Wouldn't it be nice to hear a driver interview where he or she doesn't mention half a dozen sponsors while donning a suit plastered with said sponsors? And lets not forget the hats. They are everywhere. And the saddest part about the whole deal is that most of these hats are just plain ugly. You would think that the people involved would at least try to make hats that look decent. Some drivers don't like wearing hats and you can tell who they are. They are the ones who don't know their hat size. Thus, they appear on camera with a hat that fits like a crown two sizes too big or small. Why don't they just give them a sign to hold up? Whoops, they do! Check out winner's circle at the next NASCAR race. Look on the roof of the winning driver's car. Notice something? If the guy who won has a beverage sponsor, you can bet you will see a box of it. Why stop there? What about big cigarette boxes? Come to think of it, why bother interviewing the driver? If the whole point of the race was to advertise, why waste valuable air time conversing with a tired, sweaty driver who might not be able to deliver a proper sound bite? Speaking of which, do these drivers get trained to say the right things? Of course! Some don't do a drivers job of it anyway. Three cheers for them!

Is there a way to get rid of all these sponsors? Probably not. It's a huge headed monster. Get rid of the sponsors and you have no more money for the teams to run the races. TV would disappear without sponsors. Who's going to pay for these races? But is this a case of killing the patient to deal with the disease? Again, I point to the NFL example: if they can do it, why can't Formula 1? NASCAR? Indy Car? Who cares?!?! Well, if you don't care about it, maybe you should. What happens if tobacco gets banned from advertising in the U.S. like they've done in the UK, France, and Germany? What happens if sponsorship dries up period? Then what? Dependance on corporate funds is a dangerous situation waiting to turn ugly. Sure, you can probably count on the automobile manufacturers to hang around, but what if they turn tail? Honda abandoned Formula 1 after dominating that series. Chrysler isn't terribly involved in racing today. Ditto Mazda and Nissan. The tobacco dilemma has fans urging teams to find different sponsors. Why stop at that? I say we should urge the sanctioning bodies to find a way to get rid of them period. When was the last time you saw a genuinely beautiful racing car? For me it is Ferrari. And why? Their cars are the cleanest of the bunch. Enzo Ferrari had a beautiful philosophy about this. He said it should be about the cars and he is absolutely correct. What is so nice about a car dressed up like detergent? One thing getting rid of sponsors would do: it would get rid of the rent-a-ride drivers. How many times have we seen deserving drivers turned away simply because they don't have a personal sponsor to bring to the team? If we get rid of these high dollar sponsors and their personal spokesdrivers, it opens up the playing field. They only take the most talented players in the NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL. Why can't it be this way in motorsport? Just something to think about the next time you check out the races ...

Early Days Of Auto Racing

It is hardly surprising that people began racing their automobiles from its earliest days. In the 1890s France was still leading in automobile development, and the first automobile race was organized there in 1894. It was to be run from Paris to Rouen, a distance of 79 miles. It was not a race in the true sense, since economy and ease of handling - not just who crossed the finish line first - were to be taken into account. But it was speed that interested everybody most. More than a hundred entries were submitted, including designs for vehicles supposedly powered by pendulums and gravity. Twenty-one cars, including steamers, showed up at the starting line. The fastest of them proved to be a steamer, which averaged 11.6 miles per hour. However, for technical reasons, the prize was shared by a Panhard-Levassor and a Peugeot, both using Daimler engines. Public interest was so great that the racing cars were accompanied by a reporter for the New York Herald on a bicycle. His and other newspaper stories about the race helped fuel American interest in cars.

Another race followed the next year and increasing numbers thereafter. The largest number were held in France, but other countries were catching the itch: Henry Ford, later to build the most important car ever made, won a race in 1896. Ettore Bugatti and Giovanni Agnelli, who would both found successful motorcar companies, won races in Italy in 1898. Among the most famous of these early races were ones sponsored by James Gordon Bennett, son of the founder of the Herald, who was managing the European edition of the newspaper in Paris. The first of the Bennett races was mainly notable for the number of dogs that were killed. As they do today, dogs, maddened by the noisy charging machines, would run out into the path of the vehicles. One driver alone killed five dogs in the early stages of the race. He was, in turn, nearly killed by a dog, when a huge Saint Bernard leaped into his car and damaged the steering. "At 60 miles per hour the car jumped a ditch, circled two trees and rushed down the road in the opposite direction" before the driver could regain control.

These early motor races were clearly dangerous, not merely for drivers but for spectators, too. By the first years of the 1900s, stripped-down racers were able to go faster than 60 miles per hour, some reaching 90 miles per hour. Viewers, with little experience of anything traveling that fast on roads, tended to crowd onto the road to see the oncoming vehicle. As it approached they would jump back just enough to allow a narrow alley for the ear to roar through. Scores, possibly hundreds, of spectators were killed.

But the drivers themselves were at the greatest risk. Little thought was given to their safety. To make the cars as light as possible, anything that might protect the driver was removed. In a race on Long Island, the mechanic was bounced out of the car on a rough patch of road. The driver didn't even slow down. In another American race, a Mercedes blew a tire. The rim caught in a trolley track, spinning the car around. The Mercedes flipped over, killing the mechanic aboard. In France, Marcel Renault, one of the founders of the famous company, was also killed in a racing accident. But the danger did not stop people from racing cars, nor did it stop others from watching.

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