What Drag Racing Must Do To Survive The Second Decade Of The 21st Century
‘Tis the Christmas Season and on your TV screen is a commercial for Dunkin’ Donuts. A family of four, hideously attired in snowflake-embroidered sweaters, appears at Grandma’s door. As the door opens three smiling faces greet Grandma. The fourth, a teenage girl, not only has a totally disdainful expression on her face, she’s not even looking as she furiously texts away.
Advertising reflects the marketplace, and this is today’s marketplace, where young people are so totally disconnected from their parents that in many instances they merely share living space, not a family life. My daughter told me of a family party she attended that was a dual celebration for the patriarch. It was both his wedding anniversary and birthday. As he received congratulations from the group his three sons sat with their heads buried in electronic devices, two playing games and one texting. When she quietly suggested they ought to give their dad at least some time on this important day, they gave her dirty looks and went right back to punching keys and pushing buttons.
The traditional American family may be a thing of the past, and we have no intention of trying to solve this issue or of explaining how we got here. All that matters is that we’re here now, and unless we can figure out how to reach today’s young people, drag racing may die an ignominious death – and this is no exaggeration.
In many American households, with both spouses working longer and longer hours, the time they spend influencing their children’s lives decreases proportionally, as is succinctly pointed out in Mark Richtel’s well-researched article “Growing Up Digital, Wired For Distraction,” which appeared in the November 21, 2010 issue of the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/technology/21brain.html?_r=1&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=a2&pagewanted=print). The article outlines the sometimes difficult choices teenagers face between actually picking up a book to do their homework, or disappearing into their worlds of YouTube, Facebook and digital videos. As Richtel points out, “…computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning. Researchers say the lure of these technologies…is particularly powerful for young people.” As a Harvard researcher points out in the piece, “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”
Research has demonstrated that it’s not uncommon for high school students to send hundreds of text messages daily or spend hours playing video games. Facebook is ubiquitous and yet one more distraction. The students profiled in the Times article readily admit to spending upwards of 10 hours per week on video games, while updating their Facebook pages at two in the morning when they should probably be sleeping, or tackling the homework they’ve delayed so they can text and text again. As Richtel wrote, “The technology has created…a new set of social types – not the thespian and the jock but the texter and gamer, Facebook addict and YouTube potato.” One 14-year-old outlined sends and receives 27,000 texts per month. That is not a misprint! It’s not without some irony that some students have admitted their attention spans are getting shorter the more they disappear into their world of electronics. A new report from Nielson shows that American teenagers exchange -- on average – 3,417 text messages per month. That’s about seven per waking hour!
Before you cite the Times article as being more than a year old, rest assured that similar pieces have since appeared in the Washington Post and a couple of major general interest magazines. All report the problem as increasing, not decreasing.
What does this have to do with drag racing? A great deal. Tomorrow’s drag racing ticket buyer is no longer the car-centric and car-friendly teenager he once was. Their cars no longer hold any fascination for them. For one thing, with the Census demonstrating that 1 in 2 people are now considered poor or low-income, and with paychecks shrinking, vehicle ownership among young people is spiraling downward, and the sophistication of today’s vehicles, or even those readily available on the used car market, is beyond the understanding or even interest of young people. We came to drag racing through our involvement with our cars, vehicles that were simplistic, rather unsophisticated and very easy to work on. Most of today’s teenagers won’t. They have neither the patience or attention span to even try to “understand” what they drive, much less figure out the maze of plumbing and electronics that greets them if they dare raise the hood – if they can even find the release.
The BBC News Magazine recently published a detailed article entitled “Why Are US Teenagers Driving Less?”, that asked, “If Ferris Bueller had a day off now, would he spend it on Facebook?” In the film bearing Bueller’s name cars play a central and pivotal role, but in today’s world of shrinking incomes youngsters are being forced to choose between buying a car or the latest smartphone or tablet. And you know which way they’re going, don’t you? As the BBC found out, a lot of young people are choosing the less expensive electronic devices as a means of communicating with their peers when just a few years ago it was more important to them to communicate face-to-face, and their cars gave them that opportunity. Now, to some extent, they’re no longer necessary to have a complete social “life.” The numbers tell the story. In 1978 the US Transportation Department reported that 50 percent of 16-year-olds had obtained their first driving license. By 2008 that number had dropped to 30 percent. In ’78 there were almost 12 million licensed drivers 19 and under. By 2010 that number had dropped below 10 million. One parent quoted in the article says that today’s teenagers still love fast cars but as fantasy objects. “Modern cars are impossible to work on without screwing up the safety regulations,” he said. That might be a little simplistic, but he’s certainly right when he says they’re impossible to work on – without significant training. Today’s teenagers no longer have the patience, attention span or even interest in learning about their cars. Didn’t I just write that? There’s an attention span problem for you.
All of motorsports is facing a severe identity crisis when it comes to attracting and holding on to new fans. Gordon Kirby is a highly respected open wheel writer who earned an international reputation for his insightful and thought-provoking articles in, among numerous other publications, RACER Magazine. Kirby’s recent column entitled “The Way It Is/Discussing Racing’s Future” delved into far more than simple racing matters. Among the participants in a panel discussion Kirby hosted in Indianapolis was Gilles Simon of PURE Corporation, who stated the obvious when he said, “…we need to think about attracting more categories of people – the people who are not interested in motorsports.” Simon went on to outline how, in his view, fans unfamiliar with motorsports need to learn more about the technical aspects of racing, and his surprise when he showed an F1 driver a Ferrari connecting rod. A man racing in the world’s supposedly ultimate series had no clue how finely machined that piece was – and he certainly should have known. “We need to show this to the public,” Simon said. “It may interest more people in the sport and we need to do that because many people think motor racing is a useless sport.”
An Argonne National Laboratory research engineer involved in the panel discussion, Forrest Jehlik, said, “Racing is competing against video game systems like Grand Turismo 5 that are just superb. That’s the market today’s youth are familiar with and that’s our competition.
“There’s nothing more exciting than racing but when you step back and take a look at some of the racing organizations, a lot of them are very reluctant to accept new things.”
In some respects the NHRA may be one of those organizations, but they do appear to be trying in their own way. The decision to admit youngsters under 12 free for some events in 2011, and more in the season to come, was a good one, but it has yet to have the impact they were hoping for. At least from the visual standpoints it’s difficult to assess the success or failure of the effort, but the spectator turnouts at the U.S. Nationals and the Auto Club Finals, for example, did not appear to be overwhelming. Our evidence is anything but scientific, but it did not appear as if there were more kids in the pits and grandstands than in previous years, but we remain hopeful that NHRA will continue the policy, and that member tracks hosting Full Throttle series races will follow suit. If track operators can get their heads around the concept of giving up a few dollars now to make hundreds later, this effort could prove successful.
NHRA is now on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites, which is certainly good news. But, one thing the organization needs to understand is that a barrage of good news delivered via those services may not be sufficient. Todays already disdainful-of-adults teenagers – the very people we desperately need if drag racing is to succeed – can’t be fooled by hype and grandiosity. Every once in a while a Facebook or Twitter posting has to contain something “real,” something that might not put NHRA in the best light possible, but something that will nevertheless make a real connection with a potential ticket-buyer.
The NHRA has been particularly active when it comes to “protecting” their ESPN-produced video coverage from appearing on YouTube, and to what end? It darn sure hasn’t brought new fans to the track, but it has accomplished one thing. It’s thoroughly pissed off the potential viewer who missed the giant wheelstand/crash-‘n-burn Funny Car incident/Pro-Stocker-into-the-wall situation during the initial broadcast or even the repeat. And pulling down those video clips eliminates any possibility of a casual YouTube crawler becoming interested enough to buy a ticket. As Mark Richtel’s Times article eloquently pointed out, today’s teenagers spend hundreds of hours yearly crawling through YouTube and other digital video sites, and it’s certainly possible that a 60-second, well-produced clip on drag racing could result in increased ticket sales.
NHRA might respond to that suggestion by saying it’s common practice for drag racing “spectaculars” to appear during local news telecasts, but those have the shelf life of Charlie Sheen’s marriages, while YouTube clips last, well, forever. If today’s young people are all over YouTube, as the evidence indicates, NHRA Drag Racing needs to be there too. If that exposure will excite them enough to want to come to the track, who does it benefit to eliminate those clips? ESPN? Are we to think that ESPN really cares about NHRA Drag Racing? What ESPN cares about is making money, and the higher the ratings are for the telecasts, the more they can charge advertisers. Maybe ESPN, like NHRA, can’t see the value in “teasing” potential viewers/ticket buyers with “free” clips on YouTube or similar sites.
Type “NASCAR” into the YouTube search engine and you’ll get more than 197,00 results. Type in “NHRA” and the number’s 33,500. What does that tell you?
Obviously, regardless of the alphabetized organization’s name you type into the search engine, not every clip that comes up is an “official” offering from that group, but the point is still valid. There are about six times as many clips about stock car racing as there are about drag racing. If just 2 percent of those clips are “legitimate” or “real,” that means there are about 4,000 stock car clips to less than 700 on drag racing. Think of the good that might come from having a few thousand “real” NHRA Drag Racing clips online. Using any kind of logic you care to espouse, that kind of exposure just has to help.
Some how, some way, NHRA needs to use the talented people already working in their video department to actually produce 15-, 30-, 60- and even 120-second clips specifically for YouTube, Vimeo, DailyMotion and too many other clip sites to even consider listing. And they can’t be all “good” news. They have to include things like the dust-up between Force and Pedregon, and while we might think that’s old news, it’s timeless on a clip site and still impactful to an audience that may have never seen it before. NHRA needs to stop worrying about it’s image in those situations, and go for what will bring in more people.
Yes, NHRA will probably have to come to some accommodation with ESPN about the clips they want to use. Do it, whatever it takes. We’re talking about the very future of our sport here. No fans, no sport.
Long form television advertising for war-themed video games like Call of Duty or Gears of War leave teenagers and even young adults riveted to their seats, just as the Fast & Furious series did last year. These ads are dominating late year sports programming. They’re so good they make you feel you’re watching a movie trailer.
NHRA Drag Racing needs its own video game, and not some sanitized item that the kid won’t turn on after his first visit. The game needs to include stunning visuals like flame-belching headers, parts-throwing engine explosions, wheelstands that become blowovers, fist fights between drivers, the ‘Tree being run over. In short, the kind of visuals that will make those players eager to see the real thing. And believe it or not, those young people are smart enough to realize they aren’t going to see the game replicated before their very eyes.
When that game is ready for the market, NHRA has to be smart enough to let the programmers who understand these things have the final say. If some suit says, “Oh, we can’t have drivers fighting. We don’t allow that!,” they might as well pay the programmer and throw the discs in the trash because staid and corporate isn’t going to sell this to young people. It’s got to be wild, unpredictable and outrageous – just like we’d like to think NHRA Drag Racing already is in real life.
Just how significant might a kick-a** NHRA Drag Racing game be? According to the New York Times December 25, 2011 edition’s story “A Year of Disappointment at the Movie Box Office”, it could not only be significant in terms of exciting and interesting potential ticket buyers, it could even become a darn good profit center for the company. Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Brothers, says the downturn in domestic movie ticket sales “…may be a correlation to the recent strength of video game sales. You look at a game like the new Call of Duty selling $400 million in its first 24 hours and say, ‘What? How is that even possible’”
For comparison’s sake, the largest domestic movie ticket sales for 2011 were generated by the latest Harry Potter film, which topped out at $381 million.
NHRA has done a good job of getting drag racing-related apparel for sale through some of the nation’s largest retailers, and that’s a very positive move, but the sport needs to do more. We need to do more than just hope for an impulse buy of an NHRA-themed shirt. We need to appeal directly to today’s teenagers, because if we don’t, they won’t become 20-something ticket buyers. One way of reaching out to school-agers is through personal appearances, but how many of our competitors have any real experience in this area? How many of them know who to call and what to say? I know of at least one, Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Steve Johnson. (Full disclosure: I’ve helped Johnson with promotional writing and the like for more than 20 years.) But, this is not about Johnson, this is about the concept of taking race-cars to schools and interacting with students to the point of getting them excited about drag racing, even if the “hook” is to try and get them to complete their educations. NHRA’s somewhat admirable Youth & Education program isn’t enough. We need to go to them, not the other way around. When racers say they don’t have the time to make those appearances, or the funds to get their rigs to those outings, someone’s got to step in and run the operation, and that should be the NHRA.
I mean no offense by this, but you can’t send a gray-haired guy in his 50s or 60s to talk to a teenager. Send in Vincent Nobile, who looks like he’s 12! Send in Grace Howell, who’s also young and good looking. Find racers whose only agenda is increasing interest in NHRA Drag Racing, give ‘em 30 minutes of suggestions, not things they “have” to say, and turn ‘em loose. Buy ‘em a couple thousand Hero Cards to distribute, handouts with discount ticket coupons. Give ‘em 200 Frisbees to fling into the audience. Anything that will get those kids thinking and believing that an NHRA Drag Race is something they simply cant live without.
And when we get those new fans out to the track, loosen up the restrictions on what you can and can’t do from the racer’s promotional standpoint. What’s wrong with giving away free product samples? The precedent was set long ago, even before the year when Roland Leong was close to a deal backed by various products made and sold in Hawaii. The line to pick up 3 oz. samples of Kona Coffee stretched the length of the pits in Bandimere the year NHRA allowed it. NHRA did that to help Leong because they wanted another car in competition. Why not now – to help everyone involved in NHRA Drag Racing – including NHRA Drag Racing itself?
If a fan left an NHRA race with a bag full of Hero Cards, product discount coupons, product samples, a free Frisbee he caught from his favorite race-car’s chase car as it went down the return road, what’s the harm? Oh, goodness. What if someone was, like, actually hit in the face by a thrown Frisbee? Get over it. Not everyone sues over everything even if it might seem so.
Years ago I explained some of the fan’s fascination with the Tour de France bicycle race to an NHRA official. It goes far deeper than the actual peloton. After the riders pass, trucks backed by the team sponsors go by throwing out key chains, Frisbees, hats and other goodies representative of those companies and products. It’s a madhouse of grasping, clawing fans intent upon going home with one of those key chains. I’m not suggesting that we let it go that far at an NHRA race, but we should at least allow more giveaways than is now permissible. What’s the harm? More importantly, what’s the good? Immeasurable.
Some years ago a major NHRA sponsor wanted to bring 5,000 cheap painter’s hats to the U.S. Nationals to give away Saturday morning. NHRA refused to allow it. When the sponsor dug into the matter he found out NHRA’s real objection was their belief that giving away 5,000 hats meant 5,000 fewer hat sales for them! This was a good business decision? It’s actually conceivable that some of the recipients of those free hats might have felt they got more bang for their buck than they thought they would, and they’d come back for more.The bottom line here is brutally simple: NHRA must find a way of impacting an audience it’s just now beginning to collectively realize they may have already lost. They must do whatever it takes to get young people to re-think their impressions of their own cars – if they even have one. They must find a way of somehow equating real excitement with NHRA Drag Racing. You can’t just come up with an advertising slogan that says something like “Very real excitement” and have it be so. NHRA has to make it so. And NHRA’s marketing partners, like Coca-Cola, have to help. Thus far all Coke appears to have done is write a check. They can -- and must -- do more if the sport is to survive and grow. It’s in their best interests too.
It would be so easy if we could just say, “Do this and you’ll be golden,” but marketing to young people doesn’t work that way. And besides, I am absolutely in the wrong age demographic to have influence or even a real understanding of what needs to be done to connect with those young people. But others do, and I sincerely believe that parading around a new group of agency talking heads who have been hired by the NHRA to deal with this age-relevant problem isn’t the answer. Agency people usually tell clients what they want to hear, and that won’t solve the problem of attracting a younger audience. One of the reasons NHRA had so many problems with their ill-fated Sport Compact series was because they didn’t have a single executive capable of connecting with that audience. What could a well-dressed, corporate-looking guy in his 40s or 50s possibly have in common with a 20-something guy or girl with multi-hued hair, body piercings and tattoos? It’s the same situation now. The NHRA needs to figure out how to connect with today’s young people, and if they can’t, whether it’s through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or something else, the endeavor is going to slowly wither and die.
If there’s no one in the grandstands, there’s no reason to race.
What do you think?
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