In the 2018 PCOTY (Performance Car of the Year) issue of Road & Track, Preston Lerner writes an article about the future of motorsports, entitled “Terminal Velocity”. Over the course of the article, Lerner discusses the established giants—Formula 1, IndyCar, NASCAR, Le Mans, IMSA—as well as relative new comers—Global Rallycross, drone racing, Formula E, and eSports. The general take-away is that the various governing bodies and participants are facing some tough times, but it’s all right for the moment. However, something in “The New Schools” section caught my eye.

In discussing eSports, Lerner writes the following: “It’s not clear whether—or why—large numbers of people would watch a gamer race in a virtual Monaco Grand Prix when they could just as easily see Lewis Hamilton drive the real thing.” I think this statement is at the very heart of motorsport’s future, especially when it comes to competition with professional gaming and VR.

The issue at hand is accessibility.

What’s In Your Driveway

This is a point I’ve discussed before, so I’ll keep it short. My biggest problem with Formula 1, NASCAR, and IndyCar is that there’s nothing racing in these series that is actually like a car I can buy in a showroom.

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Understandably, Formula 1 and IndyCar are based around the concept of pushing the bounds of automotive technology, but they’ve become regulated almost to the point of stagnation. IndyCar even has a standard chassis that everyone uses, and a choice between two engine manufacturers, Chevrolet or Honda. Developing driver talent is one thing, and aero packages are team-specific, but it does dull the ‘bleeding edge of technology’ a bit. F1 isn’t much better. True, the Aston Martin Valkyrie is based on F1 tech, but I ain’t got $3 million to burn.

And NASCAR? I’m sorry, when has a Toyota Camry been made with a custom chassis, rear-wheel drive, and a massive V8? The Camry body is literally a costume. Autoweek’s article on the Toyota NASCAR entry literally uses “body”—not “Camry race car”, “Camry body.” I know that high-spec race cars deviate wildly from their showroom brethren, but this is frankly ridiculous, in my book. Drop the “S”, NASCAR.

But do you know which series do have cars that look like something I could actually park in my apartment building’s lot? IMSA, rallying and rallycross, and the Pirelli World Challenge series. And more grassroots-level series like LeMons. Seeing the IMSA cars race at Detroit’s Belle Isle this summer was amazing.

Every car felt unique, and real. Yes, they’re modified up the whazoo for these series, but they’re much closer to their showroom brethren than anything in NASCAR.

OK, this one isn’t that stock, I just think it looks amazing.

And rallying? I’ve been to Sno-Drift several times, and I plan on keep coming back. Every single entry is an honest-to-goodness road car that’s just been modified for racing. Each one is a product of elbow grease and garage wrenching; something that anyone with the time, money, and dedication could theoretically accomplish.

Which is where eSports come in.

Give me a PS4 and Wi-Fi, and I Can Drift the World

Mr. Lerner wondered why someone would rather watch a digital race than the real thing. There’s two parts to the answer.

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Firstly, the place of the smartphone in modern society. It’s the access point; in ancient times people gathered by town wells to exchange information and draw the water needed to live—the fountain of data beaming from the screens in our pockets serves the same purpose. Although the advent of social media (warts and all) and screen addiction scuffs the sheen quite a bit, the ability to connect to the outside world and its inhabitants with a device roughly the same volume as a deck of cards cannot be ignored nor understated.

Indeed, the smartphone has replaced the car as the method of social communication. Why should a teenager get a license to drive to their friend’s place when they can Snapchat, or call for an Uber? What’s the point of a summer road-trip if you can buy a set of VR goggles and experience Arches National Park in the comfort of your living room?

Admittedly, not every person feels this way. But the simple truth is that we interact with others digitally more and more, and can quite literally reach out and touch all the world’s knowledge with a few swipes. It’s tough for cars to compete.

That leads neatly to the second issue: ease of experience. If you want to dive in the ocean for real, it would cost thousands of dollars to buy plane tickets, find lodging, rent equipment, and so on. But it’s only a few hundred bucks, if that, to buy VR goggles, and you can experience the sights over and over again. And you aren’t limited to just the ocean, either.

Buying a car is always going to be a significant expense. The expenses continue after the car’s been paid for. License fee, getting insurance, buying fuel, paying for replacement parts and repairs...you get the picture. For many people, it’s an expense that simply cannot be paid. I live in Metro Detroit, Motor City USA, and I know several people who don’t own cars. They might live close enough to walk to their workplaces, but Detroit is literally designed around car ownership. But they can’t afford to make car insurance payments month-to-month, so they don’t bother owning one.

For instance, here is a breakdown of my average monthly car budget, based on my expenses over the past year:

  • Gas: $91
  • Insurance: $116
  • Parts & repairs: $69
  • Parking: $10

The total monthly cost just to keep my car on the road adds up to $286.

In contrast, if you want the best experience out of Gran Turismo Sport, the costs are limited to the following: PS4, a copy of the game, access to the Internet, a steering wheel, pedals, and some VR goggles.

The online racer’s wish list. Images courtesy of Road & Track.

Here’s the cost breakdown (at time of writing):

  • PS4 Slim 1 TB: $314
  • Gran Turismo Sport VR bundle: $299
  • Internet connection (based on my monthly costs): $60
  • Steering wheel & pedals: $259

Total monthly cost? $133. That’s less than half of my total car-related budget. To be sure, it’s not chump change. But it isn’t much more than my monthly car insurance payment. As a car enthusiast, I understand the value and joy I receive from owning a car, and look at it as, “So, for twice the money, I could own something that lets me travel wherever I want, whenever I want?” It’s an easy decision. But I also know that a lot of places aren’t Detroit. In Chicago, for example, you can get practically anywhere with some combo of bus & subway. And forget about finding a place to park, especially in the winter. Also, you can do more with the PS4 than just play Gran Turismo.

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Plus, this is the extreme end of video gaming. If you have a fairly good PC, all you need is iRacing and a steering wheel & pedal set. It’s why eSports as a whole have become so popular. The amount of people who have the physical capability to run in the NFL is fairly minuscule. But you don’t need massive muscles to play a video game. The barrier of entry is significantly lower. When it comes to driver’s ed, the US is definitely lagging behind, but even so, a digital car crash is a lot less devastating than a real one.

And even if you aren’t playing a game, you can join in the fun by watching others. The rise of YouTube and Twitch has meant there’s more options than ever to stream your favorite Internet personalities as they chainsaw demons, roll dice, or race around tracks. All you need is access to the Internet. You can do it at your local library basically for free.

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Remind me, how can I stream a Formula 1 race? I have to buy a satellite package, which I will never make the most of. Sure, Liberty Media has plans to launch a live-stream service soon, but it’s a travesty such an option hasn’t been available.

NASCAR’s better in this regard, as is IndyCar, but the real star is RallyCross and Formula E. They arose at the same time as many social media platforms, and they’ve learned well in the school of Internet advertisement. The Goodwood Festival of Speed, Le Mans, LeMons—they’re amazing at this, as well. That’s probably why they’re experiencing steady or increased viewership numbers. Hell, a quick YouTube search for “Formula Drift” shows entire events with no commercials.

Why are people more likely to watch a virtual race than a real one? Because it’s a lot easier to do the former.

Is that it, then? Is IRL racing doomed to fall to high-res graphics?

Hell no. It just has to pivot with the times.

Fan Engagement

Yeah, I can’t imagine being able to do this in an F1 car. Photo credit: Ken Saito

As C.J. O’Donnell, IndyCar’s chief marketing officer, points out in Preston Lerner’s article, the issue isn’t necessarily that younger people aren’t watching the races, it’s that they’re watching from their phones. That’s one of the biggest benefits of having a smartphone: you have access to everything on your own time. You aren’t tethered to a desktop, or a router.

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Or, to quote Mr. O’Donnell, “’Livestreaming, virtual reality, video on demand, 30-minute cuts of the race, five-minute highlight reels—people will watch this stuff, but when they want it and where they want to see it.’”

Some may trivialize this astute observation, and think it’s because my generation has no attention span. They’re missing the point that IndyCar has hit on, thanks to Mr. O’Donnell. Do you really think someone with no attention span would be interested in a livestream? It’s not that we’re not interested, it’s that we don’t always have the time to see the whole thing at once. The highlight reel is so we get the big-picture; we’ll watch the whole thing at home, where there’s pizza. But that’s only half the battle.

I’ve discovered a lot of amazing music through the Internet over the years. I may not have a fancy sound system powered by a small nuclear reactor and designed by a reclusive Swedish architect, but the songs still sound great. Still, no matter how great “Shelter” sounded as it echoed through my apartment, no matter the fact that I could endlessly replay it for free, I still had to see Porter Robinson and Madeon perform it live.

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Because nothing beats experiencing the wall of sound as it hits your face and reverberates throughout your body. Because nothing beats the real thing.

Racing is an Experience

Richard Hammond, in a Top Gear segment, visited a NASCAR race and was a bit shocked at the degree to which fans could get involved. True, they had to pay a bit—but I’d slaughter an entire herd of piggy banks too if it meant I could sit in a race car while it’s being flung around a track by an actual pro racer.

This year, F1's new owners, Liberty Media, have expanded paddock access, and even started including concerts and support races for a few events. There’s less social media restriction, and July even saw an exhibition in downtown London. If Bernie Ecclestone still had a heart, it would’ve needed a quadruple bypass.

IndyCar at Belle Isle gets it. Formula Drift, rallycross, Sno-Drift: they understand it, too. So does Le Mans.

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The Belle Isle Grand Prix may have been an IndyCar race, but IMSA was there. Cadillac had a full display as well. The island shuts down for the race, and the whole city echoes with the engines’ roars. The Sound. A wall made of dragons and chainsaws that left me aching for more (and because I keep forgetting to bring earplugs). IndyCars, prototypes, sports cars: there was something for everyone.

Then there’s Sno-Drift. Yes, the cars are familiar, but it’s not just that. As I freeze in the snowy forests of northern LP Michigan, I’m surrounded by fans just like me peeking through the trees with their DSLRs. Coolers’ contents are shared, as is the passion.

If you build it, they will come. And by “it”, I mean a rally stage in a snow LP Michigan forest.

Nissan has famously been using Gran Turismo to test new factory drivers via its GT Academy, and McLaren used video games to hire its newest simulator driver. Every single race team uses simulators to test their cars and help drivers practice. Their set-ups are leagues ahead of my PS3 and TV, but at their core, they’re video games.

The Goodwood Revival, with its fans robed in the spirit of the 50s. The carousel at Le Mans. This is how you foster motoring enthusiasm.

In the end, the best way to foster racing’s future is to make sure there’s a platform for every passion. Car culture has many facets and faces; not everyone agrees with each other. But as long as there exists a way to spread what you love about motorsports, to make it accessible for old fans and fresh blood alike, it will continue to live and grow. If you want proof, you just have to browse this site. Terminal velocity? We’ve just started accelerating.