Let's Create a Motorsports Triathlon
Motorsports in America grew up illicitly. Where a respected, methodical, scientific approach to racing existed at the very start of motorsports in Europe, the home-grown American racing scene consisted of dry lakebed top-speed runs and drag racing in Southern California, dirt bullrings in the Midwest and moonshine running in the Southeast. Racing was outlaw. The stuff of salacious headlines where daredevil drivers flirted with their own death-wishes. And while we’ve come a long way, there’s still an element of sensationalism in how motorsports is perceived in America compared to Europe and Asia. “Right of Way” is a weekly opinion column from automotive journalist, recovering racer and guitarist Jim Resnick. But there’s an upside to the outlaw beginnings of American motorsports. Diversity. This lawlessness created drag racing. Moonshine running gave birth to oval track competition and NASCAR. As we roll into the second half of this decade, we should capitalize on the diversity we enjoy in our American motorsports and the progressing maturity of the sport in the public’s eyes. We should initiate a cross-functional, cross-sanctioning body Motorsports Triathlon. RELATED: See images of a 1972 Dodge Charger NASCAR Racecar
What real innovation has taken place in the staging and presentation of motorsports over the past 40 years, anyway? Not much. I’m not talking about the craft, the technology or even the processes of motorsports. Those all have developed at a furious rate. Hell, it’s not widely known, but even NASCAR teams were using real-time telemetry over 20 years ago, during practice and testing. And one NASCAR team had a simple but effective form of traction control in the ’90s, never found by officials.
But in formulating and formatting the platform and how racing is presented to an audience, we haven’t innovated anything in some time. Change often comes slowly. It took NASCAR 22 years to use fuel injection after the last carbureted passenger car chuffed off an American dealer lot in 1990.
Compared to a generation or two ago, when the SCCA Trans-Am championship rode to its pinnacle in the late 1960s and ’70s, it ruled the consciousness of American road racing. It had massive factory support. Professional teams and top-name drivers vied very closely for victory. It was organized. It also innovated, being the first time since the nearly-invisible Vanderbilt Cup (pictured below) days on New York’s Long Island that any American car companies went after road racing in a big way.
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Currently, there are several tributaries feeding into such a potential triathlon of motorsports in America. All three big U.S. manufacturers have recently developed turn-key factory racecars aimed at either drag racing, road racing or both. All three are based on muscle cars currently in the market that has always captured, and still capture American enthusiasts’ imaginations.
Another factor is that the NHRA’s popularity has fallen dramatically and the format of drag racing needs an infusion of attention and audience. Yet, among enthusiasts, straight-line performance is as popular and important as ever. At the same time, a generation of hot-rodders have discovered autocrossing; it’s become extremely popular among the hot-rod set with the Goodguys Rod & Custom Association staging autocrosses (pictured below) at each of their heavily attended meets for the past few years. Years ago, you were a straight-line guy or an oval tracker or a road racer but these delineations are becoming less meaningful. Clearly, there’s now cross-pollination of a kind within the auto enthusiast ranks like never before.
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Combining the three forms—drag, road course and oval track competition—in a three-heat format widens the potential fan base. It would also bolster the entry list of competitors. Many big oval track facilities also have infield road courses and most could also stage eighth-mile drag racing if a full quarter-mile were not possible. It would also open up creative possibilities in TV packaging.
Most importantly, it would bring together racers and an audience from different, often siloed interests to a much fuller degree than even the US-based International Race of Champions, launched in 1973, initially using identical Porsche 911s and later switching to race-prepped Camaros. Done well, a new motorsports triathlon may even draw interest from overseas manufacturers.
Multi-discipline racing is not new, but it’s never been done on a grand scale, nor done in professional ranks. What do you think?
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Jim Resnick started his career writing and photographing for Vette, Car Craft and Chevy High Performance magazines. He then launched the BMW-focused Bimmer as Editor-in-Chief, while also holding down the Tech Editor chair at Sports Car International. Jim was then drafted into PR and Marketing roles with Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari, Jaguar Land Rover and ran Communications for Fender Musical Instrument Corporation, bringing a unique perspective to reporting. He’s also a recovering racer and guitarist.
Image Credits: MustangsDaily, RacersReunion, Vanderbuilt Cup Races, Racingjunk.com