Racer’s Stateside View | What is the state of American motorsport at the turn of the decade?

Three major deals concluded at the end of 2019 look set to dominate the US motorsports narrative for the foreseeable future.

The last year of the decade rendered three significant deals that are likely to change the North American auto racing landscape as we look ahead to the next ten years, perhaps even save the sport as whole in the US.  

The first was the announcement by Nascar that it would buy International Speedway Corporation (ISC), owner of 13 tracks on the US stock car racing’s tour circuit, and take the company private. Shortly after, Speedway Motorsports Inc. (SMI), which owns the other 11 Nascar tracks, also announced that it too would buy back all publicly-held shares to take full and private control of the company.  

On the face of it, little would seem to change with both of these acquisitions. Nascar’s France family already owned the controlling interest in ISC, and indeed ISC and the series have shared the same corporate address from the beginning. The Smith family likewise already owned a massive share in SMI. So why then are these moves significant? 

Simply put, going private takes the Wall Street profit pressure off and eases regulatory issues freeing both entities to make the changes they need to reshape the business without intervening interests making it difficult to do so. Undoubtedly Nascar needs to rethink its place in the future. It is still the biggest form of motorsports in America by every measure, but in many respects, it is half as large as it was at its peak.  

SMI’s Marcus Smith told the Charlotte Observer: “Nascar racing has faced several challenges in recent years, and [SMI] has been impacted by these challenges. Nascar has indicated the sport would benefit from structural change. We believe [SMI] would be more able to compete in this challenging and changing environment as a private company.” 

The third announcement coming in late September delightfully caught most industry insiders unawares. Roger Penske announced the Penske Corporation would buy the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar Series lock, stock and barrel from the Hulman-George family, who had until the end of 2019 owned the Speedway since 1945. 

While there were rumours that the Hulman-George family might one day sell all or some part of the Speedway and the IndyCar series, few would have ever guessed that it would happen as swiftly, secretly and decisively as it did.  

It was news that was almost universally accepted within the motorsport community. While we are yet to see how the Penske acquisition will fare, there is near universal support that it was sold to the right person. Penske has the acumen, the resources, the institutional knowledge and the passion to make it a success. Perhaps the only question is, did it come too late?  

2019 saw a healthy field of competitor entries across almost all series. The Indianapolis 500 had meaningful tension on the final day of qualifying for the first time in recent memory, with 36 cars attempting to make the 33-car field. The International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) has 18 different manufacturers participating, and the growth of global production formats like GT3, GT4 and TCR have helped to bolster fields in both IMSA and SRO. Trans Am, which was all but dead at the start of the decade, has made a huge resurgence with over 70 cars at many events. Trans Am should benefit even further with its new XGT class, which will provide a home for early-spec GT3 cars that are still perfectly race-able, yet are not quite competitive enough to keep pace with the latest spec versions racing in IMSA and SRO. 

Moreover, NBC Sports consolidated its place over the past few years as the home of American motorsports with exclusive coverage of IMSA and IndyCar, along with the final half of Nascar, not to mention other forms of motorsports like motocross and off-road. The increased hours of coverage across its many terrestrial and live stream platforms offers American fans the possibility of watching their favourite forms of motorsports in more ways than ever before.  

Audience growth has also been a theme at Racer.com, with 2019 continuing a five-year trend of year on year growth, which saw unique users growing by 44 per cent over 2018. Moreover, Racer’s 2019 survey of nearly 6,500 readers demonstrated that motorsports fans are avid followers of the sport, influential within their peer groups when it comes to automotive topics, and supportive of the brands that are active within the racing community. 

Finally, 2019 featured two major motion-pictures with auto racing as a central part of the narrative; The Art of Racing in the Rain, and Ford v Ferrari [titled Le Mans '66 in some European territories]. The latter was even nominated for an Academy Award in the best film category.  

All of these factors point to a healthy future for motorsports in the US. That is not to say that it is not without challenges.   

Both sanctioning bodies and manufacturers are grappling with a changing automotive market that includes a shift toward electrification. In racing terms, the question revolves around how to best embrace EV technology in a relevant and meaningful way, while still trying to reduce cost and maintain fan interest that has thus far been only lukewarm toward the international Formula E series.  

Manufacturers still need to find ways to appeal to consumers and differentiate themselves from their competition, and for that auto racing remains a valuable platform. As Jon Ikeda, vice president and brand officer for Acura said: “Acura began as the performance division of Honda. With the relaunch of the NSX four and half years ago, we got back on track with precision-crafted performance.  

“As we were developing the NSX, we decided right away that if we are going to be a performance brand, we can’t just make fast cars. We have to prove ourselves. It’s in the DNA of our company to race and to compete, so motorsport is integral to what we make and what we say.” 

This content is supported by Racer Media & Marketing.


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