SOUTH BOSTON, Va. — There’s not a bad seat at South Boston Speedway, a four-tenths-of-a-mile oval in southwest Virginia, where a $10 ticket guarantees a view so close, whether from the frontstretch grandstands or on a lawn chair brought from home, that it’s like watching a stock-car race in your front yard.
Built on a country fairground in 1957, “America’s Hometown Track,” as its slogan proclaims, has a carnival feel, with a playground, T-shirt giveaways and pre-race autograph session with drivers. As day turned to dusk on a recent Saturday, the smell of funnel cakes, french fries and baloney burgers filled the air, followed by the deep-throated roar of engines.
“Here we go, folks! Nine laps to the finish!” the track announcer declared as the first of two 100-lap NASCAR K&N Pro Series East races wound down. And Lynn and Mike Presby shot to their feet, counting down final laps — three, two, one — on fingers of their outstretched hands.
Everything the Presbys love about stock-car racing is here — furious passes for the lead and friendly fans. “The racing is so much more exciting,” said Mike Presby, 49, of St. Cloud, Fla., who favors NASCAR’s “minor league” to its elite Cup division. “Way more exciting and more competitive!”
The problem for auto racing is that the Presbys are in their late 40s — and that made them among the younger fans in a crowd of roughly 5,000 on this night, even though children under 12 were admitted free.
As the U.S. motor sports industry heads into its biggest weekend — highlighted by the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday — it is confronting a generational dilemma: Can it continue to prosper in a world in which fewer young Americans drive cars, let alone show an inclination to watch them race?
Only 24.5 percent of American 16-year-olds had a driver’s license in 2014 — down from 46.2 percent in 1983, according to a study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. The decline was notable though less stark among 20- to 24-year-olds over the same span, dropping from 91.8 percent to 76.7 percent.
Though the study didn’t analyze the cause, the trend suggests millennials and the coming Generation Z don’t share the traditional American love affair with cars. Moreover, in a 2017 article in Automotive News, former General Motors vice president Bob Lutz predicted that self-driving, autonomous cars would supplant traditional vehicles within 20 years.
What does this mean for the future of auto racing? Who will attend its high-octane Memorial Day weekend parties if the next generation, reared in a ride-sharing world, views cars as a burden rather than a symbol of freedom and independence? And in a driverless world, will anyone pay to watch?
The questions aren’t so far-flung that NASCAR, the country’s most popular form of racing, hasn’t thought about them. And its solution for capturing younger audiences is as far from the old-school grit of South Boston Speedway as could be imagined: simulated, computer-based racing (sim-racing, to devotees), which doesn’t wreck a single car or emit one particle of exhaust.
“It’s a huge opportunity for us,” said Jill Gregory, NASCAR’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer. “One of the challenges we’ve always had is that you can’t go play NASCAR in your backyard; you can shoot a basket and do other things. But through esports and iRacing, that brings NASCAR into the homes of these young people.”
The hope is twofold: The first is that sim-racing proves to be a pipeline for the sport’s next generation of racers. There’s evidence of that now, with 20-year-old William Byron, who’s atop the rookie-of-the-year standings in NASCAR’s Cup series, crediting iRacing with honing his on-track skill. And Wisconsin’s Ty Majeski, 23, landed a job as a developmental driver for Roush Fenway Racing in 2017 largely because he was iRacing’s highest-rated competitor.
Just as fervently, NASCAR hopes online racing proves to be a pipeline for its next generation of fans.
Mark Coughlin, a former motor sports marketing executive who is now head of marketing and revenue at esports holding company Envy Gaming Inc., is skeptical.
“Every sport out there is trying to check the box of, ‘Are we doing esports?’ — the NFL with Madden, FIFA, NBA 2K,” Coughlin said. “They see all the data that point to a generation of folks that have grown up with a controller or phone in their hand, and assume that what they play as a kid they’ll watch as an adult.”
But the most popular esports, Coughlin noted, are those with a fantastic, comic-book feel, in which gamers assume personae and special powers, build alliances and fight enemies in mythical worlds. Online versions of traditional games, whether basketball or racing, feel two-dimensional by contrast and don’t inspire the same fanaticism.
“It won’t have that crossover appeal,” Coughlin said when asked about the chance of online racers morphing into real-life ticket-buyers, “but it might bring a small trickle of fans.”
A trickle would help. NASCAR’s TV ratings for its Cup series are on a decade-long slide. And race-day attendance has declined so markedly that track owners have razed grandstands to slash seating capacity by 20, 30 and even 50 percent.
Particularly troubling is that NASCAR’s fan base is aging rapidly — more rapidly than any other major sport. According to a SportsBusiness Journal analysis of TV audiences, the average age of NASCAR viewers jumped from 49 to 58 between 2006 and 2016. The only sports with older audiences in 2016 were golf — including the PGA Tour with an average age of 64, and the LPGA Tour at 63 — followed by horse racing (63) and men’s tennis (61).
The average age of an esports enthusiast, Coughlin noted, is 23.5. That’s why the race is on to capture their attention.
NASCAR’s strategy for attracting younger fans is multipronged, Gregory said, and includes shifting content to digital platforms, heavily promoting its 20-something drivers and jazzing up the race-day experience with concerts and communal, bar-style seating options. Increasing its foothold in esports, chiefly via iRacing, is just another tactic.
Just this month, NASCAR announced a 12-week, youth eracing series aimed at attracting and developing talent among teens aged 13 to 16. They’ll compete in iRacing on virtually rendered iconic short tracks, with the top 50 in the points standings after eight weeks advancing to a four-week playoff.
Track owners are courting gamers, too. In March, Las Vegas Motor Speedway provided an esports lounge outfitted with racing simulators in its “Neon Garage” for race weekend. Fans could spend race day watching the Cup stars battle on the 1.5-mile oval or strap into a simulator themselves to play the NASCAR Heat 2 video game.
A godsend for aspiring racers
No form of motor sports depends as much on the connection to everyday passenger cars as NASCAR. The sport, by design, is anti-exotic. That’s why they’re called “stock” cars. Their essential appeal is their perceived ordinariness, which is what enables fans to believe, on some level, that Jimmie Johnson’s Chevy Camaro isn’t much different from the Camaro in their driveway.
Time and technology, however, have strained the myth of ordinariness. The death of carburetors made the hobbyist mechanic obsolete; the fuel-injection systems of today’s cars demand computerized service from a dealership. That, in turn, eroded the do-it-yourself car culture of many old-line NASCAR fans. Still, NASCAR trades on the fantasy that any fan — young or old, male or female — could win the Daytona 500 in its cars.
Today, nothing fulfills that fantasy better than iRacing, the online series that, for a $99 annual fee, can turn a home computer into a racecar.
For aspiring NASCAR racers, it is a godsend: a chance to practice on tracks they might race one day — whether the Watkins Glen (N.Y.) road course, Indianapolis Motor Speedway or even Le Mans in France — without the travel expense, much less the cost of tearing up a car if they wreck.
“If you hit a wall, you just hit a button, and you get a new car,” explained racer Josh Berry, 27, who drives the No. 88 late-model car owned by NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt Jr. Berry, who won the 2017 late-model championship on the CARS Tour, earned his ride at JR Motorsports after competing online against Earnhardt, who admired how he handled his simulated car.
The job offer came at an opportune time. Reared in Hendersonville, Tenn., Berry started racing go-karts at 8 and had some success, so his father, who owned a restaurant, bankrolled his early progression. Even in the developmental ranks, racing is an expensive sport. Without a corporate sponsor, there’s virtually no chance of getting equipment capable of impressing a potential big-time backer. So Berry started racing online, first in the NASCAR 2003 video game and later on the more professional iRacing, in which competitors earn points and grades based on their ability.
“It was a way to compete without having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Berry said in a recent interview at JR Motorsports’ shop in Mooresville, N.C.. “I think there’s a lot of people who race on there with aspirations to race in real life but can’t afford it. For a couple thousand dollars, you can get anything you’d need — a computer that can properly run it, a steering wheel and pedals. What it costs is a fraction of what it would take to race a late model.”
Berry was about to give up his dream of a racing career, his family having invested all it could, when Earnhardt asked whether he’d test one of his late-model cars — an “audition” of sorts. Berry was fast, so he was given the chance to race it for real. He did well in the race, and it led to a job with JR Motorsports.
As Berry explains it, there are limits to what a driver can learn on a simulator. You can improve hand-eye coordination and get familiar with the nuances of a track. But though the visuals are true to life and the steering wheel gives you feedback, the simulator can’t provide the authentic “feel” of a car that’s about to slide or crash — something a driver learns when flying by the seat of his pants.
The closest thing to authentic simulation comes at a steep price. It’s found at the Ford Performance Technical Center in Concord, N.C., a 33,000-square-foot facility that opened in 2014 to provide technical support to the Ford teams that compete in NASCAR’s top three series. Its showpiece is a total immersion racing simulator mounted on a platform in a darkened room and surrounded by a 270-degree, floor-to-ceiling screen onto which 3-D images of specific racetracks and their surroundings are projected.
Each Ford driver has a custom seat sculpted for height, width and contour that’s bolted in for his four-hour session. The engine noise is as loud as life when he flips the ignition. The platform moves in all three directions and rolls and yaws exactly as it would as the driver speeds over the banking and bumps. The pedals and steering wheel vibrate more the faster the simulator goes, and the seat belt tightens just as it would when the car brakes. All the while, engineers in an adjacent control room collect data as the team experiments with setups and talks with the driver.
“It’s a multimillion-dollar video game,” said Pat DiMarco, Ford Performance’s NASCAR program manager. For drivers trying to master unfamiliar tracks and crew chiefs trying to optimize handling, it’s also an invaluable teaching tool.
Get them to the track
Former NASCAR driver Jeff Burton, 50, got his advanced stock-car schooling at a somewhat cheaper price at South Boston Speedway. He was reared five miles from the track, and a section of the grandstands is named for him, as are others for his brother Ward, Emporia’s Elliott Sadler and Hurt’s Stacy Compton — all local racing heroes who made it to NASCAR’s top ranks.
Today, Jeff Burton is a commentator for NBC Sports, as well as a parent of two Gen-Zers — a son, 17, who races cars and a daughter, 21, who’s an equestrian. And though his children and their friends grew up in a tech-savvy world, Burton believes the love of competition binds all generations and that, in time, the pendulum will shift back in NASCAR’s favor.
“Millennials have just found a way to compete [online] without leaving their house,” Burton said. “They’re different than we were. And guess what? We were different than our parents were. But the attraction for NASCAR is still there. We’ve got to get younger people to the track. When we get them to the track, it changes the ballgame. We’ve just got to find a way to get them there.”