Circle Track readers who regularly get this magazine will recall prior information and insights from Charles Jenckes. In fact, he and I co-authored a "Technology Transfer" series some time ago, and his involvement in the motorsports industry runs deep and wide. He has held critical engineering positions with leading and Championship NASCAR teams, among other venues. He is currently working on his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering at NC State University.
Although largely involved in recent years with Cup engine development, he is able to channel his multiple viewpoints into a focus for what may lie down the road for not only the professional racer but those who do it on a smaller scale. After all, weekend racers feel the impact of the local and global economy in concert with trickle-down technologies that have an influence on their level of racing. Charles brings some interesting perspectives that bear thinking about, going forward. We recently cornered him for some conversation.
Given your experience in Cup racing, what do you see in the future for this and other bodies of motorsports, why and in what time frame?
First, let me start by saying that for as healthy as Cup racing has been in the past, it's certainly struggling right now, like much of everything else in our current economy, and it will likely do so for awhile, as will the economy. In fact, I believe NASCAR is even due for a major reset with its television contracts. However, I'm one of those individuals who believe the people in Daytona Beach are pretty savvy marketers and know what's going on.
In time, as the necessary adjustments are made, NASCAR will not only survive the correction period but likely begin going down new paths and prosper. So in the short term, the outlook is poor. In the medium term, changes are coming, with an even stronger long-term outcome.
Now, after the passing of Bill France Jr., NASCAR did adapt. For example, it created the "play-off series" and even the NHRA followed that example. I think the biggest challenge for motorsports worldwide is the struggle for relevancy, and this includes the Saturday Night racer we'll comment on a bit later.
What do I mean by relevancy? It means motorsports needs to establish reasons for the existence of racing that may be different from that in the past. For example, in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, at least in the United States, we lived in a car culture. Cars meant freedom to do what you wanted and when you wanted. There is a reason why the automobile became part of the fabric of American life, and I believe it relates to how technology moved to the point where cars are less sensitive to breaking down on long trips, owners tend to be less car-oriented and involved than in those earlier years and, in fact, vehicles are far more durable and dependable.
Moreover, technological advances have also changed racing in that there isn't the drama of frequent engine failures or other complications that may have drawn people to race tracks years ago. In the '40s or '50s, it was difficult to drive 500 miles on the highway without some mechanical issue. To race 500 miles without incident was therefore amazing.
So, while this is a long response to a short question, I think NASCAR will remake itself during the next 5-7 years. I mean if you simply look at the attendance figures, I believe NASCAR will repackage the sport into something even more exciting than it is today. In the past, it has shown a willingness to do that, and the chances are better than good that this need for relevancy will feed right into the weekly Saturday Night sector.
I believe another significant issue that needs to be recognized is that we aren't the car culture we were in times past. To get the younger people involved or attending races, changes are going to be required. Young people, at least in mass, are not as fixated on cars as before. In fact, society in general no longer looks at the automobile as a form of self-expression but now is viewed as a penalty, especially to the environment and energy. This could be where the alternative fuel or energy issue comes into play. So if alternatives are becoming the new normal, then motorsports needs to take a similar view. That's what I mean by the need to establish contemporary relevancy in racing.
Of course, I don't expect any of these changes are going to be rapid. I believe the transition will be gradual instead of flipping a switch where we see race cars running 200-mile races using hydrogen as fuel. Evolution of technology is a process, not a singular event.