NEIL RANDON discusses how BriSCA F1 can learn lessons from the past to encourage more fans to stock car meetings
The show. What does this actually mean?
Taken from the Oxford Dictionary, a show means “a spectacle or display, typically an impressive one”.
It is a small word that has a big impact when done well.
BriSCA F1 stock car racing, on its own, was sufficient to draw the crowds back in the sport’s heyday during the 1960s and 1970s – when spectators turned up in their droves.
Added to which, at Hyde Road’s Belle Vue stadium, the shale oval – the sporting arena that housed both speedway and stock car racing – was just part of an entertainment complex, with a funfair, a zoo and evening dance nights. It was entertainment that the local hard-working community looked forward to most weekends.
Nowadays, apart from Bradford and Sheffield, the majority of stock car tracks are miles away from local communities and so to encourage more families to stock car meetings is the biggest test for a promoter in the 21st century. Somehow a promoter needs to find the ingredients that will encourage them through the turnstiles.
As mentioned in Part One, publicity is at the forefront of any sport’s success if crowds are integral to an organiser/promoter’s hopes to make money. It is the No.1 priority to gather awareness. If no one knows the sport even exists and the local community aren’t aware the sport is actually on their doorstep, they won’t turn up outside the stadium.
But even when there is publicity, a good story has to be attached to it to become a big draw – the hook. That is the tricky piece of the jigsaw, but if you understand the type of stories appeal to the general public, it is possible to grab their attention long enough for them to pay hard-earned money at a stock car track.
That is why Gears and Tears was such a huge opportunity missed. Tragic, really. It was the golden ticket. Promoters had a story gifted to them, but they didn’t understand how to capitalise from it. And what made it even worse was that it came for free!
This is where the show comes in. Once you’ve drawn a crowd, you then have to find a way to keep them there and coax them to come back.
The drivers do their bit on track, but those new to the sport need help.
But they get very little.
Let’s start from the beginning and work our way up.
Imagine being a first-time fan – how did they find out about BriSCA F1?
Most newcomers enjoy motorsport, so some may have read about it in magazines, or the odd national or local newspaper report or news story, or perhaps they saw some short clip of the sport somewhere, say on YouTube. If they Google it, they might see more clips and information through social media channels that they initially knew little about.
After that they need to find out where these cars race and when. By accident or perseverance they discover the BriSCA/BSCDA website and see fixtures and dates.
Let’s assume this newcomer decides to read up about the sport, and works out that the cars line up for races in some kind of handicap system, a bit like horse racing, where the better the horse the more weight that horse has to carry. In stock car racing they discover that the better the driver, the further down the grid they start.
The concept is intriguing and unique to short oval racing – the big guns at the back of the grid trying to force their way to the front in a short space of time before the chequered flag drops. Sounds exciting.
OK, so now this new fan turns up at a stock car track, buys a programme and waits to watch the racing.
The cars come out and line up on track, with a commentator listing the names of the drivers on grid. The cars then fire up and after a parade lap the race is on…
What follows is pandemonium, with lots of noise and cars hitting the fence. But the new fan has little other information. They have no idea who is winning, for one thing. They can’t hear the PA and there’s no lap chart to help them follow the leaders. From where they are standing they can just see the starter on their podium, and they seem to be gesticulating to some of the cars as they flash past.
Then in a matter of minutes the chequered flag drops, the race ends and the winner is announced. This goes on throughout the afternoon until the last car pulls off the track and everyone goes home.
At some stadiums they have a roving mic on the track with a commentator talking to the crowd and with the drivers. This helps keep the new fan informed.
I remember going to Wimbledon’s Plough Lane Stadium as a young boy in the late 1960s/early 1970s to watch stock cars with my parents, my uncle, aunt and cousins. There were two features I remember clearly. Firstly, you could keep up with who was leading via the scoreboard on the gantry, and secondly Nigel King, the commentator, who turned into a kind of celebrity in his own right, was always entertaining and engaged with the crowd.
For families arriving at a stock car track for the first time, the job of keeping the family unit all on message is also really difficult. Teenage children may only be there on sufferance, while younger children can be very distracted and if the racing doesn’t appeal to them, they become bored. And there’s little fun on a family day out when the kids start playing up halfway through the afternoon – especially if the event goes on for hours and hours…
So a promoter needs to encompass a number of factors to give families and fans an enjoyable day at their stadiums.
BriSCA F1 is in a strange situation, where car numbers and money spent on cars appears to be going up, but spectator levels are gradually going down.
Why is that? If you go on Facebook, the BriSCA Stock Cars (#OvalFamily) page has more than 19,400 members. Where are they all?
Some might suggest it is the earlier start times, particularly for Saturday meetings, because some fans will be at work and unable to get to the meeting in time.
That may happen occasionally, and it is unfortunate, but an early start time doesn’t seem to affect fans going to football matches right across the country, does it? And in horse racing, with six meetings invariably hosted each weekend, the racing can start anytime after 12.30pm and can go on until 4-5pm.
Some will say it is because we have an ageing fan base. If that is the case, then why is it ageing? Why are younger people – and that doesn’t have to mean teenagers – in their 20s and early 30s, less likely to want to go to a stock car meeting than they used to 20 or 30 years ago?
It will be suggested that it is because this younger generation prefer to sit at home on their mobile phones rather than bothering to go and watch sport.
But this is simply not the case, is it? Young people go and watch football, young people enjoy a day out at the races, they enjoy rugby, tennis, golf, snooker – even darts. Now there’s a sport that has a huge fanbase, especially around the new year, and it seems to cater for everyone. It is great entertainment.
So these youngsters make the effort, mainly in groups, to go and watch other sporting events, have a few beers and have a great time. And all of the sports mentioned above are thriving.
Sports that turned declining businesses into profit-making success stories
Let’s start with darts. A pub game that in the 1980s was brought to the nation’s consciousness by the sport’s first superstar, the ‘Crafty Cockney’ Eric Bristow and the TV game show Bullseye. It coincided with interest from the TV networks, but it was only after the top players broke away from the original governing body that the sport really began to take off.
Everyone can now see it is big business, live on TV, with a great atmosphere, plenty of showmanship and razzmatazz at major events. And all the sport consists of is someone throwing a dart at a dart board.
Snooker. A game that has been in existence since the 19th Century and made its debut on BBC2 in 1969 to promote the advent of colour television, for which it was ideal. A lucky break, so to speak. Pot Black became so popular its viewing figures on BBC2 were only surpassed by Morecambe and Wise.
The World Championship gathered interest on TV to the point where the final between Dennis Taylor and Steve Davis had 18.5 million viewers glued to it.
And it was the players involved who captured the public’s imagination, from the mercurial showman Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins, who had a huge following (including from me) to the fortress that was Steve Davis. Other players became household names like multiple world champion Stephen Henry and the hugely talented, but perennial bridesmaid, Jimmy White (another favourite of mine).
The sport went global with the World Snooker Tour, but fizzled out until promoter Barry Hearn took over the reins and then snooker went stratospheric, with the top players now earning millions during their careers. And it has characters – everyone knows who the genius Ronnie O’Sullivan is.
Football. In 1980s Britain it was a sport in decline, with decaying stadiums, violence escalating on the terraces – culminating in the Heysel disaster – and teams subsequently banned from competing in European competitions for five years.
It is staggering to look back at how bad the atmosphere surrounding football was during those wretched times – it hit rock bottom – but the England team then made it to the World Cup semi-finals at Italia 90 and once the ban was lifted and the big clubs took it upon themselves to break away from the Football League to create the Premier League, with lucrative TV rights, the sport never looked back. It is now the most watched sports league in the world, worth more than a staggering £3billion a year.
Horse racing. The most famous horse race in the world, the Grand National, hit an all-time low in 1975 when spectator numbers at the racecourse were down to a meagre 9,000.
The course had been owned by Mrs Mirabel Topham, a divisive figure who threatened to sell the land due to rising costs and falling revenues to a firm who intended to build houses on the site. She eventually sold the land to property developer Bill Davies, who in turn leased the racecourse to Ladbrokes, who invested £3m into the venue and the race, with the Jockey Club also investing in the course.
But it was one horse that really put Aintree – and the Grand National, in particular – back on the map.
When he won hIs third Grand National in 1977 Red Rum was already an equine sporting superstar and 75,000 crammed into Aintree to see him win.
By 1984 big sponsors began injecting money into the race and over time it was rebranded and now prize-money is in excess of £1m. The Grand National meeting now covers three days of racing, with star horses who had run at the Cheltenham Festival featuring during the three days.
So there is a common thread here – and it is not coincidental. Declining sports or sporting events making a dramatic turnaround in fortunes through investment and star names.
None of these sports turned their fortunes around by doing the same thing year, in year out. There had to be a change of mindset otherwise the torpor would set in for good, and the end would come quickly.
But this is where BriSCA F1 is at the moment, or at least where I feel it is. Or I am completely wrong?
The Skegness Shootout weekend featured some fantastic racing and was well-supported. Again it is no coincidence that Rob Speak has invested money into the stadium, and will continue to do so in the coming years. The Speak family have turned that track around and it is now one of the most popular venues in the country.
The BSCDA have come up with cracking good ideas, like the Shootout Juniors where youngsters get the opportunity to draw the driver grid positions for each Shootout round and get to ask the Shootout drivers a question which is aired on BSCDA TV. It is something young fans will remember as they grow up and will recall many years later.
The photo above says it all, really. One young fan, Jack Green, made the draw for the Shootout grid positions on the Saturday evening meeting at Skegness, and afterwards Tom Harris invited him back to his transporter to pick up some World Champion goodies. And as Paul Tully, who took this picture, said on Facebook, it is the look of sheer delight on Jack’s face that makes the photo. A young fan, awestruck, with his hero. If you haven’t just noticed some dust in your eyes, not a lot will. It is simply wonderful.
Interacting and involving with the kids is a hugely positive way to encourage the younger generation into the sport.
BriSCA F1 is a great product, but with little imagination or perhaps confidence to make changes that are necessary. Many (but not all) are afraid of change. Even fans, so used to the current fixture and race format, are reticent to see a new system.
When the Shootout was first created, there were plenty of rumblings and complaints that it was an artificial way to put spark into the National Points Championship and that it diminished its value. But for the most part, it has worked. It is the one major change to the fixture list in the past 20 years.
Imagine how many drivers and fans would have turned up at Skegness, Mildenhall and Northampton had a major title had not been on the line? Would we, for example, have seen Ryan Harrison giving it the beans at all three meetings? Doubtful.
Many would rather the sport had continued as it was, with just cosmetic changes, even if the sport long-term had an uncertain future. The same is apparent now. It’s almost as if everyone just accepts its potential fate. An enjoy-it-while-you-can-type of attitude.
But this can’t be good enough – can it?
No one should suggest for one moment that a multi-millionaire entrepreneur is going to come in and take the whole thing over and start again from scratch with complete control over the sport from top to bottom, including car specifications and rules – even though that would be the ideal way forward. Take both the drivers committee and the promoters out of the equation and there might be hope! But no one within the sport would ever allow this to happen, unless there was massive incentive for all concerned.
BriSCA F1 as a business is nowhere near the economic level of the sports mentioned earlier, and finding investment is incredibly difficult – particularly as BriSCA is made up of individual components (the promoters) – but that doesn’t mean lessons cannot be learned from them.
There are small things that could help improve the product, even if the fixture list stays the same, the World Championship stays the same, the meeting formats stay the same – and, let’s be honest, it IS all going to stay the same.
One recent revelation has been the performance of Frankie Wainman Jnr Jr with his new unwinged Tarmac car. I suggest his results are pretty much equal to those without a wing on the roof. And depending on who you speak with, the overall effect of a wing on a Tarmac car is negligible anyway. Add 30 cars on a small track at the same time and the turbulence created is more likely to destabilise a car behind and, if anything, the drag effect may even slow the car down in a straight line.
But whether it is or isn’t key to handling, I see no reason why, just to ring the changes, there can’t be two extra titles added to the roster. A Tarmac Wingless British Championship and a Shale Wingless British Championship.
Whatever the results, it would bring a new look to the racing for two meetings a year. Worth a try, surely? What is there to lose? It would be something different. And if the semi-final format was scrapped for the World Championship, these two championship meetings could fill the gap.
The show needs to be improved. I’ve said it before – think big. It doesn’t mean it is essential to end up big, but at least by aiming at a higher level the end results will be better than thinking small.
It doesn’t always need major changes – even small things can help, like a mobile video screen on the infield, with lap charts so spectators, new and experienced alike, can follow who is leading the race. Interviews from a roving mic and TV crew in the pits during a meeting, plus previous BSCDA TV interviews on screen during the quiet periods, and replays of big races – anything that helps keep spectators engaged.
How about a clear and audible PA with a commentary team and analysts discussing the days events as they unfold. There’s a novelty. Sounds like that happens now, but it doesn’t always.
In my latest book Heavy Metal I wrote a chapter on Stuart Smith’s testimonial. The racing that day featured a Champion of Champions race (couldn’t we bring that race back?) and a clockwise race – won by John Lund. Stuart wanted to add something different to the day.
He even drove his old Griffin car out on track. I’m not sure what the issues are regarding the Heritage cars, but can’t we have the odd BriSCA F1 Heritage race – or demo run – at the World Final? Guy Parker arranged one at the Live Action Arena a couple of years back and it went down a treat.
We need to invite more of the great names of the past to our big events. George Ansell was at Skegness for the Shootout round and featured in a photoshoot with current world champion Tom Harris, with both their cars on track. It was a lovely moment.
We’ve a history that we should celebrate.
All these elements are small, but combined they might improve the show just a little bit. In time, with more investment there can be big screens with theatrical WWE-style introductions for our big-named stars accompanied by spectacular light shows – but that is for the future.
For now I would happy for any of the suggestions I’ve written about in these past three features to be addressed, discussed, adapted or improved.
They are a plea for action from someone who has loved the sport since he was a child, but genuinely is concerned for its future.
More than anything else I just hope something positive comes out of it. But if nothing does, rest assured, I will keep banging that drum.
Oh, by the way while I’m here, to all concerned and to give you a heads-up, there may be space available in the national papers during the Xmas period for a feature or two.
I look forward to hearing from you.
© Neil Randon 2021