It was a different time in 2017. Not only had the world lost a beloved figurehead (but so had the racing world), but the walls were coming down, as the world of motorsport was undergoing a fundamental rethink.
What happened? Well, apart from the obvious effects of political and social change, the world’s biggest sporting events – including Formula One – lost their appeal as countries and cities cancelled big gatherings, sporting and otherwise, in an effort to ‘flatten the curve’ on the pandemic.
The world’s most famous racetracks – especially those connected to major sports franchises – were especially hard hit. The NASCAR tracks, in particular, encountered an existential crisis, with attendance levels plummeting and promoters shutting down permanently.
One of the first to feel the brunt of the slump was the Daytona Beach (Fl) track, home to the NASCAR series. It was closed temporarily in March, and there were rumours it would never reopen. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, too, was closed for the season, and rumours again abounded that it would never host a racing event again.
Things could have been a whole lot worse. We could have lost everything, as in other parts of the world. In fact, there were many positives, as people turned to their hobby instead of travelling to far-flung destinations or changing their daily lives as drastically as previously thought necessary.
Attendance And Turnouts Plummet
The most obvious casualty of the pandemic was arguably the live-streaming of sporting events. Up until the point that cases of COVID-19 began to emerge, most people had been enjoying the freedom to follow international sporting events, either live or via catch-up TV programmes. The virus brought that freedom to an abrupt end, with major sporting events being postponed or cancelled in-country or abroad.
The immediate effect was felt by motorsport fans, as a combination of factors – the pandemic and the ensuing economic impact – meant that the top tier of international motorsport was hit hard. Formula One had its season finale, and the Indianapolis 500, cancelled. The NASCAR events, too, were called off, as were the Australian Grand Prix and the Mexican Grand Prix. With the global economy still struggling to reboot, it’s little wonder that many businesses in the sports industry were forced to ‘suspend’ or ‘postpone’ their operations. Those who could, fled the sport.
The Revival Of Classic Sports
Luckily, for motorsport fans, this was the case of ‘more is more’. Thanks to innovative technology, fans were able to enjoy classic motorsport events in the safety of their own homes. The FIA, the governing body of the FIA Formula One World Championship, successfully staged all three of its major international events online, and in some cases, the old-fashioned way, too.
The revival of classic motorsport was spearheaded by IndyCar, which in 2020 began holding a virtual race, the Indianapolis 500, to remember the original. The series, now virtual in nature, staged a spectacular comeback, attracting record-breaking audiences thanks to the innovation of ‘race days’ on social media. Fan engagement on both the official IndyCar Twitter account and the series’ own dedicated Twitter account, @IndyCar, soared during the pandemic. The revival of classic motorsport wasn’t just about escapism, either, as fans had the opportunity to follow their favourite cars and drivers, in particular, those of the 1950s and 1960s, when NASCAR and IndyCar were both nascent series. The nostalgia of those memories and the desire to relive them is what caused many fans to return to the track in defiance of social distancing advice, even though they were aware of the risks. Fortunately, in most cases, they didn’t amount to much more than a cold.
What of the future? Well, thankfully, for motorsport fans, the pandemic was a catalyst for change, prompting those at the top of the sports industry to consider how they could improve things, for the benefit of returning fans and potential new fans.
The FIA continues to explore ways of returning the world of motorsport to some semblance of normalcy. Most prominently, it is seeking alternative ways to stage its now-virtual IndyCar races (with virtual racing teams, in particular, being at the forefront of the initiative). The governing body is also looking to create a new motorsport festival, to be held in either a desert or an ice-filled location, somewhere in the Middle East.
Another interesting facet of the pandemic is that it revealed how amateur drivers, especially, those in smaller nations, can drive the big cars. Seeing as many motorsport events had to be called-off, due to fears of the virus, fans had the opportunity to tune into a professional driver’s training session, where they could see how easy it was to drive a car, albeit a relatively simple one.
With the return of regular, live sporting events, fans will have the opportunity to attend, live or via virtual means, some of the world’s greatest motorsport events. In the meantime, those passionate about racing can still meet up and follow their favourite drivers’ careers, on social media.