Fancy Gadgets and Short Attention Spans: Is Motorsports Doomed?

Straddling the fields of science and motorsports as I do, members of one community often email me articles about the other community.  It’s interesting to see what ‘outsiders’ think is interesting about the other world.  Last week, it was a series of articles about how NASCAR’s popularity is waning because kids are too busy playing video games.

Frank Deford (on NPR and in Sports Illustrated) declared America’s “Love affair with the car” over and done.  He supports his assertion with interesting facts:  For example, the more time kids spend in front of the computer, the longer they delay getting their drivers’ licenses.  It is true that most Americans are more interested in the amenities and comfort (and mpg!) of a new car than they are the torque of the engine.  Deford tells us that NASCAR’s recent $5M research project to find out why fan interest is declining showed that it’s our fault:  Current NASCAR fans aren’t replicating themselves.  Kids are more interested in screens than speed.  According to Deford:
“There are no more gearheads growing up in America.”
“Nobody cool wants to look under the hood anymore.”
Let’s remember that Deford’s MO is taking things to their ironic extreme in order to get reactions out of people.  This is the same person who said on NPR that Carl Edwards shouldn’t have been fined for his wayward oil can lid because the lid was still in the car and he thus didn’t have a weight advantage.  There is some danger in commenting on things when you don’t understand the subtleties.  This is why I don’t write blogs about Kardashians, dentistry or raising chickens.

Deford doesn’t say anything the motorsports community hasn’t already discussed.   Increasing (or, in some cases, stopping decreases in) the number of people coming to races, watching them on TV and listening to them on the radio is hotly discussed by sanctioning bodies, fans and pundits.

The economy is an issue.  Until we emerge from the current economic hard times, we have no way of knowing whether decreasing attendance and television ratings are part of the normal rise and fall of life or if people really are so irritated by the television coverage that they are staying away.  The unspoken fear is “What if we are the dinosaurs, we’re headed toward extinction and we don’t even know it?”.

I don’t think we are – and I don’t agree with DeFord (or anyone else who says that the American public’s fascination with cars is over and done).  I would argue first that the decreasing number of people at and watching events is a simple consequence of having so many options.  Second, I believe that the automobile is in yet another one of its historic lull periods and will — in the near future — start to engage young people again.


Decreasing numbers of eyeballs is consistent with the increasing fragmentization of life and it is not specific to motorsports.  Other sports (like college basketball) are experiencing the same declines.  We have so very many options for how to spend our time, plus the ability to customize information flow so that we never see anything we didn’t ask to see.  Back when we had three networks and one television per house, you ended up watching TV shows that you wouldn’t have picked because it was someone else’s turn to choose.  Today, it’s not unusual for four family members to be in four different rooms, each doing their own thing.  The number of television watchers, for example, is (relatively) fixed.  The more stations, the fewer eyes per station.  This has nothing to do with motorsports and everything to do with the enormous number of options we can choose from.

The ramifications of this fragmentization are much more wide ranging than motorsports.  When I read a hardcopy newspaper, I at least scan over most of the articles.  When I read the same newspaper on the web, I look at a much narrower range of stories.  It’s possible for us to customize our news and entertainment so that we never encounter news about other countries, political opinions we don’t agree with, or people we would never cross paths with in our daily lives.  If you’re not already interested in motorsports, you are likely to never be exposed to it.  All the more reason for motorsports to develop crossover projects that introduce them to new audiences.

The Evolving Automobile

Secondly, the automobile is in a chrysalis stage.  We have developed and implemented just enough electronics to make cars totally opaque to the average person.  When you open the hood of a late model car, you don’t see anything but parts covers.  There’s nothing to be interested in.

This is going to change.  As electronics become more advanced and more integrated into cars, I predict that those electronics will provide people will more and more information about their vehicles and how they work.  That knowledge will make cars more interesting.

Witness how the visual storage/regeneration process display engages Prius owners.  They like watching what their car is doing.  They even run experiments – like changing how they drive to see if they can eek out another tenth of a mile per gallon.   I look forward to buying a car that I can not only monitor, but tailor using my laptop.  I’ll set it to run on four cylinders (OK, probably six) to optimize fuel mileage when I’m going to work.  On the weekends, I’ll engage all eight cylinders, change the effective gearing, engage the stick shift and just enjoy driving along a deserted twisty mountain road.

I’m not worried about motorsports imminent demise.  Most series realize that Americans value personality as much as (or more than) accomplishment.  They put a lot of effort into making their drivers marketable and accessible.  They’ve noticed the younger generation’s interest in gadgets and have introduced fantasy leagues, statistics sites, social communities, twitter, and supplementary on-line material designed to be used during a race.  I’m not against that – I use most of them myself.

But here’s where my two worlds collide.  We have graduate students who treat their lab equipment like black boxes – totally unaware of how it works and unable to fix it when it breaks.  The fancy interfaces allow them to use something without understanding how it works — sort of like we do with our cars.  We cannot escape the need to understand the mechanical.  Until we have hovercrafts, most commercial ground vehicles will include gears, pistons, and axles – regardless of how much electronics you put in-between the mechanical and the user.  Even if you have a tricorder, the human arm is still a lever and no computer is going to know how to splint that arm if it breaks.  We cannot escape the importance of the mechanical, even in a highly electronic world.

When did we decide it is better to pander to people’s bad habits instead of encouraging them to develop better habits?  Every week on NASCAR radio, someone suggests we shorten races to accommodate decreased attention spans.  Shouldn’t we be concerned about the consequences of an entire generation that can’t concentrate for longer that 30 seconds, can’t process information in chunks longer 140 characters and can’t fix a broken door handle?  As we sit around glued to our computer screens watching an ever-narrowing range of information we’ve pre-selected and tweeting random opinions, emerging economies like Brazil, China and India are developing ideas that solve  energy and health problems — and selling them back to us.

Instead of mourning the demise of motorsports because today’s kids have short attention spans and no interest in mechanical skills, maybe getting kids interested in cars, trains, bikes and planes (heck – in lawnmowers) is a way to get them back to being interested in understanding the world around them.


1 Comment

  1. I grew up in Chicago all of my life so I was never exposed to a real NASCAR Race. I became a NASCAR fan ever since I saw a cartoon when I was ten years old. This cartoon was called ‘NASCAR Racers’. It used to come on Saturday Mornings on FOX. It was kinda like ‘Speed Racer’, but with a futuristic take on it. I fell in love with the cartoon and all of it’s cheesiness. I started watching actual NASCAR races in High School. Even though I was bored as hell at first, so I decided to do research. I bought ‘NASCAR For Dummies’, The Idiot’s Guide To Auto Repair and The Physics Of NASCAR. After reading those books, I’m still get bored while watching a Martinsville race, but atleast I know what I’m looking at.

    Here’s a link to the cartoon:

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