The difference could hardly have been more marked – or perhaps that should be ‘marqued.’
Whenever the 14-strong field of old-skool F5000 cars was wheeled out onto the dummy grid at the opening round at the ITM SuperSprint meeting at Pukekohe Park Raceway on the weekend fans appeared ‘Flash Mob’ style – seemingly out of nowhere – to line the temporary fence.
There they stood and remained slack-jawed until mobile starters were proffered, engines rumbled, spat and stuttered into booming life, and the cars were ushered, kicking and bucking like a herd of young bulls, out onto the track.
Like these very same fans I never tire of this raucous, rambunctious theatre, whether it is at otherwise ordinary historic meetings here, or – arguably the most memorable so far – high profile ones like the Australian Formula 1 GP at Melbourne Park in 2010.
Contrast the reception the cars, guys who own them, and technicians and teams who tend to them, received at Pukekohe with that afforded to the 10-car CAMS Formula 4 single-seater field and you don’t need a degree in brain surgery or rocket science to see we have a problem.
You can dress it up any way you like, and it’s not just here. The problem is the absolute gulf which currently exists between classes motorsport officialdom come up with and those that your average everyday paying motorsport fan actually wants to see and/or engage with. And it would appear that it is universal, from F1 down.
On the one hand, you see, the fans who flocked to the dummy grid before each SAS Autoparts SAS NZ F5000 Tasman Cup Revival Series race were – to a man, woman and child – passionate, knowledgeable and absolutely engaged in the moment. To the point of forming a guard-of-honour of sorts each time the cars rumbled out onto the track.
On the other (hand) it was like a wind-blown Wild West movie set (complete with tumbleweeds blowing down a deserted main street, the only noise coming from a set of broken saloon doors flapping in the hot, dry desert wind) as the Formula 4 cars zipped efficiently and virtually noiselessly from wherever they were pitted (I never did find out) out onto the track for their warm-up laps and races.
Fortunately, for the sport here, the ‘main game’ at the annual ITM SuperSprint meeting, the Virgin Australia Supercars series, seems to have the mix – of tech and emotional appeal/attraction – about right.
The ‘Falcons, Commodores, and Altimas’ are ‘proper’ race cars under the skin, but with a tricky mix of (traditional and still quite rowdy) V8 power, relatively low grip and (minimal) aero they move around a lot, particularly through Pukekohe’s Supercross-style stutter bump sections, and can be coaxed into lurid oversteer by the simple expedient of stamping on the old go pedal!
Because it is (and has been for years) the premier class in Australian motorsport it also attracts the best drivers…who (largely because of its regular trips to Pukekohe over the years) are currently young Kiwis!
While there are plenty of critics, and the future of the category is by no means guaranteed, the sight, sound and general all-round awesomeness of a 26-strong field of V8-powered tin-tops separated by less than a second as they scrabble for traction up over ‘the hill’ then literally surf from the crest of one of the wicked bumps along the start/finish straight to the next is one I look forward to every year in fact.
The sight of 10 little whisper-quiet wings-and-slicks F4 single-seaters being driven respectfully by drivers I’ve never heard off…………….not so.
And therein lies the dilemma both CAMS and – by association – MotorSport NZ face.
That there is a need for smaller capacity, development formulae is clear. What isn’t is their place on the support class roster at major ‘crowd-drawing’ meetings like the annual ‘V8 Supercar’ one at Pukekohe.
What was obvious to me was that if the mix of cars and drivers is right (and the Toyota 86 class was a good example at Pukekohe) the fans will respond in kind. Particularly if they have a knowledgeable and enthusiastic commentator filling in the gaps (who the new kid/Aussie interloper/crusty old veteran etc etc is?)
However, because of the current fan demographic (predominantly male and at least 35+) there is no doubting the appeal of any class with either a V8 and/or minimal aero in it. Such was the case at Pukekohe, with the Supercars, the ENZED Central Muscle Car Series and – the one I am directly involved with – the SAS Autoparts. MSC NZ F5000 Tasman Cup Revival Series.
The sheer visceral appeal of a bunch of kicking, bucking, snarling cars racing past you at fantastic speeds (another Pukekohe specialty) is absolutely palpable. The ever-present frisson of danger – which, let’s face it, is one of the reasons us human types have been paying good money to be entertained by ‘racing’ since the days rarking around a stadium oval in a chariot was an Olympic sport – also obviously plays a part.
One of the things I find really interesting about this current ‘situation,’ however, is the fact that what entertains ‘the fans’ has little to do with what is the ‘latest, greatest, newest etc etc’ thing’ is.
Not that many years ago, for instance, if a new car distributor wanted publicity all his local minions had to do was cut a deal with Motorsport NZ and put together a one-make series. Ford’s Escort Sport and Laser Sport series were the fore-runners in this regard and provided a treasure trove of ‘rubbing-is-racing’ entertainment which the fans, by all accounts, couldn’t get enough of.
They also – as much by accident (har de har har!) as design – introduced the concept of the ‘celebrity’ driver to the local scene.
Legendary TV newsreader Dougal Stevenson famously rolled an Escort Sport (at Teretonga I believe), gaining instant kudos and notoriety in equal measures. Ford’s local PR man at the time, Russell Scoular, also scored the publicity coup of the century when he persuaded then Prime Minister David Lange to compete in the Laser Sport series a few years later.
Fast forward 10 or so years and a 13-year-old Scott Dixon earned the Nissan GT Cup its own place in history when he rolled out of a class enduro round at Pukekohe.
Contrast those grids chock full of contemporary cars with the scene today, and – hello – we have another ‘disconnect.’
On the one hand you have over 100 race-ready late 1980s E30 model BMW 3-Series cars in regular use at classic and club-level meetings. On the other you have Toyota’s 86 series which is only just finding its feet at major national meetings after three (or is it four?) seasons.
Add in the fact that there is so much more ‘entertainment’ competing for your fan’s discretionary dollar these days…………and is it any wonder that at some meetings I have been to of late the only spectators are immediate family members of a driver, or members of his (or her) support crew!
Speaking of entertainment, another thing I couldn’t help but notice was how little there was ‘off-track’ at the ITM SuperSprint meeting.
I couldn’t even find a glossy programme to buy, let alone a madman doing wheelies on a Harley-Davidson or Drift demo to watch at lunchtime.
And finally, speaking of the lunch break, one guaranteed way to crank back up fan ‘engagement’ at a meeting (though perhaps not the ‘Supercars’ one) is to allow controlled access to the track for fans to join in a ‘cruise’ in their own daily driver.
While I’m sure even just the thought of allowing a bunch of ‘randoms’ out on a controlled race track will send shivers up the spine of anyone involved in Health and Safety certification around motorsport events, lunchtime ‘cruises’ work really well at the big Chrome Expression Sessions meetings run here and across the Tasman and the ones I’ve been part of (with my son and his car) have gone off without a hitch.
Of course, these are just my thoughts, jotted down during the day at the ITM SuperSprint meeting. I’m sure many of you have other relevant, and just as well considered ideas of your own to get vans re-engaged with our local motorsport scene.
How about sharing them and see if we can get some consensus for change – so that when we go to events we get to see, hear, feel and watch what we actually want to , rather than what someone with a vested interest thinks we should be watching!