Autoline on Autoblog with John McElroy

First, a confession. I love motor racing. Been following it since I was a kid. And back then you really had to be a fanatic to follow it since the media devoted so little attention to it.
There was no such thing as live TV coverage. The best we got was a two-week delay of the Monaco Gran Prix on ABC Wide World of Sports. I had to carefully avoid reading parts of the sports section on the Monday after the race just in case they had their miniscule 1-inch report of who won. That way I could watch it two weeks later on television and enjoy it in all its dramatic glory.

And it wasn't just Formula One. NASCAR was considered so Hicksville that television virtually ignored it. The only live feed you could get of the Indy 500 was on radio. Can-Am, Trans-Am and the NHRA seemingly didn't exist. And yet, somehow or other, a bunch of us became fanatics for the sport.

Today of course we're blessed with coverage that's almost as complete as any sport. But to me, racing is undergoing a disturbing development. It's becoming more about entertainment and brand marketing and less about the technological development that attracted most of us to it in the first place.

What got me and so many others interested in the sport is that competition improves the breed. Racing was the way designers, engineers and car companies proved that their car was better than all the others. More importantly, racing produced results faster than the methodical business approach needed for large scale automotive production. As racing fans, we knew we were watching the future of automotive technology unfold in front of us years before the general public would learn of it.

And there is a long, rich history to it. When the major automakers got behind their motor racing efforts in a serious way, they produced some of the most memorable machines ever made. My favorites include:

The fabulous "Silver Arrows" German Gran Prix cars of the 1930s, the Auto Unions and Mercedes-Benz's, which admittedly became propaganda symbols for the Third Reich, but which also pushed technological developments in metallurgy and powertrains.

The Chaparral Can-Am cars of the 1960s with General Motors' very secret but active involvement, which took the use of active aerodynamic devices to levels that are still not matched today.

The Ford GT-40 that proved so dominant for so long in long distance racing and was one of the first cars to benefit from using computers to do the design work.

The winged Plymouth Super Birds and Dodge Daytonas that took aerodynamic development to a new level in NASCAR. The image of a pack of these cars coming through the high banking of a super speedway is still one of the most thrilling impressions I've ever seen in motor racing.

The Lotus STP turbine cars at Indy, which, despite their failures, turned the racing community on its ear and attracted more public attention than any other car I can ever remember at the 500.

But today's race cars are becoming parodies of those great ones of the past. The pendulum is swinging too much towards "the show" to the detriment of technological progress. NASCAR has degenerated to the point where they have to use decals of headlights and grilles to pretend that they're "Fusions", "Camrys", "Impalas" or "Avengers." CART and IRL are spec series and F1 is fast becoming one. Worst of all, race cars are now borrowing electronic and safety technology from mass production cars-technology transfer in reverse!

Don't get me wrong. I'm not against the commercial success that racing is currently enjoying, I'd just like to see it get back to pushing the technological envelope. And yes, this is expensive. The car companies would have to fund part of this out of their R&D budgets, not just their marketing budgets. But what better way for the auto industry to show the public how it's pushing for breakthroughs in emissions, fuel economy and safety?

The auto industry and racing community have a vested interest in seeing this happen. Not only will they retain the respect of aficionados like myself, they could attract a whole new level of fans who would see it in a much more relevant light.


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