What Does the Future of Professional Motorsports Look Like?

Steven Cole
By Steven Cole Smith
Mar 13, 2021 | racing, pro racing | Posted in Features | From the Feb. 2021 issue | Never miss an article

Photograph Courtesy Porsche

How’s the health of professional motorsports?

The longterm answer is probably, “Fine.”

Short term? Who knows? These are unprecedented times. And you know why.

When the number of dead hit 250,000 in the United States, it meant a loss of more people than the population of  cities like Norfolk or Richmond, Virginia, Salt Lake City, Baton Rouge, Birmingham, Little Rock, Jersey City, St. Petersburg or Glendale, California.

That’s bad, but this is worse: On November 19, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine forecasted that the cumulative death toll in the U.S. could reach 471,000 by March 1.

At about 470,000 deaths, we’ve got Minneapolis covered. Miami, too, or Long Beach. Possibly even Atlanta. Definitely New Orleans, Cleveland, St. Louis or Honolulu. Probably Omaha. 

Six days before this news was released, sports car racing lost Jim Pace to COVID-19. He was a fun, mild-mannered Mississippian who won both the Rolex 24 At Daytona and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. Pace was 59.

March 1, the date for that dire prediction, is just one month after the IMSA opener, two weeks after the NASCAR Daytona 500 opener, one week before the IndyCar opener, and two weeks before the NHRA kicks off its season.

The Daytona 500, scheduled for February 14, has sold out the last five years, it being one of a handful comparatively unaffected by the coronavirus pandemic in very early 2020. We wonder how many will be in the stands–or be allowed to be in the stands–this coming Valentine’s Day. 

The 2021 race is exactly three months from the University of Washington’s somber forecast. The idea that the Daytona 500–or the Rolex 24 At Daytona, scheduled for two weeks earlier than the 500–will go on unimpeded, even in the wide-open state of Florida, is placing an awful lot of faith in the distribution and use of the new vaccines, and still more in voluntary mask wearing.

Why NASCAR Matters

We talk about NASCAR because it’s the big dog in American motorsports, setting a template the other sanctioning bodies can follow. NASCAR somehow–using midweek dates, scheduling weekend doubleheaders, visiting some tracks more often than they were scheduled for, and avoiding other tracks altogether–hosted all 36 races of the NASCAR Cup Series, making it the only major outdoor sport to complete a full season in 2020.

Presumably this meant it didn’t have to give back any, or at least much, TV money. But that doesn’t really track with other domestic series, because–with the exception of the Indianapolis 500–they generally pay to get airtime, while NASCAR always gets paid. So, it made more sense for it to run races in front of empty grandstands. In-person fans are “just the studio audience,” F1 czar Bernie Ecclestone once said.

NASCAR was slow to postpone, quick to resume. It raced in 2020 starting with the Daytona 500 on February 16 and ran through to Phoenix on March 8. It had a soft reopening at Darlington on May 17 (Sunday) and 20 (Wednesday) before the grand reopening, the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day at Charlotte Motor Speedway–big news since its main competition, the Indianapolis 500, was postponed.

NASCAR put its head down and charged forward, staying south from Pocono and New Hampshire, west to Texas, on to LasVegas in September, and holding the finale November8 in Phoenix. 

Despite the challenges, NASCAR still pulled off a full schedule while putting stock cars back on the Daytona road course. Photography Courtesy NASCAR

Instead of three races in Florida, for example, it did five, and proudly noted that it was the first major sport to have post-COVID-19-shutdown fans in the stands at Homestead, and then Daytona. The series avoided California and canceled races in states that have been super careful, like New York–meaning there was no Watkins Glen weekend. In its place, the series ran a new take on the Daytona road course. 

NASCAR has announced its 2021 schedule, starting with the Busch Clash at Daytona on February 9, qualifying on the 10th, the two Duels on the 11th. The season again ends in Phoenix, on November 7. 

The 36-race schedule has been altered a bit–Bristol will be covered in dirt for one race, Chicago and Kentucky lost their dates, while Circuit of The Americas was added. Still, none of the changes are in response to any fear of COVID-19–or the possibility of another national shutdown. It’s almost as if NASCAR is saying, “C’mon, COVID, give it your best shot.”

Which is what COVID is doing.

Coming soon from NASCAR: an all-new car that more resembles something designed to turn both left and right. Photography Credits: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

That aside, for those interested in making a living in NASCAR, good luck if you don’t already have an established, essential job. In 2022, NASCAR is expected to debut the next-generation car, which will share even more parts, brand to brand, than it does now. 

The size of the shop staff will shrink. Even the pit crews will be smaller–one center lug nut on the 2022 car’s wheels, for example, instead of the traditional five-lug pattern, and the likely use of on-board air jacks. Granted, there are at least two new one-car teams that will show up for 2021, but that won’t make up for the overall job loss in NASCAR, which will even include office positions like public relations representatives. 

One of the many holdovers from COVID-19 will be that teams and team owners have learned to streamline, use Zoom, stay home for races, and not travel to the track. Now that owners and even NASCAR itself have learned who and what they can do without, those assets won’t be back.

Looking at IMSA

The International Motorsports Association, which is owned by NASCAR, understandably follows the NASCAR model closely. As of our editorial deadline, tickets are on sale for the season-opening Rolex 24 At Daytona, including a four-day wristband that spans January 28-31, including the Rolex on the 30th and 31st. 

IMSA worked to quickly get cars back on track. The Daytona grandstands were colorful, but largely empty. Photography Credit: Dave Green

Again, seating will be side by side. But as you likely know, not many people actually sit in the grandstands, instead preferring to congregate in the infield. How that will be handled is unclear, but HSR’s Classic 24 Hour at Daytona, a race for vintage and historic cars, ran on November 5-8, and the only concession made to COVID-19–and it was a questionable one–was police-taping the few portable grandstands that sit in the infield. Which caused people to congregate along the fences. 

The annual Roar Before the 24 is scheduled for January 22-24, and tickets are available for that. The rest of the IMSA season essentially mirrors the original 2020 schedule before it was interrupted. It sends the series to California, back to New York for its Watkins Glen date, and concludes at Road Atlanta with Petit Le Mans October 6-9.

IMSA’s 2020 season, of course, didn’t run as planned. It stopped racing after the Rolex 24 in January and didn’t make a comeback until the very tentative, nervous WeatherTech 240 at Daytona July 3-4. After that was deemed a technical success, IMSA got back in the groove with nine more races in reasonably quick succession, even venturing to an empty WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in California on November 1 as a concession to its series sponsor before heading home to the long-postponed Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, the season finale. 

Meanwhile, at Sebring, people lined the track as usual. Photography Credit: LAT Images

Sebring is on the 2021 schedule in its usual spot, March 17-20, and again the plan–which didn’t work out in 2020–is to bring the World Endurance Championship back from overseas to run a race on March 19. That’s assuming Europe and Japan and Saudi Arabia and the other countries where WEC teams reside will cooperate. And right now, who knows?

By releasing their schedules early, NASCAR and IMSA are demonstrating confidence that COVID-19 will be in check as early as the third week in January and certainly by mid-February. What that confidence is based on, we aren’t sure, but it is…refreshing, we suppose.

And the Rest…

The National Hot Rod Association had to refigure its schedule three times before it was able to take drag racing to a stable footing. For 2021, it has canceled its season opener at its own home track in Pomona, California. Instead, it will kick off the season where it closed out in 2020, Gainesville Raceway in Florida, a state that has eschewed shutdowns. The NHRA, which owns the track in Gainesville, doesn’t traditionally run there until March, and that’s what it’s doing in 2021. By holding its first event March 11-14, the late start will hopefully give it enough time to wait out the COVID-19 crisis.

From then on, it’s full speed ahead for an aggressive 22-race season. NHRA is confident it will get back John Force for 2021. (Force, NHRA’s biggest star, pulled his cars out of the series at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and never came back.) That will be a shot in the arm if it happens and a very tough break if it doesn’t.

IndyCar also starts the 2021 season where it left off: St. Petersburg, Florida, on March 7. Then it’s more than a month to the second race on the calendar, and from there it’s a dash to the September 19 finale of the 17-race season.  

IndyCar is expected to be the least changed of the four major pro series in the U.S., but again, if you’re looking to make a living in IndyCar, it may take a lot of resumés to get a foot in the door.

Without question, Roger Penske’s purchase of the IndyCar series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway just before the 2020 season made a massive difference. “I’m not sure we would have gotten through this as well as we did without Roger,” Bobby Rahal, an Indy 500 winner as both a driver and a team owner, tells Grassroots Motorsports. “We owe him a great deal.” The Captain’s leadership, and deep pockets, kept the ship afloat and on course. 

Back-Gate Racing Looking Strong

So, what is thriving? Amateur racing. That and a series that’s a hybrid of amateur and pro racing, Trans Am. 

Fields have been strong for the SCCA, even during the pandemic, with the club welcoming 577 entrants to its National Championship Runoffs at Road America in October–a healthy number even in normal times. In September, the SCCA hosted its largest Time Trials Nationals ever. Track Night in America has also been keeping race venues busy. 

Participant-based motorsports–think autocross, club racing and track events–works well in a socially distant environment. Most groups reported a strong ending to 2020. Photography Credit: Perry Bennett

Historic racing also seems to be doing well. In November, HSR recorded more than 150 cars at its Classic 24 Hour at Daytona. 

In motor racing, your series is one of two types: front gate or back gate. Front-gate series, like NASCAR, IndyCar, IMSA and NHRA, make money on fans and viewers. SCCA, NASA and Trans Am, as well as ChampCar and Lemons, meanwhile, make money off the competitors coming in through the back gate; very few bodies enter through the front gate. Sponsors can work on both front- and back-gate series, but their dollar goes further when their message is in front of fans, so that’s where many of them live.

Photography Credit: Dave Green

Bottom line: Series that race for fun are likely to survive whatever is left of the coronavirus pandemic better than series that have to do what individual states tell them they can do, such as fill only a certain percentage of the grandstands. NASCAR can run most anywhere if it chooses to do so without fans, but that’s an unlikely option for a full season of IMSA, IndyCar or NHRA.

Will Racing for Money Survive?

Amid all of this turmoil, is it still possible to make money in pro racing? Of course, but it likely won’t be prize money. Unless it has changed recently, IMSA paid $150,000, outright and overall, to the Daytona Prototype team that won both the Rolex 24 At Daytona and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. That’s $150,000 for 36 hours of racing, and unless you have an outside source of money, such as a rare full sponsor, that purse won’t cover the tires, parts, transportation or hotel rooms–and that’s if you win both races.

NASCAR used to make its race purse public. It no longer does. 

The NHRA, without mentioning it to its professional racers’ organization, slashed its purse for 2020, and no word yet of whether it will be restored in 2021. The sanctioning body took a hit when longtime sponsor Mello Yello, owned by Coca-Cola, dropped out with years left on its contract because the NHRA could not fulfill all of its obligations in 2020. Camping World stepped in, but reportedly for less money. Meanwhile, several heavy hitters in drag racing have been talking quietly about starting a competing series. 

The venue that saw the biggest crowds and fields, though? It had to be virtual racing, with Porsche alone putting $200,000 on the line. Photograph Courtesy Porsche

So, where’s the money in racing? We’d submit that it may be online, bolstered by the fact that it entails such little risk. No doubt 2021 will see more and more paying virtual racing tournaments, since drivers can stay at home instead of traveling to tracks. If you’re good enough, you can attract sponsors just like in real racing.

The 2020 eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series champion was awarded the highest payout in series history: $100,000. In 2019, iRacing tabbed the total prize pool for the six eSport World Championships organized and contested on the racing simulation platform at $300,000 in cash. For 2020, the second season of the Porsche TAG Heuer Esports Supercup alone doubled its prize fund to $200,000. And that’s just one platform. 

Buy a good rig, practice, and race. And maybe make a living at it. Yes, it’s a longshot, but so is driving for Roger Penske.

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View comments on the GRM forums
sir_mike New Reader
1/20/21 5:15 p.m.

Let's all hope for a return to normal in 2021.

Dieselboss15 Reader
1/20/21 8:00 p.m.

now think about this: there's 332m people in the usa, and 471000 deaths. that's less than a quarter of a percent: 0.14 to be exact. in the grand scheme of things it ain't that much but i supposed personally it would reshape your entire world. hopefully things cool down soon

pugwonk New Reader
1/25/21 12:01 a.m.

I just can't wait to get back on a track and see the friends I only see at races. Though boy do I have a lot of money now

Tom1200 SuperDork
1/25/21 10:37 a.m.

I too noticed I have a lot more money in my bank account. Mostly because I haven't bought tires.

I did an autocross in January, one in February and then nothing until the fall; I did a track day in September, A vintage race in October and then a track day in November.

Track days for me have been kind of weird; having to actually pay the entry fee, as an instructor my entry fee was always covered, but now that we have no instructors and I now have a whole lot of down time. Normally I have a student and a novice on top of my own run group so I'm in a car 6 hours a day. It seemed odd to have an hour and a half between sessions.

While I'm bummed I am not complaining; our favorite Italian restaurant closed as they couldn't make it on take out alone and just this past week my sister in law lost her best friend to Covid.

I can tell you that in that anything outdoor activities in my area have seen a huge surge in interest.


AaronT Reader
1/25/21 4:19 p.m.

In reply to Tom1200 :

Same here: Asheville is already an outdoorsy kind of place but every outdoor activity is massively more popular than normal. I went skiing on one of the hills near here Friday and it was packed like a pre-covid weekend.

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