0912 Sullivan Path

SULLIVAN: What Is To Be Done?

This year, the RMS Racing team is set to compete on the USAC National Midget Series trail with veteran drivers Thomas Meseraull and Justin Grant. In a series that seems to be in an arms race to see who can attract the youngest (or at least the youngest-looking) drivers, RMS is an outlier.

Not only are Grant and Meseraull senior members of this group, they are among the most interesting.

T-Mez is T-Mez. You expect him to speak his mind in an inimitable fashion and he rarely lets you down. The funny thing is that Grant, while perhaps more subtle, is not afraid to speak his mind either. In fact, recently he has offered some of the most interesting takes on the nature of the sport that I have heard in some time.

In any respect, when someone has had a long tenure in racing, I generally find it wise to get their impressions and opinions on a range of topics.

Justin and Thomas race for the father-and-son team of Dave and Matt Estep. Matt is as interesting to spend time with as his drivers. He also raced midgets and loves the sport. He is also a Harvard graduate and a successful businessman.

In completing an article on RMS Racing that appears in the May issue of Sprint Car & Midget, I thought a lot about the state of midget racing from a business perspective. I love it and am old enough to have watched the ebbs and flows of this discipline. At this point in history, at least in the USAC ranks, there is great depth and a host of interesting teams.

The events are compelling. I fully admit to be less enamored with the slide job mania that now seems to rule the day, but I must also admit that I am always on the edge of my seat.

By all rights, midget racing should be far more popular than it is, even among open-wheel fans. I get it. I was at Ocala for the USAC openers and was reminded anew that the sheer power of a 410 sprint car is, and will forever be, spectacular. That said, midgets on a bullring are pretty thrilling too.

This brings me to the central problem: Justin Grant was not planning on racing midgets on a full-time basis with USAC until Dave Estep convinced him to do so. I know Justin has a family and that becomes a consideration when USAC announced that there would be more than 100 sanctioned national races in 2021. There is a limit to how much he wishes to be away.

However, there is more to the story, and Justin laid it right on the line. The problem has been the payoff.

During our recent conversation he relayed a story of participating in the Eastern swing with the midgets on a tour that was unfortunately plagued by rain. The final result of this trip? He lost money. That is a hard thing to sell to his wife and himself. I understand that this was a bit of an unusual circumstance, but it is an issue that does hover over the sport.

Now, before someone thinks I am climbing down USAC’s throat about this, think again. We live in a supply and demand country. What USAC and tracks are willing to pay is predicated on demand. That’s the bottom line. I was reminded of announcing an Indy Racing League event at Kansas Speedway. I have an autographed picture of the three-car photo finish at this track in my office.

After this race was over, one of the regular Kansas announcers said, “The Indy cars are always better here, but I just like NASCAR.” There you have it. Which group do you think got the largest crowd at this track? It wasn’t the one with the objectively superior product.

So, at the moment, no matter how great the midgets may be, they aren’t sprint cars. Indiana Midget Week is great, but what would happen to the crowd if the sprint cars were not on the bill? This remains a fundamental problem.

So I thought about the business lesson I had received from Matt Estep and reflected on the many talks I had enjoyed with people like Steve Lewis of Nine Racing fame and former Indianapolis Motor Speedway president and midget racing aficionado, the late John Cooper.

These are people who understood that, while racing is about passion and emotion, it is still undergirded by basic economic principles.

What is to be done?

What would it take to increase demand, create a buzz, and elevate the status of midget racing so Justin Grant never worries about losing money and promoters have confidence that fans will walk through the front gate? Admittedly, I am engaging in the same sort of process that so many social media keyboard warriors do in their spare time. In my defense, I know full well this isn’t easy and that no simple solution is at hand.

Before anyone says it, I know, I know, I know. The old Thunder series on ESPN was great. It is also not coming back. With the imminent departure of NBCSN, one traditional home for motorsports is going away. It is a new media world.

This leads to a different question. Just what is the power of live-streamed racing at this point in history? Is it attracting sponsor dollars? Can this medium recruit casual fans and help grow the sport? For fun, let’s pretend the answer to all of my questions is yes. Therefore, is it possible to create a nearly made-for-television midget racing super-series? Would it be feasible to choose 10 tracks from across the country to host marquee events, and attract a diverse pool of participants much like we see in Tulsa every January?

Could a national sponsor be convinced to support this new venture and create an opportunity for racers and teams to compete for big money with an overall champion crowned at the Turkey Night Grand Prix?

I don’t know if it is possible, but I do know it would require a person or a key group of dedicated people to make this happen. It would demand a fresh approach to presenting the sport, and agreement that no aspect of the way we have been doing business is sacred. Look, I realize this may be nothing but a pipedream, but as Einstein was reputed to have remarked, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

I’m not really saying anyone created the current conundrum with midget racing, but I do think that many of the issues the sport faces are best attacked by somehow creating a bigger demand for the product.End Bug

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