Rally. A couple big name celebrities show up and drive, taking home top honors and most of the publicity, while the majority of the field which struggles to get to the starting line is almost invisible (barring catastrophic failure). Management thinks the solution is more hype and commercials, but is this really going to save rally?
We’ve been having the how-to-save-rally conversation in North America for years, now. One of the two sanctioning bodies is focused on celebrity and hype, the other on affordable fun with friends. It’s been a divisive and often childish path. Imagine my surprise to learn Europeans are having similar discussions about the WRC. Which road leads to a rally renaissance versus further escalating costs and general disillusionment?
. . .
I got a private message from Norwegian Ph.D. candidate Hans Næss on SpecialStage.com asking for permission to quote me in a book he’s writing about rally. Flattered, I asked what I’d said which was so worthy of inclusion in this lofty project. The quote in question:
“I think the Group B cars were better from a personal preference standpoint. These were sheer monsters, cut loose from their cages, and allowed to have their way with the stage roads on the shortest of leashes. When a driver got sloppy and gave too much slack, these beasts bit back, often hard. Conan would be proud. The new WRC cars, on the other hand, are still cool from the technological standpoint. When a crew chief can download logs from the recent stages and upload optimized maps to the ECU for peak performance, that’s pretty bad-a. However this technological wizardry sort of mutes the ultimate demonstration of skill in vehicle control that makes rally so appealing. Twenty years later and, despite advances in safety and the like, we’re still terrified that a taste of the raw meat would result in a new generation of monsters being loosed on the backroads of the world.” – on Special Stage
In discussing my comment and his book project, something neat happened. We discovered rally has an identity crisis – at just about every level. It was exciting to learn the problems I see facing the sport in North America are not unique to us – and neither are the proposed solutions!
This conversation didn’t begin as an interview, but evolved over time. Rather than chop, cut, and rebuild it to fit my usual style, I’ve simply cleaned it up a bit as it happened so you can see how Hans and I discovered a little common ground which gave us both a better understanding of things. That’s huge, and something I want every gearhead to experience – often.
. . .
[hn] The reason why I wanted to use this quote in particular is because it sums up much of the discussions I have heard when I have done fieldwork on different WRC rallies. It is analytic in some way, yet representative of the wider WRC community, I think.
[bd] Please feel free to quote me. Will the final product be available in English and, if so, might I get a PDF copy so I can read the paper in full?
[hn] I really appreciate your positive reply! The final product will be a book written in English, published by global publisher Palgrave Macmillan. Date of publication is not set, but is likely to be during the autumn of 2014.
Drawing upon interviews with key people in the sport, historical studies, online forum research and ethnographic fieldwork from rallies (Monte Carlo and France), spectator cultures (Finland and Argentina), the inner life of a WRC team (Italy), and the media production facilities (Wales), this book aims to reconcile the traditional sporting elements that once made the WRC great with the promotional concerns produced by the media developments in the 1980s and 90s.
A preliminary table of contents looks like this:
- What is the World Rally Championship?
- The promotional backdrop (why promotion matters)
- Imagining the story (about the media)
- The sense of place (about rallies)
- The spectator culture (about spectators)
- Life on the road (about teams)
- Heroes behind the wheel (about drivers)
- Sporting implications (overall findings)
At the moment it is called ‘A Sociology of the World Rally Championship: History, Memory and Identity.’ (A dull title, perhaps, but partly it has to do with the search indexing on sites like Amazon.) I may be able to provide you with a PDF copy of the specific chapter where you are quoted, but because the publisher has strict rules on what I may reveal until publication it is difficult, I’m afraid, to let you read the entire manuscript beforehand. I will however keep you posted on the progress of things. And, again, thank you for letting me use your comment.
[bd] No worries, Hans. Completely understood.
I like how you’re approaching the subject from a diverse, yet sociological perspective. Two things stood out to me as I read your reply. First, subconscious bias? “The traditional sporting elements that once made the WRC great?” Are you suggesting the WRC is no longer great? Not that I disagree! I get what you’re after in the context of the complete thought; just something which stood out to me.
Second, I’ve all but lost interest in the WRC at this end, and not just because the likes of Makkinen, Gronholm, and Sainz are “retired.” Perhaps this may be of interest to you for a follow-up book, but rally in North America – in the US especially – is all but non-existent. While Kristof Denaghel (link below) has to turn people away because he’s not allowed to run more than 200 entries in a rally, I’d be surprised if we have 200 total entries between all US rally events in a year (counting those who enter multiple events multiple times). Geography, sociology, and the lack of media coverage over here really keeps the sport down.
That said, I’ve managed to find a solid group of regional, clubman level competitors, organizers, and volunteers close by – the California Rally Series – who have shown me how much more meaningful the sport is when everyone involved feels like one big family. I’d rather attend the regional event with 23 entries and feel like I’m part of the magic than travel thousands of miles to stand on the side of the road and be just another consumer.
Anyway, thank you for contacting me. I wish you luck with your project. Oh, and if you’re a gearhead with a decent set of wheels, or just a general automotive passion, I’d love a chance to interview you for Gearbox Magazine, which is my life’s work. (Self-published so far!)
[hn] I think the WRC still is a great spectacle – I am just as excited when the first car comes as I was when I was 10 – but it was better in the past. Of course things change, not least in sport, but if the WRC becomes too distant from why people think its fun to watch (I have not interviewed nor met one single person that did not bring up the past in some way to illuminate the downsides of today), mostly due to commercial circumstances, the past will be a burden rather than a quality (a heritage, that is).
You mentioned being part of the rally community, which is very interesting. It seems like another effect of the professionalization is, like pointed out by former World Champion Miki Biasion, that the feeling of ‘one big family’ fades away. Don’t get me wrong, I am in favor of commercialization, but I think the WRC should use the best of its past to make a better tomorrow instead of desperately trying to adapt to a promotional regime created by [those] other than themselves.
Personally, I also think that the WRC lacks star quality among today’s drivers. My hero was always Colin McRae (I am 35), and without stars, the sport quickly turns very anonymous. At the same time, my impression is that few in the WRC community idolize a driver like youngsters idolize Mr. Bieber. Even when Ken Block, which I assume is a big star in the US, made his attempts on the WRC, he did not really make an impact simply because he was not fast enough.
I could talk about this for ages! Either way, I would happy to be interviewed some day. I don’t think am a gearhead per se, but keeping track of the WRC full-time as well as cruising around with my mildly customized ’66 Beetle once in a while at least make me a motoring enthusiast!
[bd] Now I would really like to interview you for a feature in Gearbox Magazine. Firstly, old Beetles are always welcome! Second, I really like what you had to say as a well-versed rallyista. Your comments on WRC being a superstar in its own right, as opposed to a platform for celebrities, and even your spot-on assessment of Ken Block – yours is a perspective I think we really need to share.
Taking it a step further, what you’ve said about WRC/celebrity speaks to how one of our sanctioning bodies over here is handling its business. Rally America is all about the marketing and hype on the backs of a small handful of relatively famous individuals. They pursue TV deals, big sponsor deals, and so on, but tend to ignore the small teams, which we all know make up the majority of the events. What happens when Ken Block moves on to, say, off-shore boat racing?
In a way, the US rally scene is fairly similar to the top tier of the WRC. You have the maybe a dozen teams campaigning the entire schedule, with the same 2-3 teams taking podium every time. How does that affect those who are tired of hearing about Loeb? (wink) So I think your comments on WRC vs. elite teams would be very timely.
Conversely, while we see continued contraction at the WRC level, we see some regional/clubman events/series growing. Kristof Denaeghel in Belgium comes to mind (link). He has more entries than he’s allowed to run and has to turn people away. My buddy Anders Green here in the States is over 70 entries for a regional event (Sandblast Rally), which is easily double anything I’ve ever seen in the west. So there’s some bright spots in the sport.
What do you think? In essence, I’d like to share our current conversation in print, only mentioning we met via quote request for a book you’re working on, and go into a bit more detail about how you follow rally full-time, where you see it headed, and what we think will ultimately “save” the sport. Sound good to you?
[hn] Of course you can use any of my prior comments in print. In addition, I have some comments to what you said in the previous email. All of them are related to the WRC simply because I know too little of what’s happening in other series. I follow WRC full-time because the book I was talking about is part of my PhD in sociology at the University of Oslo, Norway. Hopefully, the book will be in stores in late 2014.
First, the sense of one big family is still there, it is just covered in promotional fuzz. In one perspective that is the way it has got to be, or else it would not gain coverage or spectators against others in the entertainment industry. But if the WRC strays away from what made it popular in the first place, the future suddenly depends on attracting a whole new segment of people. I think this is risky. If the WRC is changed to suit those who enjoy action sport events it may end up losing its fans as well as fail to impress others because they see it as a bleak copy of X-games. Indeed, this uncertainty of where the WRC is going is a theme that is not very well received among teams as well as fans.
Second, the FIA’s current regulation regime hampers the dynamic of making motorsport into a career. Motorsport has always been about big money, but as it is now, only the most dedicated teams can exploit the rules to their maximum because of high R&D costs, taking advantage of testing opportunities, and so on.
Besides the need for exceptionally generous sponsors, you cannot as a privateer participate with any car you like. You have to buy one from the very few suppliers of WRC cars (M-Sport, Prodrive), and even if you get that far, it is not certain you have the machinery to compete with the best. Whether he gets the facts straight or not – I am in no position to tell – former WRC privateer Anthony Warmbold has a very interesting blog about his experiences.
On the positive side, even though you have to buy a car here as well, it seems like the WRC2 category in the long term could be a solution to this dilemma because it attracts more manufacturers to build cars available. By keeping the formula for a WRC car to make it attractive to manufacturers and simultaneously making it available to others than just three pairs of contracted drivers, one could return to the optimism of the WRCar rules that were introduced in 1997.
Personally I remember the 1999 season as the all-time high of the sport; seven manufacturer teams,in addition to a number of privateers, a wildly diverse season, cool cars, charismatic drivers and an unpredictable championship where it was “anyone’s rally” on each event.
Third, I think the promotional innovations that were made alongside the rule changes in the late 1990s had to be done in order to make the sport survive. It was surely better than keeping it as it was! Now, more than a decade later, the learnings from the ups and downs through the whole Antonov affair should enable the WRC Promoter GmbH (a subsidiary of Red Bull and Sportsman Media) to actually use the sporting successes of the past and the rise in spectator interest that came with it to carve out a promotional strategy.
I don’t mean to sound all nostalgic, but if you take a look at the history of the WRC, or any rally championship’s history, what do you get? A pattern of highs and lows. Those highs, I argue, must be used more proactively. What made the WRC so popular in 1983? In 1997? Rather than inventing the wheel once more, and be entirely dependent on a few big teams, the content of these highs should be converted by the FIA and the promoter into a future regulation regime that can stimulate both a renewed sense of community as well as improve the competitiveness of the WRC. If successful, this would reconnect the sport with the old-school aficionados while at the same time reach out to new fans.
Now I am the one who’s rambling on, but I hope you can use some of it for your feature. I also have some other writings at my (sadly, not so frequently updated) blog that might be relevant: http://hanserikness.blogspot.no. If you have any other questions, just let me know!
[bd] We’ve really covered a lot so far – WRC, promotion, teams, viewership – I think we’re good on that front, so here’s a couple questions about you, personally, if you wouldn’t mind.
I know you’re a PhD fellow in Oslo, but you said you follow WRC full-time. Can you tell me how you do that?
[hn] I follow the WRC full-time because it is my job – how to identify the WRC’s promotional qualities by bridging the analytical foresight of the “commercialists” and the emotional power of the “traditionalists” is the topic of my PhD in sociology. I have been to seven WRC events the past three years, each time with a specific research topic in mind. I also pay close attention to anything that is written or aired about the sport.
[bd] You mentioned having a 66 Beetle. Tell me a little bit about that. How long you’ve had it, any modifications, etc.
[hn] I’ve had my Beetle for almost a year now. I have not done anything particular about it, except changing the battery and the starter motor, as it was quite good shape when I bought it. The engine is replaced by a 1600cc from a Type 3 VW with a tuning carburetor and of course a loud muffler! Tires and interior are also relatively new. I plan however to convert it to disc brakes and lower it this winter and, if I win the lottery, repaint it back to its original pearl white and fit US bumpers.
[bd] As a way to tie things up at the end, where do you see all this going? What needs to happen to “save rally?”
[hn] To save, or at least re-energize the WRC, it needs to do two things.
First, it needs to be stabilized. In order to demystify what it is all about, which is very important to attract new fans, it must be recognizable over time. Luckily, the FIA has decided that no major rule changes will come until 2017. In that context I think they should keep at least six of the twelve rallies for a minimum of five years (instead of two, as it is now). If these fixed rallies moreover are “classics” (Rally Monte Carlo, Rally Finland, etc) it could be a way of conveying the heritage of the sport as well as keeping a number of slots open to new events. That way old-schoolers would be satisfied while new fans could get a chance to familiarize with the sport.
Second, it needs to enhance competition in any way possible. Access to the top level of motorsport will always be costly, and I admit that keeping the balance between limiting the costs and at the same time allowing for technological prowess that should be the signature of any world championship is difficult. Yet, without getting too technical, there are a lot of potential changes that could keep the spectacle and ease access for more competitors. Basically it is about less high-tech and more power on the one hand, and getting more suppliers of WRC cars on the other.
[bd] I have to admit, it’s interesting how you want the US bumpers on your Beetle. Often, we in the States want the European spec bits – bumpers, lights, etc.. The grass is always greener, though, right?
[hn] Re the old Beetles, there was a fascination for the California style when I grew up (and that is why mine looks like it does, too). Now it seems, at least here in Norway, that the “rat look” and the nostalgic use of “original” accessories like gangster caps and the like combined with tech stuff like air ride systems have become very popular. But I just drive my car and have fun with it without any intention of displaying it on some car show.
[bd] Thanks again, Hans. This is a great story I think a lot of rallyists will appreciate. I’ll be sure to mention we started speaking as part of your research for the book. And, once the book is available, we can definitely do a brief follow up which hopefully drives a couple sales.
[hn] I, too, think this will be a good story. I am glad to help out, and would like to thank you both for contributing to my book as well as letting me have a say on rally in your magazine. And if you could give the book a mentioning when it is available, nothing would be better!
[bd] You know we will, Hans. Looking forward to it!