Analyzing the global "State of Racing" from a U.S. perspective is difficult because America's fondness for oval track racing separates it from the rest of the world.
Just as we have our own unique style and league for football, NASCAR has become synonymous for racing in the U.S. Bob Pockrass will assess the "State of NASCAR" in a separate story later this week, and Indy car racing and Formula One and their respective feeder networks also merit individual discussion. So we'll start things out today with a look at the rest of the world of motorsports.
Internationally, almost every major form of motorsports is road-racing based, and outside of F1 and NASCAR, arguably the most successful series in the world right now is staged on two wheels rather than four.
The FIM MotoGP championship continues to captivate fans around the world, fueled by the intense rivalry that has developed between champion riders Valentino Rossi and Marc Marquez. The changing of the guard between the old master and the heir apparent produced a tense atmosphere that has spilled over to the track in a dangerous way, similar to the psychological battle between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in F1 in the late 1980s and early '90s.
As a truly international formula, MotoGP is encountering the same problems and issues that F1 dealt with 10 or 20 years ago, mainly the transition from traditional European venues into Asia and the Middle East. MotoGP is also losing its footprint in the U.S., currently lacking an American rider and dropping from three American races on the calendar as recently as 2013 to a single event this year at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.
If the personalities have come to the fore in MotoGP, the FIA World Endurance Championship has done the best job of making the cars the stars.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans remains one of the world's most historic and significant sporting events, and the nine-race championship that supports Le Mans is in its strongest position in decades. Sports car racing has done a better job than F1 in terms of integrating modern automotive technology that is relevant to road cars, as reflected in the diesel-powered and hybrid prototypes from Porsche, Audi and Toyota that compete in the top P1 class.
Although the WEC hosts an American round -- also at COTA -- the U.S. is big enough to support a sports car series of its own. The problem is that the cars that people want to see -- the crazy P1 prototypes -- are legislated out of what is now known as the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and its crown jewel endurance races, the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.
Daytona, Sebring, and Road Atlanta's 10-hour Petit Le Mans remain celebrated and successful events, but it's frustrating to think about how sports car racing in America could be taken to another level if the factory P1 prototypes were allowed to participate.
The good news is that for 2017 and beyond, steps are being taken to more closely align the regulations for the WEC's P2 class that will take over as the top category for the IMSA series.
Even though the revamp of IMSA's prototype class is a year away, the last season where the old Daytona Prototypes and outgoing P2 cars compete for overall honors is still compelling. But the toughest competition in the series is in the GTLM class, with factory efforts from Porsche, BMW, Corvette, and a much ballyhooed return of the Ford GT.
The Pirelli World Challenge offers a sprint-race alternative to IMSA's shows, which run a minimum of 2-1/2 hours. Often run in conjunction with IndyCar Series events, the PWC includes factory efforts from the likes of Cadillac and Acura and the widest range of cars you'll see on a grid anywhere in the world, ranging from a Lamborghini Gallardo to a Honda Fit.
Like most forms of motorsports, sedan racing is down from its peak 20 years ago. But "local" series like Germany's DTM and Australian V8 Supercars have successfully gone semi-international in an attempt to compensate for reduced interest at home.
The DTM still enjoys strong factory support from Mercedes-Benz, Audi and BMW. But even before news broke that Ford and GM division Holden will cease car production in Australia in a couple of years, V8 Supercars opened the door for foreign manufacturers like Nissan and Volvo. Like any formula, they were adapting to the times.
Back in the U.S., drag racing isn't quite as uniquely American as NASCAR, but it still occupies a special place in our culture. Perhaps more than any other form of motorsports, drag racing is susceptible to the notion that most people have lost a hands-on connection with working on or hopping up their cars.
There's no question that today's street cars are faster, safer, more comfortable, more efficient and more reliable than ever. But for many, they have also become little more than appliances, complex machines that require specialists for formerly simple tasks like changing oil or spark plugs.
Under new leader Peter Clifford, the NHRA has come out on offense, crafting an aggressive new media strategy that will feature the majority of its events televised live for the first time on Fox Sports 1. Marquee events like the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis will be broadcast on the flagship Fox network.
While a traditional form of motorsports like drag racing is getting a media makeover to remain competitive in the modern market, a more serious threat comes in the form of "made for TV" racing.
The X-Games demonstrated that motorsports can be staged in a stadium environment with a TV-friendly format, and series like Red Bull Global RallyCross and Robby Gordon's Stadium Super Trucks have capitalized on race fans' desire to see vehicles slide around in spectacular fashion. The format of short heat races lends itself to television, not to mention the short attention span of modern sports fans.
And don't forget Formula E, which stages one-day, city street-course events featuring nearly silent electric formula cars and pit stops that feature drivers changing entire cars rather than just tires.
If there's one facet of racing that longtime fans will have to adapt to, it's the changing sound of the sport, and novelty that it is, Formula E in many ways is a glimpse into the future.
As long as there have been cars, people have raced them. Formula E is racers preparing for the future, because they know that changing the way cars look or sound isn't going to extinguish the desire to see them pitted in competition.
The cars may change, and the way fans watch the action probably will too. Like many sports, racing has suffered a decline in popularity from its peak years. But it's not going away anytime soon.