Can WRC Rally Be Saved?

Around Thanksgiving, in my house, the pheromones that men emit while bonding flow thickly and freely. In the haze of their L-tryptophan enhanced post- prandial stupors, men move slowly, so as not to alarm their pack-mates. Belts are loosened. Talk of politics is avoided. Attention focuses, inevitably, on whatever sport is on TV. Often, this ends up being football, naturally, but every so often I’ll walk into the room only to find all eyes focused in rapt attention on a golf match.

I have great respect for the skill required to be a competitive golfer. It is a subtle game. It requires more stamina and strength than you’d think, if you’ve never tried it. Put on a replay of an amazing putt and I’ll be able to appreciate it, as long as I don’t have to watch for more than about 30 seconds or so. But I can’t understand the point of watching an entire golf match, or even a hole. As a spectator sport, it is composed entirely of interstitial pauses. Watching golf because you “like sports” is like listening to John Cage’s 4'33" because you “like music.” When a golfer is taking a shot, the game is interesting. At all other times, the sport is of merely academic interest.

Realize, then, the pain it causes me to admit that WRC Rally racing, which I love, is the golf of the motorsports world. Rally is about timing. Drivers compete only indirectly. Each driver and co-driver attacks the course, and the best time wins. Unless something has gone very wrong, there are effectively no passes in rally, except for simulations created by compositing telemetry data after the fact. If you played the most popular rally videogames, you might not even realize this, since they typically offer an “everyone races the same dirt track at once” experience, a race format that would probably lead to molten flaming death in real life. The game manufacturers do this for an obvious reason: to most people, time trials are more boring than wheel to wheel racing.

There is not an obvious solution to this problem; which is mostly one of presentation and immanence. The networks – for both golf and rally – are increasingly moving towards highlight reels. Take all the action from a single day and compress it into ten minutes, or an hour. Viewed this way, both sports are marvelously dense with thrills and cliffhanger moments.

And yet, as a viewer, this treatment leaves me cold. A highlight reel is not a sporting event. Sports, like news, or a good chilli, is best served hot. As a spectator, I can’t even stand watching a sporting event more than a few minutes lagged on my Tivo. Once the Steeler game is over, I could care less about seeing what happened. I want to watch in the moment. I want to be in the moment.

A few years ago, Speed Channel would broadcast a compressed highlight reel each night after the day’s rallying. Last year, they moved to showing a single three-hour show on the day after the rally finished. This year, they are showing a one-hour highlight reel a full week after the rally ended. For that entire week, I creep around the Internet like a cat burgler, hands ready over my eyes, lest I find out that Petter Solberg and Subaru won in Wales, and therefore I won’t want to bother watching the highlight reel. Most Americans have no idea what WRC Rally is. Speed Channel isn’t helping; viewership is down.

Combine this with the fact that WRC Rally is a monstrously expensive sport, and you have a sport in freefall. Citroen and Peugeot – the only two teams to have won the manufacturers title in the past five years – have both announced that they are leaving the sport at the end of 2005. When even the team that is winning the championship is fleeing, how do you make a compelling case to other manufacturers that this is a value proposition they want to be a part of?

WRC Rally is not going to disappear tomorrow, any more than F1 will. But if something isn’t done to improve the ratio between the expenses of running races where it’s more or less expected that half the drivers will drive their cars off a cliff and into a tree, and the returns for participating in the sport, then the participating talent pool will continue to shrink. Colin McRae has already decided that the Paris-Dakar Rally is more worth his time than WRC. Who will be next?