WHERE'S WALDO: Where do we draw the line?
Wednesday, Mar 29, 2017 11:59am
By Aaron Waldron
Much of the conversation about the health of the RC industry tends to cover its growth trajectory - even going so far as to its ascension to the realm of esports and drone racing, with mainstream publicity and major network TV coverage. Other than this column and the occasional social media bomb, though, we don’t often talk about how to stop it from shrinking.
There are a number of factors in today’s RC industry climate that could pose a threat to the sustainability of the racing scene in the U.S. and abroad. Just as examples: the lack of class structure bridging the gap from entry-level Novice classes to the increasing speeds of 17.5-turn divisions, unsustainable levels of competition within many areas of the market, and the proliferation of direct consumer sales (not just in the form of sponsorship).
Whether any of those factors, or others, or a combination thereof could sound the death knell of RC racing as we know it remains to be seen. While some major manufacturers have shuttered their doors - and others have seriously scaled back - over the last couple of years, there’s no shortage of choices for consumers. The industry’s slow, and sometimes painful, transition from dirt to carpet off-road racing will undoubtedly shake up the status quo but it could also help bring new blood into the industry and help even the playing field. And while most tracks in the U.S. are operated as businesses, rather than volunteer clubs, such a non-profit model is the norm in other parts of the world.
The world of RC racing is changing - there’s no doubt about that. We don’t yet know if it will be good or bad, just that it will be different. But even if we could identify something that unequivocally harmed the RC atmosphere, what could we do about it?
Consider that at each of the first two major nitro off-road races in the U.S. this year, there were physical fights. As I was sitting in the broadcast trailer during both I can only go off of what I was told by witnesses: one was broken up shortly after collars were grabbed and tools were scattered, but the other may have included a chair being swung - and resulted in the cops being called. Allegedly, one racer was involved in both. As far as I know, no charges were filed in either case - though I was told that one of the racers involved was barred from the track from the remainder of the event.
Did you hear about either of these incidents? Probably not. But you heard all about a European driver’s borrowed fuel tank being slightly oversized, and a well-known pro driver’s forced absence from a couple of events, didn’t you?
The stir that follows any negative event in RC has way more to do with how well-known - and often, how disliked - those involved are, than how much whatever happened could potentially damage the industry. Part of the equation that leads to the complete lack of disciplinary action is the absence of a centralized, all-reaching rule basis (and no, this isn’t where you get to complain about ROAR - it’s not up to them to tell Event C not to allow someone who was caught cheating at Events A and B not to sign up when none of them were sanctioned races). Most of it, though, comes from not wanting to turn away any potential money. That means repeated cheaters might get disqualified, but they’ll be back next week. And repeated fighters might get escorted off the property, but they’ll be back too. The multi-time offenders will make a scene about being excluded, but those turned away by the negative environment will just quietly stop showing up.
Of course, there are no official studies to show how often fights happen at RC races. In a LiveRC poll back in April 2015, 3.2% of respondents indicated they had been involved in a fight at the track and another 14.8% said they “have been so mad they could've fought somebody.” Combined, that’s nearly one in five racers ready to engage in violence. (Click here to view the poll results). There might not be an all-reaching organization that can govern hundreds of independent, non-sanctioned events - but track owners can talk, and communicate to one another those racers who have created problems and shouldn't be allowed to attend for one, three, six, or twelve months - or ever. And we should be talking about these issues out in the open, not trying to make them disappear.
What's the straw that breaks the camel's back? For decades, I've heard people - amateurs and pros alike - justify racers screaming at and belitting turn marshals and pit men, smashing their equipment, or driving their cars off the track full-throttle out of frustration as a display of passion, because they're just motivated to win. What has to happen to act? Ending up on the local news? Actual physical injury?
As a whole, the RC industry prefers to sweep such issues under the rug or try to explain them away. Tracks and manufacturers going out of business could mean that remaining business will improve, but it might also be a sign the industry is struggling. Splitting classes and diluting entry lists without preserving lower-level competition could help retain the racers we already have, but it could also scare away newcomers. Hundreds of drivers obtaining manufacturer sponsorship could streamline the way racers buy products as well as shift the industry toward a more consumer-focused model, or it might undercut the businesses that operate the tracks where manufacturers’ products are used. Continuing to operate an unorganized racing scene with no metric of success other than one’s social media reach could mean a greater number of racers get to feel all warm and fuzzy inside by calling themselves professional racers (whether or not they spell “professional” correctly), or it might fuel the conflicts of ego that could lead to assault. And those fights in the pit area could be the spark that leads to an RC racing reality show and the major TV network exposure that everyone seems to want, or it might one day lead to criminal charges, lawsuits and racers quietly choosing not to attend races.
How much is enough? Where do we draw the line?