SEMA panel looks to keep unlicensed teens focused on cars

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Radio-controlled cars, such as these Traxxas models, run on backyard and club tracks and are among the sources of driving excitement for those Gen Yers without a driver’s license.

Just 49% of 17-year-olds have a driver’s license, a sharp drop from the 79% figure of 1978. Is the automobile losing its allure to the teen market? There were many opinions about this trend expressed at the recent annual show of the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) in Las Vegas. The association naturally depends on a continuous stream of young drivers to whom its member manufacturers’ can market performance and appearance products.

Young attendees to whom AEI spoke were in the 49% of course, and their opinions of their less-automotive-focused friends typically were that they first were finding lower-cost gratification from such handheld electronic devices as iPhones and iPads. For that part of the population, “the ‘Big Three’ aren’t in Detroit,” SEMA’s John Waraniak, Vice President of Vehicle Technology, said. “They’re Google, Facebook, and Apple.”

Further, radio-controlled cars racing on backyard tracks and on club-operated facilities and driver-type video games give teens a taste of the thrill of high-performance, behind-the-wheel action without the expense of a real car with comparable on-the-road capability. So the driver’s license can wait because the purchase of the car has been postponed, although perhaps whetting the appetite.

However, experts on the SEMA Racing & Performance panel said that the industry was taking no chances on losing Generation Y (birthdates from 1980 to post 2000)—that it was taking steps to keep the teen-and-later audience thinking about cars until it was financially ready to buy. Further, it was making new efforts to appeal to Gen Y’s interest in “going green.”

NASCAR Green label

At NASCAR, Steve O’Donnell, Senior Vice President of Racing Operations, noted that the organization has numerous partnerships and programs in sustainability under the NASCAR Green label, which was launched in 2008. The latest, with Green Earth Technologies, features that company’s pressure washers and environmentally safe cleaning products. Other promotions include tie-ins with Creative Recycling Systems, which itself is partnered with Planet Gadget USA, a recycler of small electronic gadgets.

And NASCAR has accumulated more than 3 million mi (4.8 million km) on Sunoco Green E-15 (ethanol).

These programs, he told the SEMA audience, explain why younger fans now are twice as likely as before 2008 to look at NASCAR racing as a green sport. He also pointed to work on digital dashboards for racecars, “so they look more like what the fans have in their cars.”

Additionally, O’Donnell cited NASCAR’s technology center work with universities, including Clemson University, in the area of safety. “We don’t have racing in the rain,” he noted, “so we’re looking at ways to dry a track faster.”

Michigan International Speedway (MIS) has a multifaceted program to appeal to the younger audience. One is participation in the Formula SAE Series, an SAE International program in which college-level teams are formed to develop Formula-type racing cars.

Some of the MIS offerings are not unique, admitted Roger Curtis, President, but they are effective, such as a “Kid’s Club” (almost 8000 signed up) and a “Kid’s Zone” with entertainment, even soccer fields. The track was the first to offer children 12 and under free admission to a NASCAR Sprint Cup event, and some 6434 attended. There’s also a Michigan Kart Club that hosts kart road races.

The track, O’Donnell said, is the top recycler among Michigan sports facilities. And its media center is powered by a roof-mounted 800-ft² (74.3-m²) solar panel array.

GM 'E-Rod' powertrains

Car manufacturers also recognize the interest in “green.” Jim Campbell, General Motors Vice President for Performance Vehicles, pointed to the availability of the “E-Rod” green powertrain line.

The usual performance package has been just a “crate” engine, but GM now has a trio of complete “Connect and Cruise” V8 powertrain systems, and they’re also all available in E-Rod green. They feature the 5.3-L (315 hp/235 kW), 6.2-L (430 hp/321 kW), and 6.2-L supercharged (556 hp/415 kW) engines, each with a six-speed automatic (and for the supercharged engine, a six-speed manual as an alternative).

Also included are electronic control systems for engine and transmission, torque converter or flywheel kit, and a transmission installation kit. The E-Rod version of each package carries full California Air Resources Board (CARB) approval for low emissions.

Small format racing

Small format racing, perhaps because it is more relevant to Generation Y’s pre-driving experience, is increasing in popularity, aided by television packages.

Rallycross is a form of sprint style racing on a mixed surface track (dirt, pavement, gravel, sharp turns, and even small hills). It began in Europe but didn’t catch on in the U.S. until small performance cars increased in popularity, explained panelist Tanner Foust, driver and a television broadcaster at Top Gear USA.

He also pointed to drifting as a youth-oriented action sport, and indeed there are drifting competitions of various types, some on a full track and others on a section of track. The scoring rates the drifting line and speed, but there’s also a “wow” factor that is subjectively scored and usually includes the amount of smoke the tires produce.

Traxxas TORC, sanctioned by USAC (U.S. Auto Club), is a national short course series run on off-road type tracks with three divisions and four classes, including a 1600-cc buggy class. The sponsor is Traxxas, a leading maker of radio-controlled cars. The series was founded in 2009 by SEMA panelist Rick Johnson, motorcross and motorcycle champion and an inductee in the American Motorcycle Association’s Motorcycle Hall of Fame.

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