When it was revealed on Thursday that the FIA World Endurance Championship had decided not to taken on the option of using of grid girls during their events, the reaction from a sizeable corner of the motorsport community was sad, but not surprising.
The usual wails of “leftism”, “political correctness gone mad” (etc.) were alive, well and proving vocal. Claims that “it’s all a bit of fun”, “no one is forcing the girls to do it” and the more aggressive stance of “sex sells” also rang in the air.
And it all misses the point.
In one sense, some of the critics are right – no one is forcing models to be grid girls and most appear to be happy at that – but these are also the times that one may need to think less of the individual and more of motorsport’s place in wider society.
At a time when the sport could be celebrating female successes and achievements – by competitors such as Michèle Mouton, Janet Guthrie, Leena Gade, Danica Patrick, Shirley Muldowney, Desiré Wilson Lella Lombardi, to name a few – it actively goes out of its way to reduce them to eye candy, propping up boards in front of a car while a man gets prepares to drive.
Last week, Formula One commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone spoke in a patronising manner about creating a ladies F1 championship in order to bring more women into the sport, but only if plays support to the men’s event.
In times such as these, it is worth remembering not just how much impressions can influence, but also how damaging poor impressions they can be.
A ladies championship, that only serves to play second fiddle to the main show, is not the solution – making the option of jumping from karts to entry-level motor racing a more inviting one would certainly help. In this regard, motorsport is struggling.
At the top level, many years of neglect and pointless posturing, squabbling and endless arguing in the international arena only serves to reflect a form of entertainment that is dying on its feet.
Since full live coverage of Formula One in the UK moved to Sky in 2012, viewing figures have remained have decreased with the pay-per-view station on average attracting approximately one-sixth of the viewers that the BBC were able to pull when it previously held exclusive coverage.
Outside of F1, rallying is struggling with viewing figures in the thousands and the reach of endurance racing – such as the WEC – continues to be minor. In the US, eyeballs for the NASCAR Sprint Cup have decreased noticeably in the past decade and IndyCar barely registers as a blip. Even V8 Supercars has endured some difficult years, as other attractions prove more absorbing.
Realistically ours is a sport that is struggling, yet collectively we tend to put our fingers in our ears and sing “la-la-la-la” in the hope that falling audiences – both on site and in broadcast – become miraculously reversed somehow.
While the removal of grid girls may seem like a small move, it does – if nothing else – reflect a changing attitude at the top of at least one championship under the FIA’s banner. Motorsport has spent too many years parading itself as an exclusive club tailored to an extremely narrow demographic, at a time when it desperately needs to broaden its horizons and show that it is a welcome environment for all.
Motorsport’s audience is generally ageing men and with the continued use of grid girls, it goes out of its way to parade women as objects, rather that actually invite them into the heart of the sport.
Amidst an encouraging number of more enlightened views, one commenter on Radio Le Mans’ enthusiastic Midweek Motorsport Collective noted on Friday that the “lovely ladies” are “scenery enhancements.”
Well I’m calling bullshit to that mindset.
Yet the attitude to “scenery enhancements” feeds into this old age notion that ‘sex sells’ and while it is true to a degree, one needs to measure just how real that statement is. Any product (and let’s take motorsport as a product) that feels the need to utilise sex status in order to sell itself should ask itself the following questions:
Who are they selling to?;
Why does one need sex to sell it?;
And more importantly, what exactly is sex helping it sell?
None of this should be rocket science, although it may make an interesting study. Sex, like everything else, sells to the demographic at which it is aimed and in this instance motorsport categories get it badly wrong.
On a personal note, one can’t help but feel that if your product needs “glamour” and “sex” to sell, then potentially:
There may be something wrong with your product;
You have little confidence in your product using its merits to sell in its own right;
Or maybe you just don’t know how to sell it in the first place.
The reality is those things matter little when the sport as a whole is so haphazardly managed, promoted, marketed and sold. While also holding on to its outdated traditions that probably should have gone the way of the boyband Bros a couple of decades ago, motorsport has also done a poor job of attracting new fans.
To the desperate, the sport still holds on to the notion that fillers – such as mandatory pitstops, DRS, “jelly” tyres, unnecessary driver changes, reverse road orders, reverse grids (and so on…) – are what the audience wants. This is entertainment, yes, but sometime motorsport feels like a television show has added a new character in order to try to garner lost attention.
When examining the bigger picture, perhaps it is refreshing to see a championship take a stance that looks beyond its own navel and goes some way to addressing one of the image problems that is fast killing this sport. With luck, maybe more will follow.
TheMotorsportArchive.com considers the practice of grid girls to be a tacky, outdated practice and one that should have been dumped years ago and if that upsets people, well that’s just too bad.