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by Michael Sansolo

Predicting the future is worthless, but I feel comfortable making these two ironclad prognostications.

First, at no time in the future will I be allowed to drive a vehicle in a NASCAR race.

Second, at no time will any driver in a NASCAR race actually use a Prius - which is my preferred mode of automobile transportation.

Bank on it!

Thanks to some wonderful circumstances, I found myself in Charlotte, NC, recently with an opportunity to visit the NASCAR Hall of Fame. And incredibly, there are countless elements to that building and sport that are stunningly relevant for retail at the moment, especially as NASCAR hunts for ways to shore up its flagging television ratings and connect with younger people. (Sound familiar?)

To be clear, I am not a big NASCAR fan and I am far more comfortable in either the Baseball or Star Wars Halls of Fame, but you can’t pass up an opportunity. Besides, the NASCAR hall simply crushes it.

The entry to the building features all generations of NASCAR cars on a “track” that allows fans to see vehicles from decades back and get a sense of what a driver faces. There are small chunks of road material so you can touch and feel the incredible differences between the road surfaces. And there’s a small area where one can walk on a simulated 33-degree banked turn, which makes you appreciate how hard it must be to keep a car from sliding off. (Simply put, it is impossible to stand on the turn without holding the railing. Centrifugal force rules!)

But the highlight of a visit is a chance to drive a simulated car in a simulated race. Believe me, no amount of instruction prepares you for an 800 horsepower engine. I hit the gas and immediately drove into a wall. The only way my Prius could achieve that rate of speed would be if it were dropped out of an airplane. (Oh, I got back on the track and promptly blew my engine. My fellow drivers were not much better.)

But what interested me most was a talk with a tour guide about NASCAR’s battle for relevance. Let’s keep in mind that this is a sport with rapid fans, who can sit in the stands and use headsets to listen to drivers and their crews. Even casual fans watching on television, have access to cameras in the car showing us what the driver is seeing at 200 miles per hour.

In other words, the sport allows a fan to get immersed.

But as the tour guide explained, it’s no longer enough. Now NASCAR is looking at the next generation and trying to up its game. In the near future, she told me, we’ll likely see cameras throughout the car so fans can watch the driver change gears or go through anyone of their activities behind the wheel.

What’s more, there will no doubt be apps that permit a fan to experience the thrill and terror I got in the simulator such as the incredibly bumpy apron when I steered too low and the rush of gravity when I finally accelerated correctly. Fans raised on Super Mario Kart will expect and accept nothing less. It’s probably a matter of time when fan will lose the headphones that let them listen to Jimmy Johnson and instead strap on a virtual reality device that let’s them be his co-pilot.

There obviously won’t be a way of creating the same thrill while people steer a virtual shopping cart, but NASCAR’s changing reality is something we need consider. The “wow” experience is quickly becoming a necessity rather than a rarity.

In other words, start your engines. It’s going to be a bumpy ride!
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