NASCAR, America’s most popular motorsport, takes after its founder, Bill France Sr. It’s a force in American culture, and whether you like the sport or not, it’s not going to care. Its viewers, mostly from rural America, has taken the same stand against detractors of the sport. They like it, they have fun watching it, and if you don’t, cough up a lung, we’re staying. This hardnosed philosophy created legends out of bootleggers, and for a long time, the most-watched spectator sport in the country.
But what made it so wildly successful during the sport’s golden age, a run that lasted from the 70s until probably the early 2000s, is the same thing that’s bringing it down these days. The races themselves have become dull, not that the fans will admit, because it’s essentially the same race event after event ever since the inception of NASCAR on 1947. With viewers exposed to different forms of entertainment, in and out of racing, there’s just more options for a young fan than it was before.
Entertainment’s Low on Gas
Also, like in hockey, the in-fighting during the races went down. This may sound strange, counting fights as a factor that creates fans, but it’s one of the reasons why NASCAR is unique. In Formula 1, it’s so heavily regulated that most fights are usually a back-and-forth between teams. Drivers are even more amicable toward each other since they have to work together a lot of the times. The worst it has ever gotten in F1 these days is when Max Verstappen of Red Bull pushed Esteban Ocon of Force India. It wasn’t even a fight, as it was just a bout of pushing. Something that’s like Kyle Busch and Joey Logano’s rumble on 2017? Forget about it. F1’s governing officials would never allow something that, and if did, those involved will face a severe punishment. That’s if the new owners are as heavy-handed as Bernie Ecclestone, F1’s former longtime chief.
Toss it up to Europeans being Europeans, but it’s just not the way NASCAR drivers deal with frustration. It’s why former drivers are revered, they were as human as those watching them. You’re pissed because someone deliberately made contact? Take a swing to let that frustration out. This is a sport that essentially organized races for bootleg cars. Not even the best drivers can keep their emotions at check. Jeff Gordon, the greatest driver of the last 20 years, has been involved in a lot of fights through the years.
We also have to get to the meat of the every conversation about NASCAR’s entertainment value: the races. There are no variations in the tracks, as it’s one oblong track after another. There’s usually 100 laps, 200 even at the Daytona 500, but it’s not unique. There are so many endurance races all over the world, Le Mans for one, and many can make the argument that these races are more grueling than NASCAR. But there’s so much drama involved in NASCAR, and that’s why the cheers were deafening before. You’re not above anyone, and this encapsulates the entire philosophy of the sport. NASCAR never aspired to be like any race in the world, they’re fine who they are and who their fans are. You want to label their fans as rednecks? It’s not going to stop them having fun a race weekend, drinking all the beers and grilling all the meat they can.
But this audience is shrinking. Football is as big as NASCAR in America, but you can make the argument that the former is now bigger than the latter. More people are more attracted to football, and it doesn’t help that NASCAR caters almost exclusively to its traditional viewers. They need to expand to younger fans, those who have money to spend on races, who can grow with the younger drivers. They also need to capitalize on women drivers, as Danica Patrick proved that it’s possible for women to compete with men on NASCAR. These are what will attract casual fans to the sport, and they need to do it before they get left behind.
Capitalizing on the Sport’s Mythology
NASCAR is the way they are because it’s only been owned by one family, the Frances. While they’re aware that they’re successful because they stuck with what works, they need to move with the times. But to leave the past behind is a big mistake, as the history of NASCAR is as much of a selling point as F1’s claim to be the sport of aristocrats.
NASCAR on the opposite end of that claim, but even to a casual fan, their history is more alluring than F1. While F1 started as a pastime of princes, NASCAR started with bootleggers. It’s what attracted the sport’s biggest market because you didn’t have to be rich to race, you could be anybody with moonshine on your trunk and an unjustifiably big engine in your car. You can race. Bill France Sr. held on to this idea like his life depended on it, ruling with an iron fist until his last day in office.
Then, there are the drivers. Fans watch because of the drivers, like they do in any motorsport. But what made NASCAR’s drivers different is that even if they’re only driving in an oval, it’s a different world when you’re on the track. F1 drivers create their legend by racing brilliantly, NASCAR drivers create theirs because they’re tested to the absolute physical and mental limit every race. Try driving in a circle a few times, and I guarantee you that you’ll go crazy. Now, try doing it at 200 miles an hour with drivers behind you acting like wolves and you’re their dinner.
Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt Sr., Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, they all competed for the same sport but they all created different legacies. You can spend an entire day on each driver, just reading about what made them great and what made them as human as your casual NASCAR fan.
Beyond the sponsorship change, which was the hallmark of NASCAR race events, the sport needs to shake things up fundamentally. Bring in younger viewers, prioritize the accessibility of your races, let women drivers move up the ladder, and create a halo around the sport. Knowing that it has to grow and having the intent to grow, it won’t be long before NASCAR recreates its glory days. Only then will it truly come back as the 200-mph sport.