*Photo Credit: Getty Images
It is no secret that NASCAR has been struggling recently.
Fans haven’t been showing up to the tracks and TV ratings have been dropping significantly. Some of the sport’s biggest and most visible stars — Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, to name a few — have retired. Many more of the sport’s marquee names are now in their late 30s and early 40s and 14-time Most Popular Driver winner, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is set to retire at the end of this season. Furthermore, the sport has recently introduced a variety of rule changes such as stage racing and a complex playoff system that scream gimmick, at best, and cash grab, at worst.
What happened? Only a decade ago, NASCAR was on track to become not only one of the biggest sports in the country, but break into Formula One’s foothold on international motorsport. Stars from the once regional sport had become pop culture symbols in the national consciousness. You couldn’t walk into a store or restaurant that sponsored a driver and not see a cut-out or poster. Stars from other forms of motorsport defected en masse to try their hand in a stock car. Juan Pablo Montoya left his competitive Formula One seat mid-season in 2006 to prepare for a full-time switch in 2007, becoming only the second international driver to win a NASCAR race. Furthermore, two Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar Series champions, Sam Hornish Jr. and Dario Franchitti, each defected with limited success along with Australian V8 Supercars star Marcos Ambrose and Canadian F1 champion Jacques Villeneuve.
It is unfortunate for fans of the sport that the timing of the peak of NASCAR occurred right before the great recession and not-so-great recovery. The fans of the sport are stereotypically southern, white and working class — the very demographic that was hit the hardest by the recession. Those who would typically travel to often geographically isolated tracks for a weekend of camping and watching races soon found themselves with less disposable income than they had before. Similarly, the sport’s heavy dependence on sponsorship for cars, race titles and television advertisements tapered off during the recession and never recovered.
Not to mention, the product on the track became a bit boring. While the 2008 transition to the “Car of Tomorrow” may have made the sport safer, it also eliminated any differences between the various manufacturers’ cars. The sheer length of NASCAR races — usually 500 miles and well over 3 hours to complete — is demanding. Many casual viewers may have switched over to IndyCar or now spend their Sundays watching football, baseball or perhaps nothing at all.
The two most successful drivers of the last two decades, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, do not fit the mold of the traditional NASCAR star. They are both proud Californians and pop culture icons. They don’t speak with a southern accent, nor chew tobacco and they look like the kind of guys you would see at a Beverly Hills Starbucks, not at a Kannapolis mechanic shop. This is perhaps the largest reason why Dale Earnhardt Jr. has remained the sport’s most popular driver despite never winning a championship and being a middle of the pack racer for the twilight of his career: he is among the last of the “good ol’ boys.” He swears on TV in an age where drivers resemble media-trained robots and looks more comfortable in a pair of Wranglers and a t-shirt than the hottest fashion of the day. But most importantly, the NASCAR faithful remember his rough-racing father through him. In NASCAR’s attempt to expand beyond the South and into the cultural mainstream, they may have left behind, and priced out, the fans who had been with them for decades.
I’d call myself a very passive NASCAR follower. I’ll watch a few races when they happen to be on and keep up with the series standings, but that’s about it. Because Sunday’s Martinsville race was consistently plugged during the Formula One Mexico Grand Prix, I decided to put it on while waiting for Sunday Night Football and the World Series to start. One of the largest storylines of the race as it developed was 21 year old Chase Elliott — son of NASCAR legend Bill Elliott — was leading and challenging for his first win. With only three laps to go, he was spun-out by Denny Hamlin and ended up finishing 27th.
While the media-trained robots would have left the track and talked about rebounding next week, Elliott knocked Hamlin into the wall after the race and then the pair proceeded to exchange words — the lip readers are sure to have fun — outside of their cars. Hamlin clearly was in the wrong, and Elliott was not afraid to let him know it. Despite being from Virginia, the Martinsville fans proceeded to shower Hamlin with boos during his post-race interview, rendering him inaudible whilst cheering loudly for Elliott. When asked about the incident, Elliott said that his mother taught him the classic adage: “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it all” — evoking an unmistakable “good ol’ boy” charm.
Elliott is a throwback to the days of old. He races hard, but clean. He speaks his mind when necessary and isn’t afraid to defend himself when wronged. He is a young star in a sport whose drivers and fans have grown older. But most importantly, he is someone that the NASCAR faithful can root for in the many years, and victories, to come.
While I think Elliott will work wonders for the sport, he certainly cannot revitalize it single-handedly. He is going to need future rivals, who can be found in Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney, to create the type of dynamic that makes must-watch TV. NASCAR executives still have to address the problems of struggling demographically in a changing country. Luckily, NASCAR’s youth movement boasts Rookie of the Year candidate Daniel Suȧrez, the first foreign born driver to win a NASCAR series, and Bubba Wallace, who will become the first full-time black driver in over 40 years next season.
Even though the end of this season will bring the retirement of the most popular driver of the last 15 years, I have a pretty good feeling on where his fans will go, and who will claim this title, starting next season.
For the first time in many years, the future looks bright for NASCAR fans, and they have every right to be excited for it.