The Frontstretch: Professor of Speed: Afraid Of The Future by Mark Howell -- Thursday November 3, 2011

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Professor of Speed: Afraid Of The Future

Mark Howell · Thursday November 3, 2011


I fear for the future of NASCAR. Say what you will about the Chase format, the new points system, the loss of sponsorships, and the shutting down of teams – my greatest fear is that the sport will see a loss in fan interest across a very viable and very important demographic: the 18-to-25-year old “college” audience. Today’s college-aged, academically-involved population is hard to please. Grabbing their attention is tough, and keeping it for more than fifteen minutes is even tougher. The overall 18-to-25-year old demographic is a fickle bunch – regardless of gender – and a demanding sort of self-centered consumer. The general attitude of “What’s in it for me?” has been fostered through achievement-based education and self-centric advances in technology. This is the tweeting-and-blogging generation: an audience of diverse young people with diverse interests, limited resources, and a presence on Facebook. This is the population that will assume control of essential professions as the next decade drifts into view; a student slumped lazily over their desk in the classroom today could well become the lawyer or the engineer or the accountant or the teacher or the computer programmer or the surgeon of tomorrow.

As a professor who works everyday with such an audience, I find them to be both challenging and promising. Inspiring them to pursue difficult tasks is a challenge because this is a generation used to pointing-and-clicking their way through a project. Seeing their focus and energy once they identify the area of interest that will become the basis of their future career allows me to sleep better at night; once a student finds their calling, the path they need to follow becomes clear. Having a goal makes all the effort more relevant for a college student. As a historian who works in-and-around NASCAR, however, this college-aged demographic makes me fearful for the future of our sport.

For every student who openly likes NASCAR, there’s far more who are ambivalent about stock car racing. We can try to understand this difference of interest if we “crunch” some population statistics. I’m far from being a statistician, but some “grocery store” arithmetic allowed me to compute the following: the population of the United States (as of mid-2011) was 311,800,000 people, and the number of “domestic” NASCAR fans (according to NASCAR) has been cited as 75,000,000 Americans. Given these statistics, and a calculator, we discover that about 24% of all people living in the United States consider themselves to be part of NASCAR Nation. Such a number seems pretty impressive; not much within popular culture achieves an almost one-quarter acceptance rate. This sounds rather good for the future of our sport, does it not?

Well, I’m afraid something tells me that it does not. Yesterday, we were about to study the 1973 movie “The Last American Hero” as an example of biographical cinema in my advanced “Film as Literature” course. The movie is based on the life of Junior Johnson as depicted in a 1965 article for “Esquire” magazine by Tom Wolfe. I asked the students at the start of class a simple question that was related to the topic: did they know anything about or did they follow NASCAR? When only one of the 16 students present raised his hand, my stomach did a gentle, yet sickening barrel roll. In this particular class – a course populated by students with a general interest in popular culture – a whopping 6.3% considered themselves NASCAR fans. I’m no mathematician, but that seems a whole lot lower than the 24% national average. In that classroom, on that afternoon, “NASCAR Nation” was more like “NASCAR pup tent”.

Whatever the reason there seems to be a disconnect among NASCAR and its younger demographic. Could this hurt the sport in the long run?

Not to bank on what might have been a statistical anomaly, I later approached two advanced composition classes taught by colleagues and made a simple query of the students assembled: “Are you a NASCAR fan?” The responses I collected served to demonstrate more of the same. In one room, one of the 18 students present said “yes”; in the other room, none of the 22 students there answered in the affirmative. The gender balance was pretty much equal, and the age range covered the 18-to-25 spread. By calculating my overall findings for the three classes “surveyed”, there were two NASCAR fans in a sample “population” of 56 students – only about four percent of the college students aged 18-to-25 considered themselves NASCAR fans. Is this the future fan base (or lack thereof) that lies ahead for NASCAR?

So what is NASCAR doing incorrectly? Why can’t the sport snag a larger portion of this audience? It’s not as though NASCAR events have suddenly morphed into dances at the local senior center. Last weekend’s race at Martinsville was totally “old school” compared to other Cup events we’ve seen so far in 2011. All of the beating-and-banging at the historic short track was accentuated by an assortment of fussing-and-fighting in the garage area; in other words, it was just another Sunday afternoon at Martinsville Speedway. The Tums Fast Relief 500 provided the kind of physical racing for which NASCAR used to be known. More than one-fifth of Sunday’s event (108 laps of the 500 total) was run under caution; this was quite a departure from the Cup races to which we’ve grown accustomed of late. If you wanted to see bent sheet metal, frazzled nerves, and short tempers, all you needed to do was watch about twenty minutes of Sunday’s Cup event.

Are these 18-to-25 year olds too busy to follow NASCAR? This could be a reason given the intellectual demands of college courses. Is this population too busy with part-time jobs to watch NASCAR races? This could be a reason, too. Does it cost too much to attend a NASCAR event? Even though ticket prices around the nation have been reduced to ease the financial burden of going to races, lodging and fuel costs are still high enough to keep fans at home. Is it that NASCAR has little to no presence in today’s internet-based culture? That is certainly NOT the case! Given that I can receive tweets from my favorite Sprint Cup driver, or that I can watch the races live online, or that I can participate in fantasy racing competition, I’d say the answer there is a most definite “no”. So, the question remains the same: what does the apparent apathy of this 18-to-25 demographic mean for NASCAR’s future?

Maybe part of the problem is an inability for this demographic to identify with the sponsors funding the teams who want their loyal support. Consider the primary sponsors of cars finishing in the top-ten at Martinsville this past Sunday: Office Depot/Mobil 1, Lowes, AARP, Budweiser, Federal Express, Caterpillar, Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard, NAPA, Scotts Winterguard Fertilizer, and Haas Automation. Of this listing, only two stand out as being obviously relevant to an 18-to-25-year old college audience. Go deeper into the field, and we find more sponsors that fall short of a “collegiate” audience – AdvoCare, GEICO, Furniture Row, 3M Filtrete, American Ethanol, U.S. Chrome, and Menards. A few sponsors seem relevant to the 18-to-25-year old demographic – brands like Miller Lite, Shell/Pennzoil, Long John Silver’s, Golden Corral, Target, and Interstate Batteries – but even then their connection to a collegiate audience seems rather limited. It’s difficult to gauge consumer motivation (if my car’s fuel gauge reads “empty” and my only option is a Shell station, my freedom of choice is no choice), but might a more youth-oriented change in sponsor involvement lead to growth of this all-important future fan base?

The prevalent socio-economic ideology within NASCAR may also have something to do with the absence of the traditional, college-age demographic. Colleges seem to be – by-and-large – more openly “liberal” environments where the attitudes of a capitalist/free-market system are questioned, debated, and argued (both “for” and “against”) through discussion, research, and writing. One criticism I’ve heard over the years from students (on the occasions when we do discuss NASCAR for some reason in a class) is that the sport promotes a jingoistic and politically conservative agenda. Students mention the military flyovers that today seem almost mandatory in any pre-race festivity, and they speak of Confederate flags hanging from RVs in the infield. This kind of behavior is proof, they say (often angrily), that NASCAR celebrates a one-sided, socio-political mindset that is in opposition to prevailing attitudes held by the larger population. How then, they argue, can anyone be okay with blind loyalty to such a racist and militaristic enterprise? Don’t people know that stereotyping others according to their race, religion, and ethnicity is wrong?

Well, in that case, it certainly is. But the inherent problem beneath the surface here is that the often-hyper-critical student is operating on like assumptions regarding NASCAR; aren’t those images being consumed also a means by which to create a stereotype? Not all fans enjoy the military flyovers (for many, they’re simply too loud and kind of shocking – especially if they catch you off-guard), nor do all fans fly Confederate flags atop their campers. In this case, the critical “finger pointing” goes both ways. Call it youthful naiveté or simply jumping to conclusions, but this lack of understanding based on NASCAR’s implied public image might be seen as part of the greater “where’s our future audience?” question.

Another point of separation might be the fact that in today’s “green” society, any endeavor that celebrates a willing use and exploitation of limited natural resources should be deemed unworthy of our time and attention – unless that attention means protesting against the consumption of resources in the name of popular sport. Did NASCAR’s switch to an ethanol blend this year help ease the controversy? Maybe it helped a little, but probably not very much. Will the introduction of electronic fuel injection bring added interest from younger drivers who’ve never known a time when “street” cars used regular carburetion? In some circles, such a question would lead to little more than blank stares. In a brave new era of hybrid vehicles, low-rolling resistance tires, recycled engine oil, and automobile dashboards that can double as personal computers, is a NASCAR stock car able to attract a young person’s attention? Aftermarket “aerodynamic” kits can make anyone’s ride look racy, so how easy is it for the Car of Right Now to compete for audience share?

Maybe part of the problem comes from the fact that NASCAR utilizes a “spec” type design that struggles to connect itself to the “real life” version of the car in question. It’s all a matter of stickers, so how does that pseudo-authenticity rate with an already judgmental audience that seems to crave “reality”? It strikes me as odd that many of the college students who demand things to “be real”, or who want people to “get real”, are the students most easily blinded by the myth of “reality” television. Simply put: if a program involves two cameras, reality gives way to choice. Is this part of the reason why the 18-to-25-year old demographic fails to accept NASCAR – because the cars these students drive everyday are nothing at all like the cars used in competition? It’s an old issue, but how many rear-wheel drive cars have been built over the last decade? Why is it that EFI is only now (as in 2012) making the jump to NASCAR? Will alignment with a more “typical” sense of automobiles help NASCAR Nation to grow? Brian France can only hope so.

And here’s the oddest rub of all…Brian France comes from a background in entertainment, so shouldn’t he be well-suited to “know” what a young audience wants from of its popular entertainment? Not that NASCAR needs to add a slate of explosions, “hip hop” music, zombies, and scantily-clad women (but then again, Danica Patrick IS headed our way full-time next season), but shouldn’t a guy who spends a lot of time in Los Angeles have a sense of what resonates with the 18-to-25-year old crowd?

Maybe we expect too much from him. Under Brian’s watch, the “traditional” way of calculating points has been revised to create more exciting racing, the schedule has been tweaked to include new markets, and the annual Cup banquet has moved from the glamour of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City to the clutter of Wynn (as in the resort) Las Vegas. When an opportunity arose to merge NASCAR with other forms of mass/popular culture, the result was the 2006 film “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” starring Will Ferrell. This latter example is the way that the majority of students recognize NASCAR. I gave a presentation about NASCAR’s cultural history to an audience of students at James Madison University in Virginia that year, and when I referred to Ferrell’s film (and showed a photograph of “Ricky Bobby” in his Wonder Bread driving suit), the audience of 18-to-25 year olds erupted into laughter. Maybe my choice to include “Talladega Nights” in the presentation was poor judgment on my part, but it was an element of NASCAR that resonated with the audience. References to Junior Johnson and Richard Petty only went so far (with the exception that most in the auditorium recognized Petty from his “appearance” as a 1970 Plymouth Superbird in the Pixar film “Cars” (also released in 2006).

Could it be that NASCAR fails to present its drivers as “young” enough or “hip” enough or “cool” enough to snag the 18-to-25-year old audience? For every Kasey Kahne or Joey Logano there’s a Greg Biffle and a Mark Martin – even perennial fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a tad long-in-the-tooth for this age group. Former “dreamboat” Jeff Gordon is forty, married, and the father of two…. and his car is sponsored (in part) by AARP! Sure, Trevor Bayne got 2011 off to a big start when he won the Daytona 500, but Bayne (despite being 20-years old) is also a devout Christian from Tennessee – a little too “traditional NASCAR” for a college-aged audience, perhaps? When an “extreme” athlete like Travis Pastrana lines up a ride in NASCAR, or when a motocross superstar like James “Bubba” Stewart signs a deal with Joe Gibbs Racing (as part of JGRMX – the team’s “motocross division”), is this not an attempt to “connect” NASCAR more closely to today’s “X Games” culture?

So how does NASCAR address the potential for a diminished fan base come the next decade or so, once the college students of today become the professionals of tomorrow – the ones with the income necessary to keep NASCAR Nation running smoothly? Pundits write at-length about NASCAR’s need to capture the always-elusive 18-to-34-year old male audience, but I see the problem as being deeper than simply attracting that particular demographic. NASCAR needs to draw in more women within that age range, and it needs to focus on giving collegiate audiences what they want to see. Good racing seems to finish second to added transparency and more diverse relationships. Are there “high-tech” industries willing to up the ante and enter NASCAR as active and enthusiastic (meaning “deep pockets full of cash”) sponsors? The future seems murky, at best.

Or should we skip the apathy of the 18-to-25-year olds and shoot for the generation behind them – the children currently in middle and/or elementary school? Such is easy to accomplish if you’re a NASCAR fan with a young child – my soon-to-be-four year old can easily identify Cup drivers like Clint Bowyer, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Trevor Bayne, Jimmie Johnson, and Kevin Harvick (although sometimes he thinks Harvick plays baseball). When a child is surrounded by an event or an activity, they can’t help but become familiar with it. Given my work, my son often hears about drivers, teams, races, and sponsors, and he gets to spend time in North Carolina from time-to-time where he gets to see (and touch) the cars he sees on television, in the newspaper, or online. When he gets older, I’ll take him to the races with me, like MY father did with ME when I was a child. Such is the nature of what we call acculturation – the way that an individual adopts the traits of another. This is often the easiest way to insure that traditions, attitudes, and other essential behaviors pass from generation to generation, and it may be the easiest way for NASCAR to develop (and secure) a future audience of loyal fans. The 18-to-24-year old college audience just may be a lost cause. I certainly hope not.

Contact Mark Howell

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11/03/2011 05:56 AM

Yes, the Martinsville race was the kind that drew fans into the sport. However, that kind of racing today has become just as small a percentage of the sport overall as the percentage of NASCAR fans in the classes you surveyed. NASCAR needs to bite the bullet and realize that these intermediate cookie cutter or whatever you want to call them tracks like Texas, Fontana, etc. that they cultivated in droves during the past decade are a problem that is eating away at the roots of the sport. People sleep through 90% of them and just watch the finish. They have to return to more traditional tracks like South Boston, North Wilkesboro, etc. that provided the kind of racing fans flocked to NASCAR in the first place.

11/03/2011 08:14 AM

When I was 18-25, I didn’t watch a lot of Nascar then either. I was more concerned with going out and girls. I had been a fan as a kid, and didn’t rediscover it until after I married. I essentially missed all the great racing of the 90’s, and I regret it. Oh, I caught the odd race or two, but I wasn’t up on it religiously.

I also wouldn’t put too much stock in how many students raise their hands. If you had asked that question about football, only a couple of people would have raised their hands, and they would have said it was only for the “social” aspects of it. Liking football or racing at the time would have been “common”. I’ll bet a few others would have raised hands, too but it wouldn’t have seemed cool. They were thinking, “They’ll laugh at me like they laugh at Ricky Bobby, or call me a redneck.” I remember college being a time when we would sit around deconstructing and criticizing everything. Eventually, you realize that it’s a silly way to live and you return to truly enjoying whatever it is that you enjoy. For all of the talk about being independent and different, at that time you are still worried about what other people think.

11/03/2011 08:35 AM

I always thought that NASCAR’S assertion that there are “75 million” NASCAR fans in the U.S. was overblown. If that figure was true why are TV ratings so poor? 4 million viewers out of “75 million” fans says a lot; what it says i’m not so sure. I would love to know how NASCAR arrived at the “75 million” figure.

11/03/2011 08:38 AM

One other thing: I was a design/architecture major, and we had to do a large land planning project on a piece of real property (i.e. a real topo, and design accordingly.) I chose to design a race track and surrounding properties. It caused a big row among the professors, some of whom didn’t want to approve it. (this was before the project even started as it was a semester long, senior level project.) “Automobile racing was crass and vulgar, it was harmful to the environment and wasteful of natural resources, it had no redeeming social value whatsoever.”

One professor did defend me though, by asking questions: Is this an activity that human beings do and participate in? Yes, Well then, does one not think this aspect of our society should benefit from our area of expertise, regardless of whatever social value one may think it has?

Well it got approved and I proceeded to design a parabolic 1.5 mile oval. (shakes head) This was 1993 before the start of the speedway building boom, but yes I did the stereotypical cookie-cutter track, that was my big idea. Oh well.

11/03/2011 11:09 AM

I think attention span is a big deal. I won’t lie—in the 90s and early early 00s I watched every damn lap of all three major NASCAR series. I gobbled it up.

Now… a Combination of being a busy adult, AND Cup races being absurdly long and boring in the “middle” as insured I barely pay attention. Martinsville, Richmond and the two road courses are the only races I watched start to finish. Because people actually seemed to be racing every lap.

If Cup would reduce the majority of their races to 200 or 300-mile affairs, I have no doubt it would appeal more to the current “instant gratification” generation. It’s one of two reasons I watch every race in the Truck Series, for every lap (short, interesting races, and drivers racing their asses off the whole time.)

As far as Nationwide, the most common answer I get from non-racing and racing friends alike is “why are Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick in this series? Isn’t that like NFL players playing college football?” The idea is absolutely bizarre to stick-and-ball sports fans. It’s also why I don’t watch Nationwide, except the road courses.

Also: agreed completely on stereotypical assumptions about NASCAR and NASCAR fans. I race short track oval myself. I’m college educated, speak perfect English, have a normal haircut, dress like a normal guy, and I hate country music. I don’t ascribe to any political party, but I suppose I lean left, if anything. And I love ALL motorsport, not just stockcar racing.

Other than the fact that I AM a car guy and a racer, I don’t follow the stereotype at all. Yet the stereotype follows. Hell there aren’t even many rednecks left IN NASCAR! Most of the drivers are well-spoken modern well-educated people… In some ways that’s a BAD thing, there aren’t any badass old guys like Cale Yarborough or Junior Johnson kicking ass anymore.

It’s funny though… As much as the people I know make fun of big-time NASCAR and “going around in circles,” they have nothing but praise and interest for my own racing endeavours, because it’s “real, gritty grassroots racing.” I guess driving in circles with rednecks at the LOCAL level is okay…

11/03/2011 12:04 PM

How many of today’s college kids can weld? Replace a head gasket? Install a new bath fixture? Put on a shingle roof? As our job economy gets more and more specialized, less and less people can identify themselves with the underlying success of the team model of motorsports in general. Its not just the driver the wins a race as we all know. That connection to the guys in the trenches is what is missing in today’s college youth that spends the majority of their time creating lulz for Facebook instead of something real (not “reality”). I found that at my alma-mater it was the MechE and Robotics students that had the greatest potential to be Nascar (or F1 or IRL) fans.

11/03/2011 04:12 PM

Political correctness and herd mentality is why NASCAR and this country is in trouble. The kids have been led to believe this country is nothing special and to ignore the Constitution when it suits them. Thankfully my step granddaughters can think for themselves and not be swayed by the media or a USA hating professor or university.
Nice article Mark.
By the way-I love the flyovers.

Don Mei
11/03/2011 04:52 PM

Mark, I’m a business professor in a state college in Connecticut. Ive been teaching 38 years ( I reached Dick Trickles milestone today)and during that entire time I have been involved with motorsports in one way or another. I raced motorcycles when I was much younger but I still race a 240z in vintage sports car races. The crux of the problem, if I might call it that, is that very few young people today have much interest in cars. There simply aren’t that many gearheads out there anymore. Twenty five years ago, the majority of my students were curious about my racing and motorsports in general. Now its a very small number. This semester I honestly believe I only have two gearheads in my classes. If there is no general interest in cars and racing in general, it follows that there will be even less in a very sanitized sport running essentially spec racing cars.

11/03/2011 07:15 PM

Don Mei,you’re right. Kids these days show little interest in knowing how to work on cars and don’t know a spark plug from a muffler. Back in the late sixties I spent a lot of time working on my own car so I could get to school and work. People these days check the air in their tires once a year if that. The good old days of Moon landings and working on my own car-I’ve almost forgotten how much fun it was back then.

old farmer
11/04/2011 12:43 AM

I taught in college for a long time—at a state school—and I had a good number of racing fans.

I also had a good number of students who filled their weekdays w/ studies and their weekends drunk—no time for racing.

Racing, especially NASCAR and with the exception of F-1, seems always to have been for the average guy. These students have not yet realized that they, too, will become pretty average with age.

I wouldn’t worry too much about them; they’ll come around in due time.

11/04/2011 10:52 AM

As a member of the 18-25 “college” crowd, I’ll try and shed some light on the subject… I may be biased, though, since I am a fan. Disclosure: I am an engineer, I have engineer friends (including one who used to change his own oil in the undergrad parking deck), and my school’s mascot is a 1930 Model A.

I think the problem is that NASCAR is not “cool.”

I remember watching a race in the freshman dorm, and as Tony Stewart won and climbed out of his car, a kid walking by looked at the TV, said “that’s the fattest racecar driver I’ve ever seen” and walked away. Part of the problem is the drivers. When I became a fan in the late 90’s, the drivers were relatively old compared to today’s… but Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd… those guys were cool. I could sense they had no fear. One (was it Rudd?) said if there were no NASCAR, he’d have joined the Air Force to fly fighter jets. They drove with broken bones, taped their eyes open, and acted like little kids on Christmas if they got to Victory Lane.

Now, let’s compare: Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano… those guys don’t strike me as particularly cool or fearless. Heck, Johnson broke his finger playing golf! Dale Jr. would be about the only driver who seems sincere and not too rehearsed and too corporate… but he drives for Diet Mountain Dew.

And then there’s the cars. I am cooler than Kyle Busch. We’re both about the same age, both married, (he makes more money than I do, but I don’t get booed for doing my job, so I’d say that’s a tie) but I drive a silver Avenger, and he drives a rainbow Camry. If my car is a base-model mid-size sedan and it’s cooler than the cars on the track, we have a problem.

Quite frankly, I doubt I’d be watching NASCAR if I just discovered it today.

Other disadvantages that are easy to fix: TV. My wife loves going to Talladega. She also can’t sit and watch races on TV because they’re boring. At the track, the cars are going pretty fast, and they’re loud and colorful, and we can listen to Bowyer (or whoever) all race. On TV, we can watch Jimmie Johnson lead. And with no other cars in the shot and no sense of perspective on the track, it looks like he’s going about 35 miles an hour. Lame.

And finally, for people my age, video games are apparently pretty popular. There aren’t many NASCAR video games, but I’ve played some pretty good street racing or go-kart games. There was one semester (or four) in undergrad when my roommates and I spent lots of time playing Need for Speed and MarioKart. If there had been a cool video game about NASCAR, maybe we would have played that as well.

I’ve found that people who go to races get hooked, so here’s my final suggestion: student discounts to races and transportation to and from the track. Load up buses full of students to hit up the track and sell them cheap tickets. If we live on college, we don’t all have cars. Plus, we like to drink beer, and not having to take turns DD’ing just makes a good day at the races that much better.

It’s not a lost cause for my generation. NASCAR just needs to make an effort to prove to us that there’s plenty for us to like in the sport.