As missionaries and salespeople learn all too often, it’s difficult to share a message with an audience that has little experience with your topic. I’m about to undertake such a challenge. As you read this, I’ll be at the Copley Marriott Hotel in Boston, Massachusetts to present a paper at the 42nd annual national conference of the American Culture Association/Popular Culture Association. The only thing harder to accept than my scheduled speaking time (at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday!) is the likelihood I’ll be facing a rather tiny audience of NASCAR neophytes. This is not always the case, especially when there’s a large panel of motorsports specialists on the docket, or when the session is given a more attractive time slot; late on a Friday is always good because it allows for further discussion over drinks and/or dinner afterward. With this early-Saturday morning assignment, I expect a room full of people looking to kill time until the breakfast buffet is served.
It’s not always this bad. Over the years, I’ve seen large audiences of engaged and interested people. Since my lectures always involve some link to NASCAR, many in the audience are either knowledgeable about my research or looking to float new research ideas of their own. Presentations shared at a meeting like this are usually informative, if not entirely accurate (it’s amazing how many scholars/writers cite “wives’ tales” from NASCAR Nation as fact). That said, conferences like this are a good opportunity to catch up with like-minded peers from around the globe. It’s the best way to see what’s what in the world of motorsports academia, while being able to share recent and relevant research findings from your own work.
The annual national conference typically draws close to 3,000 college professors, graduate students, researchers, writers, publishers, and others who work closely in the area of cultural studies. While the American Culture Association deals more with topics in what might be considered “traditional” disciplines, such as literature and historic preservation, the Popular Culture Association delves into subjects usually deemed unorthodox.
Papers presented through the PCA cover areas like film, television, music, and sports. When skimming the conference program (which is roughly the thickness of a telephone directory for a moderately-sized region), it’s not unusual to see lectures citing analysis and criticism of topics like gender issues in graphic novels, American xenophobia against globalization, and the concept of “choice” as a “generic convention” in video games. Toss in several panels devoted to tattooing, science-fiction movies, and detective novels, and you’ve got the basis for the PCA’s annual conference.
Oh, yeah…. and toss in a lecture or two about NASCAR.
This annual meeting is where I’ve tested the theoretical waters whenever I’ve wanted to explore new areas of motorsports scholarship. Papers I’ve presented at ACA/PCA conferences have gone on to become books, articles, and encyclopedia entries. These lectures are also a good way to try out subjects that I might be considering teaching to students in my classes. More often than not, I find myself teaching the subjects to the folks who’ve decided to grace my presentation with their presence.
One of the problems with presenting new ideas about a rather esoteric subject is that I often have to provide a lot of back story or historical review. This is not a problem encountered by scholars working in areas like film, television, or even other, more “mainstream” sports like baseball. When a sports historian speaks of Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, or Pete Rose, the audience – no matter if they’re huge baseball fans or not – is already aware of the person and why they’re relevant to the lecture.
This isn’t always the case when I talk about people like Tim Richmond, Cotton Owens, Alan Kulwicki, Ray Fox, Geoffrey Bodine, or Buddy Baker – since such NASCAR names aren’t always on the cultural “radar”, I’m often required to take time away from the topic at hand and explain who these people were/are. The folks who “know” NASCAR, or auto racing in general, can probably identify these personalities and understand their role in the sport’s history; to those who don’t follow NASCAR closely, my NOT explaining the names will lead to confusion and frustration. When that happens, it’s not unusual to see audience members simply get up and walk out.
Audiences have been tough on NASCAR over the years. When I started going to the ACA/PCA national conference over twenty years ago, it was pretty common to hear snickers and comments about “rednecks” and “hillbillies” and what has been called the “Bubba” factor – assumptions expressed publicly about a sport reduced to stereotypes and misinformation.
For years, such heckling made me furious. I’d leave a panel with clenched fists, breathing profanities quietly to myself; on several occasions, I lashed back (politely, of course) at the critics, mostly during question-and-answer sessions following the panel of lectures. I found it was easier to shut such critics down openly as part of a “discussion” than it was to stomp around the conference and fantasize about meeting up with one of these hecklers in an empty elevator. I could dream, but it was more helpful to adapt.
I started approaching conference presentations like a race team would an upcoming event. If I’m going to race at Martinsville, I’m going to duct lots of air to the front brakes; if I’m going to run at Daytona or Talladega, I’m going to massage the C-pillars a bit (but not too much…. this is cross-indexed under “Knaus, Chad”).
A similar approach seemed to work regarding conference lectures.
If I was going to be speaking in San Antonio, I’d make sure to include references to Texas Motor Speedway and the Labonte brothers. If the conference was in Philadelphia, I’d work in mention of Pocono Raceway and drivers and/or teams relevant to that area. If the conference was going to be in Las Vegas, I’d try to steer my presentation in the direction of Las Vegas Motor Speedway and recent events there. Playing to the host city seemed to be a good move; I found that audiences were often interested in the area and attentive to specific references that linked my lecture to NASCAR’s presence in the region. Call it “pandering” to the audience or call it “strategy” – I called it “successful”. Before long, the comments stopped. Maybe it was because I had earned a reputation as “that NASCAR guy”, but I think it was because academics recognized there was a relevant connection between motorsports and American/popular culture.
Comments also stopped because I stopped trying to take NASCAR so seriously. The slides I’d often show along with the presentations took a more humorous approach to the sport. By displaying a cartoon of cows and horses racing convertibles down a country road (the caption: “stock car racing”), or by showing a slide featuring NASCAR-themed crock pots, I was able to acknowledge that NASCAR could be seen as funny or unusual or worthy of giggles. It’s a similar approach to dealing with being laughed at by others – if you change the focus of the laughing and put it purposely onto yourself, it defuses the mean-spiritedness of the teasing. By accepting that aspects of NASCAR could be seen as humorous, I was able to stop the heckling before it began. Not only did such an approach work at conferences, but it worked with critical students, as well.
Herein lies the issue for this year’s ACA/PCA conference presentation: how might NASCAR’s recently-developed “green” initiatives be explored amongst criticism that stock car racing is little more than a blatant misuse of natural resources? As people around the globe are being encouraged to reduce their “carbon footprint”, NASCAR races are celebrations of consumption – events centered on the use of gasoline, oil, and rubber, with little regard for the non-renewable nature of these materials. My paper this year will demonstrate that NASCAR is actually making great strides toward conservation and sustainability, primarily in hopes of earning younger and more environmentally-minded fans.
Ironically, as NASCAR plants trees in honor of green flags and builds LEED-certified structures (like NASCAR Plaza in uptown Charlotte), recent research demonstrates that younger Americans – those considered “Generation X” and “Millennials” – are actually less concerned about the environment than we believe. An online article published March 5th in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology concludes that, “the popular view of Millennials as more caring, community oriented, and politically engaged than previous generations … is largely incorrect.” The authors, analyzing data collected over the past forty years, found that “Saving the environment …. showed one of the largest declines.”
This seems difficult to believe, but it’s all-too true; the generation that brought us Earth Day has given way to the target audience for Jersey Shore.
So, is NASCAR trying to reach a demographic that doesn’t even exist? Does requiring the use of self-venting dump cans and electronic fuel injection in the Sprint Cup Series amount to a muffled cry in the wilderness? Is Pocono Raceway’s construction of an award-winning solar farm – capable of producing enough electricity to power nearly 1000 homes – receiving more apathy than acclaim? Will Valvoline’s production (and marketing) of recycled NextGen motor oil get young people thinking more about a cleaner environment than what’s on television tonight? To borrow a seasonally-appropriate analogy: does NASCAR putting its racing eggs in an eco-friendly basket mean more support (and larger crowds) from fans? Have Brian France and friends misidentified (as in Carrot Top’s 2009 roast of Jimmie Johnson in Las Vegas) yet another can’t miss national trend?
I’m not sure how this topic will be received by the folks in Boston. Most of those in attendance will be globally-minded people who work directly with a collegiate audience. If today’s generation of young people is showing decreased concern for the environment, what does this say about the planet’s future? Agreeing over the existence of global warming is not the issue here; the issue seems to be if and/or how current destructive conditions can be improved. It’s that whole “if not for us, then for our children” idea. The ACA/PCA crowd, as I mentioned earlier, can be both critical and vocal, especially regarding subjects near-and-dear to their collective hearts.
NASCAR Nation, on the other hand, typically revolves around media-friendly drivers, supportive corporate sponsors, conservative values, and a smattering of liberal attitudes where-and-when necessary (did you catch the no. 88 Chevy at The White House this last weekend?). As such, my presentation this week will likely call for a healthy dose of driver references, some action-packed photographs, and attention to NASCAR’s ambitious efforts toward “greening” the environment without the overwhelming support of its potential, future fan base.
Looks like I’ll have to massage some rhetorical C-pillars this weekend, but not enough to have them removed and taken away. I don’t want to do anything that would be deemed “detrimental to the sport of stock car racing”….
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