Professor of Speed: Afraid Of The Future

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 (Through The Managing Editor)”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/14345/

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