(Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

Holding A Pretty Wheel: Why Fans Are Fans & the Error of NASCAR’s Ways

Why do fans become fans? That’s an important question and one that’s important to ask. Why do people follow NASCAR (or any form of motorsports) and why do they stick around for the long haul?

NASCAR (and if you check out this week’s Open Wheel Wednesday and Nitro Shots, you’ll see they’re not alone in this) spends a huge amount of time and effort trying to lure fans of other sports into the fold. To this end, the sanctioning body has worked overtime in trying to make NASCAR more like the sports whose fans it so desperately wants.   There’s even a playoff system – just like the other sports, right?

Except that’s not really how it works.

Sports fans are, by and large, born and raised that way. People tend to gravitate toward the same sports (and often teams) that other generations in their families chose to follow before them. Fans are brought into the fold in childhood, bonding with family and friends through the games and sports they enjoy together.

It’s not about shiny advertisements or promotions or peanuts and popcorn. It’s about so much more. It’s about fathers and sons and grandfathers and granddaughters and aunts and brothers. It’s about bonding and sharing. It’s about who we are.

I grew up a baseball fan, like my father and my grandfather. I understood the infield fly rule before I understood boys. I could score a game in middle school (and often did for our school team). Before my bedroom walls were taken over by the trappings of a teenager, my Carl Yastrzemski poster had the place of honor over my bed. For that matter, I could spell Yastrzemski. I lived for trips to Fenway Park.

2015 Texas I CUP green flag credit NASCAR via Getty Images
Amy Henderson says that NASCAR needs to work on cultivating long-time fans instead of chasing casual fans with short attention spans (Credit: NASCAR via Getty Images).

I might have come to know the sport in other ways. I might have turned on a game and fallen in love with the way it was played. Some people do. But it’s more likely that my interest would have been passing, my knowledge of the sport rudimentary, the love affair fleeting, at best. But because it was something I shared with my father, I came to love and understand the game in a deeper way. There were other sports, too, growing up; Wide World of Sports was a household staple, with both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

I think this is closer to how the majority of sports fans come to love their game than NASCAR understands. And because NASCAR doesn’t understand, it continues to go about things the wrong way.

Instead of finding ways to keep the longtime fans coming and bringing the next generation (and yes, building that generation takes time), NASCAR seems to prefer focusing its (relatively fruitless) efforts on luring fans of other sports to the track. And while it might work in the short term, as it did in the late 1990s and early 2000s, long term, too many of those fans, casual at best, will move on. They might bring their family to a race once a year, but they won’t teach them about the sport’s rich history, probably because they don’t know much of it themselves. So, while attracting them makes sense now, it isn’t necessarily going to build a stable fan base 10 or 20 years from now.

Worse, NASCAR’s new breed of racing and playoffs made many of the longtime, second- or third-generation fans feel as though this just wasn’t their sport anymore. They saw no reason to keep coming and bringing the family, because they felt alienated and unwanted. Now, with the trendiness having long since lost its luster, NASCAR needs those fans… except they’re nowhere to be found.

Sports fans rarely become sports fans by accident. And sports aren’t just about the game to them. It’s a family tradition, a rite of passage. They share the games they love with generations before and after theirs and make them part of the fabric of their lives and worlds.

What that means for NASCAR is that casual fans will come and go. They’ll be attracted by the shiny package for a while, and a few of them will become diehard fans.

But what NASCAR must take care to do is to keep those diehard fans. They don’t need gimmicks and illusions to do that; they need a better product with a legitimate and understandable outcome.Fans need to be reminded of why they came in the first place, and why they need to keep coming, keep understanding, keep bringing the next generation of fans. That is what will assure NASCAR’s future.

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Amy is a 15-year veteran writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. Amy pens The Big 6 (Mondays) Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and Holding A Pretty Wheel (monthly - Fridays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits extend everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports.

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20 comments

  1. Avatar

    Many people in family and friends made the weekend race a religion, camping out, the whole ball of wax. My location makes that impossible and has for some time. They put up with everything out of joy and camaraderie and the love of NASCAR racing. How American and wonderful is that! One family member just said screw it and her and her entourage no longer make any sacrifice towards NASCAR, as NASCAR has not to them. One family member still goes to Daytona, but is still amazed at what the hell this company is doing. He incorporates that weekend with a vacation on the Florida coast. The others have said screw it all together. Brian France is in his bubble, look at the stands, that IS NOT the economy. And just noticed a press release that he would make an possible waiver for KYBU to participate in the Chase…does that not scream what is wrong with the management of this company??????????????????? Good article Amy!

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      C’mon, the possible waiver for Kyle, in Brian’s words speaks to the “beauty of the playoff system”. Yes, beautiful the same way a pothole is.
      Yet, the Chase and the disaster it is aside, the aspect of the sport that is killing it is the tracks. They could eliminate the Chase today and we are still stuck with all these 1.5 and 2 mile tracks.
      These days, NASCAR can’t put a race on said tracks without calling a bunch of timeouts under the guise of debris cautions to try and make it seem halfway appealing to someone. Not exactly a way to grow the sport or keep people that are invested in the sport interested in it.

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        I agree with you. Of course I said on twitter that NASCAR manipulates the races when it suits them and got blasted by the NASCAR media for it.

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          Gina24, I don’t have social media, but I get slammed all over the internet for something that is clear as the nose on your face. Scary, the world we live in. Common sense and the truth is considered wrong and uncouth. What a bubble they live in…that affects the sane folks…Sad times.

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          kb I hear you. and then we have the posters like Mike Herron above. He’s entitled to his opinion but I don’t get why it always has to come down to – if you don’t like it, watch “soccer” or whatever other sport/activity someone feels like naming. And of course, people who don’t hold the same view are “whining bitches”.

          Actually I’d just like to watch and enjoy the racing, too, but I can’t – at least not the way it is right now.

  2. Avatar

    You make some interesting points Amy. NASCAR just doesn’t get it. They have lost a generation now. The fans they should have cared about the most were the one’s they ignored in the name of trying to make more money. As many predicted they’ve lost more than they’ve gained in their efforts. Former diehard fans are either completely off the reservation or been turned to casual fans and there doesn’t seem to be new fans embracing the reality television show that bills itself as a sport.

    • Avatar

      Agree with your points, Amy and you as well, Bill. And as I’ve said pretty much every time I’ve posted on this topic, I am done with it after November when Gordon climbs out of the 24 car.

      I’ve continued to follow NASCAR through all of its iterations and things that I consider to be stupid because Gordon was there and he has been the only driver I’ve ever followed. I’m tired of being frustrated with all of this.

      NASCAR “racing” as it currently exists doesn’t interest me enough to continue to waste my time and energy to follow another driver.

  3. Avatar

    I grew up when you could still play with your car. I loved fooling around with my friends trying to figure out how to make this carb work with that engine. What drew me to NASCAR was fast sort of stock American cars. What is driving me away is the cars, all the other silliness I could live with if not embrace. I took a few years off when Toyota entered the series and a few more when Dodge left. The cars, now nearly identical except for the paint with nearly identical engines from the same few providers do not interest me anymore. Throw in the nearly identical (sorry your favorite driver name here) drivers and that they are more aero dependent than kites lessen my interest to the point of disinterest. The final straw for me might be the addition of restrictor plates at all tracks. A Shelby Mustang will now out accelerate your basic NASCAR vehicle. For me, all the storied NASCAR nonsense aside, the problem is a deadly dull product.

  4. Avatar

    Pretty much echo everything in the article and comments. One of the things that attracted me to the sport as a teen in the 70’s was the cars looking like the cars that were on the street. A Monte Carlo looked like a Monte Carlo. It didn’t have decal “lights”. It didn’t have a pretend grill. Sure the wheel wells were way larger for the way larger tires but the rest of it looked like a real car. Slowly, but surely, NASCAR started the front valence nonsense with it getting larger and closer to the ground until they really didn’t look like something out of the showroom. They then completely lost their minds when they went to the COT with a common template. The brilliant minds said that there was no brand loyalty so what did it matter? I’m actually shaking my head as I type.

    So, we have the sad situation of NASCAR chasing non-race fans and trying to convert them with a bunch of gimmicks instead of focusing on putting on good races at tracks that don’t give you an aero-push parade. A real race fan will only put up with so much before the fire dies down or goes out completely.

  5. Avatar

    Nice article, Amy and I agree very much with your points. My older brother was a “car guy” and worked on and pit crewed for a local racer in our area. Since I followed him everywhere, watching them work on the car, etc. well, it was a natural thing to do to follow racing.

    As you say, NASCAR, instead of making efforts to not alienate their existing fan base in order to bring in new ones has shot themselves in the foot. Yes, I’m one of the old school fans, I think a championship should be earned over the entire season, not by 1 win pretty much guaranteeing you a spot and then you can sit out of races or “test” for the rest of the season so long as you stay in the top whatever it is today in points. Oh yeah, now Kyle Busch will get a waiver for the chase even though he will be out for half the season – if he wins a race? Wow and I mean wow not in a good way at all. Just as for me having Newman win the “chase” when he ran as a mid pack car all season would have been totally worthless, well, letting a driver who has missed most of the season in thru a waiver and then has the potential to win the one race championship, would be just ridiculous.

    But oh well, its Brian’s stick and ball and we fans can just suck it up or go away. Funny thing when presented with that option, it seems that a lot of fans have chosen door #2 and gone away.

    Then there are the NASCAR media who just insist that EVERYTHING is wonderful and the fans who don’t think so are either stupid or delusional. How does it help keep people interested in the sport if the media insists that the fans are always wrong?

    I’ve been following racing for a lot of years, up until around 2007, I really enjoyed it, but my sense of enjoyment, as well as my interest, has waned since then mostly because of the inception of changes which in my opinion make NO sense and are just random things to try and attract fans who don’t care about racing but who MIGHT tune in for the few races leading up to Homestead. Of course so long as Brian keeps bringing lots of $$$ in from TV and wherever else to the France family coffers, well, that will keep them happy even if there are no fans in the stands or watching on TV.

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      I completely agree with your point about the lap dog racing press acting as if the fans are so stupid as to not recognize spin when they see it. I visit this site primarily for the commenters, viewing the PR articles as just a jumping off point for discussion. It is why I found this article so refreshing, and well, surprising. An honest assessment of the state of NASCAR today. I never saw that coming.

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        Amen, JohnQ. I’m often much more interested in the thoughts of you, GinaV24, Carl D. and the other regulars, than I am several of the columnists here or anywhere else. And it isn’t because we agree all the time, either (eh, Bill B?). Some folks’ work, like Ms. Henderson’s, I’ll read before jumping right to the bottom. Others, I’m here for what the unpaid peons like me have to say. With rapidly increasing frequency, the comments on this site have been more fun than the racing they attempt to discuss.

        And to head the Kool Aid crowd off at the pass, no, we don’t relish in tearing down the sport. That’s why we’re still here talking about it long after most of our friends are gone. But we also don’t blindly accept everything from Daytona Beach as gospel. Nor do we appreciate being told that we only complain when the drivers complain, and that we’d love everything if only the positive aspects were highlighted. Telling us to go away if we don’t like it has probably been the most effective thing the lapdog media has done. Look around. It’s working.

  6. Avatar

    I’ve thought the exact same for years, Amy. I got the racing bug from my Dad,as did most people,male and female. I’m now 78,raced myself back when,but My kids have had it with France’s folly,and are now casual fans instead of die-hards. The tv situation stinks,the chase is/was a joke,the tracks are ridiculous except for a few AND Brian is still in charge. R.I.P. Nascar

  7. Avatar

    Thank you, Amy! I think you’re spot on this. It is really sad that NASCAR doesn’t realize what is going wrong and we can’t expect change of direction in any foreseeable future. I don’t pity them, they don’t deserve it. But I pity thousands of hardcore fans (I’m not sure if I can be included into this number for my first season was 2002) who helplessly watch how they favorite pastime is slowly dying.

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      Ivan, even with your first season being 2002, you’ve been around long enough to see Unocal, Pontiac, Rockingham, Winston and Dodge all go away, at least two of them needlessly. You have some hardcore credibility.

  8. Avatar

    Excellent article, Amy, spot on. It’s easy to see why you win awards. Here’s my take:

    Memorial Day Weekend has always signified the start of summer to me, and, special memories of my Dad. He initiated me to the world of motorsports and always fostered my interest. He had a part-time job as a special policeman at Trenton Speedway, working the inside of turn one. In the late fifties & sixties, in the days before well equipped safety crews, if you crashed in turn one at Trenton, after he got you out of the smoking car, you got to meet my Dad. He mysteriously always came up with tickets to the races for my brothers and I, and would wave to us from time to time, somehow knowing right where our seats were. We did not find out until much later, going through his things after his death in 1968, that he’d worked all those days in trade for our seats. We joked about it then, if he wasn’t dead already, Mom would’ve killed him ;)

    Trenton Speedway was only a little over a mile from our house and we would skoot right over there on our bikes when we heard those engines whine. We had so many places to sneak into the track and unlike today, could get right up to the drivers. So when people ask me today, how come I like auto racing so much, I just tell them it goes back a long ways, a different time, when nobody I knew liked auto racing, except my brothers, and especially, my Dad.

    • Avatar

      Trenton was a neat Speedway indeed !!
      When last there back in the 70’s (I think) for the Trenton TWIN 200 – – A USAC sanctioned race –a 200 mller for the USAC Stock cars, followed by a 200 miler for the Indy Cars .
      Watched AJ race in both, and, then watched Johncock, Bigelow etc FLYIING around that track – – and after the Indy cars ran, helped Johnny Rutherford push his car, up the ramps, into his OPEN trailer, while is wife Betty, and my wife sat on the pit wall having a smoke and just talking – –
      They opened the gates again after the race so everyone could have access to the drivers, teams etc –
      I seem to recall the PRIME tickets were only like $16 bucks or so – – for a TWIN race event !! Fun times !!

  9. Avatar

    Unlike many hard core fans, I found NASCAR in Wide World of Sports in 15 minute segments. I can remember sitting thru interminable arm wrestling matches just to get a glimpse of a few laps of the race. For many years, my Sunday afternoons were dedicated to the races. I attended the Bristol night race for 7 years. The ‘Chase’ killed Bristol and my interest in any ‘championship. A ten race title was bad enough, now it’s a one race deal? No thanks. I occasionally catch parts of s race, but Sunday is no longer just for races. I almost feel as if a family member has died.

  10. Avatar

    I’ve been following this sport since 1962. Went to my first race at the Firecracker 400 in 1964. The sport and points systems have changed many times. I don’t care. I am more concerned about the racing. The Chace is fine and those that disagree have that right. Having grown up listening to races on the radio or the Wide World of Sports were a treat. Being able to watch a race from start to finish is outstanding. There are so many whiners that call themselves NASCAR fans that it is a bit disconcerting. NASCAR manipulates the racing. Really? I guess you have sat in race control and saw this happen. Don’t like Brian France? Tough. He is in charge. Bill Sr & Bill Jr are dead. You don’t like who is in charge? Watch soccer. If you can’tenjoy the racing why torment yourself? Do something else besides being whining bitches.

  11. Avatar

    Quite a dilemma isn’t it? By doing things to attract fans from other sports you risk alienating the long time fans. But if you don’t attract new fans the sport dies with the long time fans
    Yep quite a dilemma.