Last week the ground shook beneath our feet as Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced his intended retirement from driving in the Monster Energy series. The last time Junior Nation suffered such as system shock their favorite driver in the whole wide world announced he would trade in his DEI No. 8 for a Chevrolet in the Hendrick Motorsports stable. Funny enough, we all managed to work our way past that particular trauma. But will we this time?
I’m not asking the question for the sport, as after careful consideration over the past week it’s clear that there’s a large collection of young drivers ready and able to carry on the tradition of chasing one another in circles on Sunday afternoon. Rather I’m concerned about those that call themselves Junior fans. Where will their adoration turn to, or will it simply vanish?
After all, legions of fans have lost their favorites over the past three years as Gordon, Stewart, and Carl Edwards all traded in their Cup steering wheels for a change of pace and lifestyle. When scheduling annual sporting events, the fact that the singular reason for drawing them to the track was no longer on the entry list, many fans chose to skip attending the next race at their regional NASCAR venue leaving vast stretches of the grandstands gleaming under the sun. And with the Earnhardt name still driving T-shirt sales, eating up a whopping 20% of the total souvenir dollars trackside, we’ve got to believe that there will be even more empty seats in the 2018 season.
However, something curious did surface during the social media explosion after Junior’s retirement announcement. Not only did his fans comment on the moment, so too did the rest of NASCAR Nation. It seems there is a large, knowledgeable, and dedicated group of fans who are eager to talk about racing, without including the legendary names of Gordon and Earnhardt in the mix. While I chatted with many who witnessed the sport grow through the 90’s and early years of the 21st century, even more surfaced who are more recently come to the sport.
It could be that those driving the negative discussion of the sport just might be those that still haven’t managed to look beyond the glory days of the sport. Perhaps NASCAR simply hasn’t managed to connect with this newer breed of racing fan, instead of the other option where the new and younger fan doesn’t actually exist.
There’s no doubt that our sport is undergoing a metamorphosis of sorts with the new segments, points, and ever evolving points systems. I guess the face of the NASCAR fan may be altering as well. Instead of spending Sunday’s camped on the couch, perhaps they are running about town plugged into their sport through other mediums. I know I do not watch the races as I used to, but am willing to “watch” through my Twitter feed or Facebook posts while visiting with family and friends.
The loss of Dale Jr. does herald the end of something grand in NASCAR, but it won’t be the end of stock car racing. It perhaps creates a greater opportunity for the next generation to make their own stamp on a sport that so often seems to get mired in the past.
Joey Logano didn’t have to fight off the elder statesmen of our sport as he raced to the checkers, but rather fought off Keselowski who clearly belongs to the younger set driving the future. While NASCAR Nation has been waving goodbye to their old friends, the new ones have been busy growing into those big shoes.
Now it’s our turn, for all of the fans to stand up and start making noise for the next generation of stock car stars. After all, with all those empty seats in the grandstand there’s plenty of room for a new class of fresh faces pulling for all those young guns in the field.
What will the next great fan nation be known as? Blaney’s Bridgade? Larson’s Loyal Crew? It’s really up to you.
Something Not So Shiny
This week Sam Bass, the legendary graphic artist known for his ability to create memorable racing art on cars, helmets, and in print, made a public announcement. After a lengthy battle with diabetes and the long term effects of the economic crash in 2008, his company is entering bankruptcy, which will result in an auction of his historic collection of artwork. I hope he will manage to recover from all his challenges and continue to create new designs for NASCAR in the future.
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