Once a year, NASCAR fans can go to the track and step back in time.
When NASCAR returned the Labor Day weekend race to Darlington Raceway, the track and teams embraced the move by honoring the sport’s oldest speedway with a throwback theme. Teams adorned their cars with the colors of the past, even bringing crew uniforms reminiscent of NASCAR’s glory days to the party. Sponsors had changed, times had changed, but for a few days, the track was filled with cars that looked awfully familiar.
Darlington is a track rife with the ghosts of the sport’s past even without the throwback theme, and there isn’t a better time for what’s rapidly becoming one of the most fun traditions in NASCAR.
This weekend, fans will be treated to cars that look like those once driven by the likes of Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison and Dale Earnhardt. And so far, it’s been wildly popular with fans and teams alike. Even NASCAR’s souvenir sellers get in on the act, selling vintage t-shirts among the usual gear for current drivers. Fans can sport their ageless loyalty to Cale Yarborough and Davey Allison alongside Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Chase Elliott. The stands at Darlington have been full for the last couple of races since returning to the Labor Day tradition.
NASCAR fans still talk about the rides they liked best years later — the bright orange Tide ride, the black Miller beer machine (which makes its return this weekend), the blue-and-yellow Wrangler jeans car. A certain shade of blue will be forever Petty blue among fans (as it should; it adorns cars owned by Richard Petty today).
Sure, nostalgia plays a role. The days when the sport was simpler and purer still resonate with fans. Fans of most sports enjoy the memories they’ve built over the years. But in NASCAR, it goes a bit deeper.
Fans bought tide detergent and Miller beer because they were on the racecars they cheered for on Sundays. Race fans were coveted by companies for their brand loyalty, even if it was somewhat fickle if the brand switched to a driver or car make for which they didn’t pull. It was a way to market products directly to a consumer base that was a rapt audience for several hours a week. NASCAR was of value to companies of all sizes.
So what’s changed?
It’s complex. Of course the racing itself has changed dramatically. So has the way the races are brought to fans, with more tight angle camera shots and showy technology, which makes screen time a premium for many sponsors that got plenty of it in the past.
For fans, it also means that sponsors that were once relatable directly to them with products like laundry detergent, bluejeans and beer are fewer with each passing year. They’re being replaced with chemical companies, airplane manufacturers and others that market more to other corporations than to the average race fan. Most of the fans who watch on Sundays don’t buy airplanes and industrial solvents.
At the same time, those sponsors changed their demands on the drivers they backed. Instead of signing autographs at the souvenir rig on the weekend, they were whisked to the corporate suite to shake hands with company bigwigs and woo potential investors. Fans can’t relate to that. Fans remember the time they met a driver, sometimes a favorite, sometimes any driver, some of whom became favorites afterward.
Even though NASCAR prides itself on being a family-friendly sport, it’s hard for fans to get on board with drivers who retreat to their motorhomes as soon as possible after each practice and seemingly race harder to get to the airport after the race than they did to get to the checkered flag. It’s not that fans don’t thing the drivers deserve family time, it’s more that they think maybe they should get it during the week and spare an extra hour on the weekend, even if they’re not profiting from it financially. They’re not wrong.
However, the drivers not being as relatable as they once were isn’t the only problem. The sponsors being less relatable is one as well, maybe just as big if not a bigger one.
The problem is, the companies that appeal directly to fans have been largely priced out of the game. Few cars run with a single sponsor anymore. A revolving door of backers pays the bills, but it’s not a fan-friendly business model. Even a diehard fan is unlikely to buy five different t-shirts and buy five brands they might not actually need to support a driver.
It’s just another reason that the cost of the sport needs to be brought into line. Whether that’s through drastic cost-cutting measures, some kind of spending cap or a combination for things, NASCAR needs to find ways to make the sport more valuable to a variety of sponsors which appeal to fans.
The television partners must play a role as well. Fans can’t relate to drivers or sponsors they never see. The more inclusive broadcast used at Watkins Glen International earlier this month was well-received, indicative of a need to broaden what those at home are allowed to see.
For sure, NASCAR is less relatable to the average Joe than it once was. The cars look less and less like those on the showroom floor, the drivers are less blue-collar, or at least appear that way. But one of the biggest changes has been the ability of fans to relate to and use many sponsors’ products. It has a cascade effect: fans don’t buy products, sponsors leave, get replaced with a less-relatable product, and eventually the gap between the haves and have-nots in the game only gets wider.
Win on Sunday, sell on Monday doesn’t only apply to automobiles.