Whispers and wails of change in NASCAR are everywhere in the air. There’s no shelter from the winds of change to those within the sport, and truth be told, they have blown ceaselessly for a long time now. But what if the sport isn’t the only thing that has changed? Our world has changed, our culture has shifted. But what if we’ve changed, too? And what if racing has changed us?
We — a collective “we” made of race fans, media and those within the sport — speak a lot of the changes in NASCAR in recent years. But such talk is largely dissatisfying. It’s a relief, maybe, to be heard by others who see it, too, and to hear them saying the same things you were hoping you hadn’t just imagined. This started as an exploration of exactly what has changed, but along the way, it became apparent that part of the answer was me. Part of the answer was all of us. You read about my evolution in Part I and how racing shaped seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson in Part II. Now, in Part III, a closer look at what draws people to the sport, why they stay despite the changes … and how racing has changed them forever.
It all, really, comes down to this. The stands aren’t as full as they once were, but they still come to see the show. They feel the swell in their chest as the engines roar to life and the thrill when they blow by at speed, pouring into the turns like so much water. They make NASCAR; they are NASCAR.
But how did they get to that point? Were they born into a family of race fans, or did the cars simply speak to them? Why racing?
I spoke with a few race fans this fall, along with longtime columnist and resident Frontstretch curmudgeon Matt McLaughlin, about the sport and how they came into it. I’ve long held the belief that most fans become fans because someone in their life is a fan and that people don’t just sit down and watch a race and fall in love at first sight (ironically, the latter is exactly how it happened for me).
This group leans that way, but it wasn’t unanimous.
Mark, Shannon and Adam say it was because of a family member who raced or loved racing.
“My grandfather raced amateur dirt-track races up and down the East Coast in the 1950s (he took it up as a hobby after serving in WWII), and he introduced me to NASCAR when I was about three years old in 2001,” Adam explains. “I don’t think I started actively watching until 2002, but I became a huge Jeff Gordon fan (my grandfather liked him and I liked that amazing DuPont Flames scheme). I watched on and off for years but kept up with it, going to Richmond [Raceway] every so often.”
Mark adds, “My father is the biggest influence on my love of racing. He yearly went to a race at Michigan International Speedway and the Brickyard, sometimes at Bristol [Motor Speedway] too. He had a subscription to Winston Cup Scene, and I typically snagged it before he got home from work to read it. When I was a little kid, I dressed as Terry Labonte for Halloween.”
Zach came to the sport as a youngster as well, but not through a family member.
“Interestingly, my racing fandom didn’t come through my family or even my friends,” Zach said. “My parents/extended family weren’t and really still aren’t actually race fans. Instead, I was first exposed to NASCAR in a very different and unique way. I grew up only a stone’s throw from Charlotte Motor Speedway, so whenever NASCAR was in town, I became infatuated with the roar of the horsepower that came rolling across the North Carolina hills. When I was maybe six or seven years old, my school took a field trip to the track, and they took our school buses around the apron. They later took us up into the stands to watch some cars go around the track in what I believe was a test session. I remember a car, who I later believe may have been David Stremme in the No. 40 car, crashed in turn one right in front of us. From then I was hooked.”
Change has come often to NASCAR in the 21stCentury; some say too quickly. It suddenly wasn’t like it used to be. The rules changed, the cars changed and the fanbase changed, too.
McLaughlin, who’s been an observer of the sport for decades, echoes the change in the fans, “Let me preface my comments by saying that I’ve been a stock car racing (note, NOT NASCAR) fan for over four decades. I was a bit of an anomaly in the early days, as I was a resident of first New Jersey, then New York, then Pennsylvania. A stone cold Yankee where the sport set its roots in the lush soil of the Southland.
“As such back in those days and even into the late 80’s a lot of people made assumptions about you if you revealed yourself as a NASCAR fan. They thought likely you weren’t too bright. Likely you weren’t very well off and you might live in a trailer home with whitewalls. Your family tree looked more like a flagpole. No, you probably weren’t very bright but you almost certainly were racist. We were the “Deplorables” before there were deplorables. That NASCAR belt buckle drew the same response from some quarters the Stars and Bars do today.”
Shannon agrees. “I went to the stereotypical New England prep school in the 1990’s. ‘NASCAR’ was either a foreign language or a dirty word there.”
When NASCAR gripped the nation in the late 1990s, that changed. Suddenly, everyone loved NASCAR and was eager to talk about it at the water cooler Monday morning.
“If nothing else, NASCAR is certainly a more inclusive sport these days,” says McLaughlin. “No one has even commented on how this Yankee boy sure does talk funny since the mid-90s. I’d say that female fans now make up about half of all race fans, and there are women who work at the shops and in the pits. Minorities are still underrepresented within the sport, especially when it comes to drivers and team owners, but their presence is certainly more noticeable upon pit road, around the track and in the grandstands. You’re no longer necessarily a redneck just for being a race fan, though of course you are free to be a redneck if you choose, as long as you’re not a racist race fan.”
McLaughlin continues, noting that the cars themselves have undergone a drastic metamorphosis.
“On the competition side of things, racing back in days of yore depended more on mechanical grip than aerodynamic grip, though aerodynamics always played a role,” McLaughlin said. “Witness the fastback 1963.5 Ford Galaxie and the outrageous Dodge Daytona and Plymouth Superbird. I truly believe that great strides could be made in improving racing by going back to bias-ply (as opposed to radial) tires that give up significant grip over the course of a fuel run. No, none of us have bias-ply tires on our cars anymore. Nor do we replace the tires on our SUVs every 75 miles. When aerodynamics decide how much grip race cars have, aerodynamics ugly little sister “the dreaded aero push” show up in the sandbox as well.”
That’s the heart of the matter, when you get down to it. The cars are different. They race differently. Street cars have changed as drastically, as well. And as the cars have changed, so has our collective love of cars. Cars were once designed to be beautiful, fast and often both. “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” worked because people loved cars and wanted one that they could be proud of. Now, they’re functional, getting people indifferently from here to there with little thought to aesthetics or any inner fantasy.
But that influx of race fans? According to some, that was part of the problem. The changes started, and they kept on coming.
“With acceptance of stock car racing as a legitimate sport and even a big business, there were some unwelcome changes,” McLaughlin said. “It was very analogous to my other lifetime obsession, the Grateful Dead. People made a lot of assumptions about Deadheads too. That was cool with us. We were grinning ear to ear just like race fans, feeling like we were in on the world’s best secret, and if you wanted to turn up your noses at us, hey, it just meant it was still easy to get tickets and we saw the same cast of characters all the time. When the newcomers started catching on, of course we welcomed them. Welcome to the big show. Hang on. I think you’re really going to dig this. Be it the Southern 500 or the band at the Philly Spectrum, we did have certain codes and customs we adhered to, and newcomers were urged to play along. And then all of a sudden, they were us. Especially on the racing side of the equation, “the Man” started catering to a more well-heeled and hipper crowd. They priced us right out of our seats. They took races from North Wilkesboro and Rockingham and moved them to New Hampshire and Southern California. Perhaps the biggest unmitigated disaster in the sport’s checkered history was NASCAR’s Night In Hollywood presented by Brian France.”
“NASCAR did a lot of things to engage the newer fans,” says Shannon. “The thing is, none of those things were necessary. The huge rise in popularity had already happened when most of the changes came along: the playoffs, the other little gimmicks. We never needed those to make a good race. It seems like the thicker the rule book has gotten, the more it negatively affects the racing.”
But there’s a schism here. Some fans see many of those little things as positives.
“One of the best changes NASCAR has made in terms of the racing itself is double-file restarts with the ability to regain a lap with either the lucky dog recipient or the wave-around rule,” Mark says. “I recall the days when with more than 10 laps to go, restarts would have the leader on the outside line & the top lapped car would line up on the inside. In hindsight, it was problematic and robbed fans of better racing among the leaders. Double-file restarts allow drivers the ability to push each other for positions.
“The lucky dog award was a beautiful creation because it rewarded the first driver at least one lap down. If that driver dealt with an ill-handling car, the lucky dog allowed that driver the chance to return to the lead lap while his team had the opportunity to adjust his car. The lucky dog forgave drivers for making mistakes such as a pit road penalty or gave the team a slight reprieve for repairing the car. The wave-arounds add an additional element to pit road strategy. With stages, teams can roll the dice to gain one of their laps back. It increases the possibility of more drivers on the lead lap, which is intended to produce better racing.”
The fan base, or a portion of it, has been vocal about their disenchantment. So much has changed. Some openly question why they even bother any more.
And what of the drivers? Those speedy heroes fans cheered for or against that were brought into their homes not only during race broadcasts but in countless commercials and racing shows, not to mention on their everyday products like detergent and soda cans — they were everywhere. And fans felt like they knew them almost personally, the heroes and the villains were all part of some incongruous clique.
But drivers are presented differently these days. Their Sunday mornings are often spent in a corporate suite instead of meeting with fans. They aren’t everywhere, and the commercials aren’t as much fun. They don’t feel like family anymore. And as drivers move on, fans have to make a choice: pick up the pieces and pull for someone new or lose that connection to the sport.
“One of my friends was a huge Jeff Gordon fan, and, while he still enjoys the sport and is still invested in it, he watches it a bit more passively now. Another two were huge Dale Jr. fans, but even after he retired, they had other drivers to root for,” noted Adam. “Nothing against the drivers of today, but take a look at the 2000s and early-to-mid 2010s — dynamic personalities and longtime racers like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Jr., Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth all walked the garages. Yes, this sort of a changing of the guard, but I just think the departure of those staples just started to lose the interest of the general fanbase.”
Zach adds, “NASCAR has always been driven by personality. Guys like Junior Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace and Tony Stewart all had unique and vivacious personalities that attracted fans to the sport. While I don’t want to douse on the current flock of drivers, but I think NASCAR’s personalities have become stagnant, especially with the retirements of guys like Jeff Gordon, Dale Jr. and Stewart. Yet, I think the bigger reason for the loss of viewership is change. I run into people all the time who are ‘former’ NASCAR fans. I often ask them why they consider themselves ‘former’ fans. I get answers all over the place such as they don’t like the ‘Chase’ or they didn’t like the COT car or in a more serious sense, their hero was killed in 2001.”
It’s not just NASCAR that’s changed, though, and it’s not entirely fair to pretend that it is. People change too.
“Part of what made NASCAR so much fun was going with my friends. We had a group of us that would go all weekend and take it all in. We’d watch all the practices and qualifying — everything. We people-watched and shopped at the haulers and got autographs. It was a special experience,” Shannon remembers now. “But we all got older. A couple people got married and had kids. Jobs get in the way. A couple moved away. Life happened. And it’s not as much fun to go to a race without them. It’s not the same experience. I still love the racing, but I miss sharing it with our group.”
So, as the engines drone on and the seasons grind from one venue to the next, why keep watching? Why do fans, even those who say they don’t watch any more, still care enough to read about racing and talk about racing? Why stay?
McLaughlin says this: “After all these decades, I guess I’m like a fire horse put out to pasture hearing the fire-bell and heading to the station full gallop. Sunday afternoon’s at 1 p.m., my head snaps towards the TV and starts looking for the race — which is rarely or never actually on at 1 p.m. anymore. Every once in a great while there’s still a great race, and if it happens this week, I don’t want to miss it. I may not be financially invested in the sport much anymore but I remain emotionally invested.”
“In a way, racing has been a part of my identity,” Mark explains. “As a kid, I played with Hot Wheels cars – 1/64 racing diecasts and any other 1/64 toy car I could get my hands on. I spent countless hours at our family’s cottage in the summer playing cars. Forget about coloring books or other forms of entertainment for me as a kid; I wanted my box of Matchbox cars. When I was in college and for a time afterwards, watching racing was comforting. If I had a long week, it soothed the soul – I knew racing. After my favorite driver Terry Labonte retired, I lacked a favorite driver, but thanks to Jayski, I stay updated about NASCAR.”
“Racing … was my first love,” says Adma simply.
“As much as I hate about it sometimes, I still love it more,” Shannon concludes.
“Racing hasn’t changed me, it has made me,” says Zach. “My weekends are scheduled around races. Now that is saying something. I am a typical 19-year-old college kid. Weekends can be some of the best times for a college kid. Yet for me, weekends are devoted to racing. I have become embraced in the local racing scenes. There is nothing like the atmosphere on a Friday or Saturday night at my two local tracks: Sharon Speedway and Mercer Raceway Park. It’s a culture. Yet, this sense of atmosphere transcends across all levels of motorsports. Whether it’s Sharon Speedway or Daytona, it’s all the same. A small handful of everyday men and women transform from everyday citizens to inspiring heroes when they strap into their racecars. Sure, there’s competition, but racing is a family.”
And right here is where it’s all clear. It isn’t just a fleeting interest for the real fans. It’s like a marriage: there are struggles, sometimes you almost want to end it, but just can’t. You come back time and again out of love. Because that love changes you, becomes a part of you — one that you can’t ignore. For all that NASCAR has changed, it’s changed us, too: the writer that I am, the person that Jimmie Johnson is, the fans who need it like air on Sunday. For the better.
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