Was it worth it?
A year later, was NASCAR’s condemnation and banishment of the Confederate flag on June 10, 2020 worth the short-term controversies, confusion and the “Defund NASCAR” banner seen flying over Talladega Superspeedway?
Was it worth alienating hard core fans in an effort to invite an audience of minorities that previously wouldn’t have given the sport the time of day?
In a tumultuous year, NASCAR became a safe harbor for them and something resembling a family.
But their stories are still just anecdotal.
Evidence of how NASCAR’s embracing of the #BlackLivesMatter movement at a critical time for the country can be found in cold, hard numbers.
Albeit, numbers provided by NASCAR.
At the end of 2020, the social listening tool Zoomph came to NASCAR with some of those numbers.
It told NASCAR that between the 2020 Daytona 500 and 2021 Daytona 500, it measured a 19% increase in NASCAR’s Gen Z and millennial audience on social media.
“They’re like, ‘That’s pretty staggering for any brand to see that much kind of growth in a defined time period,'” NASCAR Chief Marketing Officer Pete Jung told Frontstretch this week. “An old person, like me, like a Gen X, that was flat, basically. If you looked at other sports properties, they just didn’t see that much of a gain. … So a lot of our growth is just coming from younger (groups), and just by virtue of younger, your propensity to be multicultural is significantly greater than older demographics.”
Stats provided to NASCAR by the custom brand tracking study at Directions Research in October 2020 backed that up.
The study, which tracked the U.S. population and those who consider themselves to be a NASCAR fans, determined that newer NASCAR fans are more ethnically diverse. Of new fans to the sport in the last three years, 23% are Hispanic, 17% Black and 10% Asian or Pacific Islander.
That adds up to 50%.
The study also measured how that audience perceived NASCAR taking a stance on social justice issues in 2020.
The zero- to three-year fans surveyed were eight times more likely (than unlikely) to say NASCAR’s stance on social justice improved their opinion of NASCAR.
Further evidence of NASCAR’s footing with potential Gen Z fans came from Morning Consult.
In 2020, the market research company found that among Gen Z, NASCAR was ninth among the 20 fastest growing brands for the group.
In January 2020, NASCAR polled at 13%. By November, it was at 21% for an increase of 7.9. That rate of growth, not the overall number, was better than brands like Pepsi, ABC, United Airlines and Snapchat.
During a year gripped by a pandemic, Bubba Wallace’s sponsor DoorDash went from 33% to 43% among Gen Z for its fourth-fastest-growing brand. It went from 33% to 41% among millennials, that group’s seventh-fastest-growing brand.
It’s information like this that likely makes officials like president Steve Phelps comfortable with the decisions made by NASCAR last June and in the year since.
“Like any brand, any franchise out there, if you’re not getting new people into the franchise, particularly young people in this case, your brand is going to die,” Phelps said in April when NASCAR announced a new partnership with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. “I think what you’ve seen in NASCAR over the last year, based on some of the stances that NASCAR has taken, the diversity, equity, inclusion space, young people want to participate in this sport.
“It’s not that we didn’t have efforts before. We’ve had a lot of efforts in youth. But I think as we’ve opened up, as I kind of think about the lens of this, to include people of color, younger people who really probably didn’t think that NASCAR was for them. I think now you see that this is for them.”
Phelps said he believes the banning of the Confederate flag “opened things up” and “changed our sport and the face of our sport forever.”
“I’ve had the opportunity to speak to athletes, celebrities, regular people about the banning of the flag,” Phelps said. “Really the common theme was, ‘I just didn’t think this sport was for me.’
“I guess intuitively I knew that, right, because you’re like, ‘It just doesn’t feel right for me.’ And now when you hear people talk about that saying, ‘I can’t wait to go to a race, it will be my first race,’ that to me, I think, is really exciting.
“I just think we are in a different place than we were. That part is fantastic. I think we were in a situation where the sport was growing in 2019 … but until the banning of that flag, it was really about just continuing to be where we were with the same group of people. I think the thing that’s most exciting for me is people understanding the NASCAR community in the sense of family and community that exists as part of NASCAR. I don’t think people saw that before.”
Consider what’s happened since June 10, 2020.
On June 16, Brandon Thompson was named NASCAR’s vp of diversity and inclusion, a brand new position meant to promote diversity throughout the industry. (Frontstretch will have an interview with Thompson on June 15.)
Two of the newest Cup Series teams, 23XI Racing and Trackhouse Racing Team, are co-owned by NBA legend Michael Jordan and international music star Pitbull, respectively.
Last August, Nashville Superspeedway – which will host its first Cup race on June 20 – appointed Erik Moses as the first Black track president in NASCAR history.
In February, Toni Breidinger became the first woman Arab-American driver in NASCAR by competing in the ARCA Menards Series.
On April 14, NASCAR announced partnerships with multiple social groups, including the Urban Youth Racing School, the Trevor Project (dedicated to suicide prevention efforts among LGBTQ youth), the Women’s Sports Foundation and UnidosUS.
Six days later, NASCAR was silent when Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd while most other sports leagues made note of it. But on May 25, one year after Floyd’s death, it made sure to honor him.
This month alone has seen moments that may not have taken place 14 months ago.
On June 1, NASCAR commemorated its partnership with the Trevor Project as part of Pride Month.
NASCAR is proud to support the important work of @TrevorProject this month and all year long.
If you're struggling right now, remember that you're not alone. The Trevor Project is always here to help LGBTQ young people. For more information: https://t.co/MlCZsV6BWy#PrideMonth pic.twitter.com/NfoaubObUn
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) June 1, 2021
On June 6, it backed that up showing its support of the CommUNITY Rainbow Run, which celebrates inclusion and honors the lives taken in the Pulse Nightclub shooting on June 12, 2016.
On June 2, when the iRacing Pro Invitational Series held an event on the virtual streets of Chicago, Austin Dillon’s No. 3 car was sponsored by the LGBTQ+ employee networks at Dow.
Partnership & collaboration are driving us toward a more diverse, inclusive, and equal world.
Catch @austindillon3 tonight at 7PM EST on @FS1 in the #Pride-themed @RCRracing No. 3 Dow Chevrolet – race sponsored by LGBTQ+ employee networks at Dow & @GM. #ShareYourPride #DowProud pic.twitter.com/sv0HjSSqve
— Dow (@DowNewsroom) June 2, 2021
Last weekend at Sonoma Raceway, Alex Bowman‘s No. 48 Ally Chevrolet had a decal commemorating Pride Month.
— Ally Racing (@allyracing) June 6, 2021
Trackhouse’s No. 99 Chevrolet also had a decal of note. It honored the lives of the 215 Indigenous children whose bodies were discovered in a mass grave in Canada last month.
Racing in @NASCAR is an incredible privilege. Its important to recognize and bring awareness to those that don't have these opportunities. Today we recognize the 215 Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation souls lost in Canada. pic.twitter.com/2kjGs2pTNZ
— Justin Marks (@JustinMarksDG) June 6, 2021
In April, in the wake of the police shooting of Adam Toledo in Chicago, Wallace expressed that he was “proud” of the efforts made by NASCAR toward social justice and inclusion.
“Showing those efforts is big and we can’t stop, we’re not stopping. We’re not letting off the gas or anything,” Wallace said. “This is a never-ending battle, as we see each and every day, but we’ll try to do our part. And hopefully, one day society will wake up and treat each other with respect.”
For Phelps, the sanctioning body’s efforts toward inclusion that would make it feel like a safe place “needed to start at home, it needed to start with us.”
That has included efforts to diversify NASCAR’s workforce, plus sensitivity training, unconscious bias training, as well as employee resource groups and a diversity council.
“We’re not done,” Phelps said. “This is a journey that we’re on. It really is about action.
“I know there have been a lot of folks, a lot of different organizations that put out press releases when something terrible happens. We are not going to be about press releases, we’re going to be about action. Everything we do in this space is going to be about action.”
This story is the last in a five-part series looking back at the events of summer 2020 and examining their impact on NASCAR a year later.
A supplemental piece will be published on June 15 on Brandon Thompson, NASCAR’s vp of diversity and inclusion.
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About the author
Daniel McFadin is a 7-year veteran of the NASCAR media corp. He wrote for NBC Sports from 2015 to October 2020. He's currently a freelancer and lead reporter and editor for Frontstretch. He is also host of the NASCAR show "Dropping the Hammer with Daniel McFadin" on YouTube and in podcast form.
You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.