The Problem, Pt. 2 / by Thomas Martins

NASCAR is fighting a battle of perception. 

Long-time fans are disenfranchised. They feel like they’re losing their grip on a sport they love. It's hard to attract new fans to the sport. The stereotypes towards NASCAR are carved into American pop culture. So, how do you strike a balance of marketing the sport to new viewers while still staying loyal to your diehard fan base?

Stock car racing should be about action. Beating and banging. Tough racing on tough tracks with tough drivers. Guys like Waltrip, Petty, Yarborough, & the Allison’s set the precedent for what a NASCAR driver is supposed to be. Earnhardt became the most popular driver in the sport because of his hard charging, take no prisoners attitude. Even in the 90’s and early 2000’s, guys like Ricky Rudd, Bill Elliott, Terry Labonte, & Dale Jarrett looked, spoke, & acted the same as the fans that loved them so dearly. They were real people. Sponsors were drawn to NASCAR because they felt like the drivers and the sport connected to the average, hard working, middle class American.

Right now we can’t touch fenders without cutting down a tire. We drive racecars that are so aero dependent it restricts passing on most tracks. We’ve gotten rid of short tracks like Rockingham & North Wilkesboro on the NASCAR schedule because they were, “poorly attended,” and replaced them with indistinguishable tri-ovals that spread the fields out and reward equipment more than skill. The cars cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to research & build. Race shops look more like hospitals than garages.

Tell me what the average fan has in common with the NASCAR stars of today. The answer is not much. Drivers themselves mostly speak in PR jargon rather than actual sentences. And that’s nothing against them. They’re told to push their products and not say anything that would get them in trouble. I’ve met several of them. They’re normal people. But, they fly around on private jets. They speak at corporate functions. They live out of million dollar motor homes. They get wrecked, get out of the car, shrug their shoulders and walk away. It doesn’t matter as much to them as it used to. How could it? At the cup level, we have a bunch of millionaires driving for billionaires, and yet the sport relies on making money off the average Joe.

At the lower levels of Trucks & Xfinity, we allow kids to drive these racecars. No one wants to watch a bunch of 16-year olds race in NASCAR. And 18-year olds are still a stretch. Nobody likes hearing about young, successful people. They’re not relatable. People will watch one kid compete against the wily old vets, but an entire field of kids isn’t compelling. And how does that look for a national series? NASCAR has a Coors Light pole award and the kids can’t even take a picture with the beer. They don’t fight, and nobody can fight them. I can’t even yell at them without looking like a jackass. Even if they total my truck, what am I supposed to do? Assault a minor?

There’s a reason guys didn’t get into good rides until they were in their late 20’s or early 30’s. They had to pay their dues. They had to earn the right to be in a front running car at the highest levels of the sport. Guys would compete for years in sprint cars or late models before finally earning a break. Now kids buy rides and immediately take off to the front of the field. It’s not their fault! They want to be there, and the rules allow them to be there. But, no matter how humble, well spoken, or talented they are, it’s going to rub a lot of people (especially racers) the wrong way.

Fans aren’t stupid. They see all of this. They talk to me about all of this.

We’ve allowed a blue-collar sport, probably the most blue-collar sport in the history of America, to become entirely white collar at the highest level.

Fans aren’t skipping out on races because it costs too much. Sure, travel costs and hotel costs are more than they used to be, but that’s not the main reason. Attendance is down because they’re upset. They don’t recognize the sport they fell in love with, and everyone in the industry keeps telling them to just deal with it. Fans still care. They watch the races on television. They call in on NASCAR radio. They comment on websites. But they’ve stopped showing up to races and giving their hard-earned money to promoters, teams, & drivers that look like they clearly have enough already. 

When fans see the stands at less than half capacity, they’re getting confirmation that others feel the same way. Then they complain about the attendance because they’re scared. They think the sport they love is dying, and we’re not doing anything to change their minds. When sponsors see empty stands, frustrated fans, & the rising costs of getting into NASCAR racing, it’s no surprise that they stay away.

Look, the competition level is awesome. It’s closer than it’s ever been. There are more good drivers and teams than there’s ever been in the history of NASCAR. So think of how great it would be if we could cut the costs and allow more sponsors an opportunity to get on the side of a competitive NASCAR racecar. What if we could find a way to make NASCAR ownership a break even business without such a heavy dependency on sponsorship income? That would allow owners to retake power over their teams and select the drivers they thought would finish the best, not just the ones that brought money with them. What if kids could get into the lower levels of racing without having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to, “build their brand?” 

NASCAR is in limbo.

Rather than embracing the dedicated fans we do have, we’ve altered the course of the sport chasing after fans that might never develop an interest in NASCAR racing. NASCAR is the premier motorsport in the United States. It isn’t even close from a numbers standpoint. So why does it feel like we’re struggling to find an identity?

We’ve changed rules to promote better, safer racing. We created the lucky dog rule. It’s a good rule. We moved to double file, shootout style restarts, which has been awesome. But, we’ve also created the restart box rule, which is dumb, and overtime rules that are even dumber. We change the format of our all-star race & shootout every single year. There seems to be a rule change every month in the season.

Sometimes we can’t leave well enough alone. Sometimes we talk out of both sides of our mouth.

The chase is an example of that. I think it’s a cool concept. The new chase format is much better than the original format. But the way it’s described is completely ridiculous. The pitch from NASCAR is, “we’re not like any other sport. We’re NASCAR. We’re racing,” but yet we’ve changed the championship format to make it more like other sports. Well, which is it?

We’ve got a start/finish line that doesn’t start or finish the race anymore. The flagperson has to wait until the leader goes inside the restart box to even be able to wave the green flag. Why even have a flagperson at this point? Why not just have a light? If there’s a caution, we don’t even race back to the line on the last lap. We routinely rob the fans that actually do show up to the racetrack of the most exciting thing in the whole sport – a close finish!  And good luck trying to explain the three overtime attempts/overtime line rules to someone that doesn’t know racing. Or why Cup drivers and teams are allowed to compete in the Xfinity & Truck Series. If you try to make the major leagues/minor leagues comparison then you’re stuck trying to explain why Albert Pujols would need to smash more homers in AAA. It’s absurd.

The whole sport is a contradiction. We want to have drivers fight and promote crashes on commercials, but also be safe and not race back to the line. We want drivers to speak their minds but also not upset sponsors. We want the Xfinity & Truck Series to develop new stars, but we let Cup teams & drivers compete in them & steal the spotlight. We have a 36-race schedule but run several of the tracks twice, something no other pro racing series does.

Until we find that new identity, we’re going to be stuck in purgatory as a league and a brand.

One of the worst things NASCAR ever did was let Will Ferrell make the movie Talladega Nights. It was a hilarious movie. It’s one of my favorites. But it gave an entire generation of people the impression that NASCAR is a redneck, no talent, joke of a sport. It took a stereotype many people had towards us and cemented it as fact. As I just covered, nothing could be further from the truth.

NASCAR drivers aren’t stupid. We’re well spoken, brand ambassadors. NASCAR fans aren’t stupid. We have fans from every different background & socioeconomic level. NASCAR isn’t easy. It’s not driving around in circles for hours. It’s hard as hell to drive one of these cars at a high level.

But we need to stop trying to counteract the stereotypes by promoting drivers & pit crews as athletes. That’s not the answer.

I hate that debate. We’re not athletes! Driving a racecar doesn’t make me an athlete. Changing a tire on pit road doesn't make someone an athlete. We’re daredevils. Which is infinitely more interesting! A marathon runner is an athlete, but there’s nothing interesting about watching a marathon. A weightlifter is an athlete, but people aren’t packing the stands to watch people bench press.

Rallycross gets it. Drifting gets it. They don’t promote Ken Block or Vaughn Gittin Jr. as athletes. They promote them as lunatics! They slide their cars around on YouTube videos. They do jumps during races. They bang into each other. They tear each other up. Their races are shorter, but action packed. Their disciplines translate better to highlight reels, pictures, & video clips. All of this happens at roughly half the speed of NASCAR racing. 

NASCAR isn’t an action sport. It’s THE action sport!

I slid a truck sideways at Pocono at 150 mph, an inch away from another truck. That’s crazy! Three guys crashed right in front of me at over 100 mph and I had to weave through it! That doesn’t make me an athlete. That makes me an idiot! Why else would I put myself in those situations? But people love to watch idiots like us do crazy stuff like that. Fans want to see us push the boundaries of what a person and a racecar can do together. That will never stop being entertaining to every type of person in the world.

I wanted to be a racecar driver because I thought it was cool. I’m a showboat, by nature. Racing gave me an outlet to show off in a car in front of other people. I thought I’d be good at it, and I am. Also, I was right. It is cool. Going 190 mph in a car is always going to be cool. That part hasn’t changed. Everything surrounding it has.

We’ve got to stop confusing people and changing what made the sport so popular. We’ve got some of the best drivers & best racing in the world. We need to make it simpler to follow, change some of the ways we cover and market the sport, and give new and old fans a better way to connect with the people they see on the racetrack. We need to correct the balance between money and talent is crushing a sport that I fell in love with, and still love deeply to this day.

NASCAR has some problems, sure. But no other sport can match the speed, danger, drama, passion, & excitement you get from a NASCAR race. At its core, I think it’s still the greatest sport in the world. 

We need to start giving people more reasons to believe that’s true.