The Pettys, the Earnhardts, and the Future of NASCAR
Many Americans start to anticipate spring on February 2, when Punxsutawney Phil decides if the country will endure six more weeks of winter. For many southerners, however, contemplation of spring begins in earnest a few weeks later in February, on the Sunday that the Daytona 500 kicks off the NASCAR season.
The Daytona 500, historically important in the stock car circuit, became even more significant on February 18, 2001, when racing legend Dale Earnhardt died in the final moments of the race and turned the Daytona International Speedway into a shrine. Like the old cliché about people’s remembering where they were when JFK died and the Twin Towers fell, NASCAR fans can tell you what they were doing when the Intimidator slammed into the wall at Turn 4. (Many were at the track watching the tragedy unfold in real time.)
Despite the crash, several positive changes occurred after Dale Sr.’s death. Safety regulations and procedures improved, so no driver has died in a NASCAR race since 2001. Also, the media hype around the crash brought a whole new group of fans and racers into NASCAR nation, which had been dominated primarily by drivers from the South and Midwest. In the year after the tragedy, superstars Kasey Kahne from Washington state and Jimmie Johnson from California entered the sport at the elite level. Granted, a few “outsiders” like California’s Jeff Gordon had major success in the sport before 2001, but the South’s dominance went largely unchallenged for decades.
Auto racing has come a long way since Prohibition-era bootleggers took pleasure in driving fast cars to evade the authorities on twisting southern back roads. Most recently, though, NASCAR has been in a slump. Ticket sales are sluggish, and attendance has declined significantly since the sport’s heyday right after Dale Sr.’s death. Even though Dale Jr., the Intimidator’s son, has a huge following, the sport has lost a great deal of its appeal. Here are a few reasons:
1. Economic Realities Have Impacted the Sport: Along with the increasing popularity of racing came higher ticket prices. Certainly, advertising revenue poured in, but many drivers were becoming mega-celebrities with an expectation to reap huge financial rewards. And they did. In 2016 alone, Forbes magazine estimates that seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson earned 22 million from racing and endorsements. Amazingly, Johnson’s eight-figure paycheck came in a year he did not win the championship. Even non-winning drivers command hefty earnings, either through endorsements or corporate ownership. Danica Patrick, running in the main NASCAR championship races since 2013, earned 13.4 million in 2016 despite only a career-best eighth place finish her rookie year. Product endorsement has been her gold mine. Tony Stewart, co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, earned 12.8 million last year. Likewise, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who sat out a good portion of the 2016 season with a concussion, was the highest paid NASCAR driver of the year, raking in 23.5 million from corporate ownership, salary, and endorsements.
NASCAR’s fan base was willing to absorb the ticket costs when the economy was doing well. However, after the 2008 economic downturn, fewer and fewer of those fans—largely working-class people—could afford traveling to the racing venues, staying in hotels or in motor homes parked in the infield, and paying exorbitant prices for concessions. Trying to be responsive to these concerns, NASCAR has made a token effort to be proactive and lower the costs for attendance. At yesterday’s Daytona race, for instance, a combo of four hotdogs costs $10. A hotdog for $2.50 is a much better deal than the $4.00 -a-dog price in 2008, but cheaper food just may not be enough to bring back the crowds.
2. Attempts to Diversify the Sport Have Been a Dud: NASCAR sort of glommed on to feminism in 2013 when it signed Danica Patrick, former Indycar and Nationwide Series racer, to drive in the championship series. Patrick initially showed promise when she won the pole position for the 2013 Daytona 500 and finished eighth overall in the race. Unfortunately, her racing career has been less-than-mediocre since then. She rarely finishes in the top twenty and makes more money from endorsements than from winnings. Sadly, her image remains more associated with swimsuit modeling than kick-ass driving.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m elated that she looks great in a bikini. However, the time is long overdue for her to bring it on the track. All of us who watched The Dukes of Hazzard when we were young cheered when Daisy showed she could drive as well as Bo and Luke. Daisy Duke killed the cut-off jean shorts, but she also knew how to replace a carburetor and lead Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane on an exciting car chase. Unfortunately, it appears that in bringing Danica into the fold, NASCAR officials were motivated exclusively to make money, not expand the sport so that women are truly competitive. This was a serious and costly mistake.
Interestingly, racing legend Richard Petty caused a stir a couple of years ago when he said that Danica might win “if everybody else stayed home.” A lot of chivalrous sports commentators and drivers called Petty’s remarks sexist, but he refused to back down, saying, “If her name had been Danny, ok, nobody would have said anything about it.” Then the critics called Petty a hypocrite because his own son Kyle is a mediocre driver who probably wouldn’t have been racing if his famous father weren’t crowned “King” of stock car racing.
Petty was right. The sport needs to recruit women who can actually drive to win if NASCAR hopes to hold its own and continue to attract new fans. Focusing almost exclusively on Danica means that NASCAR insiders still have not promoted women’s racing as much as they could have.
3. Having Fewer Family Dynasties Has Decreased Interest: One big draw of NASCAR is its appeal as a family sport. Kinship, historically important in the South, played a huge role in shaping the early days of stock car racing. For many decades, NASCAR racing families functioned a little like Redneck Royalty, attracting fans and followers eager to see the winning tradition continue. Families like the Pettys, Earnhardts, Allisons, and Waltrips, boasting two, three, or even four generations of excellent drivers, dominated the field and drove the sport’s appeal. Nowadays, only a few current drivers can boast of a strong family pedigree. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his nephew Jeffrey Earnhardt are continuing the family tradition, but so far, Jeffrey has not broken out of his great-grandfather’s, grandfather’s, and uncle’s shadows. Kyle Petty, son of Richard Petty, showed promise in his early career but seemed to lose his edge after his nineteen-year-old son Adam died during a practice race in 2000. Chase Elliot, son of driver Bill Elliott, may be one of the few current dynasty racers with some real potential. (He won the pole for this year’s Daytona 500.)
The expansion of the sport to other regions of the country served to increase its popularity for a while, but now that it is struggling to stay viable, NASCAR executives may want to incentivize legacy racing to appeal to the traditional fan base. In the old days, fathers taught their young sons about engines and carburetors and instilled in them a love for fast cars. Nowadays, with technology and the professional pit crews, children of great drivers are more detached from the motor oil and transmission fluid.
NASCAR’s future is uncertain. Can it rebound from its slump as a major national sport, or would it be more successful if it returns to its redneck roots? We may know more when a new champion driver is crowed at the end of the year.
Follow Dana Zimbleman’s blog at The Academic Redneck.