How much have the past 96 hours damaged NASCAR’s efforts over the past 20-plus years to become a mainstream sport?
Thanks to the uneducated and intolerant reactions of Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Richard Childress regarding protests against systemic racism during the national anthem — and the sanctioning body’s own ineptitude in disowning those sentiments — NASCAR has found itself confronting old stereotypes it hoped had long been extinguished.
As President Donald Trump seized upon Petty and Childress’ comments as virtuous defenses of patriotism, late night comedians seized on NASCAR. Seth Meyers joked that Trump’s pride in NASCAR made sense because after all, the president is a race fan because he’s racist.
Stephen Colbert took it a step further, joking that Darrell Wallace, who became the first black driver to start a Cup Series race since 2006 earlier this year when he strapped into Petty’s No. 43 car, couldn’t make a lap around the track without getting pulled over.
And Wednesday, Bill Lester — the last black driver to appear in the Cup Series before Wallace — appeared on CNN and said that he was “not really embraced” when he came to NASCAR. Lester made 143 starts across NASCAR’s top three series from 1999-2007.
“I have been booed and it was surprising to me. I think I did a great job behind the wheel, I think that I respected the sport, but for no reason that I can foresee, I was booed. So that happened mostly at tracks where it’s very non-progressive. And I’ll just call it out. Talladega, Alabama, I’ve never been so uncomfortable in a racing environment as Talladega. And Martinsville, Virginia, which is specifically one of the places where I was booed very heavily. And I just couldn’t understand why.”
As NASCAR has expanded into the Dallas-Fort Worth and Chicago markets over the last 20 years and efforts to build tracks in the Pacific Northwest and New York City areas have taken place (and failed), it’s tried to sell itself as one that can appeal to all demographics.
The sport, which has an office in New York City, routinely touts how many Fortune 500 companies are sponsors in some capacity and former drivers like Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon have co-hosted Kelly Ripa’s talk show. In the media rush before the 2017 playoffs just two weeks ago, some drivers even did a cooking segment on Rachel Ray’s talk show.
Ray and Ripa and their audiences that NASCAR is trying to attract are far more cosmopolitan than Confederate. Yet Petty and Childress’ comments — construed by many as the unofficial statement of NASCAR towards protests against racism — and Lester’s remarks to CNN reinforce the stereotypes of a southeastern NASCAR that once freely associated itself with the Confederate flag.
That stigma, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said on his podcast released Wednesday, is why he felt compelled to tweet a quote from former President John F. Kennedy Monday morning as NASCAR itself continued to be inexplicably silent on the issue.
“I kept seeing a lot of negativity about NASCAR on social media and it’s just the same, tired stigma that we’ve dealt with for many many years and so I didn’t feel like Richard’s comments and Richard Petty’s comments were the way the entire sport felt,” Junior said.
Hours after Junior’s tweet, NASCAR issued a feeble statement that did nothing to detract attention from the owners’ comments. Tuesday, Brad Keselowski said he supported fans and supporters’ civil rights “100%” and explained why he would continue to stand for the anthem. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson echoed those sentiments Wednesday, saying he supported peaceful protest. So did Wallace, though given that Petty’s team is one of his few options for a ride in 2018, he’s not in the most tenable position.
The four drivers’ comments are rational and empathetic. But in a world where vitriol and outrage take over, rationality gets lost.
Trump has reportedly said that he’s attacked the NFL and anthem protests as a way to rile up his base of white, working-class support. And, according to a Yahoo Sports survey, 44 percent of respondents said protesting players should face consequences.
It’s not a stretch to think NASCAR’s base more closely aligns with Trump’s base than any other American sport and NASCAR CEO Brian France and a few drivers infamously endorsed Trump in February 2016.
But NASCAR isn’t in the position of base chasing. The base is eroding. Sunday’s race at New Hampshire drew an overnight rating of 1.3, the second-least viewed race in the past 18 seasons.
Sponsors are fleeing. Kyle Larson, perhaps NASCAR’s most marketable young star, is in need of sponsor dollars in 2018 after Target’s decision to get out of motorsports. Champions like Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch have uncertain futures because companies aren’t willing to invest like they used to in racing. And it seems a safe bet the Cup Series will feature fewer cars in 2018 thanks to the rising costs and decreasing profitability of racing.
The worsening economic and audience situations in NASCAR were a known commodity before Childress and Petty opened their mouths. The introduction of yet another revamped playoff system and stage racing made 2017 a known transition year for a sport rapidly seeking to establish new stars and find new and younger fans.
With the help of Monster, a series sponsor that appeals to those much closer to 25 than 55, this was supposed to be NASCAR’s chance to capture some much-needed younger fans and establish itself as a sport whose glory days are ahead of it and not behind it.
It’s hard not to wonder if the last four days have irreparably damaged that effort. While a Monster spokesperson told USA Today that Petty and Childress’ comments “should have no effect” on the company’s decision to continue as the series’ sponsor after 2018, you can sure as hell believe they didn’t help either.
NASCAR would typically crave the attention that comes from Colbert’s and Meyers’ shows. But more non-NASCAR fans in the key demographic it’s chasing will remember their jokes about the sport and racism than will know who won Sunday’s first-round playoff elimination race at Dover. That’s a huge problem for a sport desperately seeking to find new fans and shed old stereotypes.
While Childress and Petty may have been simply expressing their rights as employers, their comments coupled with NASCAR’s prolonged silence may have delivered a self-inflicted bodyblow that will leave long-term bruises.
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