LOUDON, New Hampshire -- It was a watershed moment for NASCAR when driver Brad Keselowski put his Dodge in park in the middle of the track at the 2012 Daytona 500 and began tweeting a photo of a fuel fire up ahead. Tweeting and testosterone do not normally coexist for traditional NASCAR fans, and for them, Keselowski’s actions made no sense. But younger fans were enthralled, and the number of Keselowski’s Twitter followers tripled in a matter of hours.
“My generation may be too late to be savvy about it, but we get the fact that it’s important,” Mike Helton, president of NASCAR, said of the league’s views on social media.
Though some fans felt Keselowski’s actions threatened the sport’s traditional identity, race organizers recognized that to remain viable as its original fan base aged, they had to embrace change. After the tweet went out, NASCAR banned cellphone use in race cars, but the league was encouraging drivers to post on social media and to develop their brands. And it was meanwhile pushing to diversity its fan base, expanding its range across generational, gender and -- to a lesser extent -- racial lines.
Until Keselowski tweeted his photo, fans had never been able to watch the sort of drama that characterizes car racing as it happened, in real time, from the driver’s seat. The photo, taken while the race was temporarily suspended and cars were stopped in place, was accompanied by the words, “Fire! My view.” NASCAR, until that moment, had relied solely on the adrenaline rush that fans feel while watching dangerous high-speed races from the stands. Who among the drivers had time to punch out a post on social media?
Keselowski opened a window onto NASCAR’s world at a time when the sport’s very survival depended on expanding its fan base, including youthful viewers who tended to be blase about anything short of death-chases on Grand Theft Auto. His 2012 tweet shook things up in a medium those fans could understand.
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“Brad helped us -- he became the face of that moment,” Helton said.
Keselowski, 30, remains one of the main NASCAR voices on Twitter, with more than 500,000 followers.
But that balance is a delicate one. In some ways, it's the same dilemma country music experienced decades ago: How to revere old-school greats like Johnny Cash while opening the door to young, crossover artists.
With just 30 percent of the league’s 70 million fans between the ages of 18 to 34, NASCAR’s biggest challenge is generational, noted Daniel Pierce, a professor at University of North Carolina Asheville who specializes in the history of stock car racing. “They have to find a way to appeal to a younger generation,” he said. “NASCAR really did push hard in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s to get more women and families involved, and it did a really good job of that, but at the same time it’s lost some of its edge.”
One reason for that loss of edge is more stringent safety regulations that reduce the chances of spectacular crashes like the one that killed legendary driver Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 2001. Newer, more efficient cars and reconfigured speedways have made races feel less exciting. Even with top speeds of more than 180 miles per hour, the races don't thrill young people accustomed to watching X-Games.
“The appeal of stock car racing has long been the beating and banging kind of stuff. You don’t see that as much as you used to,” Pierce said. “I think they have to find ways to not kill people but also have that kind of aspect where you have exciting racing.”
NASCAR has a set of personalities with storylines and personal dramas that play off what takes place on the track -- and which has also at times highlighted the differences between old and new fans.
“It’s almost like professional wrestling where you have the good guys and the bad guys,” Pierce said, referring to the drivers’ personalities. “That’s part of the fun.”
Racing legends were once known for their brash behavior, but today’s younger drivers tend to be more straight-laced, camera-ready and media savvy. Some jockeying still takes place on the track, but other jostling has moved to tiny keyboards. As Pierce put it, NASCAR is no longer the bastion of “these aggressive, foul-mouthed kind of guys that were so popular -- Dale Earnhardt types.”
Earnhardt’s son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who still races, is one of the few who can attract fans from both the old and new NASCAR worlds. He was hesitant to enter the social media realm until he won the most recent Daytona 500 back in February. Earnhardt Jr.’s Twitter account had been created and he had more than 200,000 followers, but he had never sent a tweet. Nearly five months later, his number of followers has tripled.
“You still have good ol’ Southern boys -- that’s what the sport was built on -- but now you have younger drivers who come up from different avenues,” said Krista Voda, a pit reporter for Fox who has covered the sport for 12 years. “You see a lot of diversity, and that brings a different type of audience. NASCAR is very adamant about starting the fans young so that they can continue to follow the sport.”
Among the current drivers who came through those different avenues are X-Games athlete Travis Pastrana; motocross star Ricky Carmichael; Darrell Wallace Jr. (the only African American who drives full-time in a NASCAR national series); and Danica Patrick, who began her career in IndyCar and is now the only woman who competes each week in the league’s top series. Though such drivers qualify as “alternative” in the context of NASCAR, they have actually taken the sport more mainstream.
The same is true for NASCAR media. At 26, Kaitlyn Vincie is among the youngest on-air personalities covering the races, and like the drivers she interviews, she has built a large social media presence. She also launched a Web series called “Mock Run” that gently pokes fun at the sport.
“The sport is at a turning point in some ways,” Vincie said. Many of the drivers, like many of the fans, are aging, which opens the door to rookie drivers to work their way up through the NASCAR leagues known as the Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup Series. “You can see that it’s starting to take shape because this new wave of talent is coming in and the fans have to keep up with that -- both men and women,” Vincie said. “I think it’s important to tap into those young viewers because they’re going to be loyal fans and viewers for the next 20-odd years.”
Driver image is a key factor in developing fans: There are no “home teams” in NASCAR -- only roving races that periodically alight at tracks that are considered home turf by the locals but not by the racers. Each weekend for 10 months, when the drivers and their crews arrive to compete, many race fans have already been there for days on a sort of mini-vacation. They camp in tents, RVs or the backs of a pickup trucks for up to a week before the race, and in the process, form longstanding friendships.
“It’s not just a race, it’s a whole lifestyle,” said Bill Wheeler, a 54-year-old truck driver who lives 10 miles from the New Hampshire Motor Speedway as he stood beside the RV that he, his wife and their 24-year-old daughter stay in during the races. To get the exact same parking spot for the past 10 races, Wheeler has to arrive two weeks before race time, then take a day off work to wait in line. It’s a process he knows well. His wife, Diane, said he waited in line for 24 hours last year.
Wheeler, along with millions of diehard fans like him, has watched the grandstands, the media airwaves and the drivers become more diverse in recent years, and for the most part, he’s fine with that. His wife has been a fan as long as he has, which is typical of what passed for fan diversity in the old days, when men brought their wives and girlfriends along and sometimes infected them with the thrill of the competition, the noise, the characters and the ever-present threat of spectacular danger.
The Wheelers are devoted to the racing greats, with a “3NASCAR” license plate as proof of their loyalty to the late Dale Earnhardt Sr., who drove the No. 3 car. But Wheeler also welcomes the new personalities he sees. Some drivers, he said, “used to be standoff-ish. They used to be on a pedestal. Now they know we are their bread and butter.”
In the old days, the racetracks weren’t particularly inviting to families or to women. There were few restrooms and the track grounds were gritty. Wheeler’s home track, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, spent $1 million on bathroom facilities alone in 2010 and a tram network was built to transport fans across its 1,200 acres. Such changes in infrastructure may have changed the experience, but in a way that most of the fans seem happy with.
NASCAR’s Helton said it’s important for the sport to be open “to anyone and everyone.” That wasn’t always the case -- and for some, it still isn’t.
NASCAR -- formally known as the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing -- had its origins in the Prohibition era, when drivers souped up their cars to outrun federal agents while hauling bootleg whiskey across state lines. Informal races were set up along Daytona Beach to see which local drivers were the fastest, and later, a mechanic named Bill France Sr., who had recently moved to the area from Washington, D.C., decided to establish a sanctioning body to regulate the races and protect the drivers, mechanics and car owners in the process. France co-founded NASCAR in 1947 and devised a point system on a stack of napkins at a bar. Drivers are awarded points during each race to determine who makes it to the playoffs, known as the Chase, and which one wins the Sprint Cup. Today the sport claims 70 million fans and $3 billion worth of licensed products.
Until the 1990s, NASCAR was anchored in the southeastern U.S., and white men were its primary audience.
“When I started, Kansas was new, Vegas was new and now we go to all these places,” Voda said, referring to two racetracks that were then outliers -- one built from scratch in 1999 and the other reconfigured for stock car racing in 2006. “Racing used to be in the Southeast -- that’s where NASCAR lived and played and that’s where you had to go to see it. Now NASCAR goes to every corner of the country and you find fans everywhere.”
Part of the groundwork for that geographic expansion was increasing television exposure as early as the 1970s, and with it, new advertisers such as Procter & Gamble that diverged from the sport’s traditional alcohol, tobacco and automotive sponsors. More recently, Kim Kardashian’s fragrance sponsored driver Mike Bliss’ car at a Las Vegas race in 2010, which Pierce said is “a reflection of two things: NASCAR wanting to attract more women and the fact that more women were coming.”
By the 1990s, existing racetracks were being upgraded with new amenities and new ones were built in New England, the Midwest and the Southwest. Two separate series were added, in Mexico and Canada. Then came the push for greater fan diversity.
Through it all, NASCAR has focused on its key allure: The excitement of watching over-powered cars race noisily around a self-contained oval under constant risk of a major crash.
That thrill was evident when driver Brett Bodine agreed to take three visitors on a 110-mile-per-hour lap around the New Hampshire speedway in a pace car in mid-July.
Bodine’s car, which began life as a conventional Toyota Camry, was now a bulked-up, stripped-down, steroidal nightmare of its former self. As the car careened around the curves, inches from the track wall, SiriusXM radio host Claire B. Lang, riding shotgun, reflexively leaned in toward the driver’s seat, yet managed to hold her microphone in her left hand and her recorder in her right as she taped a broadcast that would later air on her pre-race show. It was clear from Lang’s behavior that NASCAR still made a visceral connection.
Lang is herself a longtime NASCAR fixture, having managed to insinuate herself into the former good ol’ boys club and remain at the forefront. Though she is largely unknown outside NASCAR, to racing fans she has been elevated to a sort of Barbara Walters status. In 2001, when XM started its NASCAR channel, she became the first full-time female radio anchor covering the sport. As such, she is a kind of bridge.
Lang said that when she began covering NASCAR, “I was thinking, ‘What man wants me to tell him about his sport?’” Now, she has embedded herself among the sport’s key players and developed a loyal following from SiriusXM’s 26 million subscribers. And she notes with some pride that those subscribers -- like the NASCAR fans in the stands -- are an increasingly heterogeneous lot.
“I now see little girls in the garage with their parents, their caps turned backwards, watching race cars zoom in and out, fast and loud,” Lang said. “And I think they will have an easier time of it should they want to accomplish the same.”
In the old days, Pierce observed, “The only women at the track were wives and beauty queens.” Today, the sport embraces its female followers and young drivers are marketed for their good looks and sex appeal.
“It’s hard for me to juxtapose Dale Earnhardt and Kasey Kahne, for instance,” Pierce said, comparing the sport’s greatest icon with a contemporary 34-year-old heartthrob-driver. Kasey Kahne has lots of fans, but I don’t know any male ones.”
For conventional race fans, “heartthrob” has no place in NASCAR, and overzealous marketing of diversity and personality is undermining the sport’s core identity as a raw, masculine competition. Not surprisingly, Danica Patrick is a polarizing figure. NASCAR leaders see her as way to extend the fan base, but many people who have been tied to the sport for decades see her as a nuisance.
"She can go fast, but she can't race,” former driver Kyle Petty told Speed TV last year. “I think she's come a long way, but she's still not a race car driver. And I don't think she's ever going to be a race car driver."
Petty’s father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty, has made similar statements. "If she'd have been a male, nobody would ever know if she'd showed up at a racetrack,” the elder Petty told reporters at the Canadian Motorsports Expo.
It's not only men who feel that way. “I think this is a man’s sport and it should stay a man’s sport,” said Lynette Gordon, 51, an assistant manager at Dunkin’ Donuts in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, as she waited at the entrance to the grandstands at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “She causes a lot of grief.”
Yet T-shirts emblazoned with bright green Danica Patrick logos can be seen on many young girls at racetracks and there are young men who yell, “Go Danny!” from the stands.
ESPN’s vice president of motorsports production, Rich Feinberg, said that a friend of his 12-year-old daughter had told him that she watched her first NASCAR race “because of the girl … I wanted to see her beat the boys.”
Patrick, who was also on hand at the New Hampshire speedway, acknowledged the criticism from older fans, and said her gender is mentioned in every interview she does. “Does it get annoying to be called out?” Patrick said from her trailer parked at the infield. “No, because I am different. It’s just a fact and that’s fine. I actually enjoy being different.”
While Patrick has yet to win a Sprint Cup race, she has brought in new fans and carried some over from her days in the IndyCar Series. “I think that there is the perception that Indy fans are more wine and cheese and NASCAR fans are a little more barbeque and beer,” she said, “but I like both of those cuisines.”
NASCAR’s push for diversity has had success when it comes to gender and age -- but made fewer strides on race, Pierce said. He noted that Bill France Sr., co-founder of NASCAR, was close friends with segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace and South Carolina politician and ardent segregationist L. Mendel Rivers, who was appointed NASCAR’s national commissioner in 1969. The effects of those long-ago associations linger today, Pierce said.
Wendell Scott became the first African-American driver to win a race in the league’s top series in 1961, but today, 20-year-old Darrell Wallace Jr. is the only full time African-American driver in the sport. (Brad Daugherty, formerly a star of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who is also black, is a NASCAR analyst on ESPN.) The world of NASCAR is still overwhelmingly white.
Among the 70,000 or so spectators at the New Hampshire track, only a handful were black. But one of them, Ashton Gray, said he was unperturbed by the lack of racial diversity. Gray, a 39-year-old chef from Sanford, Maine, attended the races with his teenage daughter and niece, and said he shared common ground with the other fans.
“I’m a black redneck,” Gray said. “I don’t feel like a minority here.”