Yesterday, American Conservative Magazine published one hell of a spicy take: “The Decline and Fall of NASCAR.” In it, writer Wells King argues that NASCAR has been on a downward spiral because the turn toward inclusivity has further contributed to the dispossession of the American South’s working class. But there’s a big problem: Woke NASCAR is actually doing pretty well.
There’s room in King’s reporting to make a very compelling argument about the sociopolitical complexities of the white working class, including digging up reasons why they may feel so dispossessed and at odds with the rest of the country. There’s even space for NASCAR to become a great metaphor for that dispossession.
But those aren’t the arguments King is making. Instead, his conclusion goes a little something like this:
NASCAR has not learned any of the lessons of its decline. It just unveiled yet another new car in the spirit of the Car of Tomorrow, also a “spec” car, fit to a set of uniform specifications. It is adding luxury suites to Daytona even as it removes grandstands for typical fans due to falling attendance. The demographics of the sport have not changed. Its fanbase is still 80 percent white, 63 percent male, and with estimated median earnings of $35,000 to $45,000 per year. NASCAR nonetheless proceeded to ban from its speedways Confederate flags in 2020 and “Let’s Go Brandon” chants in 2022.
Mr. King, I can assure you that being allowed to be racist in public is not what’s going to bring NASCAR fans rushing back to fill grandstands.
Case in point: Even after two rain delays, NASCAR’s Easter Sunday Bristol dirt race averaged 4.007 million viewers, which is more than any Bristol race since 2016. So far this year, viewership has increased 17 percent over the start of the season in 2021, and only one of eight races thus far in 2022 has seen an increase in ratings and viewership, Sports Media Watch reports. And 2021 saw increased attendance numbers when compared to 2019.
It’s a little hard to see the point King is making. Yes, NASCAR did see a significant decline in viewership after the early 2000s, but that decline had nothing to do with the woke politics King is blaming. The 2008 financial crisis, poor broadcasting, ill-advised format changes, and a massively dominant driver mixed into a potent brew that NASCAR is still reeling from.
Since the pivot to “woke” politics, though, NASCAR has actually been seeing a growth in the fanbase across the board. Sure, there’s been backlash from a certain subset of people who may feel that it’s their divine right to discriminate — but that shouldn’t be the audience NASCAR markets to simply because it’s bad business. If the sport needs to grow, it needs to do so in a way reflective of the changes in society. NASCAR was once a white, working-class sport. Now, it’s a multi-million dollar enterprise. The white, working-class viewers weren’t shelling out $200 for a race seat back in 2007 when money was flowing and the sport was at its peak. The sport has long since evolved from its bootlegging past. It hasn’t directly catered to the working class in decades.
That’s likely something King could have understood with a better grasp on the sport. There are significant factual errors in his story — claiming that restrictor plates were introduced in 2000, referencing “the Busch Cup,” claiming that Jeff Gordon only began winning championships after Dale Earnhardt’s death — that undermine the points he’s trying to make.
Even Dale Earnhardt, who King paints as some icon of white, working-class supremacy, worked for equality where he could see it. Here’s a story Kelly Earnhardt painted of her father, as quoted in NBC Sports:
“On my dad’s truck, he had this sticker with a rebel flag that said ‘American by birth, Southern by the grace of God.’ At the time, we had this housekeeper named Ann, and she was the most awesome lady. She was an African-American lady, and she asked my stepmother about my dad’s rebel flag on the back of his truck.
“And so the next thing we know my dad’s out there with a knife and a razor blade, and he’s cutting the rebel flag out of the sticker. He didn’t want to offend anybody or make anybody mad in that manner. It was so sweet. It was a little kind-hearted thing. She just thought that was the best. She’s like, ‘That’s just so awesome that you would do that.’ He had a good heart, a big heart.”
NASCAR is doing just fine.