Recently, I lucked into a VIP invite to the NASCAR All-Star race in Charlotte (the same week I did the Star Trek red carpet, incidentally; surreal does not even begin to describe my life at the moment) and, despite my lack of experience and against strong stereotypes, I’m not only a fan but a believer that NASCAR represents the best of American sporting.
Put politely, I wouldn’t have previously said that I was NASCAR’s target audience: I’m a relatively affluent white liberal agnostic from the Pacific Northwest. The white part might be right, but everything else is fairly unusual: the PNW has few tracks (primarily because of the rain, which makes race driving difficult), the mass affluent tend towards sports with more coverage and more intricate rulesets, liberals are generally less into sports to begin with, and NASCAR is a bizarrely religious sport. But in almost all areas, NASCAR is more diverse than I imagined and the target market may be more diverse than even they imagine.
I’ll start with the notable and frustrating exception: religion. We’re not talking about a little God here and there – the race starts with a full-on “you have to be a Christian” speech. It was good for about the first five seconds, calling on a generic God to watch over the drivers and keep them safe, but then we veered into Jesus as sacrifice and savior, his desire to have a “personal relationship” with all of us, and envangelispeak. Take a lesson from other sports, NASCAR: leave it at divine protection for the drivers.
That said, the rest of the experience was one pleasant surprise after another. I met with their diversity program, which not only featured female, black, and hispanic drivers, but a pit crew that was mostly black and mostly ex-college athlete. It even had a young guy from Washington; so much for my no-Pacific Northwest theory. Led by a former conditioning coach for a pro basketball team, the program served as a feeder into the pro pit crews, whose members can earn salaries around $80K. NASCAR actively recruits into the program at colleges, as part of an effort to show off the many ways to make a living in the racing business.
For anyone that says that NASCAR is just driving in a circle, I dare them to try it. One of the premier latino drivers who rose from the Mexican circuit came in on his day off to take us for a ride in the pace car. He kept it slow, only 120mph, while amiably chatting about how to come in and out of a turn. I’m told by those who were in the backseat that I continued to have a calm conversation with him throughout, though I can’t imagine what about, as all I remember was trying not to pass out from the pressure of doing a turn while banking 30 degrees to the left. That and the moment of certainty that I was going to die when, while within inches of the wall, something in the car went “pop”.
Turn out that it was “just” us having blown the lightbar off the top of the pace car (which is apparently not used to doing 120mph) and that we could go even faster without the aerodynamic drag – a fact we enjoyed for another few laps before pitting. And as I got out of the car, it was easier for me to imagine playing pro football than trying to drive in NASCAR. They are going faster than we did, for hundreds of laps, while competing with twenty other drivers, all of whom are trying to do the same thing but better. The next time someone tells you that NASCAR is just driving in a circle, punch them in the face and tell them you were just pushing in a straight line.
The race itself got a little rained on but honestly, one of the biggest impressions for me was not about the cars or drivers but about the humanistic nature of the sport itself. NASCAR is, for all intents and purposes, like a giant country fair. At Charlotte Speedway, you can actually camp in the infield, and hundreds of RVs and converted schools buses were staked out in orderly rows. Kids rode bikes and played football while parents looked on from folding camp chairs and BBQed, while drinking a seemingly endless supply of cheap beer. Given that many were planning to camp out all week (Charlotte is fairly unique for having two major race weekends in a row), the pricetag for a spot seems incredibly low, ranging from a few hundred dollars for most spots to up to around a thousand for premium corner lots.
While there were food and drink vendors, NASCAR is the only mass entertainment I’ve seen where you are freely allowed to bring your own food and drink. So to review, you can camp out, not get gouged on food and drink, and bring the entire family. There were wheelchair accessible golf carts, a full medical crew, free concerts…the list goes on. And at the same, you’ve got a fanbase that is roughly 40% female, with an increasing number of minority athletes. I think it is unlikely that the music performers will stray from the country/rock anytime soon, but NASCAR seems to me to be a sport with a massive potential in a time when so many other forms of entertainment are becoming increasingly a premium experience that fewer and fewer can afford.
I might be romanticizing a bit. It is still a primarily white sport and cheap doesn’t mean free. But after three days of being a racing VIP, I have to believe there is something in the sport we can all rally around. The fans have tremendous access (with an easily obtainable pass, you can wander around in the pits before the race and chat with your favorite drivers) and without exception, every driver I met was incredibly polite and friendly. There was no paying for autographs or overt signs of ego; it was race day for everyone equally.
This post could really go on forever, but I want to end by talking about my favorite part of the experience: Darrell “Bubba” Wallace JR. He raced on Friday night in the truck series (NASCAR is organized into trucks, nationwide, and cup, in that order of seniority) and was leading until he smashed into the wall. And he will challenge everything you think you know about NASCAR drivers.
First, he’s black. With a full beard, to add a few years to his look since he’s only 19. In an era when many racers come from dynastic families, he got into the sport because his whole family fell in love with go-cart driving when a mechanic friend invited them to watch a race. He’s consummately polite, with an easy smile but not a trace of ego. We took table bets on what he drove at home, with all of us landing on various pony cars. The truth? A red and black ’67 VW Beetle. He’s a homebody with a dedicated Twitter following (“People often Tweet me to thank me for answering their Tweets. I don’t get it: I’m just doing what they did – continuing a conversation.”) and a love for photography, which he sees as a backup career if driving doesn’t pan out. In fact, I spotted him shadowing one of the NASCAR photographers on race night, decked out with his own gear – if I hadn’t known better, I’d have mistaken him for one of the media.
And if that’s the future of NASCAR, a diverse field of drivers and a form of entertainment that can keep the prices down, I’m a convert. When’s the next race?