With the Daytona 500 days away, it is an appropriate time to analyze the meteoric growth of NASCAR over the last three decades. As late as the mid-1980s, open wheel racing (Indy cars) reigned supreme over stock cars (NASCAR) and the Indianapolis 500—not Daytona— was the most popular race in the country. Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt, not Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Sr., were the most famous drivers in the nation. In the last 30 years, though, stock car racing has surpassed open wheel racing, evolving from a regional sport based in the rural South to a national phenomenon with fanatical supporters across America.
According to legend, NASCAR’s rise began with the exciting conclusion to the 1979 Daytona 500, which was the first to air live on network television. A major snowstorm on the East Coast left many trapped inside and some viewers who would not normally have watched tuned in. Following the conclusion of the race, won by Petty, drivers Cale Yarborough and Bobby and Donnie Alison got into a fistfight over a last lap crash, bringing new attention to this sport. Just as 1958’s “Greatest Game Ever Played” between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants spurred football to new heights, the ’79 Daytona launched NASCAR. See http://popculturemeetshistory.blogspot.com/2011/09/how-football-came-to-dominate-america.html
Over the next two decades, led by charismatic drivers such as Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, and Jeff Gordon, NASCAR became one of the most popular sports in the country, with ratings only surpassed by the NFL. Like football, auto racing’s ratings were augmented by its once-a-week format, but that does not detract from the sport’s incredible rise. Meanwhile, internecine disputes in Indy car racing split the sport into rival camps and many top drivers did not race in the Indianapolis 500 for several years. This divorce left the auto racing market to NASCAR alone.
NASCAR’s growth also reflected the rise of the South during the time. As the region’s population expanded, so did its influence on American culture. Other traditionally southern phenomenon, like country music, developed crossover appeal. Since the Reagan era, the political conservatism and religiosity of the region has often seemed more reflective of the country than the liberalism and relative secularism of New England. By the 1990s, some discussed the “Southernization of America,” as Arkansas’ Bill Clinton, Georgia’s Newt Gingrich, and Mississippi’s Trent Lott, served as President, Speaker of the House, and Senate Majority Leader, respectively (Applebome, Dixie Rising).
Dale Earnhardt, Sr.’s death in a crash during the 2001 Daytona 500 precipitated Princess Di-style mourning below the Mason-Dixon line. At the same time, some in the North scratched their heads over the emotional reaction. I’ll never forget where I was when I found out that “The Intimidator” had died: the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The local news declared “tragedy strikes as a legend dies at Daytona.” Though I can count on my hands the number of NASCAR races I’ve watched, as a sports fan I immediately blurted out, “Oh my G-D, did Dale Earnhardt die?” My Manhattan friends seemed totally nonplussed and refused to even let me watch the sports segment to find out what had happened. It was a reflection of the cultural chasm that still exists, as NASCAR is very popular across a broad swath of the nation, except for a few bastions of blue America. As a perceptive friend of mine said later, the circumstances surrounding Earnhardt’s death were unbelievable, the equivalent of Michael Jordan dying during Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
Paradoxically, the period following Earnhardt’s crash may have been the sport’s peak. In 2004, “NASCAR dads” replaced “soccer moms” as the swing voters fawned over by presidential candidates and the national media alike. President George W. Bush campaigned for re-election at the 2004 Daytona 500, opening the race by declaring, “Gentlemen, start your engines!”
While “The Intimdator’s” death brought new attention to the sport, it also sparked a greater awareness of its dangers. NASCAR instituted new safety guidelines that have helped prevent any deaths since 2001, though some have suggested these measures have reduced the excitement of the races. Over the last decade, the sport’s popularity has declined as attendance at the races has slipped and television ratings have come back to earth a bit.
It is not just the new safety measures, however, that have caused the sport to plateau. NASCAR began as a working-class sport in the rural South, but the sports’ leadership pushed to attract a more upscale demographic. Nothing reflected this change more than when sponsorship of the NASCAR points series switched from the “Winston Cup” to the “Nextel Cup” in 2004. Races at some of the older tracks have been abandoned in favor of larger venues, alienating some of the sports’ traditional fans, often called “gearheads.” Since Earnhardt, Sr.’s death, no driver has emerged to replace him as someone that fans either love or hate. Jimmie Johnson has dominated the sport in (old) Tigeresque fashion in recent years, winning five consecutive championships between 2006-2010. But he doesn’t seem to elicit strong emotions either way from the “gearheads.”
As the 2012 race commences on February 26, it could mark the beginning of a resurgence in NASCAR’s popularity. Despite only one victory in seven years of Indy car racing, Danica Patrick is moving to stock cars and will be in the field for the first time. Her celebrity will certainly bring renewed interest in the “Great American Race,” but whatever happens, NASCAR has come a long way since its early days of moonshine and dirt tracks.