Thursday November 30, 2023

The Next Generation of NASCAR

  • The sport is making an effort to draw in a more diverse audience.
  • Viewership numbers indicate that decision is paying off.
Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports
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When Michael Jordan launched 23XI Racing in the fall of 2020, it looked like a sign that NASCAR was headed down a different path.

Jordan alluded to that sense of progress in a statement announcing the team: “I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

The NBA legend was only the sport’s second Black majority owner since Wendell Scott drove his own race car in the 1960s. Scott suffered the sort racist abuse synonymous with that period, and not just from fans, but even officials, who initially awarded his lone premier series victory in 1963 to Buck Baker, who finished two laps behind him.

“My father protested the result and many hours later, when the crowds were gone, the other cars were gone, the reporters were gone — even the trophy was gone — they had checked the scorecards and they came over and said, ‘Guess what, you won the race,’ and gave him his check. But he never got the trophy,” one of Scott’s sons, Frank, told The Guardian in 2015 — the year Scott was posthumously inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Track promoters reportedly didn’t want a white “trophy girl” photographed with a Black driver.

It’s that type of marred history that NASCAR is making an effort to rectify decades later. The organization finally banned the Confederate flag from its races in June 2020. It finally presented Scott’s family with a trophy for his 1963 win during a ceremony in August 2021.

Two months later, Bubba Wallace, who drives the No. 23 car for Jordan’s 23XI team, finished a rain-shortened Talladega in first place and became the first Black driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series race since Scott’s Jacksonville 200 victory.

A New Era

“The fan base is changing. We’re starting to get younger, we’re starting to get more diverse, which is great to see. I think a lot of that stems from the changes that have happened over the past few years,” Ben Kennedy, NASCAR’s senior vice president of racing development and strategy told me over the phone shortly before the 2022 season began.

Kennedy was born into the sport. A former Xfinity Series driver himself, and the great-grandson of Bill France Sr. — who founded NASCAR in 1948 — he’s now responsible for executing on the strategy intended to carry the company into the future.

One way NASCAR aims to reach its forward-looking goals is by entering new markets. “I think there’s a big opportunity for us as you think about the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, and then internationally as well,” said Kennedy.

But first, Los Angeles — where NASCAR kicked off its 2022 season with a brand new concept: Clash at The Coliseum.

Hosted at the famed Memorial Coliseum, the site of two Olympic Games (and a third in 2028) and USC Trojans football, the venue was remade into a racetrack for uncharacteristically close quarters racing. Bringing NASCAR to Los Angeles also put the company in a position to draw a crowd markedly different from its traditional audience.

According to NASCAR, 69% of people who bought a ticket for The Clash had never been to a NASCAR race before. I was there and it was indeed a more diverse crowd than I’d ever expected to see at a NASCAR race. Ice Cube performed during the race break. The L.A. skyline towered in the background. You couldn’t help but sense that a shift in how NASCAR operates was underway.

“We’ve been doing a lot off the racetrack to improve diversity and improve inclusion,” Wallace told me the day before the race. “Here at The Clash, bringing this into a heavy, diverse market here in L.A. is big for the sport.”

Apparently, the new approach paid off. At its peak, 4.7 million people were tuned in to the race on FOX. Viewership was up 172% compared to The Clash the year prior.

The Great American Race

The Daytona 500 is an entirely different beast.

I was on-site interviewing Matt Kaulig about how he leveraged his LeafFilter Gutter Protection business into his own Kaulig Racing team. As he showed me around the track and let me get up close and personal with the cars, I was a bit blown away by the sheer scale of the event.

They say the Daytona 500 is the “Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing,” but with over 100,000 people at the speedway — well beyond the 70,000 who attended this year’s Super Bowl — you could argue that it’s bigger, at least in-person. Watching the race from pit row, it’s indisputably louder.

This year’s race made history with the most Black owners to ever compete in the Daytona 500:

  • Michael Jordan, 23XI Racing
  • Floyd Mayweather, The Money Team Racing
  • Former NBA player Brad Daugherty, JTG Daugherty Racing
  • Entrepreneur John Cohen, NY Racing

That same day, Jusan Hamilton became the first Black race director in Daytona 500 history, where he watched from a booth overlooking the track, making official calls on the race in which NASCAR’s new Next Gen car made its official debut after the non-points exhibition in L.A.

Days before the 500, former Dallas Cowboys star Emmitt Smith and driver Jesse Iwuji launched their co-owned Jesse Iwuji Motorsports team in the Xfinity Series (the “minor leagues” of NASCAR), where Iwuji is currently the only Black full-time driver. Their No. 34 car is an homage to Wendell Scott, who drove the No. 34 when he won in Jacksonville in 1963.

A more inclusive community is only one part of increasing NASCAR’s relevance.

Denny Hamlin, three-time Daytona 500 winner with Joe Gibbs Racing and co-owner of 23XI Racing with Jordan, told me that he wants to see the business model evolve, too.

“It’s just a very, very difficult business to sustain. A lot of that comes down to TV revenue sharing and things like that, a lot of things that other sports fight about every five years or so it seems. We’re no different in our sport,” he said. “We essentially have to have more revenue, from wherever it comes from, to be sustainable, because it’s very, very hard to sustain the sponsorship levels that we have, in the past or even currently.”

Access Granted

Ninety-two percent of NASCAR fans say the sport is heading in the right direction, per NASCAR & Directions Research. Sixty-nine percent say their opinion of NASCAR has improved because of the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts.

“It’s as much about entertainment as it’s about the core racing. It’s fun. It’s crazy. There’s some unknowns,” Pete Jung, NASCAR’s chief marketing officer, said during our conversation about how races like Clash at the Coliseum can grow the sport’s mainstream appeal. “Take the sport and put it in a place where it’s accessible and relatable to new people and let them give it a try. Hopefully, a bunch of them get hooked on what they experienced.”

Fan base and ownership aside — when will we see significant diversity in the lineup of drivers?

You may have seen Ty Gibbs’ fistfight with Sam Mayer of JR Motorsports that followed Friday night’s Xfinity Series race in Martinsville, Virginia. There was a lot of debate about the mid-race bump that provoked the brawl, and whether or not Ty was soft for throwing a punch while still wearing his helmet. Even though physical confrontations aren’t uncommon in motorsports, there were plenty of jokes about whether America would react to this scrap the way it did to Will Smith’s slap at the Oscars, too.

All I was thinking about is how a 19-year-old kid like Ty has an inherent advantage in making it to NASCAR because he’s Joe Gibbs’ grandson. That’s not to take away from his talent or any of the hard work he’s put in, but it is an example of how accessibility is a factor in this sport.

The day we start seeing multiple superstar drivers who come from a less homogenous pool than what NASCAR has always been known for is the day that its widespread popularity truly accelerates.

“It’s a very underground start because you can’t just go to your sporting goods store to buy go-karts. You have to really know somebody that knows the ins and outs of the sport to make this happen,” Wallace said when we spoke. “So we have to work on making the entry level more affordable and feasible. It’s a lot of work. It’s not going to happen overnight.”

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