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NASCAR’s Identity Crisis

At July’s Coke Zero 400 race in Daytona Beach, the sport reckons with its past—and future—as a distinctly Southern pastime

A NASCAR driver with a checkered flag on top of a dark map of the South Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to The South Week at The Ringer. For the next several days, we’re celebrating — and reporting on — the richness of the region. You’ll find stories from all over the map, exploring topics such as the enduring legacy of Confederate monuments in Richmond and Montgomery, the evolution of Charleston barbecue, and the intersection of faith and football in Lubbock. We’re also ranking the best Southern rap albums, imagining the André 3000 mixtape we all deserve, and arguing about what even constitutes the South anymore. In the words of two great Southerners, nothin’ is for sure, nothin’ is for certain, nothin’ lasts forever.

Forty cars running tight on top of each other at Daytona International Speedway were pushing 200 miles per hour when no. 4, driven by Kevin Harvick, blew a tire and spun out wildly in the middle of the pack. The wreck threw no. 88, driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr., to the wall, which the battered car dragged along, sparks flying, smoke dissipating, for a terminal quarter lap. It was Dale Jr.’s second wreck of the race, and—to a great majority of the crowd’s dismay—it would be his last. After landing safely in pit lane and checking in with the track’s doctors, who gave him a clean bill of health, Dale Jr. walked back down victory lane unscathed and unrewarded as the race continued around him. Dale Jr. attempted to hold back tears that inevitably burst from his red eyes anyway. He cried. His voice cracked. “It was fun,” he shrugged. He had started the race sitting in pole position with a roaring tonnage of goodwill at his back, and he finished the race on the sidelines as Ricky Stenhouse Jr.—driver no. 17, who would go on to win this year’s Coke Zero 400—took the lead on Lap 111.

NASCAR, the newspapers, and the broadcast networks covering the race all billed the 59th annual Coke Zero 400 as the final Daytona International Speedway run of Dale Jr.’s career. In April, Dale Jr. announced he would retire from NASCAR following the end of the 2017 season. Dale Jr.’s early-July loss at Daytona wouldn’t be his final race, but it was, effectively, his swan song. “It’s been a wild night,” Dale Jr. told a pit road correspondent once he emerged from the raceway’s medical center. “I didn’t anticipate this much action and this much torn-up sheet metal,” he says, “but there’s still a lot of racing left.”

Night fell in the final laps until only the massive stadium lights whitened the track, the stands, and the sky. In the speedway’s infield, fans stood craning their necks right and left with each roaring pass. There wasn’t as much hollering as one might expect—mostly folks just talking among themselves. Everyone had nice things to say about Dale Jr., the poor guy, but now that he was out of the race, there were still plenty of second-favorites to choose from. I stood between a man in his 30s wearing a faded black Kyle Busch shirt and younger man in his 20s, who was surrounded by college friends and wearing a cute, pink tee with a portrait of Danica Patrick printed off-center on the back. Regionally, NASCAR is now a fairly diverse field: Busch hails from Las Vegas and Patrick hails from southern Wisconsin. With North Carolina’s Dale Jr. gone, NASCAR fandom is up for grabs. And more likely than not, the sport’s next superstar won’t be a classic Southern patriarch—it’ll be a handsome, savvy, eminently marketable Californian.

For as long as cars have run on roads, Daytona Beach has been a classic stock car racing scene. The city hosts two marquee races of the 68-year-old NASCAR Cup Series. There’s the Daytona 500—“The Great American Race”—which routs the Super Bowl in fan-attendance figures. Eclipsing the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500 is the biggest annual motorsports event in the world. And then there’s the Coke Zero 400—Daytona Beach’s “other race,” as reporters covering NASCAR tend to describe the Independence Day league tradition. Launched in 1959, it’s a few months younger than the Daytona 500. The Coke Zero 400 was originally called the Firecracker 250, and NASCAR rebranded the race several times before settling on its current sponsorship, length, and title. “The 400 will never challenge the Daytona 500 in prestige and historical significance,” wrote Ken Willis, covering this year’s race for the Daytona Beach News-Journal, “but it often matches or passes the 500 in terms of competitive intrigue and outright drama.”

In addition to that requisite intrigue and drama, Daytona International Speedway has seen its share of tragedy. It’s the track where Dale Jr.’s father, the mythical no. 3 car driver Dale Earnhardt Sr., died in a head-on wall collision in the final lap of the Daytona 500 more than 16 years ago. Dale Jr., then age 26, placed second in the race shortly before doctors at Halifax Medical Center pronounced his father dead in the early evening hours of February 18, 2001. It is, without a doubt, the darkest day in NASCAR history.

The local news anchors, the sports channel commentators, and all the large-format ads plastered across the raceway mark NASCAR’s chosen son, Dale Jr., as the unofficial honoree of this year’s race. In fact, his ubiquity in the infield is so overwhelming that you’d be forgiven for assuming that he’d already won the July race. For every odd fan wearing a T-shirt that bears the number, signature, and likeness of Kyle Busch, Danica Patrick, or retired no. 24 car driver Jeff Gordon, there’s another five fans wearing Dale Jr. memorabilia. The Earnhardt family, rooted in Kannapolis, North Carolina, since the town’s founding in 1906, is the last great dynasty in a sport where lineage goes a long way toward popularity and success. Dale Jr. is NASCAR’s crown prince. But unlike his father, who left an heir to inherit the Earnhardt family legacy in NASCAR’s commercial prime, Dale Jr. leaves no clear successor. The Earnhardt family, a Southern institution, is departing a sport that has in recent years uprooted itself from Southern lineage—and alienated Southern fans—in pursuit of the broadest possible fan base nationwide. In 2017, NASCAR is as Californian as it is Southern—if not more so.

The backs of fans watching the race Justin Charity

Dan Pierce, the author of Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay, and Big Bill France, a partial history of stock car racing in the U.S., describes Earnhardt’s retirement as the latest phase of NASCAR’s regional-identity crisis. “Dale Earnhardt Jr. has always been the most popular driver, particularly since his dad died,” Pierce tells me. “He’s done well. But he hasn’t won championships. And so all the championships have been won by people from outside the South.” Frequent NASCAR Cup Series champions Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon both hail from California, and successful no. 18 driver Kyle Busch is from Las Vegas. The last Southerner to win the main NASCAR cup series was Bobby Labonte, a Texan, in 2000. Pierce cites Dawsonville, Georgia, racer Chase Elliott—the current driver of the no. 24 car and the son of the retired NASCAR driver Bill Elliott—as the last Southern holdout. Elliott, now 21, won the 2014 NASCAR Nationwide Series at age 18. “I don't wanna say he’s the great, white hope,” Pierce says, “though, in some ways, I guess he is. It's a great Southern hope, I guess.”

But Chase Elliott is outnumbered by the swarm of competitive non-Southerners who have taken over the sport. Unwittingly, the famous no. 24 driver Jeff Gordon launched the West Coast invasion of NASCAR in the 1990s; Gordon was the friendly harbinger of California’s gradual annexation of NASCAR in the 21st century. Gordon grew up in Vallejo before moving to Indiana early in his teens, and he made the leap from open-wheel, Indy-style racing to NASCAR at age 19—before going on to win the 1995 championship series at age 24. “I knew what NASCAR was and [of] the Daytona 500, but I had no clue where else they went, what else they did, how competitive it was, what the cars were like to drive,” Gordon told the Los Angeles Times in 2009. “To me, it wasn't even on the map.” In the 1980s—when Gordon was a teenager—hot rods and figure-eight racing were the biggest games in California. Since the turn of the century, NASCAR has eclipsed both those motorsports traditions by a mile.

In the beginning, there were no stadiums, no grandstands, no fences, no concrete speedways—only dirt roads and baby highways on the outskirts of Charlotte and Atlanta. In Daytona, so-called jalopy jockeys raced right on the beach.

The Ford Motor Co. popularized automobiles, and Prohibition created a need for bootleggers to drive them quickly. Throughout the 1920s, bootleggers and their invaluable mechanics modified the latest Model T cars to haul liquor up and down the interstates at top speeds. They taught themselves how to outmaneuver and outrun highway patrols. Soon enough, they learned to outrun one another.

“The standard story you saw in a lot of books was that stock car racing started around Atlanta and out in the countryside,” Pierce says, “and there were these guys who were all hauling liquor and arguing about who had the fastest car, and they went out into a cow pasture and drove around in circles, created a track, and started racing one another. And then people saw the dust, and they came and started watching. And then promoters came along building fences and charging people to watch. It’s a great story, but it’s just not true.”

In fact, the hyper-corporatized NASCAR that Americans generally recognize today, defined by countless, colorful corporate brand logos vying for space across drivers’ outfits and cars, is the product of the France family’s long efforts to legitimize, professionalize, and nationalize the sport; to build NASCAR from dirt tracks into high-tech skyboxes.

Welcome sign at Daytona International Speedway Justin Charity

After Prohibition was long dead and the black market that financed moonshine-era stock car racing had dried up, automotive brands and tobacco companies began sponsoring races. In 1971, the cigarette brand Winston poured millions of dollars of advertising into tracks, large and small, around the country. Winston bought the sponsorship rights to the main championship racing series, and NASCAR named it the Winston Cup. Jade Gurss, who is Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s biographer and former publicist, cites Winston as NASCAR’s first big, legitimate sponsor in a sport where corporate logos would go on to consume raceways, cars, and even driver’s uniforms. Winston’s original parent company, the multibillion dollar R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., was a leading sponsor of various stock car, hot rod, and sports prototype racing series beyond just NASCAR in the 1970s.

“It was simple things like providing gallons of red paint to all of the race tracks,” Gurss says about Winston. “Suddenly, your local racetrack looked just like the big tracks because it was all covered in Winston colors and carried that Winston brand.” Gurss notes that advertisers play an outsized role at every turn in NASCAR history. “The U.S. had passed rules where the tobacco companies were no longer allowed to advertise on TV,” Gurss says, “so you suddenly had these huge marketing budgets with nowhere for their money to go.”

Even though NASCAR’s map has expanded since the turn of century, the sport is still, essentially, a Southern family business. The late Dale Sr. was, himself, the son of Ralph Lee Earnhardt, an early NASCAR champion in the 1950s. The seven-time Daytona 500 winner Richard Petty, another son of North Carolina, also happens to be the son of NASCAR champion Lee Petty, who won the first Daytona 500 in 1959. “NASCAR royalty” is a real lineage, and it’s long bestowed real advantages in launching a career in stock car racing. To compete, you needed a car and a dedicated mechanic to enhance it before races and to repair it afterward. Stock car racing, being the contact sport that it is, gets frightfully expensive in terms of upkeep. From one generation to the next, established racing families grow somewhat more cavalier to the financial costs and physical risks of stock car racing than your average American household. “I think it was just simple economics,” Pierce says. “To make it in the top levels, especially after the sport’s earliest years, you had to have resources and access that were going to enable you to break through. And that’s much easier if you were part of a family. ‘Oh, this is so-and-so’s son.’ And then you had a natural fan base.”

At the heart this sprawling lineage is NASCAR’s first family, the France family, which owns NASCAR and has run the sport since its incorporation in February 1948. NASCAR’s founding patriarch, the late Bill France, was an auto mechanic and a racer himself. A high school dropout, France uprooted from his hometown, Washington, D.C., in favor of Florida’s warmer weather. First, France found work as a mechanic. Gradually, competitive drivers flocked to his garage, and France started organizing beach races from there. Initially, promoters, including France, organized races ad hoc; there was no formalized schedule, no annual competitions, and no league standings. There were simply winners and payouts, funded by ticket sales and—until Congress repealed Prohibition in 1933—bootlegger revenue. For the first half of the 20th century, the American Automobile Association was the only official organization sanctioning races across the country. The organization’s now-defunct Contest Board administered races until AAA withdrew from motorsports in 1955. By then, Bill France had already taken it upon himself to organize the South’s stock car drivers into a competitive league. In 1948, NASCAR’s earliest races at Daytona and Charlotte marked stock car racing’s emergence as a proper, professionalized sport.

Naturally, this transition changed NASCAR’s character. By the time Bill France’s son, Bill Jr., took over as NASCAR’s chief executive in 1972, stock car racing was big business, with modern speedways going up all across the country. Bill Jr.’s wife, the philanthropist Betty Jane from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, famously carried herself with the air of a Southern dignitary; a blonde, she wore large furs and made a great display of the wealth that NASCAR afforded the France family. “It was quite glamorous, actually,” Jane told The New Yorker in 2003. “It wasn’t that moonshine, redneck stuff when I got into it.” Now, the Kentucky Derby it ain’t, but NASCAR has indeed come a long way from its origins as a pastime more on par with drinking and gambling than football and basketball.

The late Bill Jr.’s son, Brian France, has overseen the latest phase of NASCAR’s all-American rebranding. Last year, France stumped for Donald Trump on the campaign trail. But France has also overseen NASCAR’s ban on Confederate flags, announced in June 2015, instituted quickly after Dylann Roof massacred nine black people during a bible-study session at a Charleston church two years ago. To this day, a loud minority of fans contest the ban, and it is subject of renewed passions following the recent violence surrounding the planned removal of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia. At a race at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee last weekend, several fans defied the ban, flying the Confederate flag from their campground tents and trailers. It’s a vicious last stand by Southern fans who feel their region’s signature sport slipping away from them.

Worldwide, there are a few dozen different motorsports leagues, all with their own driving styles, track designs, championship formats, and fan dynamics. In NASCAR, the drivers are the stars, and their cars form a mystical numerology that spans generations. It’s a sentimental dynamic that sets NASCAR apart in the wider world of auto racing. Formula 1 cars are a little bit faster than NASCAR builds, and Formula 1 drivers span all hemispheres. IndyCar, too, is a global convention, with marquee race winners and cup series champions hailing from the U.S., the U.K., the Netherlands, Italy, Brazil, Colombia, and Japan. NASCAR, on the other hand, produces a singular archetype for its drivers: white American men, many of them related, who have dominated the sport and won every single championship title in its history. Danica Patrick was the only female racer who qualified for this year’s Coke Zero 400. And for every Danica Patrick, there are 40 Elliott Sadlers. There were only three nonwhite drivers competing at this year’s Coke Zero 400: Kyle Larson, the Californian driver of the no. 42 car, is Japanese American; Darrell Wallace Jr., a.k.a. Bubba Wallace, is black American; and Daniel Suárez is Mexican. There are only a handful of black drivers who have ever started a NASCAR championship series race, and only one, the old-school bootlegger Wendell Scott, driving no. 34 at Jacksonville’s Speedway Park in 1963, has ever won. In 2004, NASCAR launched Drive for Diversity, a program aimed at recruiting more women and nonwhite drivers, crew members, and team owners. To date, the initiative has produced little in the way of lasting, tangible impact in the top levels of the sport. (Although it did produce Wallace and Suárez.) Among NASCAR’s annual championship rankings, all that’s really changed in recent years is the overall makeup of states issuing the driver’s licenses.

Fans around the Daytona National Speedway Justin Charity

Hard-core NASCAR fandom, on the other hand, is still distinctively and overwhelmingly Southern. There is no more potent concentration of neo-Confederate reactionaries on the planet than a sold-out NASCAR championship event in the Deep South. At the Coke Zero 400, two flags waved high over the RV campgrounds inside the track: the U.S. flag, and a blue and white Trump banner reading “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” (There were surprisingly few fans wearing MAGA hats at the race; they instead opted to wear caps emblazoned with the numbers of their favorite drivers.) NASCAR is a sport that is, to many political observers, synonymous with gaudy conservatism and classic American whiteness. For NASCAR to render the sport more accessible, and its fandom more inclusive, means, essentially, reinventing the wheel. NASCAR has tried. Fans have balked. And race-day attendance has plummeted. So has annual speedway revenue, which peaked at $814 million in 2007 only to decline consistently since, dropping to $661 million in 2016. So have TV ratings, which only a decade ago made NASCAR the nation’s biggest spectator sport. NASCAR’s national, post-Southern rebranding hasn’t endeared stock car racing culture to all regions equally. In fact, it’s tearing NASCAR apart as the South loses its grip on the sport’s championship series, its culture, and its future.

As NASCAR has broadened its reach, it has also overhauled its appeal. The drivers are the most acute representation of this shift: Where figures like Dale Earnhardt Sr., and Richard Petty were cool, enigmatic figures—not quite wrestling personas, but close—their Gen X successors were natural-born spokesmen for corporate brands. “Jeff Gordon was a key transition figure,” Pierce says. “Here's a guy from California or Indiana—take your pick—who became so popular, who was clean cut, and who was so great at doing interviews and marketing.” Gurss, as Dale Jr.’s right-hand flack during Gordon’s rise, observed this transition at ground zero. “Jeff would win a race, he’d get out of his car, he’d thank each individual sponsor—and people would tune out,” Gurss says. “They wanted to hear about the race, or they wanted [to see] his personality. They don't want someone giving a 20-second advertisement about all the names on his race car.”

Gurss describes himself as “a big Jeff Gordon” fan, but he cites Gordon and the generation of high-dollar, Californian champions that followed his rise as a tectonic shift in NASCAR culture. “If I’m the blue-collar, hard-core fan, I'm not as excited about my favorite guy coming in with a California accent, flying in on his private jet. It’s just not quite the same sort of personality and image that traditional fans appreciated. They wanted their stars to be raw and honest, and suddenly you’re getting these media-trained guys who are all very polished.”

The media training paid off. In 2003, NASCAR ended its relationship with Winston and turned to a new title sponsor, Nextel, which pumped $80 million into the sport in the partnership’s first season. Meanwhile, NASCAR converted its title championship series to a playoff system. “For the die-hard fans, it was different than what it used to be,” Gurss says. “It used to be the best guy over 34 or 36 races rather than—as they perceived it—a gimmicky playoffs.” It is this period of reinvention that many older, hard-core fans will cite as the moment when NASCAR, a famously left-turns-only sport, veered west.

NASCAR billed its regional expansion as a “realignment,” overseen by the organization’s chairman, Brian France. “The plan calls for regular review of race dates and locations in order to continue bringing the most competitive racing in the world to the widest possible audience,” the organization announced. “In 2005, the Southeast will continue to be well served with great racing in Richmond, Va.; Charlotte, N.C.; Atlanta; Daytona Beach; and others. Additionally, NASCAR continues to reach out to new fans in the Northeast, Midwest, Southwest, and West.”

One-hundred-sixty-eight tracks across the country have hosted NASCAR championship series races since the sport’s founding. The organization shuttered many of those tracks throughout the 2000s, including the historic North Wilkesboro Speedway in NASCAR’s earliest home state, North Carolina. “The South was losing all these race tracks in the ’90s and 2000s,” Pierce says. “While they were shutting down racetracks in the South, they built these new tracks in other parts of the country as NASCAR was courting Madison Avenue and network TV. A lot of traditional fans felt neglected and, in some ways, denigrated because NASCAR was running away from its roots in a lot of ways.”

But for every traditional fan hypothetically lost in the NASCAR brand’s overhaul, the sport presumably earned another shred of credibility with a broader, national fan base. “The best drivers from all over the country looked to NASCAR because that’s where the biggest money and biggest TV audience were,” Gurss says. “They used to dream of going to the Indy 500. Suddenly, they’re dreaming about the Daytona 500.” (It helped NASCAR’s market share that open-wheel racing was plagued by petty factionalism during NASCAR’s commercial height in the 2000s.)

Three young men sit on a rail by the track Justin Charity

Of course, the mainstream interest in NASCAR amounts to a sort of gentrification. NASCAR fandom spread west to California, and the organization financed track renovations nationwide. Naturally, ticket prices rose; so did concessions and travel costs. (Base ticket prices for NASCAR are generally a bit higher than IndyCar, but still significantly lower than the NBA, NFL, and MLB.) “I’ve taken a number of people to Bristol, and that's a really interesting experience,” Pierce says. “They have all these skyboxes, and it’s just an incredible facility with 160,000 seats around a half-mile track. You got these nicely dressed people riding golf carts to the corporate boxes. And then you got the people who should probably use what they paid for the tickets on dental work instead.” Indeed, the global economic recession that took hold in 2008 would further disenfranchise the latter, traditional breed of NASCAR fan, and the sport, in general, would lose commercial traction in the decade to come. For the first time in its history, NASCAR would suffer a decline.

In the 2000s, Daytona International Speedway could seat 146,000 attendees at max capacity. Typically, the Daytona 500 sells out. But NASCAR has drastically lowered its commercial hurdles to selling out a race. Four years ago, the International Speedway Corp. announced that renovations at Daytona would cut the raceway’s max capacity by 31 percent to 101,000 seats. International Speedway, which owns Daytona International Raceway, has slashed seating capacity at Talladega, Michigan, and Fontana, California, as well, as annual revenue levels have yet to fully recover from the sport’s post-recession fall off since 2009. NASCAR used to release attendance estimates, which were often contested by journalists and stadium staff. In 2012, NASCAR stopped releasing attendance figures altogether.

To be fair, many of NASCAR’s commercial challenges extend to televised U.S. arena sports in general. Throughout the 2010s, a general decline in TV ownership and cable subscriptions has buggered NASCAR as much as it’s buggered other national sports leagues. The NFL and the NBA have also both overseen dips in TV viewership, but nothing as precipitous as NASCAR’s declines. “Excluding rainouts, ratings and viewership have declined for 19 of 22 Cup Series races this season,” reads one report published earlier this month. “Only the Daytona 500, Texas, and the Brickyard 400 have managed to avoid declines. Michigan was the 18th race to at least tie an all-time or decade-plus ratings low, and the 16th to do so in viewership.” Many NASCAR observers—including Gurss and Pierce—all stress that NASCAR’s shift to a playoffs points system, in particular, has alienated many traditional fans. Overall, the general audience decline has made the post-Southern broadening of NASCAR’s appeal feel somewhat in vain.

At this year’s Coke Zero 400, Dale Jr. exited a field of 40 drivers who produced a clear winner but no fated successor. In the end, Memphis-bred Ricky Stenhouse Jr.—whose no. 17 car opened the race sitting in the no. 6 position—kept ahead of the pack to finish first. Ricky, who hails from Mississippi, is a first-generation stock car driver who got his start racing karts at age 6. He’s a classic NASCAR hero, though he’s hardly as popular as Patrick—his girlfriend—or younger drivers such as Georgia’s Elliott and California native Larson.

Three days after Dale Jr.’s big retirement announcement in April, Larson sparked some controversy by describing himself as “the last true racer”—a term that Larson, addressing a prepractice press conference in Richmond, meant to describe his competitive standing in motorsports formats beyond just NASCAR. Dale Jr. cautiously agreed with Larson’s assessment.

“He would drive a Sprint Car, race the Indy 500. He would race the Pike's Peak Hill Climb, the Soap Box Derby. He would race dragsters if he could,” Earnhardt said on his podcast, Dirty Mo Radio, which he launched in 2013. “Larson is able to race all these different types of cars because he has the leverage to and the means—the sponsorship means or the financial means to.” Still, Dale Jr. is hopeful about the state of NASCAR beyond his own retirement. “I think there are a lot more true racers out there than Kyle may think,” he said.

Between Stenhouse and Elliott, there’s hope to overtake Larson yet—and the South’s good standing in its own whiskey-fueled, hot-blooded mythology is at stake.

An earlier version of this story mischaracterized NASCAR as a right-turns-only sport; it is left-turns-only. Also, the piece incorrectly reported that only one nonwhite driver participated in this year's Coke Zero 400; in addition to Kyle Larson, the field included Darrell Wallace Jr. and Daniel Suárez.

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