NASCAR Faces Identity Crisis
When NASCAR was born on the sands of Daytona Beach, Fla., 61 years ago, its fan base probably wasn't much different from its racing heroes. A sport spawned by moonshine running starred undereducated white males from the South who subsisted on modest incomes.
As it returns to Daytona Beach this weekend for a July 4 race celebrating America, NASCAR is coping with maintaining the interest of a fan base that increasingly reflects the country's 21st-century sophistication. Statistics say its followers are richer, smarter and more technologically savvy than ever.
Bootleggers have given way to bloggers - and the shift has occurred as fans have become a focal point for re-energizing a phenomenon whose once-surging popularity has lost steam.
With TV ratings and attendance in a three-year dip after steady growth for more than a decade, NASCAR has refocused on catering to a constituency that seems vastly different from the redneck stereotype some associate with stock car racing. There are physics professors who apply mathematics to explain the sport's wrecks and rule-breaking and multi degreed mountain climbers who are mesmerized by its plot twists and rivalries.
But there also still is a blue-collar section of dock workers and dental hygienists, presenting a challenge of appealing to all groups without alienating any.
"We have to play the game a little bit different than what we did 15 or 20 years ago, because society is dictating they want to see something different," says Richard Petty, a seven-time champion and team owner.
"It makes it really tough from NASCAR's standpoint (of), 'What is the fan really looking for?' "
NASCAR has been measuring fan demographics since starting its own brand research department nine years ago. According to data derived from ESPN Sports Poll (independent consumer research conducted by TNS), 60% live outside the South and 41% are female. Since 2000, fans making $100,000 or more have jumped from 7% to 16% of its fan base, and those with incomes of $50,000 or more have risen from 35% to 48%. College graduates have swelled to nearly one in four, up 33% since 2000.
David Carter, executive director of the University of Southern California's Sports Business Institute, says changes are reflective of the geographical shifts in NASCAR, which has added races in the Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago and Miami markets in the last 12 years.
"As they have moved out of their Southern roots and penetrated big metro markets, the demographic of their casual fan base has become more diversified," Carter says. "For about 40 to 50 years, the demographics of this country have changed, so you'd expect every sport to be different."
NASCAR spokesman Andrew Giangola says NASCAR.com counts about 7 million visitors a month - or about 1 million more than the average TV audience for Cup races 10 years ago - and a typical fan spends seven hours a week consuming NASCAR media through TV, websites or satellite radio. Many sponsors and drivers have begun using Twitter and other social-networking sites.
NASCAR last year created a 12,300-member, Internet-based "fan council" representing all 50 states for the purpose of conducting opinion surveys. The circuit recently adopted double-file restarts after the proposed change received overwhelmingly positive support from the council, which counts bloggers as about 20% of its membership.
"We look at it as an advisory board," Giangola says. "It's a tool to listen to what's on fans' minds, as any company would want to connect with their best customers."
It's part of an industry wide push to make a circuit always billing itself as "fan friendly" even more accommodating to those buying tickets.
Drivers are scheduling more autograph sessions, and tracks are slashing concession prices and lobbying hotels to eliminate minimum-stay requirements.
Many of the steps are aimed at helping supporters weather the economic downturn, and it's because no sport relies more heavily on the support of customers to fuel its existence.
Last month, a free cookout with a 1,300-foot grill for Coca-Cola 600 ticketholders at Lowe's Motor Speedway drew a crowd of more than 6,000. The event was sponsored by Coke, which has been active in NASCAR for 40 years.
Beatriz Perez, senior vice president of integrated marketing for Coca-Cola North America, says the company has adjusted its campaigns for a more national strategy incorporating multiple media platforms.
"These fans are very much into technology, and we're trying to make sure we follow the consumers," says Perez, who added Coke's sales spike double-digits in markets with race promotions. "There's no less passion for NASCAR; it's just people are consuming it differently because of the economic conditions today."
Corporate sponsorship is the primary revenue stream for championship-caliber teams whose annual budgets start at $20 million, and Fortune 500 companies splash their brightly colored logos on those cars because they think the brand loyalty justifies the investment. NASCAR says one in three of its fans always buy sponsors' products according to Ipsos polling, and a 2005 study of NASCAR fans by James Madison University said roughly half liked companies more if they sponsored the sport.
"We have to prove to fans we're willing to do whatever it takes so they come to the races and enjoy being part of it," veteran driver Jeff Burton says.
"If we don't, this sport will be in trouble. That's what made this sport what it is. And as we grew and grew and grew, we got away from that."
Beer and banjos
But in making changes to placate supporters, racing consultant H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, who was former president of Lowe's Motor Speedway for 33 years, says NASCAR should remain mindful that its fan base is "pretty much blue collar" and didn't respond well when tracks moved away from country music performers in prerace ceremonies the past decade.
"Sure, there are upper-middle-income fans, but mostly they came from modest backgrounds," Wheeler says. "They are very conservative, flag waving, and, yes, they drink beer.
"You have to be so careful with what you do. Getting away from banjos in an effort to change the so-called image, they turned a lot of people away. They got away from the roots, and the roots don't change very fast."
Joe Baldwin, a native of Wilmington, N.C., and a fan since 1978, says NASCAR spent too much time and energy going after the big bucks from sponsors, moving into big media markets and forsaking the small venues that are NASCAR.
"They've kind of ruined the sport," Baldwin says. "I understand the economics of getting people into the bigger markets, but it took it away from roots."
Baldwin, 48, says TV coverage has lacked sophistication because of a mass-market approach aimed at snagging more casual fans with elements such as "Digger," an animated gopher who starred in cartoons during Fox broadcasts this year. "It's one of the most asinine things they've put on TV," he says. "They treat fans like they're stupid."
Stock car science
The influx of engineers into NASCAR also seems to have attracted a wave of academics such as Diandra L. Leslie-Pelecky, a professor of physics at the University of Texas at Dallas. She became hooked while wondering what caused a crash.
"A car wiggled around in the corner, and I'm a physicist who knows cars don't spontaneously go in the wall," says Leslie-Pelecky, who uses the sport as subject matter to keep her students interested. "There's so much neat science in NASCAR."
After building friendships with many Sprint Cup engineers who have doctorates as she does, Leslie-Pelecky, 44, wrote a book (The Physics of NASCAR) and started a blog ( stockcarscience.com) whose posts have received thousands of hits.
"It's a great way to educate people," she says. "NASCAR fans are fervent and will wade through net force and molecules if it helps them understand why something happens to their driver."
Patrick Hickey began watching NASCAR a decade ago because, he says, "It's like a soap opera." Hickey, 54, is a native of Ontario and a fan of four-time champion Jeff Gordon, whose late-1990s rivalry with seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt entertained longtime and new fans by pitting an upstart from the West Coast against a working-class hero from North Carolina.
"Jeff's a California boy who breaks the mold," says Hickey, who has a master's degree in nursing and a doctorate in community health and is a professor at the University of South Carolina. "I encourage my students to do that and ask questions.
"This is a poor man's and wealthy man's sport, and you see the cross section of America when you go to these races," says Hickey, who has attended a couple dozen races.
Mike Wright, a long-haul trucker from near Petersburg, Va., has attended more than 250 races and watched affluence creep into track campgrounds.
"This felt like our own fraternity in the 1970s, and then in the '90s all of a sudden there were gigantic motor homes," says Wright, 40. "This used to be a regional sport, and it ain't no secret people in the South don't like change."
Wright says he likes the increased diversity (he camps beside those from Maine, Massachusetts and Texas in Bristol, Tenn.) but not rising prices. The economy has forced him to cut back on attending races and buying merchandise.
"Sometimes I miss the old days when it was smaller and easier to go, but I don't fault NASCAR for that," he says. "They just need to let things go awhile. They've made a lot of changes, and a lot of older fans balked at some of the stuff. I liked it pretty good the way it was."
Some NASCAR stars are being generous with more than just their time. Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin is giving away blocks of seats at every race.
"It's reaching the blue-collar fan that used to have season tickets and now can't afford them," Hamlin says.
Matt Kenseth, the 2003 series champion, occasionally answers the phone at his fan club office but says he's doing no more than in the past. "There's very few times I haven't done anything asked within reason," he says.
"It should always be about the fans," Kenseth says. "Without them, we can't race."