My introduction to camping out in the Daytona infield involved pulling up and noticing a shirtless man passed out in a kiddie pool around lunch time with a 24 pack of Busch beer sitting next to him. My friend Jeff grew up in a small Florida town where every year the highlight was armadillo races, and he invited me to get the full NASCAR experience by camping out with his family. This was over 10 years ago and was my last NASCAR race prior to attending the Folds of Honor 500 this year in Atlanta.
It was not a deliberate breakup with NASCAR, but over time we drifted apart. I grew up during NASCAR’s boom of popularity in the late 1990’s and into the early 2000’s. The era of Rusty Wallace commercials with woodchucks, diecast cars and popular video games. Over time, I did not feel as compelled to commit an entire Sunday afternoon to watching racing, and I never looked back.
That is, until I came across Bubba Wallace Jr. Wallace is not only the first African-American to have a full-time NASCAR ride in over 40 years, he took over the iconic No. 43 car, driving for one of the biggest names in racing history, Richard Petty. When “The King”, with his sunglasses and cowboy hat, taps someone on the shoulder people tend to listen. Wallace has the personality to be the new face of the sport as the Facebook docu-series “Behind the Wall: Bubba Wallace” captures so well.
My (re)introduction to NASCAR started off similarly to my last race 10 years ago. The media room was turned into a makeshift gas station, complete with hot roller grills cooking taquitos and hot dog shaped buffalo chicken thanks to the convenient store sponsor. The pre-race concert featured a country music band chanting “Truck Yeah” at one point.
NASCAR is a microcosm of the South as a whole. A region that is rapidly changing, but is often characterized by its past rather than its future. Like the South, NASCAR faces the challenge of carrying on its traditions, while making room for new people and cultures. The historic nature of Wallace’s story combined with the raw emotion he is willing to show is appealing. While it is sure to ruffle the feathers of some ardent NASCAR supporters, my sense is he has way more fans than enemies.
Is Wallace enough to cause a NASCAR revival to sweep the country?
“Darrell not Waltrip, Wallace not Rusty, Junior not Earnhardt”
Nothing is more interesting than journalists (who get into events free) talking about declining sports television ratings and attendance. You only need to Google NASCAR ratings to see dozens of articles talking about the sport’s decline in popularity. NASCAR faces the same challenges most professional sports are facing. How to appeal to fans who are consuming the product in vastly different ways. The NBA is discussing revising its playoff format, while the NFL is scrambling to make sense of declining ratings. NASCAR is a long-form sport in a Twitter era.
NASCAR has made changes for the better as the new stage format adds increased excitement throughout the race, not just the end. The addition of a playoff has the potential to keep the casual fan’s attention down the stretch in what can be a long season.
As WFLA.com details, the Daytona 500 purse jumped from $300,000 in 1995 to $1.27 million by 2000 indicating the massive growth of the sport. Since then, NASCAR has experienced a bit of a recession causing many to question whether the sport is dead. Like Mark Twain once remarked, could reports of NASCAR’s death be greatly exaggerated? Count Dale Earnhardt Jr. among those who believe so, as the former driver took to Twitter to explain why he is bullish on the sport after the Daytona 500.
It’s been a rough few years for @Nascar. I’ve had a new feeling though for a few months about our sport. I think it’s finally turning the corner. I won’t be surprised one bit if we experience a resurgence. Im even more confident after what I experienced the past 2 days.
NASCAR has a willing spokesman in Wallace who has a sense of humor, while understanding what his success on the track could do for the sport.
“How crazy does that look? A black guy in an infield near a Confederate flag is going to play Redneck Jenga with redneck fans?” Wallace joked to The Undefeated. “It doesn’t bother me one bit. And it doesn’t bother them. They get excited a driver’s in their presence. In the old days, drivers didn’t venture out much. The younger generation’s trying to change that. I’m trying to change that.”
Just a week after finishing second in Daytona, Wallace had a much more difficult Sunday, finishing six laps down. After struggling throughout the race, Wallace’s day got worse after he ran into the Smoke Monster from Lost, and eventually finished 32nd with a banged up ride.
Atlanta is one of the most grueling races on the schedule, and rookie drivers tend to struggle in their debut. Prior to the race, I allowed myself to think about what Wallace winning his first Cup race just miles away from the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could mean for the sport.
That’s not what happened, but it will happen. For all the excitement around Wallace, fans must exercise patience for the driver in his rookie season. The time is now for NASCAR to embrace Wallace, and the best thing they can do for the growth of the sport is allow Wallace to be himself.
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” Dr. King exclaimed in his “I Have a Dream” address.
Sunday, we were one step closer.