The cultural significance of NASCAR's decline

Ratings down? Empty seats in speedways? Blame the Democrats!

Andrew Leonard
November 20, 2006 10:54PM (UTC)

Media Conspiracy Alert! Nancy Pelosi has yet to take up her gavel, but the cultural commissars are already retuning their political biases. How else to explain the rash of recent stories suggesting that NASCAR, the biggest story in American sports for more than a decade, is in trouble?

By "rash" I mean exactly two; a detailed feature last week in USA Today warning of declining TV ratings and stubbornly unsold-out speedways, and a column by Selena Roberts in today's New York Times contending that NASCAR's head honcho, Brian France, might be in a bit of denial. But neither story makes the obvious political point. If NASCAR, overwhelmingly white and male both in drivers and in viewers, and deeply rooted in the Republican South, is suddenly hitting the wall, must this not reflect some greater cultural mood change?


I can't be the only person who watched the explosion of NASCAR onto television screens in the mid-'90s and knew, deep in my heart, that this was only happening because of the Newt Gingrich-orchestrated Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. The demonization of blue-state urban liberals and the elevation of NASCAR good ole boys went hand in hand. Network television programmers weren't slow to see which way the wind was blowing. Those were hard, hard times to be both a progressive and a fan of televised sports programming. You could change the channel, but still not drown out the sound of revving motors. Wanna taste the hype? Try this article from a year ago in Fortune magazine.

Sure, I suppose there might be other explanations. USA Today and the Times mention too many races that run on for too long, and the departures from the fold of many of the sport's biggest stars. There could also be broader economic reasons: USA Today quotes a pair of experts making the case for class basis to NASCAR's slowing growth.

[Conder] also cited lower ratings and the demographic profile of NASCAR fans for caution on motor-sports stocks: "Higher gas prices, interest rates and the housing market could have a negative effect on fans' spending." NASCAR labels the majority of fans middle class on demographics asserting 59 percent live in homes with annual income below $50,000 (32 percent below $30,000).

"I have a suspicion that the middle to lower-middle class is their largest fan base, and people are getting laid off," says Jon Ackley, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor who teaches a course on NASCAR economics. "You can drop a few thousand dollars between hotel, gas, meals and tickets in a race weekend. You can't do that very often if you're looking over your shoulder about having a job."

Connect the dots: Bad economy for the middle class hurts NASCAR fans, which naturally contributes to Democrats taking Congress, which leads to a swarm of blue-state media snobs suddenly focusing the spotlight on NASCAR's "problems."

Well, maybe. But one cautionary note: Both stories observe that despite the "speed bumps," NASCAR isn't exactly in what anyone would call trouble. That's because sponsor interest has never been stronger. And if you want to know why that is, you should see if you can get a hand on James Madison University's Larry DeGaris' study of sports sponsorship, in which he found that the vast majority of NASCAR fans can accurately identify the sponsors of the top 30 NASCAR teams. And if a product has a NASCAR label, they're more likely to buy it.

The political implications of NASCAR fandom, it seems, are beside the point. NASCAR is the dream vehicle for corporate sponsorship, the perfect sport for a resolutely capitalist society. The commissars can do what they want, those nattering nabobs of NASCAR negativity, but as long as sponsor recognition and loyalty remains high, NASCAR will stay strong.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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