Updated: Feb 12, 2021
On the weekend of the 2021 Daytona 500 I wanted to look back and reflect on this truly American sporting event and how its 21st century transition changed the sport forever. We often overlook NASCAR and racing in general as a secondary sport outside of the Big 4 more akin to the MLS as an afterthought in sports. However, this wasn't always the case as NASCAR was once the most popular spectator sport in the country and the most popular on television in certain regions of the country. I know what any non-Nascar fan feels about this right now. Who Cares! It's just cars driving in circles! I get that criticism, but it is shortsighted to what makes a sport entertaining. Soccer is literally just kicking a ball. Yet that is the world's most popular sport, which children can learn to play before they can read. No child can learn to drive at 180 MPH at a local CYO league, where the parents are tossing insults at each other because Little Timmy can't shoot. Sorry for the tangent, but I needed to oust that ridiculous argument if I am to proceed with what my real point is. The main crux of my argument is not that NASCAR in 2021 is entertaining because frankly its horrible, but this wasn't always the case and I want to analyze how it got this way and if it can be changed by viewing other sports.
I would like to revisit the 2001 Daytona 500. We are now days away from the 20th anniversary of this fateful race, which forever changed the sport. The passing of Dale Earnhardt on the racetrack in 2001 forever changed the fanbase and would be similar to if Tom Brady had passed away on the field last weekend during the Super Bowl. It is impossible to comprehend how massive this was for those personally involved with the sport and fans at home. Ever since this tragedy the sport has been on a descent from popularity. This isn't entirely to do with the loss of Earnhardt, although losing the sport's most popular competitor hurt, this is mainly due to the loss of personality and the corporatization of the sport. Earnhardt was simply a man of another era. He took no prisoners and let his personality be out on full display for the world to see. This type of average joe with a chip on your shoulder resonated with normal people and was common in pre-2000s Nascar. Fans invest in personalities. Why do we still care about McGregor long after his prime? Because of the persona he has created and the rivalries he has fostered. This was the essence of Nascar. At least it used to be. Nowadays the rivalries are more like the tantrums between the children at the CYO Game.
I want to take one more trip back in time briefly to an era when Nascar was not a national sport. The very first nationally televised race in the history of the sport was the 1979 Daytona 500. This single race launched the sport with perhaps the best example of tensions, theatrics, crashes, and starpower in the sports history. Let me cut to the chase. The last lap of the 1979 Daytona 500 had it all: 2 drivers literally slamming into each other repeatedly like a demolition derby, a subsequent wreck, because typically that happens when you slam into one another, Richard Petty the winningest driver of the sport coming out of nowhere from a half lap behind to win the race, some unknown driver named Earnhardt starting his rookie season, and then 3 rednecks fighting it out in the grass after the race is over with one bashing his opponent with a helmet (yeah Browns fans Garret didn't patent that move). You might be thinking this is the dumbest end to an event I have ever heard of. Yet, it was entertaining because it pulled a national audience into a sport where the teams and drivers genuinely raced for their livelihoods and the sport was filled with their colorful personalities in an any guy can win type of environment. This was the draw of Nascar and its why we are fascinated by players across eras like Richard Shermon, Jack Lambert, Dennis Rodman, and Babe Ruth. Most fans are drawn to the people or teams in a sport not the sport itself. We invest in the rivalries, tensions, and personalities we love. This is the essence of what it means to be a diehard fan, and this is unfortunately what has disappeared in many sports, and in the most severe case NASCAR.
As I previoudly stated, when Nascar lost its greatest personality in 2001 the sport lost far more than just a marketable character. It lost a piece of itself. The era of the average joe racing against the odds died off with Earnhardt and working class vibe of the sport slowly transitioned towards what it is today. A sport which existed by marketing its drivers' personalities is now a sport with drivers without personalities that market corporations. Perhaps the most indicative part of NASCAR is the cookie cutter tracks it uses for the majority of races. (For the non-racing fans these are tracks where the exact same blueprints are used for each track, and no that wasn't always the case they used to have various degrees of banking, turn radius, and length.) The cookie cutter tracks pair perfectly with the corporate cookie cutter drivers in NASCAR. You are seeing the ascent of sports, like the UFC, where they embrace individualism unlike Nascar which now frowns upon it. The sad truth about Nascar is it will never be the same. Once corporatism had been embraced there was no avoiding it. However, I encourage those to still go watch the Daytona 500, perhaps for the first time, as something of American tradition and showmanship. Just realize post race fights are far less likely than the following statement in Victory Lane: "What a great win from the Sellout Racing Team today powered by Toyota and the Entire Coca-Cola Family of Drivers. Along with my lord and savior Mark Zuckerberg and all those who helped me get here from Microsoft to Robinhood Investments.... Sponsored by Heart Attack Energy Drink."