When the checkered flag drops at NASCAR’s Cup Series Championship on Nov. 7 in Phoenix, it will end a season, and an era.
It is the last race for NASCAR’s sixth-generation car, which will be replaced in 2022 with Next Gen, a racecar tasked with something more than just going fast. It is being counted on to change NASCAR’s fortunes, to bring back classic stock car thrills and reverse more than a decade of fan attrition. It’s also being counted on to change NASCAR’s culture, to attract racially diverse team owners and team members and the younger multicultural fans that advertisers crave.
“We’ve made no bones about we want to attract some new fans and new teams, and that starts with the car,” said John Probst, NASCAR’s senior vice president for racing innovation.
But to attract that young, diverse audience, NASCAR must reckon with its past. It’s an open question how much a car can do to assuage a troubling history of discrimination. “NASCAR is doing some things, but they need to do more,” said Bill Lester, who in 1999 became one of the few African-American drivers in NASCAR, and said he was still uncomfortable at some tracks: “At Talladega? Shoot. At Martinsville, Virginia? I was sweating.”
The league is in a difficult position. Its economic clout grew out of its appeal to white working-class fans. For decades, it fostered an outlaw image true to its roots of good ol’ boy moonshiners outrunning the law in hopped-up coupes. By the 1990s, the largely white, right-leaning audience became an economic and political force known as “NASCAR Nation,” valued as the most brand-loyal consumers in sports. But fans warmly nostalgic for Old Dixie are aging out. The young, diverse spectators whom sponsors now want don’t get misty-eyed at the raising of the Confederate flag, which the league banned last year.
NASCAR’s challenge is to appeal to a new audience without alienating an old one, even as it seeks to distance itself from some of what that old audience held dear. The league’s strategy is all rolled up into Next Gen — to pay homage to the past and outrun it at the same time. Honoring the past, it looks like a stock vehicle to “put the ‘stock’ back in stockcar,” as NASCAR likes to say. Anticipating for the future, it can be converted to electric power.
Billions ride on the plan. NASCAR is due to enter negotiations for its broadcast rights, which previously brought an estimated $8 billion over 10 years. Delivering diverse viewers becomes a multibillion-dollar marketing imperative.
Parts of Next Gen should appeal to audiences both old and new.
Even devoted fans sometimes griped that racing had grown dull, partly owing to the cars. In response to the crash that killed the racing legend Dale Earnhardt in 2001, NASCAR developed the fifth-generation “car of the future” with an eye toward safety. Tony Stewart, a star driver, called it “the flying brick,” in part for its generic appearance. The next car, Gen 6, looked more like a street car but was more costly than Gen 5, meaning fewer teams could afford winning cars. The leaders would get out front early and stay out front. Fans yawned.
Next Gen addresses these problems in a couple of ways. First, the cars look more like stock street cars, recalling a time when rules said that manufacturers had to sell the public at least 500 of a particular car for it to qualify it for racing. Manufacturers say fans bond closely with a brand the more its racecar resembles what’s in the driveway. “Making that emotional connection is important to the marketing side,” said Rob Johnston, the marketing manager for Global Ford Performance.
Next Gen will also more mechanically resemble street cars. NASCAR is replacing arcane technology, like an antiquated solid axle rear suspension with the independent rear suspension of modern cars. The recirculating ball steering is replaced with rack-and-pinion, and 15-inch wheels have been swapped for 18-inchers.
Fans like to see aggressive contact between cars, which Next Gen is made to absorb. “The composite body is built to take a lot more abuse, so from the bumpin’ and bangin’, the car should withstand a lot more,” Mr. Probst said. Other changes should increase passing ability, which will be viewed from more in-car cameras. New sensors will generate more statistics to obsess fans.
But part of Next Gen’s task is to change NASCAR’s culture. That will come from lowering costs, which the league says will allow for new owners.
Teams will be limited to a seven-car fleet. Previously, with different cars for each kind of track — dirt track, short oval, road course — some teams were said to have more than 40 cars. And each team manufactured its own parts. The Next Gen cars will all get most of their parts, from chassis to gas tanks, from the same specified shops. NASCAR said bulk buying should reduce costs, although some teams question that.
But not Justin Marks, an owner of the Trackhouse team, who estimates Next Gen should reduce the ownership cost by “25 to 40 percent,” he said, helping to level the playing field. “As the sport grew in popularity in the mid-to-late ’90s, it attracted a lot of capital,” Mr. Marks said. “It became an engineering arms race.” Success was determined largely by how much money, tech and support the sponsors provided.
NASCAR said lowering costs also made it easier to attract new team owners, which increased diversity in management. To much fanfare, Michael Jordan formed 23XI Racing. Armando Pérez, better known as the entertainer Pitbull, joined Trackhouse. Notably, Mr. Jordan’s lead driver is Darrell Wallace Jr., who is known as Bubba and is the only Black driver in the Cup Series, and Pitbull’s Trackhouse lead driver is Daniel Suarez, the only Mexican-born competitor in the field. However, it may be hard to gauge how much the savings mean to someone like Mr. Jordan, whose net worth Forbes estimates at $1.6 billion.
Increased minority participation gives the league a new narrative that highlights inclusiveness. And narrative is very important to NASCAR.
Its research shows that storytelling is a top reason fans tune in, “whether that is the competition, or a wreck, or two cars fighting out for the lead week after week,” said Pete Jung, the chief marketing officer. NASCAR’s peak years featured rivalries that made great stories, like that of Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon. Earnhardt, known as “the Intimidator,” represented the gritty, old-school racers in a duel against the clean-cut “Wonder Boy” Gordon.
Mr. Suarez’s role at Trackhouse influenced Chevrolet’s sponsorship decision, said Jim Campbell, Chevy’s U.S. vice president for performance and motorsports. “Chevrolet Silverado, for the Hispanic market, is the No. 1 pickup brand — that is something we are proud of,” he said. “It’s an important buyer base, just like all customers.”
If NASCAR’s Next Gen claims sound familiar, they should. NASCAR has called previous vehicle generations more carlike and said they would make racing more competitive. It has had celebrity owners before — the actor Burt Reynolds, the quarterback Brett Favre, and even the rapper Curtis Jackson, known as 50 Cent. NASCAR has expressed interest in a minority fan base for decades. Its Drive for Diversity program, founded in 2004 to develop minority talent, produced three prominent graduates, Mr. Suarez, Mr. Wallace and Kyle Larson.
“The driver diversity program has been around 17 years, and they have three people they point at,” said Mr. Lester. He acknowledged that the fault might be beyond NASCAR’s control. “I can only blame corporate America for not stepping up,” he said. “Racing is politics first, business second and racing third,” he added. “It’s draining, especially if you are of color, you are unique, which you think is a plus, but it’s not. It’s a curse. Driving ability is subordinate to the ability to raise money. Many of the best drivers are at home because they don’t have the checkbook to compete.”
Nor can NASCAR dictate the culture in the stands. “I feel comfortable, but I don’t feel welcome,” said Jason Boykin, a fan and founder of the Black NASCAR Fans Facebook page. “It’s not NASCAR making me feel that way, it’s the fans. NASCAR is trying to make the sport feel like something else, but the fans aren’t there yet.” Mr. Boykin accepts that to attend a race he will have to thread past vulgar anti-Biden flags and people with anti-Kamala Harris T-shirts so offensive he wonders if they are custom-printed. “You know, OK, I won’t go over there and ask for a hot dog.” Nor would he wear a Black Lives Matters shirt: “I wouldn’t be comfortable wearing that there even though I believe in it.”
NASCAR has faced criticism over tacit racism for decades. In 2009, the N.A.A.C.P. called for a boycott over the Confederate flag. In 2015, Dale Earnhardt Jr. urged fans not to hoist the rebel flag, to little effect. Last year, the flag was finally prohibited after Mr. Wallace called for a ban.
What may be different now is that fans themselves appear poised for change. A June 2020 survey by the sports marketing advisers Performance Research measured attitudes toward social justice issues among 1,075 respondents, including 467 NASCAR fans. The Confederate flag ban was supported “somewhat” or “very much” by 60 percent of the general population, but by 80 percent of both African Americans and NASCAR fans.
“There is a net gain for progressive policies,” said Bill Doyle of Performance Research. “You are going to piss off some people, but you are going to gain people overall.”
Which is crucial as broadcast negotiations begin. NASCAR declines to discuss contracts, but the media tracking company Nielsen has reported that NASCAR viewership peaked with 8.3 million viewers in 2005 and steadily declined to 3.1 million in 2018, where it has held fairly steady.
NASCAR concedes that a car alone can’t change its fortunes. It is also reaching out by way of video gaming; wagering through Fox Bet; a social media platform that offers entertainments like virtual rides with drivers; and “second screen” entertainment that runs with the races.
The question is if that will do enough to align the interests of NASCAR, sponsors and fans.
“They realize their Southern confederate redneck fan base is tapped out,” Mr. Lester said. He added, “Banning the flag isn’t going to cause to Black people to come pouring in the gates.”
But even the skeptical Mr. Lester finds reason for optimism. He has worked with a group for a year on a project under wraps that “we think it will help move the needle in African-American participation in motor sports,” he said. “The different mind-set has let Bubba Wallace ask them to ban the flag. They were ready to hear it,” he said. “The time is right.”