The American Road #11: Why America Loves NASCAR

NASCARBill Crittenden writes about his motorsport passion: I’m not here to pick on anyone’s favorite sport. Everybody’s got different tastes and to each their own. Outside of the United States the number one motorsport is Formula 1, while America loves watching low tech cars drive in circles and occasionally the world asks, “why?”. So what I’m here to do is explain a little bit about why Americans love NASCAR and just aren’t really excited about Formula 1.

To start with, we’re famous for being a “melting pot” of all cultures so you’ll find plenty of F1 fans among us, but the prevailing culture in a wide swath of the United States is one of humble, practical, working-class values. Even if some of us make a lot of money, we prefer the “simple things”.

Our top two selling vehicles, year after year, are the Ford F-150 and Chevrolet Silverado pickup trucks. The Dodge Ram often rounds out the Top 5, and that doesn’t count the sales figures for Toyota or Nissan. Even people who don’t need trucks for their occupation buy them for looks or on the theory that they might need the bed occasionally. Having money doesn’t mean you escape the truck market, it means you emulate the working class with a few comfortable extras by ordering a King Ranch F-150 at $49,000 (for 2WD V6, over $52K for 4WD V8) and then start adding options.

Most Americans out here actually prefer that our Corvettes aren’t as “refined” as a Ferrari. “Refinement”? Not in John Wayne’s country. Not in Chuck Norris’ America. We take pride in knowing we can go stupid fast at a third of the cost, and we’ll spend the money we saved on greasy diner burgers, Duck Dynasty merchandise, and mass-produced beer. Any backaches produced by less advanced suspensions just makes us feel tougher… and prouder.

Bristol Motor Speedway, NASCARIt’s in this environment that NASCAR thrives. NASCAR started in the rural south, referred to as “God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy” country by presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Its very first “Strictly Stock” event was in North Carolina and saw the winner disqualified as the rear springs on Hubert Westmoreland’s vehicle were modified to accommodate a load of moonshine without sagging – a dead giveaway to any police watching the roads. Hubert was a known moonshiner and it’s still not clear if he was trying to cheat or if he had just forgotten to switch them back to stock for the race.

“Strictly Stock” was the first name of the series that’s now NASCAR’s top series, the Sprint Cup. In the beginning, they were what’s called “showroom stock.” As-is, from the manufacturer, no modifications. Anyone with a few bucks and more balls than brains could be a stock car star back in the beginning.

That’s had to change over the years as Detroit shifted to manufacturing front wheel drive cars and driver safety became a major consideration, but the type of rough and tough drivers and fans the sport attracted in the beginning continue to shape the sport to this day. A few weeks ago when Austin Dillon’s car flew into the catch fence at Daytona, after horrified fans thought they had just witnessed another driver die at Daytona, Austin got out of his car and flapped his hands to the crowd, copying a gesture made famous by bull rider Lane Frost. He earned a lot of respect for having the presence of mind to make that tribute after a rough ride that lasted a lot longer than 8 seconds.

Despite a great deal of technology being used in the construction and testing of current NASCAR race cars, and great advances in car & track safety, the vehicles themselves are still surprisingly low-tech. The cars are built on a NASCAR-designed “common template” shared by all marques, rules don’t leave much room for innovation, the shape of the sheet metal bodies must meet exacting specifications, and the cars still had carburetors until the 2012 season. Pit stops are done with manual jacks and wheels are attached with 5 lug nuts just like a regular road car (although the lugs and studs are designed for the fast-off, fast-on pace of competition pit stops). Fuel pours into the cars by gravity from old-fashioned metal cans.

Tracks are simple, mostly ovals, and at many of them you can see all the way around the track from the main grandstand. Without much room to string out the field, cars are constantly running near each other if not actually side-by-side.

That all takes the emphasis off of the engineering, technology, the race courses, and even the cars themselves and puts it on the driver, crew chief, and the people who go “over the wall” on race day. NASCAR is a personality-driven sport, and given the kind of people NASCAR drew to it in its early days it’s no surprise that today’s average fan is the kind of person who is an anti-snob and connects with the guys who are “regular Joes” like ourselves.

NASCAR’s greatest hero of the 1980’s and 1990’s was the son of a modestly successful minor-league short track driver, a man who through the toughness he learned from his father and sheer will built himself up from working at a towel factory in Kannapolis to seven-time Winston Cup champion. His primary sponsors throughout his career were Wrangler jeans (my favorite brand) and General Motors. He won millions of dollars over the course of his career but still drove a Chevy truck and spent his time off hunting in the backwoods of the South. And he had a better mustache than Nigel Mansell.Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR

Dale Earnhardt would have been as out of place on a multimillion-dollar yacht parked in Monaco as Lewis Hamilton would be at a dive bar in a West Virginia mining town. People often say that “Dale was one of us,” and that’s exactly why so many Americans loved him.

Dale’s son, Dale Jr., also drives a Chevy truck despite being raised with money and scoring his own millions of dollars more in his own career earnings. NASCAR’s current most popular driver is a humble, quiet man who has a few close friends, owns a bar, wears jeans and goes hunting and fishing. The two are definitely related, his popularity and his personality, as many of his fans feel the same kind of connection to him that the previous generation felt for his father. He’s relatable, the kind of guy you could invite to the weekend barbecue if he weren’t busy all weekend racing.

Knowing their target market, sponsorship is directed at the working-class American, so you won’t often find the logo of an investment brokerage or business staffing company on the hood of a stock car, and even the millionaire drivers use their sponsors’ products off track. Sure, Tony Stewart bought a Lamborghini with his winnings but he’s also a big fan of Burger King Whoppers. I respect that, because I had a Whopper for dinner the night before I wrote this, and I’d like to think that if I had Tony’s money I’d have still done the same. It makes you wonder if Tony’s ever taken the Lambo through the drive-thru before.

All across this country, in the wide open spaces between the big cities, you’ll find the kind of American who takes pride in practicality and hard work, actually enjoys living a simple rural life, and when they unwind on a weekend they want to cheer for the kind of driver who would fit in with the guys in his work crew or bowling team. When they get home from church on Sunday they don’t want to watch Valtteri Bottas race a seven-million dollar Ferrari around a track whose name they can’t pronounce, they prefer to settle into the La-Z-Boy, open up a Budweiser, and watch an Earnhardt run a big steel car wheel-to-wheel with guys from Kansas and Wisconsin around a South Carolina racetrack.Ricky Rudd, NASCAR

Objectively, NASCAR is not better or worse than Formula 1, it’s just different. But given the money and the choice, I’d rather have a burger in a parking lot outside Bristol Speedway than filet mignon at the finest restaurant in Monaco on race weekend. I know there are millions of people who would agree.

Then consider Bernie Ecclestone’s dismissal of potential fans who can’t afford to buy a Rolex or use UBS investment banking, and you can see why so many of us are happier just ignoring F1 doing its rich people thing on another channel while we watch Kevin Harvick race to see if we’re all getting a free Bloomin’ Onion at Outback on Monday.

Bill Crittenden
Owner, The Crittenden Automotive Library @ CarsAndRacingStuff.com