Pretend you're playing a word association game and you're given the word NASCAR. Say the first thing that comes to mind and fast cars might be a typical response; action or excitement might be another. For obvious reasons, these kinds of associations would most likely come top of mind for people with a bit of an appreciation for the sport.
For those on the other side of track, however -- folks with little or no interest in motor sports -- boring or overrated may be likely responses. Another word that could very well come up is redneck -- a term often associated with the sport's fan base. Racin' and rednecks have long gone together like grits and eggs. (Well, at least that's an analogy that probably makes sense for those of us from the South or who've lived here long enough to actually know what grits are.) It's certainly not the most flattering form of stereotyping a professional sport could want, especially to the powers that be at NASCAR who have been working diligently to diversify the sport. But it is a connection that comes about rather honestly. After all, NASCAR's roots are firmly planted right here in the good ol' Southeast.
In fact, the very first race in NASCAR's "strictly stock" division, which evolved into what is now called the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series of today, was held on June 19, 1949 at a 3/4-mile dirt track on Wilkinson Boulevard. Despite the fact that the race was nearly 60 years ago and now the typical race season has expanded from the Southeast to include tracks in the West, Midwest and Northeast, a lot of people assume that the grandstands at racing events are filled with good ol' boys who like to spit tobacco and shave the No. 3 in their chest hair. Not to mention this more traditional race fan also makes for great material for countless numbers of jokes (as witnessed most recently during NBC's Last Comic Standing series finale that included not one but two jokes dissing NASCAR fans).
But regardless of mainstream perceptions, there are plenty of nontraditional race fans -- women, minorities and (low and behold) even prominent corporate executives -- filling the stands these days. A change NASCAR has intentionally helped to create but shouldn't take sole credit for by any means.
In 2004 NASCAR launched a program called Drive for Diversity that was designed to develop minority and female drivers and crew members. USA Today criticized the program earlier this year by pointing out it still has no blacks or women competing regularly in either of its top circuits, the Nextel Cup and Busch Series. The article instead offered the idea that NASCAR's dreams of expanding its fan base among minorities may hinge more on its ability to attract Latinos -- since drivers like Juan Pablo Montoya and Aric Almirola are gaining in popularity.
Buz McKim, historian for the soon-to-come NASCAR Hall of Fame and NASCAR's former coordinator of statistical services, affirms that in the past 20 years the sport's demographics have changed quite a bit, noting the exceptional growth in the number of female fans that are tuning in to NASCAR. (It's reported that female fans currently make up 40 percent of the sport's fan base.) But according to McKim, these changes didn't just happen on their own.
"NASCAR is known to be very deliberate and intentional," McKim explains. "Expanding [tracks] into other parts of the country absolutely broadened the sports audience. And after 60 years we know they have a formula that works -- NASCAR is a major part of the American culture."
He continues, "As the demographics grow, things can't remain the way they used to be. NASCAR is evolving just like any successful business must do.
"If people were to really stop and think about it, the good ol' boy stereotype is passé. Just take a look at all the Fortune 500 Companies that are now involved with NASCAR."
But has the money and effort put forward by NASCAR to broaden its fan base really been a factor in attracting minorities and white-collared executives or does the fascination and thrill of the sport itself hook 'em? Well it's both, really.
In the case of all the nontraditional race fans we spoke with recently, none of them credited the diversity program for introducing them to NASCAR. Instead, it was the actual experience of being at a race that hooked each and every one of them. Although one might conclude that since NASCAR is expanding its reach, this has allowed more people with more diverse backgrounds to become exposed to the sport. Whether the fact that NASCAR's audience is expanding to include a variety of races and backgrounds is intentional or in fact unintentional remains to be argued. But one thing's certain -- you don't have to look too hard in this town or in the stands at a race at Lowe's Motor Speedway to find plenty of folks who don't fit that good ol' boy image.
Speak to Dani Jetton, an African-American female who has been rabidly following the sport for the past several years, about it and she'll say that NASCAR's push for diversity had no influence over her whatsoever.
"Although I have heard of the program before and seen the commercials, I actually don't know much about what the program does, so it clearly hasn't had any impact on me," she says. "I certainly support NASCAR in trying to make the sport more diverse and bring in more fans, but their promotion of this program has less to do with keeping me as a fan than other factors: COT, the curious manner in which violations and penalties are assessed against some teams while others get free passes, annoying TV coverage -- the same factors that irritate virtually every other fan of the sport."
She continues, "At the end of the day, I don't think I'm that different from the 'average' NASCAR fan. Once you take the whole 'African-American-born-and-raised-north-of-the-Mason-Dixon-Line' thing out of it, I'm just like everyone else. I root for my guy, I save money to go to what races I can squeeze in, I own way too many baseball hats with my driver's number and probably do a little too much planning of my social life around being home in front of TV on Sunday afternoons."
Planning your social life around races? Corporate executive Julie Dill plans international business trips in order to cheer on her favorite driver, Tony Stewart.
"I don't know whether it's the best thing to admit to or the worst, but when I was based in Australia I could somehow find a reason to come back to Charlotte in May to be here for the race," she confides. Dill is currently president of Union Gas, a major Canadian natural gas utility with assets of approximately $4 billion. Her professional experience includes various leadership positions with Shell Oil Company and Duke Energy International. While based in Charlotte for two years, Dill became the proud owner of a permanent seat at Lowe's Motor Speedway and this weekend she'll make the trip from Canada to be at the Bank of America 500.
Amanda DeHaven, another female executive and NASCAR fan, turned the tables on her husband and actually got him involved in racing ... and he works for a company that sponsors a driver. DeHaven, a native of Philadelphia, caught the bug when she was attending Florida State University. She enjoyed the fun atmosphere of college football games so she was easily talked in to attending the July race in Daytona with friends. That was eight years ago, and she's been going to races ever since.
Bob Morgan, president of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, says that NASCAR's appeal is universal and once someone goes they can't help but to get hooked.
"It's easy to be a NASCAR fan in this day and time. It's a premier sport and a premier business. I don't think there's a stigma to it anymore," he opines.
"Over the past several years, I've noticed more of a general acceptance," offers Rebecca Ramsey, who works in the Charlotte hospitality industry and has hosted numerous corporate entertainment outings to the Charlotte races. A loyal fan herself after being introduced to the sport by her husband, she says she receives more interest from clients she wouldn't necessarily expect to be interested in NASCAR. "If you like sports and you like excitement, you'll like going to a race because there's nothing like it," she says.