Fans of NASCAR, watching races from the grandstands or at home, have little opportunity to see the actual faces of the drivers whipping around the tracks. Rather, their view focuses on the cars and the brands emblazoned on them, which creates a challenge for NASCAR itself and its efforts to ensure that new generations of fans continue to connect and identify with the athletes behind the wheels.
In response, their goal is to find candidates to market who are both, appealing to audiences and skilled drivers. Jeff Gordon was famously both: He drove like the dickens, but he also was charming, handsome, and appealing in interviews and talk shows. Finding such a combined personality is hard, but NASCAR knows that it has little choice.
For example, Chase Elliot is a young competitor and a legacy—his father was the famous and popular driver “Awesome Bill” Elliot—who has enjoyed some recent trips to the winner’s circle. But the Elliots also are known for being a bit taciturn, offering short answers rather than in-depth conversations, which may limit his potential to be the next big thing for NASCAR.
Some drivers have taken the initiative to increase their popularity on their own. After Ryan Blaney won a recent race, he sought out a child in the stands to receive his checkered flag. The kid was wearing a Kyle Busch t-shirt, but when he and his father later sought out Blaney to sign the flag, they also bought a new Blaney shirt for the boy to wear at the next race.
Such personal gestures are increasingly important for drivers whose lifestyles often appear divorced from the reality of their fans’ lives. As they rack up wins and prizes, many drivers adopt lavish lifestyles, flying private jets to the track and moving into mansions in remote locations. But NASCAR attracts a demographic that tends to earn lower incomes, and these drivers might seem to be denying the blue-collar roots of the sport. For fans, current and future, such disconnect discourages the kinds of engagement that lead to lifetime loyalties.
- What should NASCAR be doing to encourage fans to connect with drivers?
- What risks are associated with making specific drivers the face of the sport?
Source: Jenna Fryer, “Column: NASCAR Must Push its Newest Winners into Superstars,” AP, October 8, 2018