By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Editor
Welcome to the race to promote motor racing to the younger generation. It didn’t start with Bubba Wallace’s victory at Talladega, but it certainly sped things up for NASCAR.
You may not have noticed it, but NASCAR TV ratings are not what they once were. They are down, even compared to other sports leagues in an era of waning interest in live sports coverage. Meanwhile, IndyCar viewership is showing positive signs of growth, albeit in the last year of a successful relationship on the NBC Sports channel which is shut down and replaced by NBC, Peacock and USA Today.
There’s no inside information here, just what longtime sports writer David Kindred might call a “dime store hunch” about those ratings. It revolves around the same issue for both organizations: Legacy fans. They are returning to the single-seaters side, thanks to the renewal of the Indy 500 in 2016 at its 100e race and last year’s sale of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar Series to Roger Penske. (This, of course, also meant the departure of Tony George and his family, the owners of the Speedway since World War II and a main source of lost enthusiasm for many fans.)
Meanwhile, the older generation of fans who followed NASCAR are gone, if not for a long time.
It is the cynicism in me that suggests that NASCAR ultimately gave up on Confederate flags on race tracks not only because those battle flags were on the wrong side of history. The sanctioning body, I guess, had acknowledged that its efforts to win back Legacy fans, whose departure resulted in a collapse in attendance and ratings, had failed.
By stopping to hunt (ahem) the elderly, the door has opened to make every effort towards the future, such as pursuing a more diverse audience. Other than the already slowing odds, there wasn’t much to lose in being on the right side of the story.
Wallace’s victory at Talladega on Monday demonstrated that there was everything to be gained.
After remembering to be aggressive, the only black driver in the Cup Series put in a classic performance on one of NASCAR’s most legendary tracks to claim his first career victory. His supply team kept him in contention. He went through wrecks. With the race on the line due to the threat of rain, Wallace then took the lead in a still fierce draft and kept the lead in his Toyota against two Team Penske Fords. As his friend and fellow Cup driver Dave Blaney said, “He told them. “
Wallace won in a streak harder than the outdated Jerky. He has risen to the standard of his equipment at every stage of his career. Lucky to have been part of Cup teams where he was the only driver, first with Richard Petty Motorsports and now with 23XI Racing, Wallace’s teams have sunk or swam with his results. Starting with a second place finish at the Daytona 500 in his first full season with Team Petty, Wallace did his part to become a winner.
Will this victory help reverse a recent trend in history that suggests auto racing is no longer a major league? This is a perception resulting from empty forums (long before the pandemic) and falling ratings.
There was a time not so long ago when overwhelmingly large crowds at auto races kept sports writers online. Once the Great Recession hit, those big crowds disappeared due to the abandonment by fans of a sport that is always destined to change. After this fan-disappearing scenario occurred at NASCAR’s biggest events and the Indy 500, sports newspaper publishers, besieged by shrinking budgets, gave up racing.
As for electronic “journalism”, it was only a matter of time before the networks stopped paying much attention to any sports organization that was not a broadcast partner. Meanwhile, sanctioning bodies have attempted to fill the lack of coverage with their own internal version of events on websites.
Before COVID, races finally sold out at the Daytona 500 (albeit with reduced seats) and the Indy 500. As these big events unfold, so does racing fortunes. But even in 2020, when NASCAR and IndyCar were the first to tackle planning issues during the pandemic, sports news and coverage spoke of the NFL as the first major league to attempt a full schedule. AS IF THE RACE DIDN’T EXIST.
When Helio Castroneves won a historic fourth Indy 500 earlier this year ahead of a limited 135,000 COVIDs, ESPN yawned and gave this story a quick minute halfway through the sports center with a voiceover that included a guy named “pillow” finishing second. This guy— “Pal-oh” —is now the IndyCar champion.
In Wallace’s case, he got a question-and-answer article on ESPN, which suggests how far the needle can be moved by diversity in motorsport when a black driver is successful in America. Needless to say, perception matters, as it has a lot to do with sponsorship, media coverage, and TV deals.
In many ways, IndyCar is as diverse a major league sport as it gets, considering the participation of women and riders from all over the world. Sadly, black participation remains rare in the upper ranks of American open wheel racing.
In the long run, all forms of racing in America are doing better as long as they embrace diversity as the country becomes more and more diverse. Along with attendance and TV ratings, it can make a difference in dollar terms for NASCAR and IndyCar to be viewed on par with Major League Baseball, NBA and NFL, which have long embraced the diversity. More recently, stick and ball sports have become much more sponsor-oriented and now compete for sponsorship with running.
So a racing hat trick to Bubba Wallace for sticking to his career plan and winning a Cup race. He tells them in more than one way.
(Editor’s Note: Jonathan Ingram and Bill Lester are the co-authors of the 2021 version of Pegasus Books titled “Winning In Reverse”. Ingram’s book “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt – How HANS Helped Save the Race ”is also available on Amazon.)