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Strictly Stock

On N.A.S.C.A.R.


N.A.S.C.A.R. held its first race in 1947, and, in the following five decades, the stock car series saw consistent and sometimes spectacular growth. It peaked in the 1990s, when tickets were often in short supply and promoters were clamoring to secure more tracks and race dates. By any measure, N.A.S.C.A.R. was a kingdom, complete with a self-styled king: Richard Petty, who after his two hundredth victory at the 1984 Daytona 500—attended in style by Ronald Reagan—retired and became the series’ unofficial ambassador. But those were the glory days. N.A.S.C.A.R.’s kingdom is losing ground. Its decline has been slow, but steady, both in attendance and television viewership. It’s not uncommon now for track owners to paint grandstand seats different colors, making it hard to discern that many are empty. Explanations for the decline abound, and the series hasn’t yet devised a way to boost N.A.S.C.A.R.’s popularity. But it’s clearly worried about the future.

While N.A.S.C.A.R. higher-ups fret about their fate, it’s worth recalling that existential fear about everything else was in large part what allowed the sport to become popular in the first place. It’s often said that modern life is characterized by guilt about the past, boredom with the present, and anxiety about the future; a thorough-going existential malaise. At one time N.A.S.C.A.R. provided relief from all that. It was truly a Sabbath activity. Go to church Sunday morning? Yes. But go to the race or vegetate in front of the TV afterwards? Yes, too. If you picked the right driver, church and racing were complementary exercises. N.A.S.C.A.R.’s declining popularity no doubt corresponds with the fact that for many people that is no longer true. But the sport can still be a soothing balm in a country marked by pervasive ennui. We must examine its history, its present state, and look forward to its future to recover its healing powers.

Let’s first consider the past. N.A.S.C.A.R. was originally a Southern sport. Some of the first cars were high performance vehicles developed by moonshiners to outrun federal revenuers. Junior Johnson, an early champion and later team owner, actually did time for distilling illegal alcohol. He made the mistake of starting his fire too late during the night, so that, by daybreak, it was still smoking and was spotted by an ever-vigilant representative of just taxation. Stories like these have persuaded many people that N.A.S.C.A.R. is just too Southern for their taste. To remedy that perception—and to sever the series from its past—N.A.S.C.A.R. has started to act like, well, Yankees. That has meant adopting Yankee moral sensibilities in areas pertaining to race relations, equality of the sexes, and environmental sensitivity.

N.A.S.C.A.R. has made a show of welcoming black drivers in recent years, with the result that there is precisely one black person driving in the top division, Bubba Wallace. He had middling results until the Fall 2021 Talladega race, when he was in the lead and the race was red-flagged for rain. The series, rather than wait out the storm, called the race. It had gone just over half distance, so there was no sense in which rules were stretched, and everybody, to a man, seemed happy with the result. Wallace became the second black man to win at N.A.S.C.A.R., the first being Wendell Scott in 1963. N.A.S.C.A.R. has also attempted to improve race relations by banning the flying of Confederate flags, which were once ubiquitous at every race and prominent on the trucks and mobile homes of the unreconstructed. N.A.S.C.A.R. has recently welcomed the Mexican driver Daniel Suarez who surprised everybody by doing well at the Bristol dirt race. The slippery clay, the surface upon which N.A.S.C.A.R. was born, allowed Suarez to show some of his natural talent by beating a lot of the gringos who normally dominate because they have more and better engineers. The vast majority of drivers, however, are still good ol’ boys from the lower echelons of circle track racing.

Speaking of boys, there have only been a handful of female N.A.S.C.A.R. drivers in the series’ history. Until recently, Danica Patrick was the most prominent one. She got her start on road courses and switched over to N.A.S.C.A.R. after moderate success in IndyCar. In 2008, she did actually win an Indy race in Japan that had devolved into an economy run where her crew guessed correctly on fuel mileage, and she was able to finish with fewer pit stops. When Petty was asked if she would win at N.A.S.C.A.R., he said, “Yes, if the boys don’t show up.” This was somewhat harsh. But regardless of her results, it’s undeniable that she had an appeal to hen-pecked husbands all over the South. Her fiery personality and attractive swagger were a perfect mélange as she stomped down pit lane to confront those who did her wrong on the track. But there aren’t many other successful female drivers. Some, like Petty, think it’s because women lack the ability. Others think it’s a matter of motivation. This may be closer to the truth. Half the people in the stands are women, and that’s where they’d prefer to stay. Women think bigger than men, and risking their lives to beat another driver to the finish line is often too small a reward. It’s no wonder that male drivers do less well as they marry and have children. They’d rather unstrap themselves from the car at the end of the race—and not leave that task to an emergency crew.

N.A.S.C.A.R.’s most absurd attempt at adopting Yankee sensibilities is its newfound environmental sensitivity. The gas intakes on the cars are painted green, and the new fuel is “enhanced” by ethanol alcohol. Of course, N.A.S.C.A.R. crowds have always believed in the use of ethanol, but only in beverages. There is simply no defense of any automotive competition on the basis of environmental protection. Fuel is spilled all over the ground at every pit stop, sometimes catching fire, and the cars guzzle the stuff at prodigious rates. The fans are another story altogether: many drive countless miles in huge vehicles to make race weekend. The only thing green about racing is the amount of money invested in the sport.

But these are the least of N.A.S.C.A.R.’s present woes. These days, there’s a widespread perception that, in its current iteration, N.A.S.C.A.R. has become too predictable, both in terms of race outcome and season championships. The races are long, typically four hundred or five hundred miles. (One even lasts six hundred miles.) A typical telecast runs at three hours. In order to survive, many a husband takes what has become known as the N.A.S.C.A.R. nap: he drinks a few beers, sleeps, and then recovers in time to watch the finish. All races are now divided into three stages, separated by mandatory caution periods. At the end of each stage, points are awarded to the top ten cars, with the idea being that this will incentivize drivers to keep the action going all race long. The caution periods, in which teams with problems can run repairs before rejoining the fray, are supposed to further heighten the drama. At least in theory. 

The older points system, which was scribbled on a napkin in a bar by series founder Bill France, Sr., rewarded consistency over sporadic brilliance. The system often resulted in champions being crowned before the last race of the season. Perceiving this as a weakness, the series started aping stick and ball sports, which have a regular season that seeds a playoff season, where everybody starts over at zero. Now, at the end of the regular N.A.S.C.A.R. season, a large number of drivers qualify, and they are whittled down until eventually four compete for the championship in the last race of the year. The highest finisher is champ, no matter where he finishes in the actual race. 

Although officials claim plausible deniability, these changes were implemented to make sure that Jimmie Johnson never won another championship. He had the temerity of tying both King Petty and the Prince of Darkness, Dale Earnhardt, Sr., with seven championships. N.A.S.C.A.R. is nothing if not self-aware, and it wants champions to represent something notable. Petty stood for aw-shucks Southern affability. Earnhardt had devil-may-care situational ethics that appealed to those fans recently released on parole. Johnson was a genuinely nice guy—perhaps too nice—although it’s arguable that his seeming invincibility was due to his crew chief’s ability to cheat and not get caught. In any case, he wasn’t to be allowed an eighth championship, and that was that. He realized that he couldn’t beat the system, so he retired from N.A.S.C.A.R.. He’s now in IndyCar, where he seems to be enjoying himself, though with mixed success. With Johnson’s departure, the possibility of new dynasties in N.A.S.C.A.R. has been closed.

Then there’s the very real possibility that N.A.S.C.A.R. is suffering due to the increasing popularity of other forms of motorsports. In the past few years, the Netflix show Formula 1: Drive to Survive has greatly increased American interest in what had heretofore been a rather abstruse form of racing. F1 has historically been almost entirely Eurocentric, with only the rarest intrusions by American builders and drivers. Roger Penske fielded a car in the mid-’70s, only to find tragedy in the death of Mark Donohue, winner of the Indy 500, perennial CanAm champion, and one of the best drivers in the world. Mario Andretti also drove first for Penske and then for Lotus, bringing home the World Driver’s Championship in 1978. Even that achievement, great as it was, did little to endear F1 to the American public. It didn’t help that television coverage of Grand Prix racing was execrable. A few grainy images from Monaco—on the same weekend as the Indy 500, no less—did little to show the drama and appeal of F1. ESPN has changed all that with multi-day coverage of each Grand Prix weekend, first with their own broadcasters and now as purveyors of the truly excellent SKY Sports coverage from England. F1 has the added advantage that the cars can turn right and brake—qualities largely foreign to N.A.S.C.A.R.—but shared with the cars most people drive.

There’s also the fact that the cars on N.A.S.C.A.R. tracks have become too similar to one another. N.A.S.C.A.R. used to be very good at generating brand loyalty, and enmity, amongst what were known as the Big Three, Ford, Chevy and Mopar. Manufacturers were willing to spend on racing programs because racing victory meant performance, and especially in the Sixties and early Seventies, performance drove sales. Cars were easily recognizable by their shape, and manufacturers were even willing to change that shape to better compete on the track. When one style proved to be superior, N.A.S.C.A.R. would step in and either penalize the gifted or gift the stragglers in order to maintain an even playing field. Over the years, however, the interests of safety and close competition have produced cars that are essentially the same, the only difference being the sheet metal of the hood and the general shape of the radiator opening painted on the front fascia. Each engine component must be submitted to N.A.S.C.A.R. for approval, and these components are regulated to the point that they, regardless of provenance, are essentially identical. Engines share mandated fuel injection systems, induction pathways, and engine management systems. To say that a Chevy beat a Ford is at best disingenuous, and everybody knows it. The ability of a particular manufacturer to win on Sunday and sell on Monday has been completely short-circuited.

In addition to the danger that fans might not recognize the make and model of stock car on the track, there is the danger that they will. Manufacturers want to sell cars, so rather than do what they did in the past, where they raced the best thing you could find in the showroom, they now race the models they feel will sell in the largest numbers. The result? N.A.S.C.A.R. is no longer about hotrods, but people movers, transportation modules that are best at getting groceries. Toyota, the only foreign builder admitted to the dance, runs a Camry, hardly the stuff of automotive passion. Toyota has its luxury line, Lexus, but has struggled to create much in the way of a performance image. Its poor grasp of the American mindset is illustrated by the acronym their performance division goes by, TRD, standing for Toyota Racing Development. Or at least we hope so.

This brings us to the biggest problem N.A.S.C.A.R. faces, and that is the fact that only a minority of cars sold in this country are of purely domestic origin. By 2011, only forty-seven percent of cars bought in America were of domestic manufacture; all the rest were foreign. Sure, many foreign makes are built here, but there is no more Big Three. N.A.S.C.A.R. was right to recognize the reality of global manufacturing by admitting Toyota, but this is only a first step. Japan is a player because almost thirty-five percent of the cars bought in the U.S. come from there, but the center of automotive creativity has always been Europe, and no European car races on Sundays in any N.A.S.C.A.R. series.  

The scale of the problem that modern, European and Japanese cars present to N.A.S.C.A.R. can only be understood by looking under the sheet metal at what has, until this season at least, been raced in N.A.S.C.A.R.. Until 2022, the cars had engines designed in the Fifties mated to a four speed manual gearbox, five bolt steel wheels, zero ground effect aerodynamics, and antediluvian rear suspension similar to any pickup truck. The result was a car that was difficult to drive and which manifested handling qualities that changed by the minute. Travis Pastrana is a gifted motorcycle and rally car driver of unquestioned skill and daring. He had an extremely brief career driving in N.A.S.C.A.R. for Jack Roush, and I asked him why it was so short. “The cars are crap, really impossible to drive. I prefer a car that can rotate and generate oversteer on exit, and the stock cars could not do that.” The cars may well have been both stock and interesting 70 years ago, but at least until this year, rule ossification and the desire to limit costs has produced a car that was more fossil than fantastic.

In the biggest rule change in memory, N.A.S.C.A.R. unveiled what they are calling the NextGen car for 2022. The engines are similar to what they have had up until now, but with uniform, mandated induction and ignition systems and components they are going to deliver similar performance. The gearboxes are now a transaxle containing the gears and differential at the back of the car, allowing for, get ready, independent rear suspension. Gone are the live rear axles and chains welded to the frame to limit axle travel. And five gears, as well! There is a rear diffuser to generate down force at speed, and beautiful single bolt BBS wheels that are wider and taller than previous models. Bigger brakes add to the package, to the extent that a N.A.S.C.A.R. racecar is actually representative of what you might have in your garage. That is, if you have a Porsche 944 from 1982-91.

Excuse perceived cynicism. N.A.S.C.A.R. is to be commended for making their cars, safe, competitive, and of such similar performance as to showcase driver talent. Perhaps one day diversity will pertain to manufacturers rather than progressive clichés. 

So what can N.A.S.C.A.R. do? The series has been quick to respond to its perceived weaknesses by introducing stages, playoffs, and requirements that cars be basically identical. These changes, however, have done little, if anything, to stem the ebb of popularity. It’s more likely that these alterations—along with the series’ recent love of faddish politics—are actually contributing to lower ratings and attendance. The randomness of the new rules especially are not so much a source of excitement as much as a source of anxiety about their incoherence. A back-marker can put your hero into the wall with an instant’s indiscretion, and all that your man did all season long can be rendered moot. Twice in recent years my hero, Martin Truex, Jr., has been in the lead toward the end of the last race, only to have a non-contender crash, bring out the yellow, and force him to lose the pit stop derby and get second instead of first. I wanted to throw the remote at the television. N.A.S.C.A.R., it seems, no longer understands itself or the role it has traditionally played in the lives of its fans.

The biggest mistake often made when discussing N.A.S.C.A.R. is the claim that it’s about cars going round and round on a track. It’s actually about much more than that. N.A.S.C.A.R. is the American manifestation of the desire to have color, drama, and meaning in lives which are otherwise rather dull. We live in a country where we are, by and large, protected against the threats that have bedeviled humanity from the earliest times. Because there are no marauding beasts, no massed invasions by hostile neighbors and—until COVID—no mysterious diseases, life in America is predictable, and quite frankly, boring. If we are preserved from risk and danger, we are also preserved from meaning. Men know instinctively they are to protect and provide for their families. If no protection is required, then half their utility has been usurped.

Traditionally, N.A.S.C.A.R. functioned to fill these voids. It allowed fans to satisfy one of our greatest longings: to have meaning derived from a common, tribal identity. On race day, you were not alone, you could comingle with others who were Ford fans, or Chevy fans, or Mopar fans. You were in an intimate league with those who rooted for your driver, any of the forty or so who competed each week. When you saw your man featured on hats, t-shirts, flags, and banners, you had a friend who was closer than a brother, because they shared your excellent taste and judgment. You chose a driver because he embodied the qualities you would like to think you possessed: skill, courage, and a sense of fair play. You wanted your driver to display Christian qualities. If God requires honesty and humility on our part—honesty about our guilt and humility in accepting help from Him—we wanted heroes who are like-minded. When our driver screwed up, as they all do sooner or later, a frank admission of guilt inspired not recriminations but renewed devotion. And when the driver did succeed, he was quick to acknowledge his team, his sponsors, and above all his fans who gave him the privilege of arriving at the finish line first. The “Good Lord” was often included in the thanksgiving. 

At the same time, N.A.S.C.A.R. traditionally honored principled conduct. It often seems that God appears to judge us more severely for the good we fail to do than for the bad we in fact do. The most popular N.A.S.C.A.R. drivers are not only virtuous themselves, but they are also enforcers of a consistent and unyielding morality regarding the behavior of others on the track. Drivers who intentionally crash into another driver to further their own fortunes are quickly identified and vilified. Earnhardt was the master at using his “chrome horn,” his bumper, to plant his adversaries into the wall at an opportune time. I once walked three of my young children around Charlotte Speedway on an off day and showed them the large yellow stripe on the turn 4 wall where the malevolent Earnhardt had wrecked the innocent Geoff Bodine in a prior race. “Dale bad, Geoff good,” was the unmistakable message of our field trip. Earnhardt defended his reputation as “The Intimidator” by pointing out that early in his career, it was a case of survival. He once cited an event where he needed money to buy groceries so his wife and young child could eat. On the last turn of the last lap, staring defeat and domestic failure in the face, he proceeded to spin his opponent out and take the prize, perhaps a couple hundred bucks. There was a dispute after the race involving a firearm, I believe, but Earnhardt kept his prize money, and a new methodology and reputation were born.

The people who liked Earnhardt tended to elevate ends over means. They relished taking on the persona of their nefarious hero, and conflicts with other fans at the track were not uncommon. It’s one of the great mysteries of history that Earnhardt could be forgiven for his cold blooded on-track atrocities and be revered as one of the great heroes of the sport after his death. In the Daytona 500 in 2001, the biggest race on the schedule, Earnhardt was slightly behind in the last corner of the last lap of the race. In the lead was Michael Waltrip, trying to win his first Daytona 500. Earnhardt dropped low on the track, actually off the banking, in order to block another car trying to pass and get to Waltrip, who was on Dale’s team. His front wheel hooked on the flat surface and sent his car across the track at full speed into the concrete retaining wall. The impact was so great that Earnhardt’s seat belt tore and his skull separated from the top of his spine, killing him instantly. He died the way he lived.

Earnhardt’s death was no doubt one of the contributing factors in the loss of interest in N.A.S.C.A.R.. In the moral drama that is stock car racing, the good guys need the bad guys in order to stand in relief. With Earnhardt gone the role of villain has largely fallen to Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Kevin Harvick. Harvick is routinely booed when he wins, which is often, and Busch proffers a mock bow to the crowd when he reaches Victory Lane. Hamlin spun out at Martinsville this year when in the lead, and the crowd cheered gleefully. And if you do a search for famous N.A.S.C.A.R. feuds, Harvick figures in half of them. Though these guys do their best to carry on Earnhardt’s methods, none paints their car black the way he did.

Reviving N.A.S.C.A.R.’s popularity will require a greater emphasis on its moral drama. There’s nothing else like it. Open-wheel competitions, such as F1 and IndyCar, cannot compete, because the danger of contact between open-wheel cars precludes the “trading paint” that is essential to the N.A.S.C.A.R. experience. These forms of motorsport allow the best driver to win. Only in N.A.S.C.A.R. can the best person win. 

Still, the series must bear in mind that N.A.S.C.A.R. is essentially about escape. It is a gladiatorial competition that allows us to flee a confusing, increasingly irrational world. The typical fan may have his concerns about the climate, racial rapprochement, and the burning of scarce fossil fuels, but they are low in the hierarchy of things that trouble him. He cares about the world’s problems, but when he’s watching a race, he’s most concerned about whether his tribe and hero will be recognized for the moral virtues he displays on the track each week. Generational guilt about the past or anxieties about the future are not things about which he will tolerate lectures in that moment. For N.A.S.C.A.R. to find renewed popularity, it must leave aside social justice battles. Other organizations can handle those.

But there are a few things the series could add to enhance the fan experience. Specifically, it must recognize the diversity of cars that are being bought in the USA. It’s no longer the Big Three American manufacturers who must compete, even with a token Toyota, but rather all the cars that are to be found in American showrooms should be found on the track. Instead of having junior varsity leagues of trucks and slower sedans, N.A.S.C.A.R. should allow any car sold in America in sufficient numbers to be fielded. The bigger sellers, economy cars, would constitute the lower ranks, and the lower volume performance cars would be the highest, the Cup cars. There should be a minimum sales figure, so that it’s not all Ferraris and Lamborghinis, but they should allow for B.M.W., Mercedes, Jaguar, and the premium brands from Asia to enter the fray. B.M.W. and Mercedes have manufacturing plants in South Carolina and Alabama, respectively, and Hyundai, Volkswagen, Toyota, Nissan, and Kia also have plants in the Deep South. How can you root for an American brand when your family is supported by a foreign one? And for crying out loud, keep the cars, for the most part, stock. Look at the excellent job that I.M.S.A. has done in their sports car series, where the G.T. class consists of an actual chassis carrying an actual, manufacturer-specific engine that can be recognized and bought by any fan with the means. They are festooned with aerodynamic gewgaws, but you can tell what they are. I.M.S.A. has instituted a Balance of Performance system whereby weight and engine penalties punish those who win all the time, so that there is good competition, and everybody has a chance. But the cars are safe, recognizable, and fast. Good for them.

Whatever you do, do not go hybrid or all electric. All that technology is for golf carts, and whatever the redeeming qualities, it does not provide for excitement. Internal combustion engines are the only thing that provides the sounds, sights, and smells that are necessary to make a race a race. F1 has painted itself into a corner by mandating hybrid drive systems, which have proven so complex and so expensive, the series has devolved into a parade of cars whose finishing order is predetermined by the size of the engineering staff back at the plant. How can Haas, the only American team in F1, with their two hundred sixty or so employees compete against Mercedes with their twelve hundred? And what about Formula E, where the cars are all electric? They have to play loud music to mask the fact that the parade on the track is silent. The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is being invaded by electric cars because they are not affected by altitude. It’s now mandated that these silent cars have noise makers to warn spectators of their approach. One guy had to tape his horn button down to meet the requirement. Please.

And allow for some fisticuffs from time to time. N.A.S.C.A.R. drivers are not averse to physical violence, and this should not only be tolerated but displayed so that the moral character of the on-track infractions can be translated into off-the-track justice. Don’t suppress the conflict, codify it! Define the fair pass, define the dive bomb, quantify contact and institute a penalty system that follows the driver all season long. The fans can relate to this, for we all must deal with cops and insurance companies when we break traffic laws. The great boom in N.A.S.C.A.R. popularity took place after the 1979 Daytona 500 when Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough banged fenders all the way down the back stretch on the last lap, eventually crashing each other onto the turn three infield. Their dispute continued in the form of an enthusiastic fistfight, where, according to Allison, Yarborough “kept pounding my fist with his nose.” America was watching due to a large snowstorm in the Northeast that kept people inside with nothing else to do. This event, more than any other, launched N.A.S.C.A.R. onto the trajectory it enjoyed for the next thirty years.We can’t understand N.A.S.C.A.R. until we understand ourselves. What are our needs? Juvenal observed that “the troubled Roman people long for two things: bread and circuses.” In two thousand years, little has changed. This is our circus. N.A.S.C.A.R. is not the real world. It’s a truer, more sharply defined world that we visit when we are sick of the real one.

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Robert McLeod is retired from the Episcopal clergy and blogs at He is the author of Romans: The Definitive Roguecleric Commentary Using Tools of Hebrew Rhetoric.