What Happened to NASCAR? Why No One Cares About Appalachia’s Sport Anymore

Photo courtesy of Nascarking
Photo courtesy of Nascarking

I was ten-years-old wearing a Chevy t-shirt and Dale Earnhardt hat, laughing at my uncle who was a Rusty Wallace fan as the black number-three car nudged the number-two Miller car out of the way and speeded toward the checkered flag at a racetrack that could have been any number of places: Maybe North Wilkesboro, maybe Bristol, maybe even Martinsville.  The track wasn’t important, what mattered was that for the next week, I would have bragging rights at my local elementary school and with my family in the Appalachian coalfields.

Twenty-five years ago, NASCAR was the most popular televised sport in the mountains of my little West Virginia town.  Every good o’le boy who darkened the doors of Jim’s Store (a locally-owned convenience store that stood in the gap before the wave of Dollar General Stores showed up) would be wearing a cut up t-shirt with their favorite driver’s car number and manufacturer printed onto the front.

Back in those days, I would plan my entire weekend around “the race” and just about every other mountain redneck in Tennessee, Kentucky, Carolina, and the two Virginias would too — we’d often watch the “Busch Race” the previous day just in anticipation for what was coming.

Looking back, we were obsessive — far more than any NFL fan or NCAA viewer.  The products we purchased, the clothes we wore, even the cars we drove identified us with a brightly colored 200 mph billboard driven by men with bold personalities.

Fast-forward a handful of decades and I can’t tell you when the last time was that I watched a NASCAR race and I definitely couldn’t tell you “where they’re racing this weekend” nor who is in the points chase.  I’ve tried, but even places like Bristol, Talladega and Daytona don’t even interest me anymore and for the longest time I really couldn’t put my finger on why this is.  What happened to make the sport I once worshipped to mean so little to me in such a relatively short period of time?

Interestingly, I am not alone in my story — there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of people who share my same exact story.  Somewhere along the way, NASCAR just ceased being watchable for most people in the Southland and in the mountains of Appalachia.

Today, you’ll be hard pressed to find a good o’le boy anywhere in your town sporting a t-shirt of his favorite racecar driver and even harder pressed to find someone who hasn’t missed watching all the races this year.

For me, the story of my departure from NASCAR can be traced back somewhere to the early 2000s when I stopped being as diehard of a fan and over the next few years the interval between the time I last saw a race continued to increase until I stopped watching it altogether.

A few years ago, I was hired by a close friend into what I would have considered my dream job as a kid, tasked with doing PR for an up and coming NASCAR team.  Though the driver I directly worked for was incredibly humble and an all around wonderful human being, what I discovered in my new position is that the average popular driver seen on television nowadays isn’t even remotely akin to folks like Dale Earnhardt, Sr., Fireball Roberts, or Cale Yarborough.  Instead of seeing men with nerves of steel who stood larger than life and brought with them the persona of a true southern gritty man, what I discovered was that somewhere over the past generation, the sport had been hijacked by the sons of millionaires who would sit in the air-conditioned haulers while their crews and engineers labored over their cars.  The straw for me was hearing two obviously spoiled kids who are still regulars on the NASCAR circuit argue with each other over which flavor of water tasted better — Dasani or Aquafina?

And it was upon hearing this discussion between two Xfinity Series stars that I first realized why NASCAR was no longer idolized among my people, the rednecks of Mingo County, West Virginia — the sport no longer represents them.

Who cares if the sons of two CEOs bumped into each other and destroyed a half-million dollar racecar — rather than watching a knock-down drag out brawl in the pits (which if we’re going to be real, that’s what the fan base lived for back in the 80s and 90s), we instead must endure a spoiled rich kid throw a temper tantrum, tossing his helmet and gloves around before entering an ambulance and being whisked away to an infield care center.

The days of watching Earnhardt drive around Daytona in a wrecked racecar literally held together by black taped, or watching the Allisons duke it out in a muddy infield are long gone and with them went the real fans of NASCAR.

To put it simply, NASCAR, in my opinion, quit being something real people care about when its drivers ceased being real people.  Today, NASCAR oversees every tweet, every interview and every breath breathed by its imagined stars.  There’s too much corporate money involved and in our obsessive politically correct day there’s no one willing to let southern boys be southern boys.

Instead, we have well-hewed and polished drivers who have gone through public relations school and taught how to speak in the same accent their local news anchor uses so as to be marketable.

As tracks all across the country are pulling up seats in order to make the emptiness not appear as bad as it actually is, the organization of NASCAR finds itself struggling to figure out why it’s no longer relevant.  The answer, however, is quite simple, there’s nothing relatable to the sport any more for those of us who were once the diehard fans.

Which is great news for places like Wythe Raceway in Southwest Virginia, and a hundred other Saturday night tracks — these places offer a weekly glimpse of what NASCAR used to be: Good ole boys driving fast cars for no other reason than for the glory and excitement that accompanies it!  While NASCAR is struggling, Saturday night half-miles all across the nation have never been doing better.  Real, rough and exciting racing isn’t losing its fanbase, only NASCAR.

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: 2017: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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  1. I quit watching when the points rules of the old days got thrown iut and replaced with new rules every year. A champion today is lucky. A champion in the old days earned it. And, what’s with the lucky dog crap. Why reward a guy that is a lap down just because he is the driver closest to being on the lead lap? Make him race for the lead lap or stay out of the way.

  2. There is no race anymore. Just a bunch of cars made to be the same car. Get back to racing what you bring to the track. It is not a competition of participate trophies. If I car seems to be a little faster well they have to find out why and then make it slower to be fair.

  3. I can’t say some of the writer’s thoughts are not correct, however, I don’t think he is completely correct. NASCAR started losing it core fan base in the late ’70s and early ’80 when it stopped being the National Association for STOCK Car Racing. In other words, when they dictated that the cars being raced keep moving further and further from what was actually found in a show room. Today’s NASCAR race cars, regardless of brand, are all but indistinguishable from each other without their grill and headlight decals applied.

    I believe the high point in popularity in the ’90s and early 2000s was a product of great PR and a few larger than life personalities behind the steering wheels. As those personalities retired or died, the NASCAR PR machine was unable to maintain the excitement of the sport, and since NASCAR had long ago taken away the reason the core fans were interested, the American stock cars, there is not much to keep fans going to races or tuning in to watch on TV.

    Don’t get me wrong, when cars start hitting 200 miles per hour, some safety measures have to be taken, and I think if they don’t do anything else right, NASCAR does learn from history and implement well thought out safety measures. It is nothing short of miraculous to watch drivers walk away from some of the crashes that destroy their car.

    However, they could easily return the shape and style of the actual cars to something that much more closely resembles a car that we see on the car lot. Give the teams more room to experiment and grow without having to deal with vague rules and computerized templates measuring down to the last millimeter.

    Give the Bowtie, Blue Oval and what ever that thing is on the front of a Toyota is, fans something to watch a race for. Maybe even coax Doge back to racing, MOPAR fans may be few in number but they are fiercely loyal. The drivers will work out among themselves who is going to be the next big personality.

    Like the coal industry, NASCAR may never be as big as it was, however, with some common sense leadership it can maintain a healthy presence into the future.

  4. Great article and it holds very true for myself and the majority of my friends. We attended every NASCAR race we could physically get to for many years from the late ’80’s to 2000. Then the governing body of NASCAR seemed to get greedy and in the process drove their loyal fan base away. First they closed tracks like North Wilksboro and Rockingham and took races away from the south to give places like Texas, Kansas and California races. So their “loyal” fanbase was traded for the people who went to the races because their company provided a ticket or the corporate sponsor expected you to attend. Prices at all the tracks went crazy and now it seems that they can’t give away a ticket. Once upon a time we had to pay for our season tickets at Bristol in January so we wouldn’t lose them and now you can buy tickets on race day. And of course as mentioned, they seem to change the rules weekly.

  5. I once had reserved tickets for Martinsville, Richmond, and one race at Charlotte and Darlington. Along with these six races I would attend one or two other tracks each season for a total of seven or eight races per year. When France and his stooge, Mike Helton, came out and said that they wanted all of the yall out of NASCAR and took the Southern 500 from Darlington I made a promise never to spend another dollar or attend another big three NASCAR race. NASCAR has become, for the most part, a series for spoiled brats with all kinds of made for TV gimmicks such as The Lucky Dog, Wave around, phantom cautions and the ever popular green white checker finish of the equally stupid overtime. NASCAR, face it you forgot real racing and made your game a made for TV entertainment package. Do I miss NASCAR, hell no, do I miss what NASCAR once was, you better believe it. I still attend races but either local asphalt short tracks or my real favorite men’s sport of dirt track racing. NASCAR has lost me as a customer and that is not important to them, however, they have also lost the collective me and that is making for a lot of empty seats.

  6. Restrictor plates, templates, stage racing(what the hell is that anyway), “playoffs” (when did racing become a stick & ball game)?, nit-picky penalties, a drug addict CEO, political correctness, get the picture?

  7. I think you have hit the nail right on the head! I too was a die hard Earnhardt fan, but I think nascar started a slow death following his!

  8. To me NASCAR was never about this good old boy/redneck crap. Don’t tell me someone should not be racing in NASCAR, because he was born rich. It’s hardly their fault that NASCAR is what it is.
    It was awesome pure racing with awesome powerful cars that resemble street cars. The best kind there is, purpose built stock car race cars.
    I still watch, because occasionally you still get to see something good in NASCAR.
    But I hate the rules they implemented since Winston Cup. Stage racing, the Chase etc, you name it.
    PC bullshit you can hardly blame on NASCAR, that stuff taints everything in every area of your life.
    Even with NASCAR being at a low point, it is still among the most watchable things out there.

  9. I also stop because of the same reason .Wife and I would go to 7 to 10 races a year .these drivers know the dangers of racing that way they make all that money

  10. Great read giving some love to a friend’s track in southwest Virginia. Even those young stars of yesterday were morphed into Madison Avenue posters. Prime example,I met Jeff Gordon in the early 80’s when he was driving for Bill Davis in the Bush Series at a race in South Boston. The entire race we stood on the pit wall watching the late model race, him a young skinny kid wearing jeans and a Skoal Bandit t shirt and me , at the time just two fans enjoying the race. I bet it wasn’t long after that some PR persons purged that t shirt from his wardrobe.

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