Race Weekend Central

Professor of Speed: The Polarization of NASCAR Nation

A key term heard regularly in-and-around NASCAR these past few months is “polarization.”

That has been the word-of-choice when discussing changes in the sport circa 2012. Danica Patrick’s full-time move to stock cars from open-wheel racing was said to have “polarized” race fans – reactions that brought another term, “hater,” into NASCAR Nation’s collective vocabulary.

Responses to the spring race at Bristol Motor Speedway also polarized fans; you either liked races at the “new” Bristol or you hated them (and there’s that aforementioned H-word again), so much so that Bruton Smith announced he was going to reconfigure the track (yet again) to better suit audience demands.

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NASCAR’s switch to electronic fuel injection in the Sprint Cup Series also “polarized” fans, in part because the change tended to divide drivers and crew chiefs down opposite sides of the EFI fence.

Polarization is a common part of everyday life. People rarely ride the fence when it comes to issues or conditions that are deemed essential or important. Such is the case with politics. Such can be the case with sports, as well. If you like baseball, you are probably either a National League or an American League fan (although interleague play has muddied those waters a bit).

Even within your league of choice, you might be polarized according to region or locale. Which is the better team: the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox? If you live near Chicago, do you cheer for the Cubs or the White Sox?

Simply put, extremes in personal opinion and belief never stop dividing our individual points-of-view. Are you pro-life or pro-choice? Are you Mac or PC? Do you drink Coke or Pepsi? Is it boxers or briefs? In our tiny rural community, when I was a kid, your family drove either Fords or Chevrolets. There was no such thing as middle ground, no attempt at reaching a moderate position on important topics.

This fact was especially true for those of us who followed NASCAR. Way back in the day, as they say, you were either – once again – a Ford fan or a Chevy fan. If you pushed the issue far enough, you could add Dodge or Plymouth to the mix since another polarizing subject was if you cheered for Pearson or Petty.

Over the years, other situations tended to divide NASCAR Nation down lines of severe opposition: the advent of restrictor plate racing, for example.

Regardless of whether the issue was based on safety (the Car of Tomorrow), based on competition (the Chase for the Championship and the new points system) or based on shifts in market trends (the addition of Toyota, “street”-inspired styling added to the 2013 Cup models), the response from race fans always seemed to be based on their love/hate approach to the change.

Were new rules and technical innovations making racing less exciting, less dangerous, and therefore less popular?

Consider some recent polarizing issues. Do races have too many caution laps or not enough? Consequently, do we see too much green-flag racing or not enough? Do fans like two-by-two, tandem drafting on superspeedways, or do they crave the return of pack racing?

Or are we seeing too much pack racing in what is a return to old-school superspeedway competition? Polarized attitudes and strongly-held opinions leave little room for discussion, and even less room for concession; these debates limit fans to an either/or mode of reasoning, especially when it comes to the state of NASCAR racing.

Think about fan responses to the brothers Busch. Such outpourings of love/hate were once the domain of Dale Earnhardt. Even Earnhardt’s ironclad grasp on such polarized thinking was challenged when Jeff Gordon entered the picture at the end of the 1992 Cup season.

Once the young driver with movie star looks began to win races in 1994, attract fans, sell products and make big money, even “The Intimidator” had to take notice. NASCAR Nation seemed split down the middle when it came to its feelings about the No. 24 DuPont racing team.

The polarization surrounding Gordon way back then has been replaced by fan attitudes today regarding Jimmie Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus, the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy and that team’s five consecutive Sprint Cup titles. Do you admire what Johnson and Company have accomplished, or do you see their success as a warning that NASCAR is in need of dire correction?

I guess it all depends on your personal opinion.

Now, it’s important to recognize that not all attitudes are either/or propositions that require either/or statements of certainty. When at the grocery store and faced with questions like “cash or credit?” or “paper or plastic?” I’m not going to stomp my feet, gnash my teeth and accuse the clerk of harboring some secret agenda.

These kinds of choices are dictated by such variables as my financial situation at the time and my sense of environmental correctness (although “plastic” has become a more realistic option now that those kinds of bags can be recycled in many locations).

Such “minor” attitudes pale in comparison to what NASCAR Nation sees as larger and more relevant concerns, such as whether or not Dale Junior is the true heir apparent to his sainted father, or whether or not Patrick should have a Cup ride, or whether or not Kurt Busch is truly a menace to society, as some believe.

How this week’s article took root was through the appearance of an online comment posted in response to the recent announcement that NASCAR had agreed to sign a “Memorandum of Understanding for Cooperation in Environmental Stewardship” with the Environmental Protection Agency.

The online comment possessed a real “here’s another example of socialism/big government in action!” vibe, which was totally natural given the polarized responses that often accompany decisions made by both NASCAR and federal administrators. But is there some kernel of truth to the commenter’s generalization? Is NASCAR Nation facing yet another polarizing issue for which there’s little-to-no middle ground?

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On the surface, the May 21 announcement seemed anything but unusual. Given NASCAR’s desire to spur on its own “green” revolution, signing an official pact with the EPA made reasonable sense. What better way to show the seriousness of your environmental consciousness than to put your name on the dotted line for all to see?

Mother Earth desperately needs our help and small changes can inspire big differences, so let’s draw up some papers, have a press conference and show those doubters out there that NASCAR means business. Goodbye “smoke-and-choke,” hello “clean-and-green!”

The EPA press release said it all:

To raise awareness of green products and solutions that can benefit NASCAR partners and fans, the EPA and the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to work together.

Through this agreement, [the] EPA will provide technical assistance and expertise to NASCAR to continue to increase their environmental performance and communicate environmental information in ways that reach the NASCAR family and racing fans across the country. (“NASCAR and EPA Partner on Green Initiatives”, 5/21/2012)

Signing the memorandum for NASCAR was Dr. Michael Lynch (the managing director of green innovation) and Steve Phelps (senior vice president and chief marketing officer). There to lay down ink for the EPA was Jim Jones, an assistant administrator in the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (and a guy with an ironically-unfortunate name, given his title).

If you’re working toward making stock car racing a cleaner business, my guess is this division is the one that’ll be watching your every move. Like other initiatives from NASCAR, however, much of the effort is aimed at the fans in the stands; if stock car racing can make the world a better place, NASCAR Nation will have to board the biofuel-powered bus.

First off, racing fans will have to change their consumer habits. According to the EPA/NASCAR memorandum of understanding, the “shared interest in promoting environmental stewardship” will mean having to foster “greater environmental awareness by NASCAR fans.” Much of this initiative means developing the means to “effectively communicate environmental information” to those who follow the sport.

As such, executives with both the EPA and NASCAR “believe that a memorandum of understanding (MOU) is the appropriate instrument to provide the structure for meeting” the above “shared goals.” Did they mention that much of the agreement’s hoped-for success depends on getting NASCAR Nation to alter its spending behavior?

Here’s an example of what I mean, as stated in the EPA press release:

One of the areas of focus for the partnership is promoting safer products that have earned EPA’s Design for the Environment (DfE) label. NASCAR can make a difference by using DfE products at racing events and conveying to fans that choosing DfE products is an easy, cost-effective and important choice they can make to protect the health of their families and the planet.

If we look within the memorandum itself, the intent of this idea becomes clearer. “In Design for the Environment,” the document states, “an initial concept as currently envisioned is that with the approval of the producing company NASCAR may feature on a weekly, eg, [sic] DfE Product of the Week, or other periodic basis to be determined a DfE-labeled product.” (EPA/NASCAR MOU, p. 2)

In other words, if I’m reading the memorandum correctly, companies marketing “green” products can be selected by NASCAR (with the EPA’s blessing) to be “the official ‘green’ fill-in-the-blank DfE of NASCAR.”

While sounding positively well-and-good, how does this differ from the current practice of labeling products produced by NASCAR loyalists as being “the official” such-and-such of NASCAR? Will “The official DfE-approved all-natural hand soap of NASCAR” share shelf space at Walmart with “The official hot dog of NASCAR?” I’m guessing yes, but is acceptance of “green” living not also an acceptance of good living?

Overall, the agreement between NASCAR and the EPA revolves around making everyone involved – from teams to product suppliers to fans – more aware of their actions, their decisions and their impact on the environment. The memorandum seems to make this awareness even more relevant by reinforcing the “NASCAR Green” movement that’s already in place.

When the MOU explores what it calls “event procurement” and the notion of developing “a program to identify and potentially source sustainability-oriented concession products such as napkins, cups and packaging … for reducing the environmental impact of NASCAR events” is this agreement not perhaps a means by which the EPA can assume credit for something the sport has already implemented?

Collecting and recycling oil and solvents from the track is nothing new, nor is the collection and recycling of bottles and cans – is it appropriate for the EPA to encourage such “entirely voluntary programs” when NASCAR has been encouraging them over the past couple of seasons?

The underlying message of the MOU is pretty simple: the EPA is responsible for “identifying the environmental programs and messages that are best suited for promoting environmental stewardship” while NASCAR is responsible for “identifying the best mechanisms” to address and encourage said stewardship. One central factor cited in the MOU is the need for NASCAR to promote “greater environmental awareness” amongst its fans.

This push seems to mark a potential tipping point where agreement and acceptance gives way to uncertainty and doubt; fans may want to do their part because they feel it’s right, but might pressure from the EPA – an organization that’s consulting with NASCAR and expecting “annual and other reports or assessments as needed or requested” – be too much?

Is the EPA going to be the big government “stick” tied to NASCAR’s organically-grown “carrot?” Many in NASCAR Nation have commented online that they fear this will be the situation, especially if the status quo remains the status quo.

As stated recently in the EPA’s official press release: “The agreement to work together will leverage the work of both organizations’ to have a positive economic and environmental impact that extends far beyond the racetrack.”

From the look of the MOU signed on May 21 and from many of the responses voiced across the internet, I’d say some of that extended “impact” will come to rest on the wallets of NASCAR Nation.

This document may be good for the environment, but it’s also good for added polarization during an already divided season. At least if we can’t agree, we can agree to disagree. Love the EPA/NASCAR agreement? Hate the EPA/NASCAR agreement it? You make the call. It’s only your personal opinion, right?

About the author

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The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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