It was a wild weekend for NASCAR. The span of a few days has rarely generated so many talking points, so much controversy, and such a wave of emotions. From Larson’s controversial move in the inaugural Battle at the Beach to a lackluster Daytona 500, and everything in between, we were never without discussion and speculation.
What came with all of those storylines, however, was a largely unanticipated step by the sport back into the “real world,” or, as some call it, “mainstream.” For the most part, this transition began with Danica Patrick’s pole-winning run a week ago for Daytona 500 qualifying. Though Patrick had already generated quite a bit of buzz outside of the walls of the NASCAR garage, it wasn’t until she actually pulled though with some results that everyone, and I mean _everyone_, began to take notice.
However, less than a week later, it was a horrendous wreck, leaving 28 race fans injured in a Nationwide Series race that made national news. Everyone was talking about it and everyone had an opinion, even those who had never given NASCAR a second thought.
So how did the sport do in the mainstream’s eyes? After all, many eyes and ears were on the sport this weekend. Not only that, they were talking about it. It was a point of discussion around water coolers and maybe even some dinner tables.
Let’s start with the Patrick angle. Diversity is, in general, a cultural conversation that happens on every news network, talk show, blog post, and any other form of mass media on a daily basis. It’s one thing for an individual to make an impact on the world, whether it be through sports, politics, or entertainment. But if it’s a person of color or a woman? It’s celebrated as progress, meaning their impact is doubled simply because of the discussion that comes along with said diversity.
Patrick really is hardly different. Though the impact a NASCAR driver can make by winning a pole is rather insignificant at the moment, the ripple effect, of sorts, could be beneficial to NASCAR and motorsports as a whole. You don’t have to agree with Patrick’s marketing choices or even like her personality to agree that she brings a new audience to the sport. Now that she’s actually had success, albeit very early in the season, it turned out to be a very positive storyline for NASCAR. Not known for its diversity or as very welcoming to any stereotype other than the standard white male, suddenly “diversity” was something that NASCAR could be recognized for. Additionally, the media savvy Patrick had did no favors to the redneck, Southern stereotype that this sport is so known for. Maybe some fans like it that way, but in order to grow, that is an image it will need to shed.
However, if we’re being honest, the Nationwide Series crash is what gave NASCAR its pedestal for the week. Immediately after the race, national news outlets picked up the story about injured fans and cars in the catchfence and were passing along information about the incident. Brad Keselowski made an appearance on CNN and the story blew through social media like wildfire.
While the initial reaction may be that this horror story was a terrible way for NASCAR to be in the spotlight, in terms of ratings it might not have been. As much as I feel for the fans involved and wish them a speedy recovery, is there anything our culture devours more than tragedy and carnage? Do we really think it’s a coincidence that a ton of fans began watching the sport after Dale Earnhardt, Sr.’s death? Yes, from a public relations standpoint, the incident was terrible and I think most people looked on it with sadness. But from the fact of generating an awareness factor for the sport, it was a big deal. Not a positive, but it certainly was important and made a big impact.
So let’s say that with all of the headlines NASCAR has been a part of this weekend, a myriad of new viewers decided to tune in and see what all the fuss was about. Will they stick around?
After that Daytona 500, probably not, but those fans aren’t likely to become diehards right away anyway. These are the ones who are flipping channels on a Sunday (or Saturday) afternoon, see “NASCAR” on their guide, and decide to tune in. Though that might not necessarily sound appealing to those who dedicate hours of their time and quite a bit of money to the sport, they will also be the ones who make NASCAR relevant in the public eye. You can argue amongst yourselves whether or not that is a good thing, but one fact is for certain: We may look back at this weekend and season as a whole as a game changer for NASCAR when it comes to the “regular folks.”