Sunday, Sept. 24, at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Richard Childress spoke out about protesting the American national anthem. It would be a full 18 hours before any other meaningful voice in the sport was heard.
“Anybody that don’t stand up for the anthem oughta be out of the country,” Petty said, threatening to fire employees who protested. Childress followed up, claiming kneeling would “get you a ride on a Greyhound bus.”
The question now is whether the sponsors they need to survive will buy them a ticket out of town.
That’s the corporate crisis NASCAR finds itself in Tuesday, picking dollar bills up off the floor from the tornado these two Hall of Famers created. The mood was somber as the sport struggled to react to companies disturbed over those opinions and President Donald Trump’s Sept. 25 tweet.
But while Trump supporters might be dancing with joy, those words rang hollow on Wall Street and in corporate boardrooms across the country. Remember, just a month ago, Trump business advisory councils promptly disbanded after the president blamed “many sides” for racially motivated violence in Charlottesville, Va., CEOs were running from, not revering what they perceived to be a white nationalist stance.
That link to racism was not lost in the comments made by Petty and Childress and for those well aware of NASCAR’s checkered past. Despite a decade-plus Drive for Diversity program, pushing for more athletes of various racial backgrounds, stock car racing remains predominantly white. Wendell Scott, the sport’s lone black winner on the Cup level, had to fight officials from giving the trophy to a white driver.
Worth noting the demographics of the athletes –
NBA: 74% black
NFL: 68% black
NASCAR: 4 black drivers in Cup history https://t.co/j2NVyhlwyy
— Brad Mielke (@TheBradMielke) September 25, 2017
For Scott, those problems were in 1963, but first impressions are hard to break. In NASCAR, it’s the problem that just won’t completely go away. As recently as 2008, the sport settled a $225 million racial discrimination lawsuit with black former official Mauricia Grant. Among her claims were comments she worked on “colored people time” and was called “Nappy Headed Mo.” Even last year, there was a bizarre $500 million racial discrimination lawsuit filed against NASCAR by Terrance Cox III.
Such history means when it comes to NASCAR and race, there’s a narrative of guilty before proven innocent. So what happens when fears over the anthem get connected to minority discrimination?
It’s a problematic storyline for Petty in particular. That’s considering African-American driver Darrell Wallace Jr. is his primary choice to drive the No. 43 car in 2018. The team is seeking primary sponsorship after Smithfield announced its departure following the season. Without it, co-owner Andrew Murstein could close down the Petty team altogether.
That need for financial help creates another situation unique to NASCAR compared to stick-and-ball sports that supported the protests. While the NFL, NBA and MLB are swimming in cash, none of them need corporate sponsorship to put their product out on the field. The top teams in Cup have deals that approach $10-$20 million minimum to run a full 36-race schedule.
The environment for courting sponsors at that price was already difficult enough in 2017. Home Depot, Farmers Insurance and Dollar General are just some of the major companies who have chosen to walk away. Subway used an out clause as an excuse to run from the sport last month.
And now you have NASCAR’s complicated anthem stance, an instance where silence spoke volumes. For 18 hours, it looked like its opinion mirrored Petty and Childress.
By the time there was an official NASCAR statement midway through Monday, the wording was convoluted and vague. It danced around, directly contradicting the owners while making no mention of what would happen if a driver protested the anthem.
NASCAR has released a statement on anthem protests. pic.twitter.com/sZ5WINOwNT
— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) September 25, 2017
Those muddy waters disappointed those in NASCAR who vehemently disagree with Petty and Childress. Jeff Gluck’s article Monday spoke for many, including several on Frontstretch, while stoking the fire from both sides of the issue. Minorities involved in the sport, such as co-owner Brad Daugherty of JTG-Daugherty Racing, have yet to speak up as well.
But what we all think is largely irrelevant when it comes to NASCAR’s bottom line. Even if you agree with Childress and Petty, that opinion is near-impossible for companies doing business to accept. They preached a message of exclusion, where people who didn’t think like them are not welcome in their company.
How would a business spending that much on a sport justify an exclusive market, then, one whose ratings and attendance is already dwindling? These corporations are looking to sell their product to everyone, not just a select few. And no one’s looking to answer questions about racism or anthem protests the second they sign on the dotted line.
Then there’s the impact of millennials, that coveted 18-34 group NASCAR wants to capture. Only 37 percent of them voted for Trump in 2016. Who knows how many still support Trump or his stance on the anthem? And then out of that reduced percentage, who actually cares about NASCAR from that group?
If you’re going to sell a product, the way you get return on investment is by appealing to the largest number of people you can. It’s Business 101. Well, Sunday’s comments shrunk an already depleted ROI even further. Fortune 500 companies know it.
It’s worth noting Murstein, Petty’s co-owner and a New York City native, took a far different stand on these issues. Connected to the thinking of those big corporations, the Jewish owner was able to separate personal views and convey a message of unity.
— Adam Stern (@A_S12) September 24, 2017
Dale Earnhardt Jr. then followed up with two Monday tweets forcefully supporting those who chose to protest. But while his powerful quotes of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy were well received, their boost is short-lived. Corporate America knows retirement is coming in just three short months.
In the short-term, Earnhardt’s tweets may have saved the sport from a few extra bullets. But some damage is already irreversible. Already since the fallout, reports surfaced Tuesday about potential problems with the sport’s title sponsor. Monster Energy asked for more time to decide whether it’ll extend its deal beyond 2018.
Pure coincidence? Who knows?
But plenty of teams in this sport facing financial shortfalls for 2018 don’t have that extra time. Childress, while outspoken on the anthem, could face contraction as his third team sits without sponsorship. Major backer Menards is bolting for Team Penske, leaving his No. 27 team seeking a replacement.
How will he get someone to come on board? Will a company be willing to face the questions and say, “Hey, we hate the protesters too! We’re willing to give $10 million to a team you see every day to support their views!”
That’s the problem when sports and politics intersect, especially for one whose livelihood depends on corporate America. NASCAR’s official statement did not come with the name tag of CEO Brian France, whose outward support of Trump beginning in 2016 helped dig the sport this hole.
The Trumps may be thrilled they found a sport willing to back their personal viewpoints. A few older, white male NASCAR owners may have partnered with them by giving the opinion of a vocal minority.
But unless someone puts some money where their mouth is, those words could serve as a cannonball that sinks a number of race teams’ financial ships.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.