Give NASCAR a Chance... it May Surprise You
by Kristin Shaw
When you hear the word NASCAR, what comes to mind? Depending on where you grew up, you might have vastly different ideas of what it means to be a NASCAR fan. There are hundreds of NASCAR jokes and memes and even movies that spoof the stereotype of the sport as a Southern/ Middle America pastime. The European class of automobile racing, like Formula One or Le Mans, attracts the upper-class fans wearing Michael Kors and Tory Burch. NASCAR is portrayed with t-shirts festooned with red, white, and blue flags and other symbols associated with patriotism; jeans; and trucker hats.
At my first NASCAR race at Sonoma Raceway in northern California, there were plenty of souvenirs for sale decorated with that motif. However, the fans – and the sport itself- are much more complex than I had ever imagined. The raceway and the crowd was reminiscent of my hometown 4H fair: funnel cakes and corn dog stands, ice cream carts, grandstands, and families having fun together. It has that feeling of relaxed fun, with no pretense and no stress.
“NASCAR is an experience; it’s not just a sport,” says NASCAR Chief Marketing Officer Jill Gregory. “There is strategy… and conflict… and personality. And there is a huge sense of community. Each event is sensory overload, but it evokes a strong feeling of belonging.”
In today’s highly-charged political culture, it’s not a stretch to imagine that the country is divided into NASCAR fans and non-NASCAR fans, if we were to buy into the stereotype. The number of bumper stickers proclaiming “I STAND” next to a photo of a flag were omnipresent, and the display of patriotism with a full fighter jet squadron, oversized flag dropped in with paratroopers, and a strong military personnel presence proclaimed a fierce love of the culture.
Look a little deeper into the NASCAR inner circle, and you may find that the organization is more complex under the surface.
Gregory says the organization is always looking to expand its fan base, and it’s looking in new directions. While perhaps not inmediately apparent on the surface, there are gears working behind the scenes to create opportunities both inside and outside of NASCAR to grow its footprint in America.
“We’re committed to diversity on the leadership team, the pit crews, and staff,” she says. “We have stories to tell and we want more people to hear them and be part of them.”
I was surprised to find that the league had developed NASCAR Diversity more than ten years ago to attract women and men of color to the team. This year is their largest recruitment class yet, and Gregory is proud of that. It’s important to her to keep the fans they have but to grow into new communities too. Every time a new intern joins the Diversity program, they are building a new story.
“Unexpected stories bring in new fans,” she says.
The teams corroborate Gregory’s vision, and David Wilson, President and General Manager - TRD, U.S.A. (Toyota Racing Development), believes there is a great deal of collaboration the public doesn’t see. He was the first engineer at TRD, and has logged 29 years of experience on the Toyota team. He’s on the road more than 200 days a year, and the teams become like family.
David’s focus at TRD reflects his engineering background, and he has an ardent love of science versus intuition to help the teams make microsecond decisions. You might not think of technology when you think of NASCAR, but it’s woven throughout the industry, from the trailers to the garages to the track, even in surprising places. Technology brings parity to the teams, and they share information with each other to keep the sport even and fair.
When David introduced me to John Probst, Managing Director, Competition and Innovation for NASCAR, the connection became even more clear.
John’s job is to oversee the pre-race inspection process, which until last year meant that a team of 6-7 inspectors would comb each racecar carefully, looking for irregularities. Tempers might flare if a team felt that an inspector was being too tough on them or if another team appeared to have an advantage.
This year, John and his team brought a new inspection system to the edge of the garage, and it’s a camera-driven light sensor system that maps out each car in 3D, showing the inspection team the position of the A-pillar, the offset of the tail, the inflation of the tires, and more. The system creates a grid with over 130,000 green dots that objectively highlights any unusual tweaks on the car.
From the tour of the garage as the cars were rolling out, to the shower of red, white, and blue confetti, the race captivated me. If you like excitement, family, community, and fun, NASCAR just might be for you, too. It might be more much than you expected.
Profile: Read about Teen Driver Hailie Deegan at A Girls Guide to Cars
Article by: KRISTIN
Disclosure: Toyota Racing paid for my travel and experiences; all opinions are mine.