Early last month, NASCAR gained widespread social media attention for all the wrong reasons as photos and television stills circulated displaying the crowd — or lack thereof, rather — at the Bristol Motor Speedway’s Food City 500. Once the hottest ticket in motorsports — with a waiting list measured in years — the famed 1/2-mile had previously sold out a record 55 consecutive races, spanning from August 1982 to March of 2010. And here it sat, in the spring of 2019, its corners closed off entirely and pockets of fans only dotting the massive seating structures in the straightaways. The unpleasant visuals at Bristol illustrated, better than any other metric, NASCAR’s fall from grace. NASCAR, like the NHRA, does not publish attendance figures from its races, so the true measure of the crowd at Bristol is unknown.
As I combed through the various conversations on Facebook and Instagram (some of which I participated in) below photos of the relative ghost town in Bristol, my beliefs were only fortified as to how NASCAR got here and the ways in which the NHRA has, not so much intentionally, but organically, gotten it right.
But NASCAR is the Goliath to NHRA’s David, is it not? If NASCAR is doing something wrong, surely it should continue being wrong, right? NASCAR is presently on the tail end of a combined $6 billion television deal. Even its least-watched races outdraw the NHRA TV ratings four- and five-fold. Likewise, even its more poorly-attended races attract three and four times as many spectators as drag racing. NASCAR drivers — at least the handful of recognizable stars that remain — appear in television commercials and late-night talk shows and have their likenesses in liquor stores, department stores, and so on.
But let’s look at this from the opposite side of the coin.
NASCAR’s popularity — and in turn, its television ratings and attendance, have been tumbling since 2005. In some cases, it’s year-over-year losses in television viewers and live spectators have dwindled double-digits, even soaring as high as 24% in some published reports. It may be the Goliath, but it’s certainly trending in the wrong direction, and doing so chronically. NHRA drag racing, meanwhile, is racking up days of sellout crowds all across the 24-race schedule, including hosting what was one of, if not the largest crowds to ever witness a drag race at this year’s Gatornationals. It’s self-produced television package is unequivocally its best yet, even placing it live on network television on select weekends. Attendance is up, TV ratings are up, fans are inspired, and everything is seemingly trending upward, certainly not down.
No doubt NASCAR has suffered immeasurably from the loss of names like Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Bill Elliott, and so many other stars that figured prominently into its meteoric rise during the 1990s and early 2000s. These men were, in a sense, relatable to you and I — they weren’t fast-tracked by wealthy parents into driver development programs aimed at propelling them into NASCAR’s upper echelons, but instead, cut their teeth at small tracks like any other working man. And even as the money and the fame came, their personalities still exuded their gritty but humble beginnings.
As those stars hung up their helmets, they’ve been replaced by young kids groomed from the start for this — generally from well-to-do families, these fresh-faced kids of college age who have never known racing on cobbled-together, inferior equipment, hauling to the track on a Friday night on a flat-bed trailer knowing they had to win in order to race again the following weekend. They have likely never endured the challenges and the struggles of the previous generation of racers. They lack authenticity, but more than anything, they lack anything relatable to the fans. And that — combined with a number of gaffs on NASCAR’s part (what is stage racing, anyhow?) — is how Bristol’s mighty coliseum ended up looking not-so-mighty.
But drag racing is an entirely different story.
Clay Millican — an impossibly likable guy from a small town in Tennessee who came up from nothing and earned his chance to race for a living. Proving he’s human like all of us, he tragically lost a son and has frequently shown the emotion that created. Jack Beckman — a cancer survivor and a former Super Comp champion who at one time parked his trailer and pickup right in between the moms-and-pops and sat in the hot sun all weekend. J.R. Todd — he once raced Junior Dragsters opposite of myself and so many others; he worked his ass off to earn his opportunities, and you can find him spectating at dirt track races on his off-weekends. Terry McMillen — he left his humble home in the IHRA to attempt the Top Fuel dream, and in doing so, earned the respect of every drag racing fan for life as he overcame challenge that would have made a lesser man throw in the towel. Scott Palmer — a racers’ racer if there ever was one, who worked his way through the ranks the hard way and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Tim Wilkerson — a humble, aw-shucks kinda’ guy who reminds us of any other weekend warrior bracket racer who just happened to be able to make a career of Funny Car racing. Ron Capps — a young guy out to make the dream happen who drove low-buck equipment to prove his mettle to a big-time team owner; he reminds you of the next-door neighbor you’ve known your entire life. Richie Crampton — this dude who gets paid to drive a Top Fuel car sweltered in a steaming-hot station wagon on Drag Week, not because he had to, but because he wanted to. Shawn Langdon — this guy still bracket races on the regular.
Connie Kalitta — he lost a son who seemed like a brother to all of us. So, too, did Alan Johnson and John Medlen.
Steve Torrence is another cancer survivor who, along with his father, also got his start in sportsman racing. Mike Salinas — a hard-working guy you’d never guess wasn’t a middle-class, blue-collar grunt just like you and I. Or John Force — even though he’s done well for himself professionally and financially, he came up from nothing fighting tooth and nail for everything he has.
Away from the racetrack, many of these gentlemen (and ladies) live ordinary lives in the middle-class burbs of Avon and Pittsboro and Brownsburg in Indiana, just like the rest of us. Whether they came from humble lifestyles or not, most of them got their start in the sport like anyone else, in bracket and sportsman racing or low-buck equipment, flocking to the fence to watch the nitro cars they hoped they’d one day get the chance to pilot.
Perhaps that drag racing hasn’t risen to the heights that NASCAR once did has been to its advantage….drivers haven’t been isolated from the spectators, aren’t too self-significant to hang out with their fans at or away from the track, aren’t on a pedestal as if Hollywood-like royalty. Many of them — Doug Kalitta, Matt Hagan, Salinas, Bob Bode, Jeff Diehl, T.J. Zizzo, to name a few — are still going into work on Monday morning and running their businesses. They’re real guys and gals, and unlike these vanilla kids in stock car racing, regardless of what is or isn’t in their bank accounts, they’re just. like. us. In a sense, it’a the professional motorsport for the working man.
As long as the NHRA can retain its core group of stars and cultivate new talent with relatable backgrounds and authentic love for the sport— Cameron Ferre and Jonnie Lindberg are excellent recent examples — then drag racing is primed to continue its ascent. Reaching NASCAR’s towering heights is certainly worth aspiring to, but it’s perhaps what NASCAR gave up in getting there — genuine authenticity, relatability, and humbleness— that are ultimately going to be its undoing.