Understanding NASCAR Culture

03 Nov 2008|tommy

I recently spent a weekend in Atlanta, GA observing parties and tailgates for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. It was fascinating. Even though I’m from the South, I’ve never been to a NASCAR race and always tended more towards SEC college football than racing. But the thrill of the event was tremendous, and got me thinking about NASCAR and the racing audience.

According to NASCAR.com, NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) is the No.1 spectator sport and the second most popular regular season sport on television. And its popularity isn’t just in the U.S. – NASCAR races are broadcast in more than 150 countries and in more than 30 languages. Yet, as Alan Wolk writes this week in Adweek, NASCAR is still treated as a niche market with specialized ad campaigns targeting – what one would assume to be – a small sports audience. And, I’d argue, NASCAR still suffers from a plethora of negative stereotypes.

I recently posted a request on a NASCAR-based Yahoo! group to try and find respondents who would be OK with us tagging along for their racing tailgate. I wasn’t sure what kind of response I’d get, but I definitely didn’t anticipate the skepticism and distrust that I encountered. Messages came in implying that I wasn’t who I said I was and that something was amiss with my request. I discussed this with the message board moderator – a very kind and supportive soul – and what I heard was fascinating.

My request for research participants was met with distrust and cynicism. One respondent wrote to other message board members that my request reminded him of “research” done a few years ago that seemed to be geared towards portraying race fans as backward and racist. Another community member reminded the group of last year’s flap about the U.S. House Committee’s recommendation that staffers get vaccinated for hepatitis, diphtheria, and other diseases before attending a NASCAR race in Alabama. I’ve encountered skeptical recruits before, but nothing approaching this level of mistrust of the research industry in general.

Despite this, though, the community I encountered at the Atlanta Motor Speedway last weekend was terrific. Tailgating is something I don’t have a lot of experience with, but it’s clear that Southern hospitality isn’t dead. People arrived at the track early – before sunrise – and began setting up grills and camping stoves in the 40-degree weather to cook bacon & eggs and brew coffee (sometimes with a little Jim Beam added). Sharing is the rule, and at some point during the morning or afternoon, most people wandered around to talk with their neighbors or throw a football. People were happy to offer passers-by a hot dog or brat or burger. The race started around two o’clock, and by noon or 12:30 most tailgaters had packed their things back in the car and were heading towards the track to buy souvenirs from the trailer of their favorite driver and to get to their seats before engines start.

In driving back to the hotel, I tried to reconcile the mistrust I encountered on the message board with the hospitality and openness I found at the event. Certainly, part of it was that, in being there with people face-to-face, I had become an insider. For most of the people I saw, I was just another fan there to cheer on their favorite driver. But it’s important to remember, too, that NASCAR has its roots in a southern subculture (moonshine running – think Dukes of Hazzard), and perceived disrespect from those outside the culture only solidifies that underdog perspective. As Alan Wolk writes, assuming that all who follow the sport are ignorant or backwards does nothing to increase positive brand associations or generate new customers. Kudos to our client for wanting to understand NASCAR (it was certainly an impressive weekend for me!) – and for the reminder to be open-minded and embracing in trying to understand others’ cultures.

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