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Progress Isn’t The Goal

Illustration: Jim Cooke (G/O Media), Photo: Getty Images
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NASCAR has a problem. Not the attendance struggles or the fight to stay enticing in a world of ball sports with elimination playoffs, or the fact that the one woman running top-level Cup Series races lost her ride and subsequently retired. No, this problem is one NASCAR created all on its own, and whether the organization will admit it or not, it’s indicative of larger issues. The problem is Barstool Sports.

And that problem, like Barstool, keeps getting worse.

At the beginning of the race season, NASCAR announced a new partnership with Barstool, referred to as a “paid media spend” by a Sports Business Daily report. The initiative has, so far, included things like a pizza-review video featuring driver Corey LaJoie, who also appeared in a Barstool interview where he was prompted to talk about things like the amount of flashing at the Daytona 500 and “biker girls show[ing] boobs.” Dale Earnhardt Jr., who now works for NBC as a broadcaster, later appeared in another pizza review, as did driver Chase Elliott.

The report called the Barstool deal one of the first NASCAR had signed as “part of the new advertising budget allotted this year,” and said the choice of website was likely in an attempt to age down NASCAR’s aging fanbase. Barstool has also had a presence at some of the major NASCAR races this season and has been involved in branded ticket packages, like this one for the Daytona 500. The website’s founder, Dave Portnoy, was a “VIP” at the Daytona 500, and has appeared on NASCAR’s Glass Case of Emotion podcast.

On July 10, just under a month before Barstool published its latest iteration of “Grading the Newest Sex Scandal Teacher,” Sports Business Journal reporter Adam Stern tweeted that NASCAR Chief Marketing Officer Jill Gregory called the series’ deal with Barstool “fantastic.”

“When they come out and experience NASCAR, they can’t wait to tell others about it,” Gregory said, via the tweet. “That’s the sign of a partnership that is working.”

But “working,” in this case, is subjective. NASCAR’s Barstool partnership could very well be bringing in numbers, but NASCAR is simultaneously pushing away the people who come to this sport in spite of its faults.

Barstool and its followers are known for hate and harassment of others, from outward sexism and racism to harassment in the workplace. The harassment is encouraged at Barstool’s highest levels and from Portnoy himself, repeatedly, and has been documented by journalists for years.

In 2017, ESPN sportscaster Sam Ponder tweeted a screenshot of a Barstool story that said her top requirement at her job was to “make men hard.” As reported by the Daily Beast, that very week, Portnoy called Ponder a “fucking slut” who should “sex it up and be slutty” instead of talking about working while also being a mother. As our sister site Deadspin reported, Portnoy was far from done, and as the Daily Beast writes, the reporter who wrote that story, Laura Wagner, became the next target for Barstool.

Jalopnik reached out to NASCAR on Tuesday, asking for comment on the actions cited in this story in the context of its paid deal with Barstool and continued partnership despite those actions. NASCAR has not yet responded. (Update: When pressed, a NASCAR spokesperson declined to comment about the contents of Jalopnik’s email and on the partnership in the context of them.)

There are countless well-documented reports of Barstool’s misconduct—from its staffers and from their followers alike, one encouraging the other—like this one, this one, this one, or this one. In 2018, Barstool radio host called then-17-year-old Olympic gold medalist Chloe Kim a “little hot piece of ass.” That same year, Portnoy himself told an employee she’d be too ugly to be on camera in five years.

And on Tuesday, Portnoy tweeted that he will fire any staffer “on the spot” for inquiring about unionization. It was part of his series of anti-union posts, including a tweet linking back to a blog that he wrote in 2015 about unionization in response to writers’ vote to unionize at Gawker, the now-defunct former parent company of this website. His blog reads:

BAHAHA! I hope and I pray that Barstool employees try to unionize. I can’t tell you how much I want them to unionize. Just so I can smash their little union to smithereens. Nothing would please me more than to break it into a million little pieces. Oh you think you deserve health insurance? You don’t think you should have to work with squirrels in the office? You don’t think I should duct tape Hank to the walls? Well now yis can’t leave! No more free water! No more vacation days! I’m gonna dump rats into the walls! You haven’t seen anything yet! Unionize Nate! Unionize Trent! I dare you! Trent you’ll be back working security at Walmart in a blink of an eye! KFC will be doing my accounting! No more fancy pants weddings! Hank will be an exhibit at the Museum of Science! UNIONIZE I DARE YOU!

The New York State Department of Labor responded to the tweets, reminding people that it is “illegal to take any unfavorable action—including termination—against employees for union-related activities under the National Labor Relations Act.” The AFL-CIO had a field day with this, as did a number of pro-labor politicians.

The combative, spiteful tendencies displayed by Barstool personalities have been passed onto, and made exponentially worse by, its fanbase. Journalists who publish negative reports about the organization do so knowing they will likely face doxing and harassment, as will their family members. People who call out Barstool do so knowing that they’ve potentially opened themselves up to being swallowed by a mob of angry Barstool fans.

Barstool sucks. This is obvious. Yet it still attracts partners like NASCAR, eager to pay in order to reach its audience of younger guys, apparently even if that means alienating other, more diverse groups of fans NASCAR needs to be relevant in the years to come.

This partnership tells anyone who might be a subject of Barstool’s hate and harassment—women, people of color, the people who defend them—that while their money is just as good as anyone else’s for getting in the gates, it doesn’t mean they deserve to be welcomed and fully embraced as fans.

I feel the sting on this one personally.

It was 2009 when I arrived at my first NASCAR race, free tickets in hand and expecting nothing more than to watch a bunch of cars make circles for three hours longer than they should. Instead, I left as someone whose life had been forever changed—someone who didn’t know much about NASCAR, or cars, at the time, but knew that whatever they were, they were what I wanted to do in life. I had a feeling in my chest that I couldn’t get out—one of deep, lifelong passion, which, as a junior-high student, I’d never felt before.

From the near-nauseating smell of hot tires to the thunder that shook through the grandstands as 40 race cars screamed by at once, it was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen. It remains that, to this day.

I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life before I walked into that NASCAR race. No career seemed like something I would want to dedicate my life to, but that day made me realize that there was something out there for me, and I’ve been forever thankful for the random chance I got to experience it.

I’ve been a fan of NASCAR and motorsports for a decade, and have covered both as a reporter for years now. It’s something I love, and will love, deep to my core, regardless of how it feels about me. It’s part of who I am.

But 10 years after that race, I’m having to fight to remind myself why I have that passion for NASCAR, because the sport that helped me discover what I want to do with my life is sending me, and others, the message that we don’t matter.

That’s not to say I expected things to be perfectly smooth in my career. I go into covering NASCAR expecting some degree of sexism, racism, and the like, since it’s dominated by straight, white, cis men driving cars. It’s a sport where many people can’t feel free to quietly protest police brutality in America during the national anthem, and where women and drivers of color are rare at the top levels.

It’s also a sport where Confederate imagery has deep roots. NASCAR asked fans to stop bringing the flag to the track in 2015, with USA Today noting that some facilities even offered exchanges for the actual American flag. But NASCAR didn’t require fans to stop, because that would be too big an ask for a big portion of its fanbase.

All of that contradicts NASCAR’s supposed push for a more diverse audience and competitor base through programs like Drive for Diversity, but some of that is expected, given NASCAR’s deep southern ties. I’ve always known that this is a boys’ club, and that it would be for a long time—no matter the diversity efforts.

But I went into being a fan of NASCAR wanting to believe that could change, even gradually, over time. As someone who loves NASCAR, I often see criticism not as a way to score points, but to help the sport improve—to call out things that don’t seem right, hoping that at least someone out there is listening and understanding a point of view that perhaps hasn’t been given as much thought as it should have been over the years.

I want to believe that, if we all keep speaking up, things will improve—that we’ll make these passions of ours, like NASCAR, a more inviting place for people to be able to enjoy them, because they’re beautiful things to enjoy. To be able to share something that has become part of my identity without a list of disclaimers, because I’ve found something to be so incredibly special about it, is the goal.

But this Barstool partnership has taught me that isn’t happening, for now. It’s taught me that progress doesn’t seem to be NASCAR’s goal, and that a poorly judged marketing spend will, at least in this era of NASCAR leadership, win out over pushing away the people who love this sport despite its faults or ingrained prejudices against them.

Getting the audience at all costs what matters here, not the people harmed in the process. In doing so, NASCAR’s cultivating the same regressive culture it purports to be distancing itself from.

I’ll keep watching NASCAR, and I’ll keep writing about it. It’s who I am, and it’s what I’ve wanted to do with my time since the day I walked into that race track in 2009 and discovered there really was something to this life. But I’ll do it with a constant reminder that the world is full of greedy, harmful people who never seem to lose, and that, no, NASCAR can’t be bothered to be better than that.

Still, I’ll keep trying to convince myself, and everyone else, otherwise, because someone has to try—even if that someone isn’t NASCAR.