If you get half an hour of free time today, do nothing but spend it reading this amazing NASCAR profile from Sports Illustrated. It’s one of those rare instances in which someone writes about NASCAR with context—not just a young and up-and-coming driver, but the vast institutional failures that are leading to the long, slow suicide of the sport.
Most NASCAR takes, anguishing over a drop in race viewership and attendance, completely miss the forest for the trees, and miss the larger point. The vast, overwhelming majority of NASCAR reports are nothing but garbage. “Joey Logano sneezed today.” “Another track closed down.” “NASCAR makes improvements to points system,” when not even NASCAR drivers understand the points system.
But what’s killing NASCAR isn’t the quality of passing, but the institutional failures of the sanctioning body itself. Which is what makes this profile of upstart Israeli-American driver Alon Day, by SI staff writer Andrew Lawrence, so incredible. It’s not just about Day and his struggle to break into the sport, but every obstacle that stands in the path of drivers coming up through the ranks that don’t fit the traditional background.
Lawrence opens it with a listed indictment for everyone that seems to have forgotten where NASCAR was, and where it stubbornly remains:
And while there have been breakthroughs (among them Wallace and Suarez, who’s on his own historic charge for this year’s Xfinity crown), they haven’t come fast enough to help NASCAR open much of a gap between its inclusionary ideals and its enduring reputation as a sport by and for red-blooded white men. Really, if you didn’t know better, you might think NASCAR was circling the wagons. Consider that in the past year:
• NASCAR leadership asked fans, softly, to stop flying confederate flags. At some races they even offered trade-ins for Old Glory. They were met with more Stars and Bars.
• Brian France, NASCAR’s chairman, CEO and breathing embodiment, appeared at a campaign rally in Georgia for Donald Trump and publicly expressed his support for the Republican nominee. Five drivers also appeared with France. The kicker: when Trump later declared “NASCAR endorsed Trump,” France was moved to explain, in an email to his employees, that his endorsement was “personal.”
• NASCAR, while on record with its opposition to North Carolina’s bathroom law, has been careful not to say or do anything that might disrupt business as usual. Charlotte, as it happens, is home to most race shops, two mega NASCAR weekends, a corporate base and the sport’s welfare-assisted hall of fame.
It’s a pattern of self-sabotage that recurs often enough to leave NASCAR vulnerable to charges of purposeful discrimination—an accusation at the core of a $500 million lawsuit filed against the league and its teams last month. (Nevermind the bogusness of the claim.) The pattern even redounds to matters of religion—another NASCAR layer where homogeny, the evangelical Christian variety, rules. And there lies the fraught road ahead of Day.
It’s not just the complete lack of funds that kills minority driver’s careers—a lack of funds will kill any racing career no matter who you are—but also that institutional pressure placed upon drivers from non-traditional backgrounds, the constant subliminal messaging that says “this is not for you.”
As Lawrence documents, NASCAR has made small noises about making things better, but it’s not enough, and it may be too late. Seemingly existing in a state of terror about alienating the very core of the culture that birthed it, the sanctioning body locks itself in stasis while the world moves on.
And all of it is a bit tragic for the people in the sport. Surrounding men and women like Alon Day are friendly faces, friendly teams, and friendly drivers who don’t care about any of the politics of it all. They just want to race, and that’s fine. But if NASCAR insists on shrinking, that means less racing for the rest of us.
Go read the profile here.