The Decline and Fall of NASCAR
On February 18, 2001, Dale Earnhardt hit a wall, and American motorsport was forever changed.
Earnhardt was a legend. His “Garage Mahal” in Mooresville, NC, was a pilgrimage site. Over 17 million watched as his #3 car made light contact with Sterling Marlin, collided with Ken Schrader as he tried to regain control, and smashed into a wall at 160 miles per hour on the final turn of the final lap. His death was a collective trauma.
When the New York Times announced the crash on its front page the next day, though, the headline didn’t refer to him by name. Instead, it called him “Stock Car Star.” Editors did not think it was safe to assume readers would recognize the sport’s most beloved hero.
By 2001, such northern disdain was already out of date. Driving fast in an oval was no provincial pastime; NASCAR had gone national. Its tracks seated more fans than the largest football stadiums. Its ratings surpassed those of Major League Baseball in some regions, and it was poised to surpass the other “Big Four” American sports leagues, the NHL, NBA, and NFL. In fact, NASCAR had just signed an unprecedented $2.4 billion television contract. The 2001 Daytona 500 was the first race to be aired under it.
These modernizing forces accelerated after Earnhardt’s death, and partly because of it. The crash marked the moment when NASCAR undertook a deliberate transformation to make itself more commercially appealing, more scientifically managed, and less distinctively Southern—the opposite of what Earnhardt stood for. We are living with the consequences today.
The stereotype of NASCAR as a redneck sport contains a grain of truth. American stock car racing originated with bootleggers in the Carolina Piedmont, running moonshine and dodging the revenue man. Early races took place on dirt tracks, and with no formal organization the rules could be anarchic. In 1947, in an effort to bring order to the chaos, a gas-station owner corralled a group of race promoters in a Daytona Beach hotel bar to draw up a uniform set of rules and a governing structure. The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing was born. Its first race was held at Charlotte, NC, in 1949, on a dirt track. Asphalt would come a year later in the first race at Darlington, SC. The sport’s earliest icons were recovered moonshiners from the region like “the Last American Hero” Junior Johnson.
Dale Earnhardt was a product of this rough-and-tumble era. He grew up in Kannapolis, a textile town in the North Carolina Piedmont—the name is Greek for “city of looms.” He dropped out of high school in ninth grade and worked odd jobs around town, including as a mechanic and a welder. In his twenties, he later said, his family “probably should have been on welfare. We didn’t have money to buy groceries.” He raced as an amateur, working on his cars in the garage in his mother’s back yard. He lived in a trailer next door.
Earnhardt’s appeal was not just his humble background but the gruff persona that it formed. Compare him to fellow NASCAR legend Richard Petty, who is tied with Earnhardt for the most championships of all time (7). Both had fathers who were drivers, but Petty descended from NASCAR royalty. Lee Petty was a successful driver and the sport’s first three-time champion. Ralph Earnhardt’s success was limited to the dirt track races of the Carolinas. By NASCAR standards, Richard Petty was clean-cut—a father of four married for nearly fifty years. Dale Earnhardt had two divorces before the age of twenty-five, and for years he couldn’t pay child support. He was a gambler, often borrowing a few hundred dollars on a Thursday to buy tires and parts for his races on Friday and Saturday, betting that he would win enough to pay off his debts by Monday.
The men’s nicknames indicate their divergent personalities. Dubbed “the King,” Richard Petty was the quintessential carburetor cowboy. He happily mingled with fans and signed autographs, always wearing his trademark cowboy hat with a plume of rooster feathers in the front. Dale Earnhardt was “the Intimidator” and “the Man in Black.” He was standoffish. Petty was friendly with the media and became a broadcaster himself in retirement. Dale was deliberately antagonistic toward reporters, known for literally stepping on their toes when they interviewed him.
These personality differences were reflected in their driving. Petty dominated the sport for years thanks to an impressive pit crew and a more conservative racing style that made a deliberate push for the lead in the final laps of a race. Earnhardt was aggressive. He took his lead early and either drove past competitors or bumped them out of the way. This delighted some fans and infuriated others. One sent an anonymous death threat against Dale (“you fucking people won’t do anything about his dirty driving so someone else will have to”) that the FBI took seriously enough to assign a protective detail to the Budweiser 500 at Watkins Glen and the Miller High Life 500 at Pocono in 1987. Dale didn’t mind the haters. As he often said, “Boos on Sunday means money on Monday.”
In fact, the very incident that earned him his lasting nickname, “The Intimidator,” alienated as much as it endeared. It was the 1987 All-Star Race in Charlotte, known then simply as “The Winston,” an exhibition race for the top recent race winners. Victory didn’t count toward the championship; only money and pride were on the line. Earnhardt had been in a heated battle with his long-time rival Bill Elliott all race, rubbing fenders at nearly 200 mph. With just seven laps to go and Earnhardt in the lead, Elliott made a move inside, his #9 Coors car bumping Earnhardt’s #3 Wrangler off course and into the infield grass—surely spelling the end of his chances. But Earnhardt managed to regain control while in the infield and maintain the lead. Earnhardt would hold on to win the race and go on to win the Winston Cup championship that year (his third). The moment entered NASCAR lore as the “Pass in the Grass”—though it wasn’t technically a pass.
Earnhardt treated racing as a contact sport and claimed to have “never been scared in a race car.” As his long-time rival Darrell Waltrip explained, “With Earnhardt, every lap is a controlled crash.” It was a style of racing he had honed on Friday-night dirt track races, where he’d spin out his competitors only to get chased out of the racetrack by enraged (and armed) mechanics. After one crash in 1985 at Richmond International Speedway, where Earnhardt spun out Darrell Waltrip with three laps to go, Waltrip claimed that he “had meant to kill me.” After another race where Dale sent Al Unser Jr.’s car flying out of the racetrack, Rusty Wallace remarked, “Now you know why we all hate him.”
H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, a legendary race promoter and track owner in the Carolinas, summed up Dale’s appeal: “Earnhardt is the resurrected Confederate soldier. Where Petty was always compliant, Earnhardt will stand his ground and say, ‘I’m not going to do that.’ And the people who love him are the people who are told, every day, what to do and what not to do, and they’ve got all those rules and regulations to go by. That just draws them closer to him.”
That’s why his death was so traumatic, and why it was so ironic that the crash that killed him ended up empowering forces that represented everything he stood against.
Starting in 2001, NASCAR made sweeping reforms in four areas. The first was safety.
Earnhardt had been the fourth driver to die in eight months across the sport. His death prompted NASCAR to build a $10 million, 61,000 square foot research & development center in Concord, NC, the next town over from where Dale grew up. Gary Nelson, then managing director of competition, was tasked with running the center and implementing new safety rules. His mandate, in the words of a NASCAR spokesman, was to change the sport in “a true scientific fashion that matches today’s times and technology.” He started by putting foam barriers on all NASCAR tracks and mandating Head & Neck Support (HANS) devices for all drivers.
By far the biggest change Nelson spearheaded was the so-called “Car of Tomorrow.” The product of five years of development, the car was four inches wider and two inches taller than the previous standard. It was deliberately designed to be slower, with a thicker, more box-like bumper and a more upright windshield to increase drag. The driver’s seat was moved four inches to the right to make it safer in a crash. The Car of Tomorrow debuted in 2007 and was mandated for all cars in 2008.
The minute design changes marked a significant transformation for the sport. Long gone was the “run what you brung” ethic of early stock car racing. In those days, race cars looked like ordinary cars you’d see on the street—and in many cases, they were. The earliest drivers bought cars off the lot and souped them up. Even during NASCAR’s prime, fans could go during the week and buy the car seen in Victory Lane that weekend. Before the Car of Tomorrow, the manufacturer’s insignia on a race car meant something. It signified different parts and components, a different construction, and a different set of standards. Now all manufacturers were subject to a single, exacting set of templates; the main differentiation was in the cars’ façade.
Fans hated it. They mocked the Car of Tomorrow as “a flying brick with a wing.” Kyle Busch, the first driver to win a race in one, declared from Victory Lane, “They suck…. It’s hard to drive and hard to set up.” The backlash was so severe that NASCAR punished dissent. Driver Denny Hamlin was fined $25,000 for complaining about the car in public. Nevertheless, fans and drivers grumbled that it handled worse, looked terrible, and completely changed the way drivers had to approach their races in terms of strategy.
But the car rated highly on all the metrics that the suits cared about. It was safer and also cheaper, and it led to more competitive, tightly packed racing because it was slower. So they stood their ground.
NASCAR introduced a new technological contraption to enforce standardization: a laser inspection system dubbed “the Claw” that fit over the new cars and regulated the chassis down to the thousandths of an inch. Teams whose car failed the Claw inspection were slapped with $100,000 fines and multi-race suspensions.
We don’t have to speculate what Dale would have thought about all this. Already in 2000, when NASCAR mandated the use of restrictor plates and further regulations for races at the Daytona and Talladega superspeedways, Earnhardt was making a fuss. “They took racing out of the hands of the drivers and the crews. We can’t adjust and make our cars drive like we want,” he complained, “This is a joke to have to race like this.”
The second area of change was to the competition. NASCAR championships had always been determined by a points system. Points were allocated by finishing position, with bonus points awarded to drivers that led for at least one lap and also for the driver who led the most laps. The driver with the most points at the end of the season won the championship. It was designed to reward good, consistent driver performance. The previous points system, the product of decades of trial and error, had been in place for 35 years.
Under pressure to go more mainstream and grow its fan base, NASCAR faced a problem. Its season ended in the fall and had to compete with October baseball and the NFL, and it didn’t have a playoff or postseason. The points system meant that the season’s champion could be a foregone conclusion long before the final race.
NASCAR executives also feared that the points system failed to fully incentivize winning. In 2003, Matt Kenseth won the championship despite having only won one race, while another driver, Ryan Newman, had won eight races. So, led by CEO Brian France, the grandson of the founder of NASCAR, the organization adopted in 2004 what was known as “The Chase for the Championship.” After the first twenty-six races of thirty-six, NASCAR would take the top ten drivers in points and, more or less, hit reset. Points from the final ten races determined the season’s champion.
A points-based system always held out the possibility of statically engineered competition, of NASCAR officials calibrating incentives to shape driver behavior and maximize entertainment value. But The Chase restructured points into a faux-playoff gimmick. Fans saw it for what it was. In 2003, as NASCAR contemplated the rule changes, it hosted a public poll to solicit fan input and buy-in. The exercise returned such dismal results that NASCAR was forced to shut it down prematurely before unveiling The Chase the following season.
As with any policy change, The Chase came with unintended consequences. By increasing the reward for winning, it increased the penalty for not winning or for failing to finish. This discouraged the kind of aggressive tactics that Dale was known for, like spinning out other drivers on the final lap and risking being disqualified himself. So while the suits could cite indicators of increased competition—lead changes, laps led, and race-winning drivers—fans could see for themselves a different approach to driving.
The biggest problem with NASCAR’s efforts was that the new rules were all just incredibly confusing. The purpose of the new points system and The Chase was to make each season more competitive. As France declared, “We want our sport—especially during the Chase—to be more about winning.” But the end result was a statistical mess. NASCAR officials continually refined and revised the format and the point values. The Chase was eventually changed to a playoff with an elimination system. It was spliced into multiple rounds. All the while, officials continued to fiddle with the points values. In the end, NASCAR had to publish a long FAQ just to explain the rules to its fans.
Fan reaction was predictable. As Missouri fan Lanette Williams told USA Today in 2016, “The constant changes NASCAR does, it doesn’t have the same good feeling it used to have. We’ve just lost interest in NASCAR. NASCAR has lost interest in us…. There are just so many things involved, but there are a lot of disenfranchised, disheartened people like us.”
The third area of reform was image. NASCAR had long wanted to enter the American mainstream and distance itself from Southern stereotypes and its Talladega Nights reputation. As Mike Helton, who became president of NASCAR in 2000, explained during the launch of a diversity initiative in 2006: “We believe strongly that the old Southeastern redneck heritage that we had is no longer in existence. But we also realize that there’s going to have to be an effort on our part to convince others to understand that.”
NASCAR’s first move was on sponsorships. The two biggest series used to be the Winston Cup and the Busch Cup—cigarettes and beer. Cars were sponsored by consumer brands popular with the white working class: Wrangler jeans, Goodwrench, Budweiser. The military branches sponsored cars as well. This was the era of the Iraq War when “NASCAR Dads” were a political constituency. But NASCAR made a deliberate choice to discourage these types of sponsorships. In the case of tobacco, it canceled them outright, ending its partnership with R.J.. Reynolds in 2003, seven years before the FDA’s ban on tobacco sponsorships. The Winston Cup became the Nextel Cup. The Busch Cup was renamed for Nationwide Insurance. The latest sponsors include Monster Energy and Xfinity.
Its next move was on drivers. The shift started with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, clean-cut Californians with little charisma but cultural ties to the West Coast markets that NASCAR wanted to target. Next came woman driver Danica Patrick, who never won a race but graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and was consistently spotlighted in NASCAR coverage. Her manufactured rise coincided with the late Obama era and the heyday of girlboss feminism.
The culture war hit NASCAR most dramatically with the rise of Bubba Wallace, an African-American driver, who in June 2020 debuted a “Black Lives Matter” car with “Compassion,” “Love,” and “Understanding” on the hood. Eleven days later, he reported discovering a noose in the garage stall at Talladega. The FBI investigated it as a possible hate crime, but eventually concluded what many fans knew from the start, that the supposed “noose” was a pull rope for the garage door, as would be found in any of the drivers’ stalls.
The fourth and final area of change was to the business side. NASCAR wanted to expand the class of people it appealed to and also to move beyond its regional market in the Southeast. Statements from NASCAR made clear that this was its business strategy. Helton in 2003 referred to “the oversaturation that exists in the southeastern United States” versus new races “being in areas where there is not a saturation to get more exposure in more major markets.”
New tracks were built in Miami, Chicago, Dallas, and Las Vegas. These were cookie-cutter tracks, all one and a half miles long, with luxury boxes and suites like you’d see in an NFL stadium. Formerly tracks had been individually distinctive with their own special quirks. Pocono Raceway, for instance, was a triangle. The old Southern tracks tended to be shorter, tighter ovals, which made for more dynamic—and more dangerous—racing. It was as if MLB had torn down Fenway Park and Wrigley Field and replaced them with standard-issue ballparks.
But NASCAR did not increase the number of races in its schedule, so it was a zero-sum tradeoff that resulted in many smaller tracks closing down. For small towns like North Wilkesboro and Rockingham, having a track was a draw that brought in revenue from tourism and hospitality. But for NASCAR, the revenue was just too small, especially compared to the potential of large markets like Miami and Vegas.
What happened in Rockingham was typical. Rockingham Speedway in North Carolina had held two races per year for nearly forty years. But when it failed to sell out its races, the track was bought up by International Speedway Corporation (ISC), a big conglomerate, and its fate was sealed. ISC moved its fall race slot to a sleek new track in Los Angeles and the following year moved its spring race to Fort Worth. Rockingham has not hosted a major race for NASCAR since 2004.
For some NASCAR fans, this marked a betrayal by the sport they loved. Donald Hill of Trinity, NC, was interviewed by a journalist at a race in Martinsville, VA, just over the Carolina border, in 2006. He lamented the closure of tracks in the region. “It’s a little bit changed since they’ve moved a lot of stuff out of North Carolina. I hope they don’t take Martinsville. If they take much more, we’re not going to have nothing.”
Such a pattern of change is familiar to NASCAR’s base of working-class fans in the southeast. The suits came in and changed everything, leaving the old loyalists both bewildered and worse off. They had been dispossessed. Something dear had been taken from them.
Darlington, SC, was a textile town with a track known as “The Track Too Tough to Tame.” It had two big races every year, including one on Labor Day weekend. But in 2005, it lost one of its races and was poised to lose the other. This would have been the final blow to a town already reeling from globalization and the closure of local mills.
This was not lost on Bennet Deane, president of the county’s Chamber of Commerce. “We have felt the effect of NAFTA. It’s kind of like getting hit when we’re already down,” he told the New York Times. “We felt like we were a victim of NASCAR’s success. We were a part of the success growing it and getting it to this point, and we’re kind of getting left behind.”
What was true of Darlington was true of many other towns across the Southeast. Kannapolis, Dale Earnhardt’s hometown, was at one point in time home to the largest textile factory in the world. Its No. 1 Mill was a massive complex, larger than the Pentagon. The neighborhood where Dale grew up was known as Car Town, with streets named “Chrysler,” “Ford,” and “Chevrolet.” People there loved to tinker with cars and race them.
Then the company that owned the biggest mill, Pillowtex, started feeling competitive pressure from Mexico. Unwilling to save itself by offshoring, Pillowtex filed for bankruptcy in 2003 and caused the largest layoffs in the history of the state of North Carolina. It was bought up by a conglomerate and shuttered. Unsure what to do with this massive facility, the state demolished it and replaced it with a biomedical research park in an effort to replicate the success of the nearby Research Triangle.
The only real remnant of what came before is the town’s various homages to Dale Earnhardt. The main drag is Dale Earnhardt Blvd. A 9 foot, 900 lb. bronze statue of him stands in the center of town, in Dale Earnhardt Tribute Plaza. The local minor league baseball team was named after him, the Intimidators. The nearby Carowinds amusement park features a red-and-black roller coaster in tribute to Earnhardt. But little else remains.
It is now a mantra in conservative politics that the culture war is a class war. This is usually said to indicate that culture wars are fought along class lines, between largely wealthy urban dwellers in the creative class and the working class without college degrees. The decline and fall of NASCAR represents the pattern of dispossession that characterizes this class war. Working class institutions were taken over by suits and technocrats motivated by self-interest and the desire to appeal to the mainstream as opposed to their core constituency. With their enemies in control of these institutions, it was hard for the working class to fight back.
NASCAR has not learned any of the lessons of its decline. It just unveiled yet another new car in the spirit of the Car of Tomorrow, also a “spec” car, fit to a set of uniform specifications. It is adding luxury suites to Daytona even as it removes grandstands for typical fans due to falling attendance. The demographics of the sport have not changed. Its fanbase is still 80 percent white, 63 percent male, and with estimated median earnings of $35,000 to $45,000 per year. NASCAR nonetheless proceeded to ban from its speedways Confederate flags in 2020 and “Let’s Go Brandon” chants in 2022.
Nostalgia reigns in towns like Kannapolis, perhaps because it has to. In addition to the street signs and statues, residents pay their own tributes to The Intimidator. Homes fly flags emblazoned with Earnhardt’s signature. Pick-up trucks still sport “#3” spray-painted crudely on the door. There’s a common expression among such fans, to “Raise Hell, Praise Dale.” One hopes they put the former into practice. Otherwise the war on NASCAR’s fan base will only continue.
Wells King is research director of American Compass.
This article was supported by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors.