NASCAR racing is the epitome of American passion for automobiles, competition and freedom. Only on the race track are drivers permitted to reach speeds of up to 200 miles per hour, exhausts blazing and engines revving at deafening volumes. Blooming out of the Southern United States in the late 1940’s, NASCAR became one of the most highly followed and fastest growing sports in the world, its largest races drawing crowds in the hundreds of thousands. However, NASCAR has come to entail far more than high-speed racing and uncooked entertainment. NASCAR, which stands for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, supported by a predominantly white, Southern, Republican, working-class fan base that is known as the “NASCAR Nation”, became a major twentieth century platform for U.S. auto companies, consumerism and capitalism, and politics, rallying alongside Bush-Era Republicanism.
The sport of NASCAR underwent a transition from a small sport out of the South, representative of small-town, conservative ideals (especially by the drivers, who were commonly referred to as Good Ol’ Boys out of the South), to a multinational corporate and media giant of a sport. As the popularity of the sport spread, NASCAR leaders, particularly Bill France, followed by his son and then grandson, worked to promote and elevate the status of the sport beyond its humble beginnings on dirt raceways. Due to the obviously important role of the automobile itself in the success of a racer, NASCAR emerged as a marketing platform of great potential for automobile manufacturers. Corporate America also caught on to the enormous opportunity for advertisement and exposure stock racing presented. Today Fortune 500 companies, along with countless other businesses, sponsor NASCAR more than any other sport on earth (Newman and Giardina, 2010). Despite the propulsion of NASCAR to the top of the sports marketing world, a large part of its fan base still holds many of the same values as the original NASCAR Nation. Christianity continues to be very much intertwined in the sport’s culture, with organized religious gatherings occurring before races. Most top NASCAR drivers are members of Motor Racing Outreach (MRO), a non-profit Christian organization founded in 1988 (Steinberg and Kincheloe, 2009). Lastly, the impression of NASCAR Nation as tending to lean towards the political right remains a stereotype steeped in fact. As of 2001, 90% of money given to political campaigns by individuals affiliated with NASCAR has been given to the Republican party (Newman and Giardina, 2010). Revealingly, while most top drivers endorsed George W. Bush in 2004, Michelle Obama received a series of boos upon visiting a race in 2011 (Cover, Matt. 2011).
NASCAR has been portrayed in many academic as well as pop-cultural settings. While on sabbatical leave, Jim Wright, a longtime NASCSAR fan and Professor of Sociology, attended races at seven bigtime tracks and wrote a book on NASCAR that sought to explore the depths and motivations behind the wild sport. In explanation of NASCAR’s continued success, Wright writes, “It’s the sort of desire that lurks deep in the limbic system, in the reptilian portion of the brain” (Wright, 2002). There is no real explanation for a fan’s love of the sport, one is either consumed by the spectacle or “doesn’t get it.” Lengthy and detailed papers have also been written on the culture, impact and legacy of the sport. Joshua Newman and Michael Giardina’s article, Neoliberalism’s Last Lap? NASCAR Nation and the Cultural Politics of Sport, quoted above, contains over fifteen pages of in-depth writing on the history of NASCAR. To illustrate the impact NASCAR has had on America, the authors quote one analyst from 2004, “‘Right now, Republicans rule. They control the White House, both houses of Congress and most state governments. The basis of the Republicans’ ruling majority? NASCAR Nation” (Newman and Giardina, 2010). The position of prominence NASCAR enjoys in American culture has also been captured in film. In the mockumentary, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Will Ferrell plays Ricky Bobby, the classic NASCAR driving American man, complete with a winning attitude, Christian family, and Southern Drawl. All that he values in life comes into question when a homosexual Frenchman, Jean Girard, enters the picture and starts beating him in races. While the film is a parody of the culture of NASCAR, it successfully portrays Bobby as an American hero and the race track as the ultimate and final fighting grounds for traditional American values.
Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect on Our Lives. 2010. Palgrave-Macmillian, New York. Catherine Lutz, Anne Lutz Fernandez
Cover, Matt. 2011. Mrs. Obama Faced Boos at NASCAR, But Bush Was Cheered – Most Top Drivers Endorsed Bush in 2004. CNS News.
Kligerman, Parker, 2015. Why is NASCAR popular? Quora.
Newman, Joshua, I., Giardina, Michael D, 2010. Neoliberalism’s Last Lap? NASCAR Nation and the Cultural Politics of Sport. Sage Publications.
Shackleford, Ben, 2004. Going National While Staying Southern: Stock Car Racing in America, 1949-1979. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
Steinberg, Shirley and Kincheloe, Joe.dd 2009. Christotainment: Selling Jesus through Popular Culture. Westview Press.
Wright, Jim, 2002. Fixin to Git: One Fan’s Love Affair with NASCAR’s Winston Cup. Duke University Press, Durham and London.
Student Author: Charlie Parker is a senior at University of Vermont, studying Environmental Studies and Music.
Faculty Advisor: Rob Williams, University of Vermont