More than 25,000 fans attended the Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Fla., over the winter. A remarkable number of them no longer identify as NASCAR fans.
It’s a challenge that the sanctioning body, if not the entire industry, is treating as an urgent call to arms.
Upon taking the job in October 2018, NASCAR president Steve Phelps conceded that the company had taken a wrong turn. He agreed that NASCAR had unrooted itself from a subset of its core enthusiasts. He also promised to stop chasing casual fans at the expense of the diehards.
NASCAR had spent so much time over the past two decades reinventing itself into something comparable to stick-and-ball sports that a number of motorsport purists simply checked out. If it wasn’t the increasingly bland schedules of the 2000s with the identically shaped intermediate tracks or the various rule changes designed to make them more entertaining, then it was probably the countless variations of a stock car playoff that pushed them further away.
That last point remains something of a sore spot for fans from a certain generation.
Moreover, a clear line of delineation has developed between NASCAR fans and motorsport fans, where they once occupied the same space. The latter didn’t lose their interest in racing. They simply stopped watching NASCAR. Instead, they attend races like the Snowball Derby, where the product feels closer to what they used to watch on television.
Dirt racing, especially the World of Outlaws, has taken off over the past decade with several of NASCAR’s biggest stars, such as Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell, rocking the figurative boat by suggesting their desire to make a full-time Sprint Car switch before their primes come to a close.
NASCAR must do a better job of tapping into that sentiment to uncover what is missing from its own presentation, a point that Phelps didn’t dismiss when he was asked about it during his first state-of-the-sport press conference at Homestead in November 2018.
“We need to reach out to short tracks,” Phelps said. “We need to reach out to the World of Outlaws. We need to help each other. If someone is a fan of racing, we believe they can be a fan of our racing too. At the same time, we may be the pinnacle of racing from a popularity standpoint, but we can learn from them, they can learn from us, and we can promote each other in a far better way.”
Phelps is working to add additional short tracks to the Cup Series schedule. Speedway Motorsports Inc. seems stubbornly intent on making that track the legendary Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville, which hasn’t hosted a premier series event since 1984 nor Xfinity and Trucks since 2000. The city hosted the annual Cup Series Awards banquet for the first time in December to much fanfare, setting up Music City as an obvious compromise between NASCAR’s pursuit of new markets and appeasing the call for additional short tracks.
“There is more work that has to be done than just showing up and unloading cars and having a race,” Denny Hamlin said during the banquet. “But I would suspect that racing will be back in Nashville within the next 10 years.”
That’s a great long-term goal, but what can be done to encourage those fans buying tickets for the Snowball Derby to make the six-hour trip north to attend the race in Nashville or watch it on television?
NBC Sports and NASCAR launched a short track spotlight campaign in July called the Grassroots Racing Tour with the stated goal of growth and cross-promotion between the major leagues and various short track disciplines. Cup Series broadcasts began spotlighting marquee events such as the Derby and Saturday night icons like Bubba Pollard — the most successful short tracker in North America over the past decade.
In the process, NASCAR surely learned a thing or two about the sport’s current identity crisis.
“This is what NASCAR is missing,” Pollard says of events like the Snowball Derby. “NASCAR forgets where it came from. This is why dirt racing is growing so much right now. They represent the middle-class, down-to-earth people that NASCAR seems to have forgotten.
“NASCAR wants to showboat money and flaunt this politically correct bullcrap, and that’s not what racing is about. It’s about wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt, having a good time. If you look in the stands, that’s who is there. You’re not going to see suits and dress shoes. That’s what NASCAR keeps trying to be, but that’s not their fans.”
Recognizing that, NBC Sports and NASCAR have increased their commitment to grassroots racing for the 2020 season, launching a subscription-based service called NBC Sports Gold TrackPass that will feature live ARCA Racing Series, Whelen Modified Tour, Canadian Pinty’s Series and numerous marquee short track events across the country.
One of the loudest advocates for connecting NASCAR back to its roots is NBC Sports TV analyst Jeff Burton, a 21-race winner at the highest level. He joined the broadcast team in 2015 and immediately began pitching grassroots as an area for NBC to invest in. When not calling NASCAR races for the network, Burton has spent his post-driving career traversing the country with son Harrison as he worked his way up the ranks. Burton says the new streaming platform will complement NBC’s national series coverage as well, since it will introduce fans to younger drivers before they advance to the Truck Series.
“In my opinion, short track racing is a treasure to our sport, and it’s truly where our fan base begins,” Burton says. “And if we don’t have the fan base excited for those levels, then I don’t think the weekend at the Cup level will mean as much as it should.
“And I admit that I kind of took some of this for granted until my son started racing. When Harrison started racing and we went back to some of these tracks I hadn’t been to since my Late Model days, it rejuvenated me in regards to how important this is to the health of the sport.”
In a related development, one of the most shocking headlines of the 2019 season came in October when the Race Team Alliance (RTA) of NASCAR Cup Series team owners revealed that it had purchased short track racing content website Speed51.com from industry mainstay Bob Dillner. In a matter of months, the NASCAR industry had transitioned from virtual indifference to the short track community to being deeply invested in its future from every angle.
As part of the purchase of Speed51, the leading group of NASCAR Cup Series team owners now operates the company that essentially co-promotes and broadcasts the Snowball Derby and the prestigious All-American 400 at Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville. It also has the broadcast rights to nearly every major short track event that is not sanctioned by NASCAR — placing the team owners somewhat in competition with its sanctioning body.
“Any opportunity to service the fans is what we want to do,” Phelps said during championship weekend at Homestead in November. “So, whether it’s Speed51 and Bob Dillner... we have our own races, our own type of production, ways to get it across multiple devices. I think the [two services are] complementary, frankly. And do I think there will be folks that will do both Speed51 and TrackPass.”
The RTA stated in its initial press release announcing the purchase of Speed51 that its member owners agreed that there was room to increase awareness for short track racing given that so many drivers, crew members and industry specialists advanced through the ranks before reaching the national stage.
The group’s executive director, Jonathan Marshall, echoed Phelps’ sentiment that they were not competing against each other in this suddenly competitive short track digital rights landscape. It was just the result of that call to arms for the NASCAR industry to mobilize and get back to its roots.
“Like Steve said, this is wholly complementary to what the entire sport is trying to do,” Marshall said. “We were at the All-American 400, and that really feels like racing, right? It was really great racing.
“We see this as totally on-brand. It makes a ton of sense to be involved... Fans are going to be watching the Snowball Derby [and] the championship race at Homestead. It’s the same fan base. So, working cooperatively with NASCAR is absolutely part of our plan.”
The RTA’s plan also includes modernizing the amenities at the short track events they now have considerable influence over. For the first time ever, the Snowball Derby featured a NASCAR-style video board in front of the frontstretch grandstands. The fan zone behind the grandstands included a row of NASCAR Heat console video game simulation rigs. The entire experience gave the event a fresh coat of paint without eroding what makes the Snowball Derby inherently charming.
And from Marshall’s standpoint, he’s learned something that has become apparent for reasons explained above.
“We’re recognizing that there [are] increasingly two different kinds of fans,” Marshall says. “One of them is the local short track fan, some of them even used to be NASCAR fans, but is no longer finding that connection they used to.
“Those are the type of fans we want to bring back. So, the teams collectively have this large audience, speaking to millions of people through their social media channels. This is an extension of what the teams are already doing.”
These are the politically correct answers, of course. And while there is no doubt sincerity on both sides, it’s not hard to classify the recent moves made by both NASCAR and the RTA as something akin to a digital rights cold war. NASCAR’s current broadcast contract with FOX and NBC ends after the 2024 season.
In partnering with NBC Sports to launch Gold TrackPass, NASCAR could be laying the foundation for an oft-rumored over-the-top streaming channel similar to the WWE Network. Phelps says that partnering with NBC and not FOX doesn’t portend anything concerning the future, but instead reflects both partners’ current streaming capabilities.
NBC Sports currently carries a Gold Pass platform for several other sports properties, including IndyCar, PGA Tour Live and the English Premier League.
“Fox doesn’t have a comparable product to this,” Phelps says of NBC Gold. “NBC was the logical partner for us to come to. They’re the leader in this space. We’re thrilled to be able to have a partner like NBC. Do I think this creates a deeper connection between our two organizations? I do.
“What happens down the line? We’ll figure that out when it comes.”
But in the short term, these recent developments are a tremendous victory for the short track industry and the efforts to reconnect it to NASCAR. Prior to the turn of the century, there was much more crossover between short trackers and the highest levels. Before the era of identical intermediate track schedules for all three national tours, the Xfinity Series and Gander Trucks frequented numerous short tracks, allowing for regional stars to make one-off starts and receive a spotlight that worked as a two-way conduit to generate interest in regional racing.
A modern example is JR Motorsports short track driver Josh Berry, the reigning winner of the annual 200-lap Late Model Stock Car race at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia. He has made a handful of starts in the Xfinity Series at Iowa and Richmond and elsewhere when Dale Earnhardt Jr. found the funding to make it happen. Berry has carried that spotlight back with him to the short tracks, where he is easily the most popular driver in the Carolinas and Virginias.
Berry made his Snowball Derby debut in December and says that he has noticed the increase in awareness of the event due to the changing landscapes. Now, he is hopeful that the sport as a whole can capitalize on the popularity of short track racing.
“There are at least five guys, if not more, you could take from this field and make the case they should be racing on Sundays,” Berry says. “And NASCAR fans are starting to get more opportunities to see it.
“There needs to be attention on this because there’s a place for all of us in this world. It’s like I said after winning Martinsville: If my career is to be a badass short track driver, I’m perfectly fine with it, but Bubba Pollard, Derek Thorn and Stephen Nasse all deserve to have this spotlight.”
And 25,000 fans gave it to them on a warm December afternoon on the Florida Gulf Coast. It remains to be seen what the NASCAR industry will choose to do with what they’ve started to take away from the experience.