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The Young and the Wreckless

Published on May 11, 2017, at 9:08 a.m.
by Kayla Sullivan.

Every February I eagerly await the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. With a plate of my favorite nachos in hand and a spot on the couch, I settled in for this year’s Daytona 500.

The three-and-a-half hour race saw eight cautions and one red flag, as well as 18 lead changes. This race was also the first official race with the implementation of stage racing. NASCAR, along with the drivers, decided that splitting the race into three stages would add more excitement and competition to races and in turn draw more viewers.

As the sport approaches mid-season, the stage racing has definitely succeeded in adding more excitement throughout races that could run for several hundred laps without much action. But hasn’t succeed in drawing more viewers.

At Daytona International Speedway, cars have been known to flip up into the catch fence in front of the grandstands during last-lap wrecks.

Photo by Larry McTighe

Kyle Larson was the driver of the number 32 car at Daytona in 2013 when it seemed to do a 360 along the catch fence in front of the grandstands, ripping off both the front and back end of the car and spraying debris into the crowd near the start-finish line. There was little left of the catch fence and Larson’s car other than the cab of the 32 still carrying Larson. Most of the car was in the grandstands, including the engine.

Several fans were hospitalized, and clips of the horrific scene began to appear on every news outlet. NASCAR didn’t know how to handle the social media frenzy that ensued. The last major accident in which fans were injured had been before the instantaneous news-sharing and social media age.

Austin Dillon had a similar wreck to Larson in 2015 at Daytona. This time, however, the majority of debris stayed on the track and relatively little went into the grandstands, thanks to the upgrades that NASCAR made after Larson’s wreck. Dillon walked away with minor injuries.

When these stories spread, NASCAR is forced to face safety questions from people outside of the racing fandom. NASCAR is diligent in addressing the concerns.

These exciting crashes are what draw many fans to the sport, but necessary upgrades to safety measures has caused these crashes to be few and far between. NASCAR hopes that the stage racing will help replace the action and competitiveness fans are missing and keep them watching.

The recent announcement by Dale Earnhardt Jr. that the 2017 season will be his last season is potentially bad news for the sport as well. Earnhardt has been voted by fans for 14 consecutive years as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver. Many fear that when he leaves, so will his following.

Two other big names have retired in the last two years — Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.

Photo by Darryl Moran on Flickr

As the drivers who have become household names begin to retire, the sport is counting on its “young guns” to bring in new fans as well as cater to the fans of retired drivers who have left the sport. This talented group of new drivers are surprising their fans and peers with their competitiveness, more so than any other new crop of drivers before them.

NASCAR is taking advantage of the young drivers’ knowledge of social media to reach the fans in a new and interactive way. Some of the older drivers were using Twitter and Facebook, but not to the level of the Young Guns.

Best friends Ryan Blaney and Darrell Wallace Jr. (#6), a.k.a. Bubba Wallace, took over NASCAR’s Snapchat account on a road trip. Their many impressions of other drivers and karaoke covers let fans see a personal side of drivers that they had never seen.

NASCAR is trying to get the fans more involved with its drivers. So, fans are now able to attend a previously invite-only event where Blaney and another young driver, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., will be there to engage with the lucky fans. This event will be held during the All-Star Race weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina.

But despite efforts by NASCAR to continue to expand its fanbase, the sport still lacks diversity in its drivers.

In 2017, there is still only one female driver, Danica Patrick (#10). There have been international drivers in previous years but most have moved on from the sport; the addition of Daniel Suarez to the Cup series brings the current grand total of international drivers to one. Bubba Wallace is in a similar group as the only African-American driver.

Only time will tell if the changes will allow the sport to continue on. I definitely think attracting more diversity will help the sport. Allowing the sport to continue to change along with the new drivers and fans will be key.

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