Last weekend, a NASCAR Xfinity Series driver named Noah Gragson wrecked out of a late lead at Homestead-Miami Speedway, crashing into lapped traffic when David Starr’s Toyota slid up the track due to a cording tire. These things happen in racing, and Gragson’s frustration with the incident was certainly not out of the ordinary for a driver suddenly robbed of a win.
It was the six further days of frustration that stood out.
Gragson’s post-race complaints are easy to defend. After all, his surefire win, which would have been just the third of his Xfinity Series career, was taken away by another car’s problems. It’s not great that he spent that night tweeting an incorrect analysis of what the other car was doing to his fans, but it was the heat of the moment.
It did not end there. The next morning, he was questioning the competency of Starr, a 53-year-old driver with 210 Xfinity Series starts to his name. On Monday, he used his own corded tire problem in the same race to raise further questions about Starr’s capabilities.
This was, somehow, still a topic on Wednesday, when NASCAR on Fox lead commentator Mike Joy weighed in on an interview with Starr earlier in the week. As he saw it, Gragson is not so much a one-off problem as he is symptomatic of an issue represented by an entire generation of well-funded drivers:
Our sport has always had “funded” drivers.
But its high time a few of these privileged kids, powered by daddy’s pile of cash, realize this whole sport doesn’t exist just to make their dreams come true.
Take some time to learn from those who’ve WORKED their way to the top.
Gragson responded with a simple refrain, one that has been raised time and time again by drivers who feel compelled to be some sort of villain:
If you’re talking about me, I’m doing my job.
He expanded on the thought on Thursday, doubling down in a media appearance that, puzzlingly, he filmed while driving his street car. In the 10-minute discussion, he communicated a universal lack of regret, taking pride in his actions and going as far as to say that, if he were in the same situation again, he wouldn’t do anything differently.
Joy’s appraisal—that Gragson is simply an ungrateful child of fortune whose ability to buy a ride has blinded him to the realities of the sport—is unfair. The simple, unfortunate reality of auto racing is that a large portion of the field in any series is filled by the wealthy children of wealthy parents who know that their money can buy them high-end equipment, if not the respect of their peers. This has been the case as long as we’ve had racing; one of the class winners at the first-ever 24 Hours of Le Mans was an actual baron, after all.
Gragson’s defense is still worse.
Forget for a second that Gragson believes his job is to generate publicity, not to win races. This is unfortunate, but irrelevant here. His actual goal of generating that publicity, which Autoweek describes as “embracing the black hat,” is built on the idea that NASCAR needs some sort of villain, akin to the “heel” that makes every pro wrestling storyline work, to find some mythical level of national success. Gragson wants to pivot into a very intentional branding as NASCAR’s Latest Heel. He even went as far as to retweet someone else’s take, that all of this is “great for the sport.”
That belief, that an unapologetic villain-type is just what NASCAR is missing, is nothing new.
Columnists seem to raise this issue often. Even industry insiders, like former Charlotte Motor Speedway promoter Humpy Wheeler, are not immune. As the argument goes, NASCAR’s well-documented downturn can only be stopped by a well-defined villain, some sort of antagonist that can give auto racing some sense of narrative cohesion it currently lacks. It is a cynical and nonsensical argument, one that operates under the assumption that viewers lose interest in a sport if there’s no through-line of storytelling that comes to a satisfying conclusion.
This certainly sounds like a thing that could be true, but there’s no real reason to believe it. Associated Press reporter Jenna Fryer called Kyle Busch the series villain in 2008, more than 12 years ago, and he still plays that role in NASCAR ads today. NASCAR’s ratings have gotten worse across that entire stretch. When Busch won his second championship in 2019, the title-clinching race at Homestead still drew less than half the viewers it had in 2015.
Over the past five years, Busch has arguably been NASCAR’s best driver. Over that same time, per Google Trends data, he has failed to draw more interest than Formula 1 star Lewis Hamilton in the U.S., a country where Formula 1’s average viewership of 600,000 is about a fifth of what NASCAR draws. This is even after accounting for a massive spike in search interest in Busch in March 2017, likely the result of his terrifying crash at Daytona.
And Busch is doing better than most. Chase Elliott, both the reigning series champion and reigning fan-voted Most Popular Driver in NASCAR, is played as the protagonist to Busch’s villain in that same ad. In the Google Trends chart, he runs far behind both Busch and Hamilton.
Here, NASCAR had a story exactly in line with what Wheeler envisioned in 2014. A villain—Busch—took two championships in three years. A year later, the most popular driver in the series won the championship with an excellent run over the final four races, while the antagonist failed to notch a single win in a season for the first time in a decade.
When Busch won his second championship, it set a new total audience low for a NASCAR finale. When Elliott won his, that number went down even further.
One crucial issue with this hero-versus-villain storytelling is that NASCAR cannot actually control the narrative. These are real people in real competition; they can’t play a character full-time, and they can’t win and lose in the order that fits the storyline. This is not scripted entertainment; perfect narratives rarely happen. And, yet, NASCAR came as close as organizers could hope to that perfect storyline. Audiences responded with passive disinterest.
The business of auto racing is complex. A company’s interest in a driver is directly correlated to that driver’s ability to pay for faster equipment in more prestigious categories. But a better-orchestrated push from a more-accomplished driver did not catapult Kyle Busch to stratospheric fame, nor did it grow interest in American auto racing whatsoever. Unsatisfying storytelling may feel like an easy answer for all of NASCAR’s problems, but the uncomfortable truth, one the series has been actively addressing for the past few years, is that those problems go much deeper.
This is a series that has been in crisis for over a decade, one showing real signs of new growth only because it has made radical changes both on-track and off to address deep-seated issues. Internal narratives about current competitors do not correlate with interest in the sport in any way, and there’s no reason to think that intentional personal branding as either the protagonist or antagonist of an entire sport is what’s keeping a young talent like Christopher Bell from ascending to the level of fame other young athletes, like basketball’s Zion Williamson, already claim.
NASCAR is no longer in a position for anything that happens between drivers to draw major outside interest. Serious, lasting on-track issues between stars didn’t do it, so why would playing up a kerfuffle between Noah Gragson and David Starr? All of this is so much more complicated than storytelling and branding, and there is no longer any reason to believe that audiences are simply waiting in the wings for an unapologetic firebrand to come along and singlehandedly renew interest in stock car racing by sticking to his guns about hitting lapped traffic.
Mike Joy is correct in recognizing that the problem is bigger than Noah Gragson. What he misses is that the rot goes much deeper. Calling any of this “great for the sport” misses the point: Auto racing’s struggle won’t be solved by good storytelling alone. This is a multi-faceted problem, and it requires a multi-faceted solution. NASCAR executives finally seem to understand this. Drivers who still believe that internal frustrations correlate to total interest in the sport would be wise to learn that lesson, too.
From: Road & Track
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