April 28, 2012
By Kim Roberson
NASCAR has millions of fans around the world -- if you are reading this you are likely one of them.
As years have gone by, the fan base has gotten older -- and the new starts of the sport seem to have gotten younger. However, even with the young faces behind the wheel -- the Ricky Stenhouse Junior’s and the Austin Dillon’s and the Trevor Bayne’s -- the fan base doesn’t seem to be adding as many younger fans as you might think.
This weekend marked the first race for Action Sports star Travis Pastrana, who has had a legion of young fans cheering him on during his motocross adventures. But Pastrana recognizes that just because his fans cheered for him on two wheels doesn’t guarantee they will cheer for him on four.
“Almost every single person from three years old on up to 50 has gone to a motocross track that’s a fan of motocross -- everyone has jumped on a skateboard. People can’t really relate to what it’s like you slide around a corner three wide at 200 miles-an-hour. Having said that, I’ve got so much -- I’ve probably never been ridiculed more from an industry to come to NASCAR, which is ironic. I brought 10 buddies to Daytona who gave me flak all the way down. And that first car came by on that first green flag lap -- every single one of those guys was hooked,” he explained. “I think it’s just a matter of coming out and experiencing it and experiencing it with someone who knows (about) it.”
He says he hopes that his move from Action Sports to NASCAR might help bridge a gap between fans of both forms of sports. “I was actually in a Subway and a guy came up and was like ‘Hey, my son was always action sports and I’ve been trying to get him to watch NASCAR and now we have something we can do together,’ which is, for me, that goes a long way. That’s a pretty neat thing.”
The father and son (or daughter) connection is a strong one when it comes to bringing youngsters into the sport. I asked several drivers at Richmond International Raceway this weekend what their first memory of racing was, and almost to a person, it involved their dad -- or another family member.
“I have been going to races since I was two weeks old,” noted Carl Edwards, driver of the No. 99 Ford EcoBoost Fusion for Roush Fenway Racing (RFR). “I don’t remember the first race, but my earliest memories were going to the races with my parents and watching my dad race and to me it was something that just looked kinda scary. Guys put on a fireproof suit and helmet and go out there and race. It just seemed really, really intense. From a young age I was captivated by the whole spectacle of the sport. “
Edwards’s teammate, Matt Kenseth, driver of the No. 17 Ford EcoBoost Fusion for RFR, says, "It is family trips to the track that help create young fans. I think it stars with the kids going to the track with their dad’s. That is how I started racing.
”My dad didn’t race at first when I was a little kid but his three brothers did. We went out to a short track in Wisconsin and would watch them on Saturday night’s race and during the week we would stop by their house in the garage where they would be working on the race cars.
”I guess that is where it first grabbed me, watching them work on the cars and build their own cars in the winter time in Wisconsin when there wasn’t a lot else to do and snow was on the ground and all that. They would bring it to the track in the summer and race on Saturday night and the whole family would come out.”
Jeff Gordon, driver of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet for Hendrick Motor sports (HMS) says he started out backwards when it came to becoming a fan. “I drove a race car before I ever went and saw a race. (My Stepfather) had the opportunity to bring a quarter midget home to see if I liked it or my sister liked it, and so we took it out to the fairgrounds that weekend and drove it out in the field. So that was my first experience, which was behind the wheel, and once you get that experience there is no better way to get hooked.
“Sprint cars were what I really became a fan of -- Steve Kinser -- and so still why today I am a big sprint car fan. I love those cars, I love the short races, I love the excitement of it, I love sliding the cars sideways -- it wasn’t until much later that I got involved in NASCAR.”
“First good memory I have was, I was at the 1979 Daytona 500 when I was four years old and I saw the fight in the infield -- I could see them but I had to ask my dad what was going on, but that was one of my first impressions or racing,” noted Nationwide Series points leader and driver of the No. 2 One Main Financial Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing, Elliott Sadler. “I actually used to come (to Richmond” all the time when it was a half mile race track -- it used to be the third race of the season -- used to go to Daytona, Rockingham, here, and it was always like 1 or 2 degrees at the most and everyone was wrapped up in blankets watching these guys race on a half mile race track with guard rails all the way around it.”
“I remember going to midget races up in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, with my family,” says Danica Patrick, driver of the No. 7 Godaddy.com Chevrolet for Junior Motorsports in the Nationwide Series. “We would always go to the race track on Sunday night and got to stay up late, and my sister and I would be up in the grandstands and we would go to the food vendor and get long licorice and cotton candy and we would get those snow cones -- we liked the rainbow version -- hot dogs. I remember picking up the clay off the tires kicking them up off the corner in (turn) four and we’d make them into big clay balls. I just remember being around racing my entire life.”
“My dad was a big influence on me getting involved in racing,” says the driver of the No. 16 3M Fusion for RFR, Greg Biffle. “Growing up I was interested in cars and had motorcycles my whole life. I begged (my dad) for a go kart about every chance I got. We didn’t really live in an area that was conducive to that. I got my first car when I was 15 and I worked for a guy that he developed a friendship with that had an automotive machine shop that had an oval track for cars. My dad and I went to the oval track race on a regular Friday or Saturday night and watched the hobby stocks and the whole show. I was excited and so was my dad and we went home and built a car.”
It is that kind of youngster that Biffle feels is going to fuel the next generation of the NASCAR fan base -- IF they have the right resources. “The problem is that there are no cars for people to go and build today. The evolution of the automobile has changed. There are not those old cars running around that you can go get, strip the interior out of, put a roll cage in and show up on a Friday night. There is no sanctioning of that type of racing anymore. We need to create a format that can get young kids.
"Dad can go and build a car with his son and show up at a race track and have a platform for that. I’ve thought a lot about it and think I have a good plan and idea for it. I just have to convince someone that it is the way to go.”
Gordon thinks technology is the way to bring new fans into the sport. “When I think about the younger fan, I think we are a little bit behind in some of the technology that’s involved in the sport if you look at other forms of motorsports, but I also give NASCAR a lot of credit for that because it helps keep the cost down for our teams and keeps competition very equal as well.
"It’s just this constant battle to bring new and younger fans and engage them in things that are more relative to what’s going on. People with iPods and iPads and those kinds of things, and more information. I will say that one thing I don’t understand that we can bring to the fan that we don’t have that some other forms of motorsports have is segment times -- so you take a segment and you take a speed trap -- you could set a speed trap up at these tracks at the end of the front straightaway and get a top speed and show it compared to all the other cars.
"It’s very similar to what Formula 1 does, and then they break down the segments and corners -- who’s fastest in this corner, who’s fastest on the back straightaway, who’s fastest on the front straightaway, and then the speed trap.
"I mean we talked about doing it on road courses, I think we should definitely be doing it on road courses, but I think we could even do it on ovals. And we are going to go to Michigan this year with top speeds reaching 220 miles-an-hour; I think that the young fans would think that is pretty darned cool.”
Tracks also need to play their part to make the first time at a race memorable for the fan. This weekend, Richmond International Raceway (RIR) made sure that every new fan was recognized by those around them. A display on the midway at the track this weekend was stocked with buttons that could be pinned to signify “I’m a rookie” or “I’m celebrating.”
The buttons were designed to give fans something to take home and remember their experience, whether it was their first time at America’s Premier Short Track or a day of celebration for a birthday, anniversary, etc.
RIR President Dennis Bickmeier, a rookie himself at RIR, said when the promotion was announced “We hope fans will feel more comfortable interacting with each other while here at our races. I’m looking forward to seeing the veterans helping the rookies find their way around the track and giving them tips on how to have the best experience at our race track.”
Experienced fans were encouraged to provide assistance to anyone wearing a “rookie” badge, and to congratulate anyone wearing a “celebration” badge.
What is your first memory of a race, and why did that moment make you a fan? I’d love to hear your stories on what brought you in to be a fan of this awesome sport.
Follow Kim on Twitter: @ksrgatorfn
The thoughts and ideas expressed by this writer or any other writer on Insider Racing News, are not necessarily the views of the staff and/or management of IRN.