Is NASCAR on the decline?

July 27, 2013

Stock car racing’s fortunes have fallen with that of their fan base, leaving the sport’s future an open question


Is NASCAR on the decline?
Sprint Cup Series driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88) leads during the NASCAR Quicken Loans 400 auto race at Michigan International Speedway, Sunday, June 16, 2013, in Brooklyn, Mich. (AP Photo/Bob Brodbeck)(Credit: AP)

“I love Kyle Busch. He’s such a badass.”

That was said to me by a woman in the parking lot outside the Dover International Speedway minutes after the conclusion of the NASCAR Nationwide Series event held there in mid-May. The woman who made the comment was in her early 20s and was from suburban Westchester County in New York state, as made clear by her Snooki sourpuss and thick-sliced Real Housewives accent.

“Kyle Busch is a total asshole.”

That was said to me during a yellow flag, one of the few times spectators can talk in anything but utter drowned-out futility during the actual race. The man who said this to me was a long-time racing fan, one so deeply into the sport that he’d rented headphones for $75 so that he could listen to pit row conversations. He was from a part of Pennsylvania – the vast middle James Carville was referring to when he called the state “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between” – where people sound more than a little bit like your average country music radio station disc jockey and have no fear of sitting in a sea of never ending steel bleacher seats shirtless under a beating, bleaching sun.

So: two people from two different walks of life, two parts of the United States that are geographically fairly proximate and culturally totally opposite, and two divergent but passionately held opinions on Kyle Busch. This is not necessarily a new thing: there’s a booming cottage industry in the cultivation and monetization of this type of opinion, and there have always been athletes like Busch who live along the line between polarizing antihero and unmitigated dickery.

Busch runs people into walls just to do it. He’s come close to throwing fists with rival drivers plenty of times. He’s never, not once, bitten his lip when it comes to talking about something related to NASCAR. So Busch is a bad-ass, or an asshole, or both. That and another character in a sport that exists, lucratively if more than a little strangely, at the crossroads of marketing, capitalism and the future – or lack thereof – of working class America.

Or maybe that’s too much. Maybe he’s just NASCAR.