NASCAR is changing and growing more diverse. It may leave behind fans stuck in the past
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Charlotte Observer) - Dave Fulton compared himself to Mr. Krabs.
“On the Spongebob series that my grandsons loved so much,” Fulton, 71, said. “Too crusty sometimes.”
The former Richmond International Raceway employee said he has been a longtime NASCAR follower, beginning in 1964 as a dirt track racing spectator, and has worked in various PR and marketing positions in the motorsports industry over the years.
Fulton said he’s now 20 years removed from attending a NASCAR race in person, but he still follows racing news, often posting his opinions on happenings in the sport on Twitter. He also uses the social platform to weigh in on issues outside the sport, including politics — “We’ve seen a million reasons the past 2 weeks why the symbol of the Democratic party is an ass,” Fulton tweeted — as well the nationwide protests against racial injustice.
Fulton said he supports the peaceful protesting and condemned the murder of George Floyd, but he also called protesters names like “thugs,” “weenies,” and “animals” on Twitter.
“I’ve gotten a lot of backlash about that, and probably rightly so,” Fulton said about the names. “But to me, what I see happening in the streets after the peaceful part seems to dissipate, in my mind, those are thugs that are busting out windows and are setting buildings on fire.”
Fulton said he is a registered Republican, although that doesn’t necessarily mean he votes for Republican candidates. He said that he does not care for “a lot of the actions of our president” and described himself as a “progressive conservative.” And although Fulton said he doesn’t like anyone kneeling during the national anthem, he said he’s indifferent to NASCAR’s recent ban on the Confederate flag at races. He sees its presence at races as “kind of a trouble-making thing.”
“I think it’s probably past time that that happened,” Fulton said of the ban. “I don’t really see any reason to be flying a Confederate battle flag at a sporting event.”
Fulton, a white male in his 70s, represents the type of NASCAR fan many still associate with the sport; the type of longtime follower with conservative values who at one point could name every driver in every series, and the sponsor. But as the sanctioning body confronts social justice issues along with the world, the sport is targeting a new fan base of a different generation.
“We want people of all genders, ethnicities and backgrounds to feel like they can be part of the NASCAR family,” NASCAR executive vice president and chief marketing officer Jill Gregory said in an email. “As we look to grow the sport and its fan base, it’s through the lens of getting younger and more diverse.”
While it’s hard to imagine that NASCAR will be able to do that without alienating some of its existing fans and personnel, the sport’s leadership, its drivers and a new wave of young faces have become leading voices around inclusion and more progressive values in the sport.
“I was really happy to have more drivers speak out,” Cup Series rookie Tyler Reddick, 24, said about the sport’s response to racial injustice. Reddick was one of the first drivers to demonstrate his support for Black Lives Matter on Twitter.
“For me, it was a no brainer,” Reddick said. “I didn’t care about the backlash. Those that had negative things to say, they clearly don’t fully understand what’s going on, so it was the right thing to say.”
Other young drivers, including Bubba Wallace (26 years old), Ryan Blaney (26), Ty Dillon (28) and Daniel Suárez (28), have led the charge advocating for racial justice, while older drivers have also demonstrated their support. Seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson said he helped organize the video that featured a united message from NASCAR drivers condemning racial inequality. He also was quick to drop his helmet design company, BEAM Designs, after the company posted racially insensitive messages on Twitter.
“I’m trying to learn and educate myself and really listen during these times,” Johnson said before NASCAR’s race at Atlanta. “I find the more I listen, the more I learn.”
NASCAR leadership, too, appears adamant that its inclusive direction be more than just words or a marketing ploy. In response to a question about NASCAR’s enforcement process on the Confederate flag ban, NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell said he’s been “very clear on our stance that the flag will be banned at facilities.”
“We’re working through that with each track,” O’Donnell said. “Obviously Talladega is our first one, but nothing more to report other than it’s banned, and hopefully fans will comply, and if not, we’ll deal with that.”
NASCAR announced the ban last week to make a larger portion of its fans comfortable at the track given the flag’s historic association with slavery and white supremacy. As it aims to expand to a larger fan base, NASCAR said it is also actively working to bring more diversity into the sport through its Drive for Diversity program, an academy program aimed at engaging female and ethnically diverse drivers and pit crew members with the highest level of racing. Current Cup drivers Wallace and Suárez were graduates of the program, which launched in 2004.
“We’ve made the commitment and we have great programs in place, but it’s not just about intent and activity — it’s about results and we need more of them,” Gregory said in an email. “The Drive for Diversity program helped create a path for Bubba Wallace and Daniel Suárez, but the work doesn’t stop there.”
“We want Bubba and Danny’s story to inspire others to believe that NASCAR can be a career for them to pursue, as well,” Gregory continued. “The same goes for Hailie Deegan and young girls that look up to her. We’ve laid a foundation, now we must continue to build and build.”
While only two of the program’s drivers are currently competing in the Cup Series (Drive for Diversity alumnus Kyle Larson was suspended earlier this year), the Pit Crew Development branch of the program has more than 30 graduates in the sport’s top level, according to NASCAR.
“It really warmed my heart because the stuff that’s happening right now, NASCAR needs this,” said the sport’s first Black female pit crew member Brehanna Daniels on the No-Sports Report Podcast. “And we’ve needed a change for a really, really long time. Change for the better, all starting with Bubba (Wallace) having that (Black Lives Matter) wrap on his car.”
Rajah Caruth, a 17-year-old Black male, is in his second year of the Drive for Diversity program. He said he was previously a NASCAR fan who was into go-karting and sim racing before making the jump to Legends cars and Late Models through the program.
“My goal is really to be a Cup champion one day,” said Caruth, who is planning to spend this summer training in Concord, N.C. racing in NASCAR’s lower-level series.
“Trying to get a career in this, and having someone to look up to and talk to like (Wallace) has been so helpful to me,” Caruth said.
Caruth also named Brandon Thompson as a mentor, who last week appointed to NASCAR’s newly created Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion position to oversee the sport’s initiatives designed to champion and enhance diversity across the industry.
“Having people like that to teach me the ropes and get through this stuff has been extremely helpful,” Caruth said. “So being able to hopefully help the next generation of kids and be there to give them advice and support is really big.”
Caruth is already finding his voice on racial and social justice issues. He and Rick Ware Racing engineer Monon Rahman organized an impromptu iRacing event called the George Floyd 100 two weeks ago to draw attention to racial injustice and police brutality, as well as to raise money for the George Floyd Memorial Fund.
Caruth said he was brainstorming ways to draw attention to the issues in the motorsports community when he had the idea for the event.
“Just because of the fanbase and the roots of everybody in NASCAR and iRacing, I didn’t really expect to see anybody care about it at first,” Caruth said. “It was really important to bring awareness to people that weren’t really informed or who didn’t have opinions based on facts, that we could show them how it feels like to be a certain person.”
That was perhaps the start of NASCAR’s targeted effort to amplify diverse voices amid the protests and and a rapidly changing world. While NASCAR has made concrete moves toward inclusion over the last two weeks, it remains to be seen how its core fan base reacts to the tensions that come with championing greater diversity — including kneeling for the national anthem or banning the Confederate flag. Still, that direction appears to be NASCAR’s clear path forward and one fans will need to get on board with.
“I certainly applaud NASCAR and the drivers I see for wanting everything to be all inclusive,” Fulton said. “We have a day in age now where we’ve got Bubba Wallace.”
Fulton added he came from a time when former driver Wendell Scott was still being denied access at some racetracks because he was Black. Fulton said he recognized his own “Boomer” tendencies and that although he doesn’t agree with everything he sees in the sport, NASCAR isn’t losing a fan in him by championing diversity.
“I think the issues definitely need to be talked about regardless of where you may stand politically.”