By Ethan Miller ‘23
NASCAR was struggling. 20 years removed from its glory days, the premier auto racing association in the United States was in decline. Sponsors were leaving, attendance was dropping, and TV ratings were faltering, according to The NY Times. Then the pandemic hit. And NASCAR may have emerged better than before.
When NASCAR announced that it would return on May 17 at Darlington Raceway in early May, it was poised to be the first major sport back from a suspended season. No fans would be in the stands, of course, but coupled with a successful sim racing series that ran during the hiatus, the TV viewership rose by 227% compared to its counterpart last season.
With MLB not starting play until July 23rd, the NBA on July 30th, and the NHL on August 1, NASCAR had over 2 months as the sole pro sport active in the US. However, the lack of competition was not the largest benefit for NASCAR. The largest boost came from Bubba Wallace.
When the tragic killing of George Floyd sparked protests and change towards racial equality throughout the country, few expected NASCAR to have much to comment. However, prior to the Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, drivers and teams alike showed their support for the Black Lives Matter movement and pledged to promote change and equality in the sport.
Then, with the urging of Bubba Wallace, NASCAR banned the use of Confederate flags at their events. All of these positive changes, plus Bubba’s outgoing push for more change, cast him and NASCAR as a whole into a national spotlight.
With Wallace appearing on national TV, including CNN and The Today Show, thousands of new fans were introduced to the sport through him. As a result, TV ratings climbed to numbers much higher than last year’s corresponding races.
Between lack of competition and Bubba Wallace, NASCAR TV numbers took a big jump compared to last year. For example, the race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July had a 146 percent jump in viewership, almost 1.5 million more viewers. This increase in interest has brought in new sponsorship opportunities for teams that had been losing sponsors in droves over the past 10 years. Once NASCAR giants, companies such as Lowe’s, Home Depot, Pepsi, and Target have all lost interest and left recently. Now, major companies such as Columbia Sportswear, Doordash, and CashApp have joined the fold to sponsor drivers. All of this, coupled with new celebrity fans such as New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara, has helped NASCAR begin a comeback.
What once looked to soon be desperate in NASCAR, now looks promising. And while it’s not back to its late 90s glory, it’s safe to say that NASCAR was saved by the pandemic.