By: Chip Payne
Every Sunday afternoon and sometimes Saturday night when I was growing up, NASCAR was the thing to watch. Although I was young I still remember watching the 2001 Daytona 500 crash that took the life of racing legend, Dale Earnhardt Sr. on the final lap of the race. At that very moment in time the world came to a standstill as everyone watched as someone who was the face of the sport, died doing what he loved. Fans from all around the world showed their remorse for the legend that died that day. Currently, names like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Tony Stewart headline the sport every Sunday. Recent movies such as Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby have not only help shaped the way people think about NASCAR, but brought in a new fan base as well. The fans of this sport are second to none as well. Since the NASCAR racing season runs from mid-February to mid-November, each track is visited twice during the season. Tracks, such as Richmond International Raceway, have a spring race and a fall race. Therefore, when the race comes to town twice a year, the whole town knows. Fans from all over the area come to these tracks in RVs, pickup trucks, and motorcycles.
To be a fan of NASCAR, it takes a special type of person. Cars race at high speeds around a circular track for miles and miles only making left turns. The biggest question here is how could anyone be a fan of that? Well in fact, “Retail Merchandise (2002) reported that NASCAR had a total fan base of seventy-five million people in 2001” (Hugenberg & Hugenberg, 2008, p. 635). Since 2001, NASCAR has stalled out in terms of bringing in new fans. Reports in 2015 show that NASCAR still has about 75 million fans worldwide. In 2015, Brandon Gaille stated that 12.5 million people watch the Daytona 500 every year, which puts it third behind the Super Bowl and the World Series. I believe one of the many reasons NASCAR does not have more fans is the way in which popular media frames fans of the sport.
In 2006, Will Ferrell starred in a movie entitled Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. This movie attempts to embody not only NASCAR drivers, but the fans and culture surrounding it as well. Using framing theory, I would like to analyze a few scenes from this movie that I feel promote a negative connotation of what NASCAR is all about. The scene where Ricky is enjoying a “family dinner” promotes the car the NASCAR family has for one another, but on the other hand the scene that Ricky is giving his first interview frames NASCAR drivers as being stupid and unable to communicate with the public.
Framing theory as defined by Entman (2007) is “selecting some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation” (p.52). In other words, framing is the media portraying a certain act in a certain way to make the consumer feel a particular way about it. In the professional sports world, framing is very common. For example, a recent Mountain Dew commercial features two duck hunters and one who happens to have his “Dale Call.” This commercial frames Dale Jr. as a “good ol boy” who enjoys the outdoors and more specifically, hunting. Since many of those who enjoy the sport of NASCAR also enjoy hunting, this commercial is framing Dale Jr. in such a way that many fans can relate to.
What Talladega Nights does is frame NASCAR to be a majority white, southern, male dominated sport by having all actors take on a “southern drawl.” For example, a clip from the movie shows “Ricky Bobby” as portrayed by Will Ferrell taking on a southern accent during a family prayer. The film also portrays the NASCAR culture to be made up of ignorant, white, males because of the way that Ricky Bobby acts during the movie. Specific cases of Bobby’s actions include a post-race interview he gave in which he didn’t know what to do with his hands and just stood there awkwardly. Further scenes also show Ricky’s actions as an arrogant, cocky, white male, as he has a discussion with the team owner after a win. This shows that race as well as demographics is being framed in this movie representing NASCAR.
Since the film was released in 2006, NASCAR has made significant steps to include diversity among the sport. For example, their [NASCAR] “drive for diversity” program has helped to mentor prospective NASCAR drivers who might not have opportunities elseware. NASCAR has implemented programs in countries such as Mexico in hopes of not only getting a more international fan base, but also to maybe find the next great stock car racer. Currently NASCAR is looking to drivers such as Juan Pablo Montoya who is Columbian and Kyle Larson who is Japanese-American to foster diversity in the sport. Due to their success as drivers in the sport, they are bringing in new audiences worldwide.
In Talladega Nights, I believe that the way in which it was framed really opened some doors for the sport of NASCAR to begin to deal with the issue of racial diversity. One of the primary ways the film played a role in allowing diversity is the introduction of a French driver, Jean Girard, portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen. The film opened doors for international drivers to bring their talents to the United States to race against some of the greatest drivers in the world.
One of the biggest problems with fostering diversity in the sport of NASCAR is the cost associated with it. This is why many teams have sponsors to help them pay for all the costs associated with building and maintaining a stock car. According to nascar.com, each car costs about $125,000 to build from the ground up and with many teams having more than one car, the costs can escalate very quickly. Not only do you have to have a functional car, but you also have to have a functional team to help run operations. More and more money just keeps going out the door. So you can see that running a stock car team can become and will only get more expensive as the years continue.
Race plays a factor in this as well because according to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of March 2014, the average household income for African Americans was $49,629 compared to that of Whites at $79,340. With the costs just to get into racing so high it is easy to see why many minorities are unable to do so. In NASCAR, the opportunity to make money is there, the only problem is getting there first.
My suggestion to implement diversity in NASCAR is to go down to the root of the costs of the sport and see if they can be lowered any. Data shows that on average, African Americans and other minorities make less per year than white Americans. Programs such as “drive for diversity” and allowing other international and minority drivers the chance to help foster diversity within the sport is a good starting point, but more should be done and I believe will be done in the future.
I would like to end with a story about an up and coming NASCAR driver who is breaking barriers for the sport. Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. is a 21-year old biracial driver in the Xfinity series, NASCAR’s step below the top tier of racing. An article in the Charlotte Observer stated that NASCAR has integrated slower than any other sport, but with Bubba could be the best hope for having an African American diver racing at the top tier very soon. The author, Jonathan Jones states:
Even though African-Americans make up more than 13 percent of the country’s population – and a greater percentage in the Southern states where NASCAR dominates – there is not a black driver in the Cup level. (Jones, 2015).
Wallace does not believe that he should be given a spot at the top tier because of the color of his skin, but does recognize that NASCAR has taken steps to implement diversity in the sport. Wallace states:
“There’s nobody (of color) in the stands. There’s a few on the pit crews and in the office there are some,” Wallace said. “It’s not enough to finally say the sport is changing. It’s going in the right direction. You just have to keep getting after it.”
Overall Wallace recognizes the value of hard work and what that can do to pay off in the long run. He believes that if he keeps working eventually things will happen as they should and NASCAR will eventually foster more diversity in the sport.
One of the quotes that stood out to me in the articles was stated by current NASCAR CEO Brian France, he says he wants “the sport to look more like America.” American sports are diverse and that’s what makes them so unique. When you have men and women from different backgrounds, nationalities, and races, the sport becomes more interesting for not only the viewer, but the competitors as well.
NASCAR has hired Dr. Richard Lapchick who is the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports. With his help, NASCAR hopes to become more diverse in the very near future is entirely possible. Dr. Lapchick stated “Nobody has done as close to as much active work to try to make things better in terms of diversity and inclusion than NASCAR has.”
Overall, NASCAR, like many other American sports can benefit greatly from racial diversity and with the help of a few people can become the leader for diversity among American sports. Just in the 60 plus years since NASCAR’s founding, the sport has seen so much growth and potential and I only see that growth and potential continuing to foster change and development very soon.