The Race Behind Racing

By: Jake Smith

image_handler.aspxEach sport seems to have its niche audience that it appeals to. Some tailor more to men than women, others seem to lean more towards foreign countries, while others are still largely popular in the United States . Even as far as race and ethnicity is concerned, there are sports that seem to appeal more to certain racial groups rather than others. Inherently, this really doesn’t present too much of a problem, as naturally certain groups of people are going to be drawn to different things. Furthermore, the assumptions and preconceived notions of who should be inclined to one sport and why are often correct as research into demographics behind sports audiences often shows it to be so. However, this “stereotyping” if you will, of sports in regards to races, especially concerning the respective athletes and their fans within the different sports can often become an issue when it is used in a negative light. Just because one race or group of people tend to be drawn to a specific sport doesn’t mean that sport is directly connected to all the ideals and practices of the cultures it is associated with. It is all about how media and society frame the sport in regards to its respective audience and how the framing is received by a culture. NASCAR is one of these sports.

To frame, as it is defined by Entman is “to select 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, casual interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described” (Entman 1993). That is, to frame essentially means to take an idea of reality that is already existing and use it in such a way that shapes the way an audience then permanently thinks about and views a topic. As opposed to Agenda Setting, Framing does indeed tell a viewer or an audience how to think about a given topic rather than just simply what to think about. Although normally viewed through a political lens, the idea of framing can be applied to almost any facet or perception of reality that is culturally and socially constructed. This can be seen in things such as commercials, billboards, videos etc. In sports however, framing is widely used. Often the media frames different sports in different ways in efforts to appeal to, or gain the interest of a specific group of people. However, by engaging in this framing, rather than simply doing their best to appeal to their target audience, they create a constructed image of what their sport is, and who it is meant for. This framing however, is not always wrong, and often to the target audience it becomes a sense a pride. In this regard, NASCAR is no different. The media makes an effort to frame the sport of NASACAR as the sport of white rednecks and country hicks, and you know what….they’re right.

Since its historical inception, beginning in the days of prohibition and the practice of moonshining and bootlegging, the roots of NASCAR have always been grounded in the culture of country and “backwoodsy” people. In the 1920s and 1930s, seldom were wealthy business men, doctors, and lawyers etc. seen speeding around in their modified cars, trying to outrun local law enforcement and tax administrators. It was almost always the local country folk and those with the secluded lath1nd available to build the necessary stills to make production possible. Likewise back then, the media would’ve never considered framing those involved with moonshining as anything but country hicks and rednecks that had the ability to modify their cars to the point of beating law enforcement. Even after the end of prohibition and the eventual forming of the governing body of NASCAR in 1947, the “race” or culture of those involved in the forming of the sport would stay fairly constant and would only continue to be personified as the sport grew in popularity.

Today, if you were to buy a ticket to see the Daytona 500 in Florida, it would be all too easy to see exactly what I am talking about. Take a glance from your seat in the bleachers towards the infield of the speedway, and you will see an unimaginable number of RV’s and campers pushed together like sardines in a can. On top, outside, and all around these campers you will see thousands of fans in almost every capacity you can think of. There will be the old biker lady with a cigarette butt between her teeth, the kids running around in matching Dale Earnhardt Jr. shirts, and of course, the middle aged man with the massive beer gut and either the sleeveless flannel/jean jacket, or better yet shirtless with the ever popular Dale Earnhardt Sr. “#3” shaved into his chest hair. All of these fans however, will likely have two common denominators; they will be white and they will be country.

Granted this is a fairly detailed and highly stereotypical description of what you may expect to see at your average race, it is only appropriate and true, due to the fact of how society frames what NASCAR races should be like. Speaking as someone who has been to races before, while this frame is rather aggressive, it is in no way inaccurate. Additionally, I would be willing to wager that if you were to approach a random individual on the street and asked them to describe how they imagine the setting and people who attend NASCAR races, that their description would be at least decently similar to the mental image painted above. The biggest question behind all of this then, is why do people, many of who have very little to no interest or connection to NASCAR whatsoever, think this way about the sport.

Society likes to frame the sport in regards to the situations listed above, however, I believe that the reason these stereotypical ideas of the sport are present in the minds of normal individuals are due to frames that have beenth3.jpg set about the sport that aren’t directly connected to the races or the fans themselves. In 2006, Sony Pictures released the film Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Unlike a previous film focusing on stock car racing, Days of Thunder which was a more dramatic and realistic view of racing, Talladega Nights sought to utilize the comedic talents of Will Ferrell to touch on nearly every possible stereotype present in the sport of NASCAR. Although widely seen as a farce and a gross exaggeration of both the sport and its fans, the film did create frames and ways of viewing the sport and its fans that personified pre-existing stereotypes. In the film, nearly all the main characters are white and have some form of southern drawl, and the fans, especially the female fans, are presented as the “white trash, can you please sign my tits and my baby’s forehead” type of people. These portrayals in the movie make it all too easy for society to use the frames presented in the film to shape how they look at the sport. While this is an aggressive example of the framing put forth by the media to influence society’s view, there are other examples that are much more subtle.

A much more toned down example of how the media and our society frame the sport of NASCAR can be seen with how its athletes are used in advertisement and how the merchandise and memorabilia are distributed and marketed to the fans. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon, along with a handful of others are without a doubt the most recognizable drivers in NASCAR today. Because of this, they are instrumental in the advertisement and  role of being the face of racing. While Gordon was extremely popular in advertisements earlier in his career, he has somewhat fallen off as of late, however Earnhardt Jr. has continued to stay in the advertising spotlight. It is within the advertisements featuring Earnhardt Jr. that we can see once again an example of framing for the sport of racing.

As a brand representative for Wrangler Jeans, Earnhardt Jr. has become one of the more popular faces for a clothing company that tailors their products to consumers interested in more western/country style fitting clothing that is practical for outdoor living, work on the farm, work on cars etc. If this is indeed the case, then it is only th4logical to assume that as both a consumer and representative of the brand, that Earnhardt Jr. leads the kind of lifestyle Wrangler tailors to. By appearing in television advertisements for Wrangler Jeans, Earnhardt Jr. is aiding in the reinforcement of the framing by the media of what a racing fan, or in this case a driver should wear, look like etc. This may not be an overly extreme form of framing by the media, but subconsciously, when audiences see Earnhardt Jr. in a Wrangler commercial, they will associate drivers, fans, and the sport of racing as a whole with a company that produces clothing for the white, country, backwoods living NASCAR driver/fan.

In the last ten years, with the first few of those being when NASCAR claimed it was at the peak of its popularity, society and the media have done quite a bit to frame racing in a very particular light. Whether it has been through the use of movies like Talladega Nights and the characters portrayed within the film, through the advertisements and partnerships of products and drivers associated with racing, or even popular comedians like Jeff Foxworthy, who proudly state, “You might be a redneck if you speed in your RV to pose in a Dale Earnhardt Jr. jacket for the police camera on Highway 11E near Bristol Motor Speedway” the media continues to frame NASCAR as the sport for and by the white, country, redneck sports fan. As a racing fan myself and with friends who are racing fans, I must say, this framing is difficult to argue with. Just as going to a mud run on the outskirts of town or a local county fair seems to bring together a decent concentration of white country folks together, racing seems to do this ten times over.

It would be ignorant to say that all racing fans are white country hicks, since of course there is some diversity to the fan base, just as there is in nearly every, if not every sport on the planet. However, to say that a vast majority of racing fans are more inclined to be white, country rednecks, to me is fairly accurate. Not only is it accurate, but I would argue that it is perfectly acceptable and politically correct to say so. Sure, the sport of NASCAR has a severe lack of diversity, but who’s to say that this is a bad thing? Just because something lacks diversity doesn’t make it bad or wrong. There is no part of racing that is discriminatory or ethically bad. History has shown that the sport seems to naturally appeal to the white, country individual, and as one of those individuals, I have no problem with it. Sure NASCAR could be a little more diverse and a little less leather and “Raise Hell Praise Dale.” And sure, the lack of diversity may rub some critics and fans the wrong way, but that’s okay. After all; Rubbin’ is Racin’.

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