NASCAR trying to lure younger fans as sport ages
By allowing children in the garage and younger teens behind the
wheel, it’s clear NASCAR wants a youth movement.
Television executives do, too.
NASCAR has aged considerably the last decade, with stars such as
Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart –
and their faithful fans – growing grayer every year. The result has
been a steady decline in the highly coveted 18-to-34 TV
Now, the sport is trying desperately to get it back.
”We need to appeal to the younger market,” team owner Rick
Hendrick said. ”I know that’s where we need to go. We need to
attract the young people.”
Only 10 of 43 drivers in Sunday’s Daytona 500 are under the age
of 30 – and there’s little star power in that group beyond Kyle
Busch and Joey Logano.
Just three of those 10 are younger than 25. Of those three, only
the 20-year-old Logano has a full-time ride in the Sprint Cup
Officials would like to see that change.
NASCAR has taken several steps to appeal to younger fans in an
effort to offset an aging audience that comes at the same time TV
ratings and attendance are shrinking.
The sport believes it has figured out how to better promote its
current crop of youngsters.
NASCAR tweaked a rule that should help emphasize up-and-coming
drivers in the second-tier Nationwide Series. Officials forced
drivers to pick a series in which to run for a championship, an
effort to take the focus away from Cup regulars pulling double duty
in the Nationwide Series and possibly creating more opportunities
for budding stars.
It’s also eager to give younger fans access to those stars,
allowing children in the garage on race days for the first time.
Although only adults with approved credentials can bring kids in
before races, the policy could be expanded to the general public
down the road.
NASCAR also is lowering the age limit for competitors in its
regional touring series from 16 to 15, hoping the change will
increase opportunities for drivers to gain experience and prepare
for the top racing series. That decision could speed up Chase
Elliott, the son of 1988 Cup champion and fan favorite Bill
Elliott, has signed a developmental contract with Hendrick
Motorsports. Chase Elliott won 13 late-model races last year and
had 37 top-10 finishes in 40 starts.
”That kid has done a fantastic job,” the elder Elliott said.
”I don’t know what goes on in that little head of his, but he
figures it out.”
Still, landing sponsorship deals will be key.
Although many promising young drivers were able to land
financial backing when NASCAR was at its peak a few years ago,
companies have been reluctant to partner with unproven drivers in
the wake of the economic downturn.
”Sometimes that chance is worth taking and can pay off big,”
said four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who paired with DuPont as
a 22-year-old rookie in 1993. ”Car owners should stay motivated
(to sign young drivers) because the payoff can be really, really
big, from a sponsor’s standpoint and from a team standpoint.”
Sponsors have enjoyed recent success with Logano and Kyle Busch,
and television executives believe the same could be on tap for
Trevor Bayne, James Buescher and Ricky Carmichael.
”These young, new people are exactly what can appeal to that
young audience and grow it,” said Rich Feinberg, vice president
for motorsports for ESPN and ABC. ”The ratings and the research
show a decline into the 18-to-34 category. NASCAR is no different
than any other sports entity. That’s what everybody is looking
Feinberg has worked on the X-Games since 1994 and knows how a
young audience can boost attendance and ratings and attract
He’s keeping an eye on Travis Pastrana, the X-Games star who is
planning to make his NASCAR debut in the Nationwide Series in July.
The 27-year-old Pastrana has a cult-like following and plenty of
full-time sponsors but at best is several years away from a Sprint
Although everyone agrees fresh-faced drivers would be the
fastest and most efficient way to attract a younger audience –
think NASCAR finding its version of Justin Bieber – it also could
happen through a few off-track endeavors.
Online simulation games such as iRacing and a growing number of
fantasy racing leagues are expected to entice the next generation.
With four-hour races and a 36-race season than spans 10 months,
keeping their attention might be an even bigger challenge.
Hendrick pointed to NASCAR’s recent research and study of
audience trends as signs the sanctioning body is committed to
attracting younger audiences.
”This social media is something we’ve got to really look at and
find a way to tie some of the gadgets they bring to the track into
what we’re doing,” Hendrick said. ”So NASCAR’s looking at how we
can bring that to the racetrack and how can we get technology
input, whether you walk in with the iPhone and you want to listen
(to the race) or you want to do things through your telephone or
whatever. I’m not the best in that area, but I know that’s where we
need to go.”
It comes with hurdles, though.
Turner Sports owns online video rights to NASCAR content. And
because Turner also runs NASCAR.com, the company has declined to
provide multimedia content outside its website.
So NASCAR’s hands are tied in many regards.
”If you look at that (young) demographic, that’s what they’re
interested in today,” said Gordon, whose Daytona 500 car is
sponsored by AARP. ”They’ve got their iPhones and they’re into
apps and it’s kind of a computer age, and I think we’ve kind of
left technology behind in a way that’s hurt us a little bit.”
Despite all the concern and changes, at least one prominent NASCAR
driver cautions against overreacting.
”I think NASCAR is what it is,” Carl Edwards said. ”It’s auto
racing. It’s 500-mile races. It’s complex. It’s tough sometimes to
understand. I think that’s OK. No one is going to compete with some
of things that are available to kids right now.
”Kids can experience things through Facebook and video games
and all sorts of things online. It’s OK that NASCAR is different.
We don’t have to go try to be everything to everyone.”