NASCAR is driving to diversify its fanbase. Is it working?
NASCAR says its audience has grown more diverse over the last decade. But fans say the industry has a long way to go.
Chicagoan Alandis Phillips doesn’t consider himself a NASCAR fan.
But the 34-year-old said he has loosely followed the rise of Bubba Wallace — the only African American racing in NASCAR’s top circuit — and decided to drop by a block party Wallace hosted on Wednesday at the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center.
The party was meant to give passive bystanders like Phillips a glimpse behind the scenes of NASCAR racing, from how Wallace’s pit crew changes tires to “driving” a race simulator. The party was part of NASCAR’s effort to woo new fans across Chicago and the Midwest ahead of the downtown race this weekend.
“That’s a key reason that we are here and racing this event in downtown Chicago,” said Julie Giese, president of the Chicago street course. “It is to continue to touch new audiences and educate them about NASCAR.”
Giese expects more than 70% of those coming to watch the race to be first-time attendees. A major part of NASCAR’s efforts to expand its fanbase also includes diversifying its majority-white audience, she said.
Nationwide community initiatives like Bubba’s Block party have been key to attracting more Black and brown fans, said Giese, who added that numbers show their drive toward diversity has slowly been working.
In 2011, only 20% of NASCAR’s fan base identified as black or Hispanic, according to a report from the market research company Scarborough. As of last year, that number has risen to 30%.
“I think it’s just like anything else that’s been predominantly historically white,” said Phillips, who is Black. “Until you see more representation, you don’t see yourself in the arena. And you can’t be what you can’t see.”
Up until 2020, confederate flags were a familiar sight at NASCAR races over the course of the sport’s 75-year history. They could be seen dotting the grandstands and the infield of speedways.
Wallace was a key figure in the push for NASCAR to officially ban the flag from all its events following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the racial reckoning that ensued.
“We’re not messing around,” Wallace told the press at his party in response to a question about how seriously NASCAR is taking its efforts to diversify its fanbase.
“We want to change for the better and allow [people of] all ages and races and disabilities to be a part of our sport with no boundaries,” he said. “I think it’s showing that we care and that we’re inclusive. But it’s a nonstop process.”
Charlie Wright, another passive NASCAR observer from Hyde Park who attended the block party, said he has gotten more interested in the sport since the auto racing company banned Confederate flags from its arenas. “But it’s still going to take a little bit more to get minorities interested in NASCAR.”
Wright said auto racing itself is an expensive sport and not something kids in low-income neighborhoods can get into.
NASCAR’s answer to that has been to work with Chicago Public Schools to develop a STEM curriculum for eighth graders that will be rolled out this fall. It will teach kids about the science behind auto-racing and introduce them to the career pathways available within the industry, Giese said.
Wright also thinks NASCAR’s three-year contract with the city will help give the sport more exposure.
“The more they do it,” Wright said, “the more fans they’ll get to come and take a look.”
Noah Jennings contributed to this story.