Racing Reimagined: Inside the Future of NASCAR
The sport, associated with Charlotte since the 1940, enters another new era—with updated cars, a refreshed and more diverse fan base, tire tracks in the digital space, and a long and eventful history
The high-pitched echo of 550-horsepower V8 engines bounces off the glass of the suites at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Thousands of empty grandstand seats line the front stretch as high-performance race cars, many nondescript except for the numbers on their sides, dive in and out of the turns and accelerate down the backstretch on an unusually warm late-November day.
It’s another test session for the Next Gen stock cars of NASCAR’s Cup Series, the highest level of stock car racing. These new versions of the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro, and Toyota Camry, which drivers will begin to race at the start of the 2022 season, represent the latest stage in the evolution of the stock car. They’re designed to be less expensive than their predecessors—and safer, too—with modifications to the chassis, bodies, and internal parts.
The cars that will whip around the track at places like Charlotte, Daytona, and Talladega starting in February haven’t been truly stock—that is, factory-assembled and unmodified—since 1966. They’re designed to race. But the Next Gen cars look more like their street-car cousins, cars anyone can buy at a dealership. That’s on purpose.
The sport as a whole, including the culture that surrounds it, has changed significantly in recent years—not just the cars and equipment but what drivers, owners, and fans look like, their ages and genders, and the attitudes they hold about issues like race, social change, and the direction of the country. The sport developed from moonshiners’ high-speed twists and turns as they eluded federal agents during Prohibition in the 1920s and ’30s. Even as it evolved into a national corporate entity in the ’80s and ’90s, it retained a good bit of that rebel spirit—represented by the Confederate battle flag, until recently a common sight in the infield—and the white, Southern men who typically gravitated to it.
But now, the sport’s footprint is expanding to include others. As in the nation, some long-timers bristle at the changes. So when NASCAR President Steve Phelps unveiled the new cars at the Park Expo in Charlotte in May 2021, he emphasized that what drove this latest turn was a desire to appeal to fans, all fans, regardless of race, gender, or ZIP code. “Truly,” Phelps said, “this car is for you.”
Nowhere is this evolution more meaningful than in Charlotte, where NASCAR ran its first speedway race for stock cars in 1949. It’s the host city for the Coca-Cola 600, one of the Cup Series’ signature races, and the site of the sport’s Hall of Fame. The fans will or won’t roll with the changes, but a good many new things will start where they always have, from the people who sit behind the steering wheel.
Perhaps more than any other, racing is a sport in which sons follow their fathers. Chase Elliott won the 2020 Cup Series championship 32 years after his father, Bill Elliott. Original NASCAR driver Lee Petty won three titles. Then his son Richard won seven, and Richard’s son, Kyle, followed him onto the track, as did Kyle’s son Adam, who was killed in a crash in 2000, at age 19. (Adam Petty is believed to be the first fourth-generation professional athlete in the history of American sports.)
Ned Jarrett and son Dale became the third father-son champions. Famous names like Allison, Baker, Busch, Earnhardt, Flock, Labonte, and Waltrip, among others, have belonged to NASCAR families of fathers, sons, grandsons, brothers, and nephews. Family lineage is a support beam for NASCAR’s deep attachment to tradition.
That’s one reason why racing now strikes some traditional fans as something they can’t quite recognize: Star drivers are seemingly coming from everywhere, with little or no familial tie to the past. Take 24-year-old William Byron, a Charlotte native and Country Day alumnus, who drives the No. 24 Camaro for Hendrick Motorsports—the same car made famous by four-time champion Jeff Gordon.
As a kid, Byron never raced karts or tinkered with motors in the backyard. He learned how to race on the digital iRacing platform, akin to what the Air Force uses to train jet pilots. (NASCAR ran virtual races on iRacing when COVID shut the tracks down.) What first caught Byron’s eye, at age 5, were the colorful paint schemes of die-cast replica race cars.
“From there, that’s when the desire came to go see a race in person,” he tells me in December. “And then as soon as that happened, I was hooked. I just loved the sport.” When Byron was 6, his father, Bill, a wealth management adviser, asked him and his sister where they’d like to take a day trip. His sister chose the mountains. Byron picked a race at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia. His mother, Dana, wasn’t crazy about the idea—she imagined her boy in the stands, pelted by crash debris—but she gradually got used to it.
“I would beg my dad to go to races, and we would go to the Charlotte races every year,” he says. “And then, from that, it turned into going to Bristol and Darlington and all the local races, and I went to one Daytona 500 when I was probably 11 … One thing led to another, I guess.”
Byron ran a kart race at 13 and, the next morning, woke up and realized he’d be devastated if he never got another chance to race. At 15, he won the summer U.S. Legend Car competition at Charlotte Motor Speedway. By 2018, he was in a Cup car for Hendrick Motorsports, finishing 23rd overall. The next year, he improved to 11th. In 2021, Byron won his second race in the Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead, Florida, then rattled off a string of 10 top-10 finishes. He completed the year with 20—12 in the top five, including three in second place.
“William Byron is going to be a great, great race car driver. That’s one of the smartest kids I’ve ever talked to in my life,” Kyle Petty says. “I think William has shown that there’s more than one way to get here.”
On Oct. 4, 2021, on the track at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, cars crashed all around Bubba Wallace’s No. 23 Camry. A car in front of him whirled and threw parts. Wallace, who’d navigated another kind of pileup a year earlier, eased through the wreckage and acted like a kid on a Carowinds thrill ride.
“Whoo-wee! Let’s go!” he exclaimed to his crew over the radio. His crew chief asked him if he’d been hit. Confidently, Wallace responded: “Negative!”
Rain had already delayed the start of the YellaWood 500 by a day, and officials had called four caution periods during the race on a wet track. Wallace made his way to the lead. Then the rain really started to come down, which led to another wreck and a fifth caution, at lap 118 of a scheduled 188. Wallace knew that if it kept raining, officials might call the race—with him leading the pack. On the radio, Wallace’s crew heard him implore the sky: “Rain like hell, baby! C’mon!”
His crew huddled around the pit box under tarps and umbrellas. Then they heard the voice of Tim Bermann, the event director for the Cup Series: “The 23 is our winner. Driver and crew to victory lane.”
It was Wallace’s first Cup win and only the second by a Black driver; the first, by Wendell Scott, was in Jacksonville, Florida, on Dec. 1, 1963. The timing seemed like validation for the 28-year-old driver. No one in the history of the sport had traveled through anything like the racial minefield of 2020, when, moved by George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis, Wallace had publicly voiced his support for Black Lives Matter and racial justice.
Then he took dead aim at one of NASCAR culture’s totems. “My next step would be to get rid of all Confederate flags,” Wallace told CNN in June 2020. “No one should feel uncomfortable when they come to a NASCAR race. So, it starts with Confederate flags. Get them out of here.” A few days later, astonishingly, NASCAR did. Its presence, the organization announced, “runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and industry.”
Wallace has become one of NASCAR’s most celebrated figures, behind the wheel for a racing team co-owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan. But Wallace’s father, like William Byron’s, has never been a driver; although he encouraged his son’s dreams, Darrell Wallace Sr. owns an industrial cleaning company. And Bubba Wallace’s success and profile do seem to signal more room for people of color in a traditionally white sport—even as owners. Jordan is one thing, but last year, Nashville-based Trackhouse Racing announced a new member of its ownership group: the rapper Armando “Pitbull” Pérez, who said he’d been a racing fan since he saw Days of Thunder, the 1990 Tom Cruise movie filmed mostly in the Charlotte area. Trackhouse’s driver is Mexican-born Daniel Suárez.
NASCAR’s tried—with limited success—to attract racial minorities and women since 2004, when it began its Drive for Diversity (DFD) program, which offers training courses, internships, and other opportunities. Wallace emerged from the program, and in 2020, so did 19-year-old Rajah Caruth, a Black man whose story is a kind of hybrid of Wallace’s and Byron’s. Caruth, from the Washington, D.C., area, is the son of a communications professor at Howard University and was the first DFD participant with a background in iRacing rather than, well, racing.
“Man, I’m proud of Rajah,” Wallace said in October 2021 during the NASCAR Diversity Awards ceremony at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It was only three days after Wallace’s victory at Talladega, and Caruth had finished third in a minor league race a few months before. “He had a hell of a run.”
NASCAR’s inclusion efforts, along with the Confederate flag ban, have spurred some initial signs of interest in racing among younger and more diverse fans: A pair of research firms polled a sample of 1,000 Americans in late June 2020, about two weeks after the flag ban, and found that 73 percent of fans under 40 had a more positive impression of NASCAR. More than a third of Black respondents said they were more likely to watch a race. Older fans, predictably, tended to disapprove of the flag ban. “NASCAR is making the right moves in positioning themselves for their long-term future,” one of the researchers said, “even if it means some short-term losses.” NASCAR’s own research in 2021 shows, among other things, that new race attendees are twice as likely than in previous years to be younger than 35.
Those new fans may yet see Rajah Caruth win a Cup race. But another question hangs over the sport: Will the day come when a woman does?
Though rare, female drivers have a longer history in racing than you might think. On June 19, 1949, Sara Christian finished 14th of 33 drivers in the first stock race at the old 3/4-mile Charlotte Speedway off Little Rock Road. The next month, at Daytona, she was joined by Louise Smith and Ethel Mobley; the latter finished in 11th place.
The most recent of the 16 women who have raced at the Cup level is, of course, Danica Patrick, who competed for five full and two partial seasons. While she did win an IndyCar race in Japan in 2008, her top achievement in NASCAR was a pole position at the 2013 Daytona 500, where she finished eighth, one of her seven top-10 finishes. But the attention Patrick brought to the sport might hook a young woman we don’t yet know who’ll change the sport forever.
On Oct. 10, Charlotte Motor Speedway hosted the Bank of America Roval 400, an annual Cup race since 1960, in front of a crowd that filled most of the 79,000-seat venue. It was a welcome return for fans who couldn’t attend the 2020 version en masse; although NASCAR was the first sport that allowed events after COVID restrictions began in March 2020, only 6,600 fans were allowed to attend the 2020 Roval.
As the 39 drivers roared around the 2.28-mile course, their cars displayed an array of sponsors that included M&M’s, Insurance King, and FedEx Office. Those aren’t the kinds of sponsors whose logos once adorned the sport’s car hoods. In the old days, they were mainly, and logically, auto-related. (The No. 5 Chevy driven by Roval 400—and, eventually, Cup Series—champion Kyle Larson of Hendrick Motorsports did carry the URL of Hendrick Automotive Group.) Then Winston signed on in 1971, and the company sponsored the Cup Series until cigarettes were no longer a viable sponsor.
But Winston’s success enticed other major brands: Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Mountain Dew; Budweiser and Miller; McDonald’s and Burger King; Tide and Clorox. Over the past couple of generations, sponsors have adjusted to changing technology and taste. Nextel succeeded Winston as the overall Cup sponsor in 2004, then Sprint, then Monster Energy, owned in part by Coca-Cola, in 2016. The Cup Series adopted a tiered, multisponsor model in 2020.
It’s not only the sponsorships that evolve; as with everything else in the 21st century, NASCAR’s social media presence continues to rise. NASCAR adopted a more extensive, data-driven approach to digital marketing in 2018, and last year, its overall audience share for 2021 rose among millennials and Gen Z as it fell among Baby Boomers and Gen X. The sport’s Gen-Z social media followership grew 15% from 2020, according to NASCAR-commissioned research in 2021, and NASCAR also became the first sports league to launch an official server with the online chat app Discord, where more than half of its reported 250 million users are younger than 24.
Yet even with all the activity on the web, the most visible changes are happening to the machines on wheels. When NASCAR was born in 1948, drivers raced the same Fords, Chevys, Dodges, Plymouths, Pontiacs, and Hudsons that ferried fans and families to the speedways. Sometimes drivers, too. Lee Petty borrowed a Buick to drive from his home in Level Cross, just south of Greensboro, to Charlotte for the first Strictly Stock race in 1949. Legend holds that he may not have told the owner of the Buick that he would also be racing it. Halfway through the race, Petty rolled the Buick, and he had to hitch a ride back home.
The rules originally called for participating cars to have a stock frame, a body with the doors strapped shut, and a heavy-duty rear axle to keep them from flipping. They also required seat belts, optional in passenger vehicles until 1968. But then the sport got bigger, and the cars got faster.
“They didn’t really become ‘race cars’ until the mid-to-late ’60s, when they started building specific frames,” Kyle Petty, Lee Petty’s grandson, tells me in the fall. Before then, when Kyle was a boy, Chrysler “would bring a car hauler and unload some cars. There would be three cars, like the ’66 or ’67 Plymouth Fury. They would just unload them, and my mom would drive one, my grandma would drive one, and one of them they would turn into a race car. And if they wrecked the race car, too bad. Then my mom or my grandma was going to lose theirs because they had to turn the second one into a race car. That didn’t happen very often, but it did happen.”
You can see the evolution since the ’60s along the Glory Road display at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Gradually, as decades passed, bench seats, glove compartments, headlights, and working door handles disappeared, and additional steel tubing and other safety measures for drivers began to show up. The largest and loudest cry for driver safety came after the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. at Daytona in 2001, when Earnhardt crashed into a retaining wall and suffered a fatal skull fracture. Within months, the sport had mandated specialized restraints, like the HANS device, to prevent drivers’ heads from whipping violently in crashes.
The improvements curbed driver deaths, the most important thing, but they came with an aesthetic price. By the Generation 5 car, used in NASCAR from 2007 to 2012, vehicles were homogenized, with a common body and chassis across all manufacturers. Fans could tell the difference only from the decals. The seventh-generation car, which will make its debut this season, has given manufacturers greater latitude to replicate the look and feel of their distinctive street cars.
“It is just a monumental task that NASCAR has undertaken, and it’s one that we’ll look back on in a year or five years and really have an even better appreciation for the challenge and the accomplishment of developing a new race car,” says Marcus Smith, the president and CEO of Speedway Motorsports, which owns racetracks around the country—including Charlotte Motor Speedway, where it’s headquartered. “It’s been just a huge undertaking and really impressive to see everybody’s pulled together.”
The fans, as always, are the intended beneficiaries. “This is a proactive move by NASCAR,” Kyle Petty says, “to put a product on the track that, as you move to the next generation of fans, they can say, ‘Oh, yeah, I understand that car.’”
A generation ago, in 1997, former Charlotte Motor Speedway President and CEO Howard “Humpy” Wheeler told me about a late-’70s Charlotte Chamber event at which he spoke. On his way out, then-North Carolina National Bank Chairman Luther Hodges Jr. gave Wheeler a gag gift: a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, a pair of white socks, and a trucker hat. “As I was getting in the car to leave,” Wheeler recalled, “I thought, Man, have we got a long way to go, ’cause that’s what these people think of us out here.”
Not anymore, and there’s no way to know where NASCAR will end up in a generation or two. That’s its appeal: It never takes its foot off the pedal.
Steve Goldberg is a longtime journalist and sports writer who lives in Charlotte.