While some have championed the movement to remove Confederate monuments this year, others have bemoaned these attacks as cultural erasure. Another Southern symbol on the chopping block is NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt Jr., who plans to retire after 21 years of racing.
Earnhardt’s departure marks the end of an era for NASCAR as the sport becomes separated from those who have historically driven it — literally and metaphorically. The links between pro-Confederate leanings and NASCAR as Southern cultural icons are not hard to pinpoint. The rebel flag is still prominently displayed by many NASCAR fans, and Confederate symbols and NASCAR are often bundled together as redneck interests. But unlike the removal of Confederate imagery, NASCAR’s deteriorating relationship with Southern culture does not reveal a social justice victory — it’s indicative of rising class inequality in the sport.
NASCAR became culturally significant in the early 1900s. During Prohibition, brewers of illicit moonshine liquor paid bold drivers, called bootleggers, to deliver their products. The passage of the 21st Amendment in 1933, which repealed Prohibition, forced some bootleggers to seek new careers. Others doubled down on their automotive skillsets, profiting from attendance fees of fans who watched them race. Given the accessibility of automotive mechanics and the rise of car culture after World War II, NASCAR and other auto races became popular events for Southerners to both watch and compete in.
NASCAR is still popular in the South, and the majority of races are run below the Mason-Dixon line. Residents of the Carolinas and West Virginia express the most interest in the sport, according to Google Trends, followed closely by those of Kentucky and Tennessee. Furthermore, many drivers can trace their roots back to these states — the Earnhardt family itself, arguably NASCAR’s most iconic, has lived in the same North Carolina town since the late NASCAR driver Ralph Earnhardt was born in 1928.
Unlike most sports icons, Earnhardt Jr.’s career has not been dominant. Though his career spans nearly two decades and 620 races, he only placed first 26 times and has never claimed a championship title. But that hasn’t deterred his fans, who have voted him NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver every year since 2003. To an outsider, this may seem bizarre, but to die-hard fans, Earnhardt represents a NASCAR that no longer exists.
Since the 1940s, NASCAR’s and its teams’ prime revenue sources have shifted away from attendance and toward sponsorship earnings. As a result, the incentive to field the best driver has declined. Teams often sign drivers based on the companies that they bring to the table; three out of nine rookie drivers signed in the past two years brought their sponsors with them. Even though some talented drivers can earn job security by marketing themselves to sponsors, others have used financial connections to make up for a relative skill deficit.
For instance, John Menard Jr., founder of the home improvement chain Menards, has sponsored his son Paul Menard for most of his 588-race career. Paul Menard has only won once in that timespan. Similarly, Austin and Ty Dillon, the grandsons of team-owner Richard Childress, have both secured rides through family connections. They have combined for only one win out of 190 races. In the past, such performances might have cost these drivers their rides, but all three are signed through 2018.
Equipment has also become more expensive over the years. New technologies enabled better aerodynamic and engine performance, raising costs to levels smaller teams cannot afford. For example, renting a wind tunnel can cost $8,000 an hour and can yield substantial aerodynamic gains against competition. However, since smaller teams tend to have exponentially less money than their larger counterparts, their handful of sessions in the wind turbine are usually spent chasing developments larger teams have already learned and moved on from. That trend has led to the closure of many low-budget family teams that have been easily outpaced by the large-scale ventures of externally wealthy financiers. Both Barney Visser’s Furniture Row Racing and ex-NFL head coach Joe Gibbs’ Joe Gibbs Racing have emerged since the early 1990s, outlasting the smaller teams of Alan Kulwicki, Bill Davis and James Finch. Because of this trend, earning a ride in one of the 36 chartered seats in NASCAR has come to require the attention of fewer team owners who are more concerned with revenue than their forerunners had been. Coming in with financial support can offer more than a leg up — drivers today can effectively buy rides.
Though a driver’s skill still plays a role in an owner’s decision-making, drivers’ performances in developmental series are also shaped by funding. In the last two years, nine drivers have been promoted to the top series. Of those, seven had already received support from top teams while driving in developmental series, skewing their performances against lesser-equipped peers. With money penetrating all layers of the sport, evaluating true skill is almost impossible, further incentivizing owners to consider only the potential financial contributions of a driver when signing them.
Those changes heighten the significance of Earnhardt’s retirement, as he comes from an era of NASCAR less stratified by class. Four years before Earnhardt started racing, Kulwicki won the 1992 Winston Cup championship while driving for his own small team. Although Earnhardt wasn’t yet racing, his career is often viewed as a direct extension of his father’s, which ended in a fatal collision during the 2001 Daytona 500. Without the nostalgic reminder of Earnhardt’s career to mask the sport’s increasingly classist nature, NASCAR fans will be more culturally severed than ever from the sport they once shaped. NASCAR could begin to address the problem by implementing spending caps on drivers or team facilities; until it takes some action, the financial polarization will likely only increase, cementing power in the hands of an elite few and casting aside the sport’s historic accessibility.
Isaiah Sirois is a College sophomore from Nashua, New Hampshire.