NASCAR CEO and majority owner Brian France endorsed presidential candidate and half-empty bag of rancid tapioca Donald Trump the other week. But what might seem like good synergy for both France and Trump is an incredibly bad omen for the future of NASCAR.
France gave his perfunctory praise to Trump at an event in Georgia recently, followed by a coterie of NASCAR drivers like Mark Martin and the very sort of people you would expect to endorse Trump:
France is certainly allowed to endorse whomever he wants, as a private citizen—though it is certainly odd to couch this endorsement as one of a “private citizen” when flanked by Trump-supporting NASCAR drivers. But beyond the moral and ethical complications of endorsing Donald Trump, his actions doom NASCAR to a stunted tomorrow.
NASCAR, for all of its aspirations, has always been a provincial sport. Born in the South, raised in the South, and at one point nearly free of its limits of the South, it has always struggled to get to a larger, more national stage. It has always wanted to become something more than an organization where one ignorant nepotism-baby’s opinion carries the day. Indeed, just this past summer, it had to beg fans to please stop flying a flag entirely representative of treasonous racism.
But over the past few years, NASCAR has seen a precipitous decline. Thousands upon thousands of seats are being pulled out of NASCAR stadiums, when NASCAR isn’t pulling out of races entirely, no matter how many selfies drivers take.
You’d think it would be a time for NASCAR to make a serious push to expand its fanbase, to move beyond the Kabuki theater and token gestures, but you’d be wrong. NASCAR’s “Drive For Diversity” program, introduced in 2004 ostensibly to help minority and women drivers get a leg up into the insular world of NASCAR, is a joke.
The number of American drivers that have not only graduated from the program, but have made it to the Sprint Cup series and have had any real impact, can be counted on one hand. Asian-American graduate of the program Kyle Larson has been reasonably successful, with a few wins under his belt. Fellow program graduate and Cuban-American Aric Almirola has seen success as well, becoming the third Latino to ever win a top-level NASCAR race.
But those other two Latinos were Juan Pablo Montoya, from Colombia, who spent six year in Formula One, and Nelson Piquet, Jr., of Brazil, who spent three years in F1 (owing in no small part to his father, a three-time F1 world champion.)
One, single, solitary Latino, who hasn’t been through the crucible of F1, winning a race at the top level does not exactly make for a varied crowd. Only one black driver, Bubba Wallace, has managed to win a race in NASCAR’s top three levels in the past 50 years. That was in 2013. No woman has ever won a NASCAR race in the top three levels, and only two, Sara Christian and Danica Patrick, have ever finished in the top five. Christian, in 1949, and Patrick, in the second-level Xfinity Series, in 2012.
NASCAR, for what it’s worth, says that this alarming lack of anything other than white men in its top three levels is simply in the interest of “fairness,” as if family connections, money, and yes, race and gender, didn’t play a role in landing drivers at NASCAR’s top levels.
In an interview with ESPN in 2009, NASCAR’s then vice-president of public affairs and multicultural development, explained why the organization pulls the funding plug once drivers try to make it in the top three levels:
“It would be a conflict of interest,” says Marcus Jadotte, NASCAR’s vice president for public affairs, whose department supervises D4D, “for the entity that’s responsible for making and enforcing rules to also support a particular driver at the national touring level.”
So there is no bridge over the enormous gap between the small time and the big time.
“It can’t all be done at the late-model level and then assume that everybody, somehow, can find a couple of million [dollars a year] to run Trucks,” says Morty Buckles, a member of the first D4D class in 2004. “Once you get ready to run Trucks [first level of the major series], you’re on your own.”
Jadotte is now the Assistant Secretary of Commerce in the Obama administration.
We can chalk it up to NASCAR making some bizarre business decision about it, but we’d be lying. The truth is NASCAR doesn’t care.
We can say that NASCAR doesn’t care because, fundamentally, NASCAR is Brian France and the France family. Brian, who bootstrapped his way to the top of NASCAR with nothing but his father who was already the CEO and his grandfather who founded the race series already supporting him, owns enough of NASCAR to maintain complete control over its corporate operations. So when he endorses Trump—a man whose entire political campaign is based not only chaos, but on a regressive desire to make America “great” again, when it was great to white men but to no one else—NASCAR’s intentions have been laid bare.
France has tried to couch his endorsement of Trump—his first public endorsement, ever, of any politician—as a personal one, not a professional one by the entire NASCAR organization. He said in an email to distraught employees that “I have known Donald and his family for many years, and it is through this connection that I offered my support.”
But through his endorsement, all of that outreach, like the Drive For Diversity program, has been exposed as nothing more than lip service. It wasn’t an attempt to bring the joys of the sport to people previously considered unchurched to NASCAR, it has been a naked attempt at trying to spread an image of national credulity on a sport still reserved nearly exclusively to the good old boys.
Which isn’t a sin in and of itself. NASCAR is a business after all, and businesses are obligated to do nothing in this world but to make money. But the second a logical business decision – keeping quiet – collided with a dumbfuck politician and his bigoted ideas, the logical business decision went out the window. Instead of broadening the tent, Brian France chose to deliberately make it smaller with his endorsement.
The business backlash has already been swift, and severe. Marcus Lemonis, the CEO of Camping World, which is the title sponsor of NASCAR’s third-tier Camping World Truck Series, implied to the Daily Beast that NASCAR may have a price to pay in the wake of France’s enthusiasm for Trump:
“You serve at pleasure of your employees and the customers … [Brian] does not have that right to lay the blanket over an entire sport that is funded by people who write big checks to support him … He is crossing the line by using [for his Trump endorsement] the NASCAR backdrop that I spend millions of dollars on.”
And it’s not like this is the first time France is hearing from Lemonis about Trump, either. Lemonis forced NASCAR to move its annual postseason banquet from Trump’s National Doral Miami resort, after Trump smeared Mexicans as “rapists.” At the time, Lemonis called Trump’s ongoing remarks “blatantly racist and bigoted.”
Despite all of that, France still pressed forward with his endorsement of Trump, aligning his race series with Trump’s populist brand of noxious fear-mongering. And thanks to its inability to separate NASCAR the business from the France family, it has failed to develop a full identity as a neutral, responsible, national-minded entity. And it still matters when the lone ignorant nepotist opens his mouth.
In doing so, NASCAR permanently shuts the door to anyone that isn’t a white male from the South. It permanently shuts out anyone who isn’t a white man.
And it shuts out the future for NASCAR.
Illustration credit: Sam Woolley/Jalopnik