We’re just not that into cars anymore.
That’s what the La Crosse Tribune’s Paul Newberry thinks is behind NASCAR’s decline in attendance, decline in ratings, and overall decline in popularity. And it’s hard to argue with what he’s found.
Newberry points to a University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute study that found a significant decrease in the share of Americans 45 and under with a driver’s license, even more so for 16-year-olds. This ties directly into the appeal of NASCAR.
“One of the draws of a sport like NASCAR has always been living vicariously through the drivers,” says Cotten Seiler, a professor of American studies at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and author of the book ‘Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America.’ “Well, if you don’t drive yourself, it’s hard to see how that would be attractive to you.”
With the availability of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, younger people have the ability to move around without the need for their own car. There also is an electronic disconnect that car manufacturers are trying to solve.
“We’ve got to figure out how to better incorporate the technology and things that are important to them into our vehicles, so the vehicle will be an extension of them,” says Dave Pericak, the global director of Ford’s racing division, who pointed to voice controls and autonomous cars as two of the most intriguing developments.
Pericak says cars today don’t mean the same thing to younger drivers that they did to his generation.
“Just like iPads and iPhones are an extension of who they are, an extension of their freedom. Our freedom was getting in a car and blasting down the road. It’s just totally different now.”
From their end, NASCAR has been trying several things to lure in the future fans of their sport. They gave away tickets to those 12 and under at Xfinity and truck series races. They also developed a racing-themed science curriculum now in use in more than 10,000 schools. Kids are studying aerodynamics and NASCAR’s “Three D’s of Speed” — drag, downforce and drafting.
NASCAR’s expanding partnership with Nickelodeon is one of the more visible ways the organization is trying to seem relevant, but it might take more than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Slime for them to have a future fan base.