NASCAR and Its Fans: Are You Questioning My Fanhood?
Why are NASCAR fans such snobs when it comes to their sport and in particular, their favorite driver? Yes, I said it, snobs. At times, it seems like many NASCAR fans' favorite pastime is not racing but instead bashing other NASCAR fans and their favorite drivers.
Is it because the rest of the country has looked down their noses at NASCAR fans for so long that now they feel it's their duty to continue the tradition and look down their noses on somebody else—and the choices are either fans of monster truck rallies or other NASCAR fans?
One doesn't normally associate, read, or hear the words "NASCAR" and "snob" used together very often, but one need look no further than at least half of the articles or any of the comments on B/R or any other NASCAR site to see evidence of it.
Before I go on, let me get this out of the way: To be perfectly clear—besides maybe soccer fans, NASCAR fans are some of the loudest, proudest, most loyal, most dedicated fans of any sport on the planet. They are also probably the most stereotyped and joked-about group of fans on the planet as well, which may well explain their extreme loyalty.
That being said, the impetus for this article comes from some extremely long comments I have made on articles and comments written by others—usually in response to someone saying, "Well, they can't be real or true fans because..." and in the process questioning someone else's "fanhood."
A few people pointed out that it would be much quicker and my ideas would get much more exposure if I came back and wrote an article rather than spend all that time writing comments, so here goes...
I have read endless comments and articles going on about how NASCAR has changed so much since that pivotal day in 2001 when NASCAR lost its greatest icon that they don't even bother to watch anymore.
And some of the reasons they give have some validity: the cars all look the same now; networks spend more time showing commercials than they do showing actual racing; the new fans have no appreciation for the history of the sport, etc.
Most of those old-time NASCAR fans have their points and I believe many of them when they say they don't watch anymore. Those are all at least partially valid criticisms when taken from the perspective of a long-time fan.
But they are not the focus of this article. They may be a part, but they are not about whom I am writing. The "fans" (or more appropriately "fanatics") that I am talking about are those who believe that their fanhood is somehow bigger and better than that of others—even others who might happen to have the same favorite driver they do.
In the interest of revealing my biases, let me say up front to those who don't know me that I am a die-hard Busch brothers fan. Kurt was making a splash at the Cup level when I first "caught the fever" shortly before attending my first live race in Las Vegas. He was brash, he was arrogant, and he was talented. Whenever he was on the track he was a force to be reckoned with.
But I never got to see his entry into big-time NASCAR racing back in his truck series days. But I did get to see Kyle's entry into the sport and remember all the noise that was being made about him as awaited his 18th birthday so he could come back to racing in NASCAR's main series.
And after Kurt had won the Championship in 2004 and I read a quote from years earlier when he said something to the effect of "If you think I'm a great driver, just wait till my little brother comes along," my interest in the younger of the hometown boys was piqued.
But this is not an article about me and my fanhood—I am saving that for another day. This is an article about NASCAR fans—particularly those who seem to find it necessary to look down and bash other drivers and other NASCAR fans.
In all the comments I've read and heard about what a "true" or "real" NASCAR fan is, more often than not you hear two phrases: 1) sticks with the same driver through good times and bad (especially through the tough times) and 2) bandwagoners.
If we look at that first statement, the truest of fans would then have to be those of guys like Kyle Petty, Michael Waltrip, Paul Menard, and David Gilliland just to name a few. Petty and Waltrip have had their good times, though few and far between, and the others have yet to have any really good times. So their die-hard fans must be the most "real" and most "true" of all.
If we examine both of these phrases more deeply, however, we quickly see that NASCAR fans have set up a hierarchy of "fandom" for themselves and in so doing have built up a class structure—usually one that puts them at or near the top.
Those at the highest level are fans that have had a favorite driver since the invention of the horse-and-buggy and that hasn't changed even though that driver retired decades ago, or so it would seem.
Below them are those who have a strong sense and remembrance of the history of the sport and can tell you how they were there at every one of Richard Petty's 200 wins.
Below them are those fans listed above who have followed the sport since before the untimely death of Dale Earnhardt. Those fans remember what it was like "back in the day" when real men raced real stock cars and threw real fists when problems erupted on the track.
And then we move into the Jeff Gordon era fans. Young, brash, and highly talented, he never allowed himself to be intimidated and was winning races and championships at an incredible clip through the 90s. His fans at the time were few and far between, but have grown with time.
One of the first jokes I remember hearing as a NASCAR fan was "What's a NASCAR fan's four favorite words?" "Easy, the last four words of the national anthem, 'gentlemen start your engines.'" "What are a NASCAR fan's second favorite four words?" "Gordon's in the wall."
I didn't understand the dislike of Gordon then and honestly still don't to this day, at least not personally. I can understand why others might not like this Yankee going out on the track and beating those good ol' boys week in and week out, but it's not his fault he was so talented and didn't look or talk like them.
Now as we near the bottom of the hierarchy we get to those fans who have only become fans since the death of the Intimidator. So many times I have heard that one cannot be a real race fan if you never saw "the Big E" race live.
Often mixed in with those fans are others who are "Daytona 500" fans—those who watch only on NASCAR's version of Super Sunday. I fell into that group for a long time as my family was more into NHRA growing up, but we would watch the occasional Daytona 500 and/or Indy 500 each year.
Now we reach the bottom of the hierarchy as we get into those fans who have only ever known NASCAR since the beginning of the Chase format in 2004. Battles rage endlessly between "pre-chase" fans and "post-chase" fans, usually about things like whether or not Gordon has been robbed of a couple of championships because of the format change.
The other hot button topic for defining these fans is to ask them if the drivers of yesteryear would be able to be as competitive today as they were back in the day. Anyone who doesn't believe that Cale Yarborough couldn't go out and whup the field before climbing out of the car and whupping the Busch brothers are "lesser fans."
And finally at the bottom, we have "the bandwagoners." These are essentially defined most often as "fair-weather fans." They root for their favorite driver as long as he is winning, and when he stops, they move on to the next big thing.
NASCAR fans in general talk about "bandwagoners" as though they are something you scrape off the bottom of your shoe after leaving the track once the race is over. Currently, fans of Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, and most often Kyle Busch are accused of being bandwagoners—only having jumped on their fan train since last year or slightly before when they started winning consistently.
[NOTE: I have left Junior Nation (and the Junior-bashers) specifically out of this discussion for two main reasons: 1) any discussion involving fans for or against Junior always loses focus of the point at hand and devolves into ugliness about the fans themselves and 2) they are a Nation unto themselves, with their own hierarchical rules.]
Now that we've loosely defined the various "classes" of NASCAR fans, let's look at why they exist and what good it does anyone overall.
Surely, any sports fan will tell you that you will always have the "superfans," the regular fans, and the weekend warriors. And many will also tell you that if you don't have a long-time favorite—and a damn good reason for having that favorite—then what's the point of watching at all.
It's the second part of that gets under my skin. When I was younger I played baseball and I was pretty good. Back then I loved to watch baseball games either in person or on TV as I identified with the players.
Coming from Northern California originally, the first live games I saw were watching the Giants at Candlestick or the Oakland A's back when they had guys like Charley Finley, Rollie Fingers, Sal Bando, Reggie Jackson, and at times, Billy Martin associated with the team.
But as we moved around (I'm a military brat), most TV stations carried more regional games, so I didn't get to see much of my Giants or Athletics until the post-season. I did manage to read every book I could find on Babe Ruth when I was in junior high and became a Yankee fan for many years after that.
Since leaving graduate school in the mid-90s, I have moved all over the South and the West and I still like the Giants, even though Los Angeles—home of the Giant's rivals the Dodgers—is where I call home.
Then I moved to Seattle in 2001. I used to go to games to watch the latest sensation—Ichiro Suzuki—as he led the Mariners to one of the most successful seasons in history. By then I didn't even really care about baseball all that much.
I couldn't tell you who the newest expansion teams were or who even won the World Series the year before. On a good day I could remember who won the Little League World Series as I still love to watch that, but that too is a story for another day.
Did the fact that I wore my Mariner hat with pride wherever I went make me a Seattle bandwagoner? Maybe. Did I care? No. Did it lessen my enjoyment of the game when I would head out to the field? Definitely not.
Did I no longer like the Giants? No, I just paid more attention to the Mariners as they were doing better that year and they were closer to home. Thus, there were many different factors that influenced me and who I rooted for throughout my life.
The same concepts apply in various situations in NASCAR as well. I have one friend who was a Kasey Kahne fan starting in 2004 not because he particularly liked him, but because Kahne was taking over the car from his all-time favorite, Bill Elliott.
His wife, a long-time Mark Martin fan, came upon hard times when Martin announced his (first) retirement. Her collection of No. 6 Viagra cars, clothes, and other memorabilia became "collectibles" and she found she had to choose a new favorite driver.
Being savvy about NASCAR and having kept up with who was hot and who was not, she started cheering on Carl Edwards as she saw potential in him—potential to be a winner.
I don't believe anyone walks into the track or watches from week to week and picks the worst driver on the track just because they like underdogs. They may pick them because they've stuck with them for decades, but picking those who generally finish outside the top-20 means that the only time you are going to see any coverage of your driver is when he causes a big one that takes out the front of the field.
So does that make her a Carl Edwards bandwagoner because he has finally begun fulfilling the potential she saw in him then? Does that make me a Kyle Busch bandwagoner because he has now finally begun fulfilling the potential that he and many others saw in him years ago.
And what about fans of drivers like Joey Logano? He's not even a "winner" yet (at least not in the Cup series) and already there are cries that Logano fans have only glommed onto him because of his hype, because he's only ever been able to win in the best of equipment, etc.
Bottom line, why should the reason behind a person liking a particular driver matter at all? Why should how long they've been a fan of the sport matter at all?
Who really cares and whose business is it why some people like one driver and others like another? We all know fans who have picked favorite drivers based upon a car color, a paint scheme, a sponsor, a hair style, his eyes, his car number, who drove it before, etc. Each of those is a seemingly far worse reason for picking a favorite driver than "he's winning a lot."
And so what if that's the reason someone likes him? Who is to judge someone's motivations for liking a driver and changing that whenever they please? Winners are generally more fun to watch then losers, and the winners generally change from season to season and from decade to decade.
Personally, I find it rather bizarre that someone might switch from being a Junior fan to not liking him because he went to the dark side at HMS. But that's me.
I also don't understand why whether a driver is in a Chevy or a Toyota should make necessarily make any difference as to how much I like and pull for him; but again, that's just me.
My favorite drivers (the Busch brothers) have driven and won in Fords, Chevys, Dodges, Toyotas, Trucks, Nationwide cars and Cup series "Cars of Yesterday" and "Cars of Today." Didn't make one whit of difference to me as they didn't change, only the type and nameplate on the cars did.
Honestly, does it make you feel better about rooting for your favorite driver each time he loses to Kyle or Carl or Jimmie when you have to put others down to do it? Can't you just take joy in the accomplishments of your favorite without having to bash other drivers and their fans to do so?
I was at the track in Fontana last Sunday decked out in my full M&Ms No. 18 regalia when I was jeered by some Junior Nation fans from behind me. Mind you, I had extra tickets so I had invited a Junior-lovin' Busch-bashin' friend of mine and his wife (an AJ Allmendinger fan) to join me.
As Kyle was introduced, the boos and jeers began, and the guy behind us started yelling "I HATE YOU KYLE BUSCH" as though he was the guy in the Chase commercials from last year, where "he can't hear you if you're not there."
Three-quarters of the way through the race we noticed the No. 88 limping around behind the rest of the field. Every time it would go by it sounded like someone had run over a cat in a sock with a vacuum cleaner. Finally, mercifully, Junior made that hard left turn into the garage and his day was done.
What was sad was that it was at that point droves of fans got and began filing out of the stands, even though Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth were putting on one of the best finishes I've ever seen at the Auto Club Speedway.
It was as if we were back on the school playground and the big kids were saying to the rest of us, "Well, if my driver isn't in the race anymore I'm just going to pack up my fandom and go home. Screw the rest of the drivers and NASCAR as a whole. I just don't care who wins if Junior's not in it."
I know that's overstatement and I'm not out to raise the ire of any members of Junior Nation, but I do want to bring up that sometimes living by example and karma are the order of the day.
Once Junior pulled that car into the garage while I watched my boy whipping around in third place doing his best to catch up to the leaders, I could have very easily turned and made some negative comment. But really, what good would that have done?
Besides putting myself in danger by being highly outnumbered, it would have just fed fuel to the fire that Kyle Busch fans are poor sports like their favorite driver. Instead, I chose to take the higher road and commiserate with my friend now that he was stuck there with me the rest of the race and Junior was no longer in it.
When fans put others down for their choices and their reasons for making them, they create what once might have been considered an oxymoron—the NASCAR Snob, whose credo is "You can't possibly be as big a fan as I am because you are backing a winning driver and he hasn't been around as long as my favorite." The logic in such a statement (or lack thereof) is astonishing.
The important point is that someone IS a NASCAR fan, and as such should be welcomed as a member of the NASCAR Nation—not put down because they might like Kasey Kahne because he's "just so cute" or Junior because he's an Earnhardt.
The thing to remember is they are fans now (even if bandwagon Kyle Busch fans), and besides causing me a little more pain as the lines at the No. 18 vendor trailer are longer than ever, we should be glad just to have 'em aboard.
In these economic times where sponsors are watching carefully the number of NASCAR fans there are in general, we should shoot to be inclusive and accepting of fans new to the sport rather than exclusive and judgmental.
That's my $0.18. What's yours?
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