It’s been one of the most iconic scenes in cinema: Richard Petty, his white cowboy hat, black boots, and long-sleeved red and white checkered shirt slowly circling the track, introducing the audience to “The King’.”
Petty’s ‘Granddaddy of NASCAR’ tagline — ‘He put the ‘king’ in kingpin – remains the same, yet everything around him has changed. In the intervening years, we’ve seen a meteoric rise in competitive gaming, with e-sports events like the League of Legends Championship Series spawning entire industries.
From an inside perspective, it’s been a fascinating time to follow the evolution of NASCAR, from the humble beginnings as a small racing league to the global phenomenon it is today.
From Trucks To Race Cars
While the format has remained relatively the same, the cars have evolved to fit the new technology. That evolution can be traced all the way back to the 1940s, when Henry Ford II introduced the now-classic ‘Cannonball’ – a shortened version of his luxury car, the Ford Tudor.
The new model was an instant hit – in fact, it became the first mass-produced car in history to outsell its predecessors – and was followed by the Ford Thunderbird in the ‘50s and the Corvette in the ‘60s. Those are the cars we typically think of when we think of NASCAR, and they’re still the backbone of the series today.
More recently, the trucks have taken over, with NASCAR adopting a ‘truck stop’ style of dining complete with bullhorn-clutched race fans. The 2017 season alone saw over 200,000 miles of road racing across the U.S., with truck drivers setting numerous speed and distance records.
The Evolution Of The Track
The track has also evolved to fit the new technology. Most notably, the granddaddy of them all, the Daytona International Speedway, which pioneered the notion of the road course. Just as with a test-drive, you can actually race along the twisting backroads of the Florida town. This is one of the grande dames of American sport, boasting the most memorable turns, dips, and climbs in the entire country.
Daytona also hosts the famous Daytona 500, the most prestigious race of the year, where drivers from across the country vie for a spot at the top of the podium. The track has also moved around, with Texas Motor Speedway being the most recent addition to the circuit – complete with a huge bull’s-eyed logo and red, white, and blue stripes on the pavement. Like the rest of the tracks, it’s a true test of both driver and machine as you zoom around its turns, trying not to touch the wall too hard. That’s what happens when you attempt to fly cowboy-style on a motorbike. It’s a great idea until you try it, at which point you realize just how low you can go before your body weight starts pushing you back up.
A Changing Media Landscape
One of the most fascinating things about NASCAR is its place in popular culture. That culture has changed significantly in recent years, with eSports becoming an umbrella term for video gaming and social media platforms like Twitch allowing fans to virtually sit in the driver’s seat and cheer on their favorite teams.
It’s partly thanks to those platforms that today’s NASCAR enthusiast is so familiar with the terminology and tactics of their favorite drivers. The rise of eSports has also led to a generational gap, with younger fans having grown up in the shadow of technology and social media. Race fans are now following races from start to finish, using live tweet chases, Twitch videos of gameplay, and highlights from other platforms.
In the past, a trip to the race track was a rare luxury, reserved for special occasions, like a birthday or Christmas. Those days are long gone, with NASCAR becoming a regular fixture in pop culture, thanks to the new media landscape we live in.
Rising E-Sports Takeover
The 2017 season saw several major milestones for NASCAR. It was the first time in many years that the series did not lose any of its races to weather-related issues. It also marked the first time since 1982 that there were no fatalities during a NASCAR race. Finally, it saw the culmination of years of planning, with the introduction of the $10,000 Dream Cup, a championship series for amateur drivers which will run this year and next.
And that’s just the beginning. With more and more people living their lives online, the world of virtual sports is bound to expand its reach even further into our everyday culture. That, in turn, will change the way we look at real sports forever.