Despite how you might feel about Donald Trump recently boasting about NASCAR, it really is a cool sport—one that demands more athleticism and strategy than I’d ever guessed, and one shrouded in patriotism for reasons beyond those who do or do not stand for the anthem.
I recently had the opportunity to visit the New Hampshire Motor Speedway with Kelley Blue Book and Cox Automotive Autotrader for a race weekend in September—Autotrader has been a partner of Team Penske since 2014 and an associate sponsor of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers Brad Keselowski (No. 2) and Joey Logano (No. 22). Likewise, Kelley Blue Book is an associate sponsor of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Chase Elliott (No. 24). It was my first NASCAR race, and I showed up equipped with virtually no understanding of the sport. I’d anticipated that it’d be loud, and I’d presumed there’d be a lot of dudes donning graphic T-shirts and hauling coolers brimming with beers, like PBRs and the like. I wasn’t wrong. But it was so much more.
While I was given a VIP admission to an air-conditioned, catered suite and pit access during practice and the race itself (I realize this is an atypical NASCAR experience), I found being among the boisterous crowd to be the most thrilling part of that weekend. In fact, from chatting up avid fans, drivers and their crews alike, I’d learned quite a bit about the sport that’s about a heck of a lot more than making left turns.
1. NASCAR, at its core, is American.
Unlike Formula One, which is vastly popular across Europe, and IndyCar, which was only founded in the ’90s, NASCAR has serious roots in American soil. It got its start in Daytona, Florida, and it’s been around since 1948. Today, it’s still considered raw, real racing—the dirty kind, the OG. And it’s not only committed to tradition in the way these drivers compete, but also in the opening ceremony. A salute to the military, an invocation and the national anthem intensified by fireworks and fighter jets that fly overhead rally the fans, before the grand marshal calls on the drivers to start their engines. It just exudes patriotism.
2. TV doesn’t do NASCAR justice.
Watching NASCAR on TV is a lot like watching baseball on TV, or golf or something—it can be boring. The cars don’t look like they’re actually going almost 200 miles per hour and someone’s spewing a bunch of bullshit over the muted real stuff—the exhilarating sound of those roaring engines. You also seldom see the entire track when you’re watching on TV; instead you’re keyed in on one or two cars at a time, and you can’t get a grip on the actually strategy that goes into it all when your screen is your very own blind spot. The thing is, NASCAR is not just about making left turns—I mean, it is, but it’s mostly about seizing opportunities.
The drivers are tapping the bumpers of those in front of them so those cars float up the track, giving them enough room to pass. They’re also trailing close behind to take the air off the other car’s spoiler, making the backend of the lead car unstable. They’re passing each other up, falling behind, crashing into the walls, crashing into each other. Being at the race makes you feel a lot more like a “spotter” (the team member who watches the race from the press box and communicates to the driver via headsets), than a viewer. You can see their vulnerabilities and opportunities, and it makes you want to root for them—even if you’ve never given a damn about NASCAR in your life.
3. NASCAR racing takes a serious toll on the body.
NASCAR vehicles, on average, are heavier than Formula One and Indy cars at about 3,250 pounds (compared to about the 1,500-pound cars in F1 and IndyCar), and they’re enclosed. That extra weight is carried by a 5.86-liter V8 engine, which rumbles like the jets that fly overhead during the opening ceremonies—except multiplied. Those drivers are strapped in those things for hours, making hundreds of laps in fireproof but sweaty suits, peeing on themselves if they’ve gotta. In-car temperatures can surpass 100 degrees, so drivers are forced to wear ventilation systems and hydrate excessively because failing to do so can be so much more dangerous than crashing. It’s no wonder NASCAR drivers retire rather young—their bodies quite literally can’t handle the heat.
4. NASCAR fans are loyal fans.
It’s no secret that NASCAR has indeed witnessed a decline in fans—many tracks will even paint the seats in their stands different colors so they don’t look as empty on television. NASCAR has a popularity problem, sure. But the fans who do show up? Those are committed folks. They’ll camp out for days in anticipation of the race, many of whom are with their families. It’s because everyone can relate—NASCAR drivers have a penchant for passing down their passion, and so generations upon generations get a kick out of it. Chase Elliott, for example, followed his father’s footsteps. Bill Elliott was a 2015 hall of fame inductee, and the two of them are the fifth father-son duo to claim a NASCAR national series title. Elliott also drives four-time champion Jeff Gordon’s car after he retired, so fans of all ages have some kind of connection to these guys.
5. NASCAR crews are the real MVPs.
If your crew moves too slow, you lose. These guys are changing tires in seconds—massive Goodyear tires they toss to the side like they’re weightless. Like the NFL, MLB, NHL and so on, NASCAR is very much a team effort, though it’s rarely recognized as one.
Photo: Getty Images/Sarah Crabill