Kevin Johnson became enamored with NASCAR as a kid through clips on “ Wide World of Sports,” decades before billion-dollar broadcast deals when auto racing shared precious air time with barrel jumping and demolition derby.
Raised in the South Bronx, Johnson considered himself “a closet NASCAR fan,” without a friend or family member who truly shared his interest in catching the latest race.
“As you can imagine,” Johnson said, “there just simply weren't a lot of people receptive to the sport given its history.”
Johnson recalled staying in his Temple University dorm during the massive blizzard that wreaked havoc on the East Coast in 1979 to watch the Daytona 500, broadcast live in its entirety for the first time. His roommate was stuck elsewhere because of the weather, leaving Johnson alone with the TV.
“Nobody knew,” Johnson said, laughing. “As a Black person in an urban area, it wasn't acceptable. I wasn't really out there. But that love continued to this day.”
Johnson, 61, who has retired to Miami, shares his passion for the sport with a Black NASCAR Fans group on Facebook.
The group's bio says: “Yes we exist.”
The fans share favorite race memories, photos of their collectibles and, yes, stories of the historically uneasy relationship NASCAR has had with the Black community.
Johnson has been called racist slurs at the track, felt queasy at the sight of the Confederate flag and often wondered if the good-ol'-boy Southern attitudes steeped in the sport would ever fade.
The catalyst for change has come in the U.S. with the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police. Not long after that, driver Bubba Wallace shoved NASCAR toward the overdue step of banning the Confederate flag, for decades a waving, nylon symbol to Blacks that they were not welcome in NASCAR Nation.
The thought of facing the flag and the potential of alcohol-fueled anger from its staunchest defenders has kept many Black fans away and made the ones who did come watch their step. Johnson said banning the flag will make NASCAR “more inviting.”
“We need to get more people, encourage more people of color to come and enjoy what goes on around race weekend,” said Brad Daugherty, the lone Black team owner in NASCAR.
According to NASCAR, the latest demographics show an overwhelmingly white fan base – 75% – but the multicultural slice of 25% has climbed from 20% in 2011. Black fans make up 9% of the total.
The sight of Black fans lined against the Talladega fence to cheer for Wallace a day after a noose was found in his stall was a heartening moment for NASCAR. But earning the trust of a new generation of fans requires more than “if you ban it, they will come.” NASCAR and its tracks need bolder attempts at ticket and community outreach programs, much in the way baseball, the NHL and the NBA celebrate pride or ethnic-themed nights.
Minorities may not necessarily become the dominant demographic for the stock car series, but they can certainly grab a larger share of the marketplace.
“I think the challenge for NASCAR is this: They spent a lot of time and money over the years building up a specific brand that centered on Confederate flag-waving Southern white folks as their target market, and aligned themselves with business partners and politicians who also found symmetry with this demographic group,” said Joshua Newman, a Florida State professor and author of “Sport, Spectacle, and NASCAR Nation: Consumption and the Cultural Politics of Neoliberalism.”
“This worked well to create a very specific NASCAR culture, a spectacle of celebrity politicians, military flyovers, conservative symbolism, an all-white driver lineup – for many years, but not always – and grandstands filled with predominantly white consumer fans,” Newman said. “It was unique in the North American sports landscape for its racial homogeneity and pronounced affiliations with one political party.”
But cultural politics can change and NASCAR's boom has faded. To Newman, that means NASCAR limited its growth potential and now must find a solution.