NASCAR has evolved so much in the 21st century. The passing of Dale Earnhardt in 2001 was a wake-up call for the sport to adapt to the times. Only some people are fans of change, but the organization has made bold decisions to address the pressing issues plaguing stock car auto racing and expand its fan base. However, has NASCAR’s efforts yielded positive results?
In this article, we’ll explore the changes in NASCAR fan demographics, what the organization has done to appeal to younger audiences and how stock car racing aficionados can pass the torch to the next generation.
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The media thinks NASCAR has an aging fan base. To an extent, that’s true, but quantifying just how much the age is trending upwards is difficult. Studies have listed the average NASCAR fan as anywhere from 42 years old to 58 years old. The difference between these figures is a generation, suggesting both older millennials and Gen Xers typically tune into the races.
A legion of baby boomers still follow NASCAR events as well. Their numbers may be dwindling, but they still have pull, according to NASCAR data.
The boomers no longer represent the majority of sports fans. More of them enter retirement over time and aren’t financially supporting their favorite professional athletes as they used to.
All sports organizations know this and are bent on appealing to the millennials and Gen Zers. NASCAR is no exception. However, the two youngest generational cohorts can vastly differ from the motorsport’s traditional fan base.
Younger millennials and Zoomers care deeply about sustainability, social justice and mental health but notably aren’t as crazy about motoring as their elders. Conversely, NASCAR’s traditional fan base covers the Southeastern United States. The sport has cultural significance in the region, especially in North Carolina and Virginia. Racing is a source of pride and a symbol of Southern identity.
There’s a disconnect between the traditional demographics of motorsports fans and the profiles of the nation’s dominant generations. NASCAR leadership recognizes this and understands the need to market its product heavily to grow its popularity for the years to come.
NASCAR has implemented various reforms over 20 years to improve safety, competition, image and business reach. The governing body has invested heavily in research and development to make the sport more scientific, leading to requiring Head and Neck Support devices and adding foam barriers to tracks.
Moreover, this era also gave birth to generations 5, 6 and 7 cars. Also known as the Car of Tomorrow, the fifth-generation Cup car featured sizable rear wings, a higher windshield and a boxier, thicker bumper to increase drag and minimize aerodynamics intentionally. The driver’s seat also became four inches closer to the center for safety reasons. The Gen 6 car introduced more safety enhancements and mimicked the look of their unmodified counterparts in dealer showrooms more closely.
The latest generation of NASCAR racecars boasts a fuel-injected V8 engine capable of producing 670 horsepower, a 5-speed transaxle and a center-looking wheel nut. Marketed as the Next Gen cars, the Toyota Camrys, Ford Mustangs and Chevrolet Camaros used in the Cup Series are rear-wheel drive cars.
NASCAR has revised its points system to make the tail end of its season more exciting for fans and grab more eyeballs as it competes with sports. Regarding its brand image, the organization has taken vital steps to make the sport more popular in other regions without necessarily neglecting the Southland. Virginia, Florida and Tennessee collectively hosted 10 races in 2023.
It’s teamed up with new sponsors and promoted a new crop of drivers — such as Danica Patrick and Bubba Wallace — to diversify its driver field. NASCAR’s official fuel has 15% bioethanol content to appeal to the sensibilities of younger audiences. Business-wise, NASCAR broke ground on new tracks in blue-chip markets in Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas and Miami.
So far, the 21st century has seen two waves of young drivers, peaking in 2007 and 2020. Such a phenomenon occurred only once in the previous century — in 1985.
The influxes of younger professional racers didn’t happen by chance. In 2007, NASCAR decreased the minimum age for regional competitions from 18 to 16 years old. The organization reduced another time in 2020 to 15.
This opportunity has encouraged more teenagers to pursue motorsports more seriously. Those who have been go-karting all their lives can take it to the next level and begin a career in stock car auto racing early.
More racing academies set up shop to meet the growing demand, driving the cost of education down. This virtuous cycle allows NASCAR to have fresh prospects younger fans can relate and look up to.
Children can attend NASCAR events in more than 40 locations across the U.S. and Canada. However, the organization recommends covering the ears of little spectators with noise-canceling headphones, for race action can be as loud as 100 decibels — 15 more than the maximum rate of audio exposure.
Radio stations consider NASCAR fans lucrative advertising targets. About nine out of 10 motorsports fans follow stock car auto racing and nearly 51% are in the coveted demo of 25–54 years old. Just about every radio format attracts a large chunk of NASCAR’s fan base.
Regarding TV, ratings have peaks and valleys. However, NASCAR’s latest media rights deal for its Cup Series is proof of its enduring popularity. The organization will earn $1.1 billion a year from 2025 to 2031 — a 34% jump from its previous deal of $820 million annually.
TNT Sports will join NBC Sports and Fox Sports as NASCAR’s TV distribution partners. The CW will carry the Xfinity Series for more than $115 million a year in a separate deal. Having a broad presence in network TV and cable allows NASCAR to reach the 28% of Gen Zers who watch live sports.
The organization’s followings on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram totaled about 10.5 million in 2022. NASCAR-related hashtags have exceeded 8.5 billion views on TikTok. These figures are enormous because 65% of millennials and 74% of centennials consume sports on various social media platforms.
NASCAR has joined forces with Amazon Prime as part of its new media rights deal. Its content is also available on Peacock and YouTube TV.
Drivers of Fan Loyalty
Stock car auto racing fanhood starts young. Many fans — and even professional racers — get their first taste of the thrill at go-kart parks. World-class Formula 1 racers like Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen got their start on the go-kart track and developed those skills into internationally recognized careers. Similarly encouraging a child’s need for speed is an easy way to get them excited for NASCAR in the long run.
NASCAR has a ton of exposure to kids from the South because watching races is part of the family tradition. Many of today’s parents refrain from pressuring their children to like what they love, but sharing your passions with your little ones is essential to forming a stronger bond. After all, youth sports build character and confidence.
The demographics of NASCAR fans are changing, but it doesn’t mean stock car auto racing die-hards are dying out. Many young people are interested in the sport and the rapidly changing media landscape should continue to make waves in how the NASCAR is received in the coming years.
The answer varies depending on the source. Some say it’s in the early 40s, while others believe it’s reached the late 50s.
NASCAR has allowed regional competition participants to be as young as 15 years old. This policy encourages many teenagers to get into motorsports earlier than before.
NASCAR has adopted a more sustainable racing fuel, increased its presence on social media and begun streaming content to attract younger eyes.
Millennials and Gen Zers don’t stick to a single platform to watch live sports. Some go to tracks while others watch at home on TV while checking social media.
Parents can take their kids to live NASCAR events and encourage them to do go-karting to experience motorsports early.
With an extensive background in automotive journalism, Jack Shaw brings a wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm to the table. As a contributing writer for Offroad Xtreme, Ford Muscle, Engine Labs and other leading publications, his articles provide readers with expert insights and captivating stories from the world of racing.