At Daytona, NASCAR's true fans are tired of the negativity

John Raoux/AP Photo

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It is late Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway. The air is cool, and the beer is cold. But the temperatures of the men consuming those beverages are running plenty hot. Not too far away, in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series garage, teams are busy packing up for the night. The two winners of the Duel 150 qualifying races are done celebrating. The two teams who failed to make the field for Sunday's Daytona 500 are on their way out of the infield.

Here, in the dark campgrounds of that infield, down toward the fencing that lines the inside of Turns 3 and 4, and where the sky is framed by palm tree silhouettes, the fans who just watched those races are pissed. And not about the Duels.

"Hey, ESPN guy, you've been checking your Twitter?" barks Tom Londerman, a "semi-retired contractor" from Tampa. "Don't bother. It's just gonna be people complaining. That's all people do anymore is complain, especially when it comes to NASCAR."

"Drives me f---ing crazy," says Londerman's friend, Bill Hairston, a fellow semi-retiree. Hairston claims that this is his 33rd Daytona Speedweeks. Londerman says it's his 40th. "I've been a NASCAR fan my whole life, and I'll be a fan until they bury me. But I don't look at nothing, read nothing or listen to nothing."


"Because I'm tired of people running my sport down all the time. I can't read anything or talk to anyone about NASCAR or listen to the radio without it all being, 'Well, it sucks now. It's dying. No one cares anymore.' Blah blah blah. Drivers say it too. Well, guess what? I care and Tim cares and all these people I see right here every year, always back, they care." He cups his hands around his mouth and shouts to the RV next door. "HEY! Don't y'all still love racing?!" Cheers go up.


From Tom and Bill's campsite to the nearby beaches, in the lobby bar at the Streamline Hotel and the packed dining rooms and party deck of Racing's North Turn, here at Daytona Beach, there is no shortage of enthusiastic fans, or longtime fans. When they are told about the anger in the speedway infield, all nod in agreement.

"With my family, there's a 'no whining' rule. If you're going to complain, go sit in the car. We're here to have fun and watch racing," explains Teresa Brookings, a preschool teacher from Georgia, as she sips white zinfandel, overlooking the white sand beach where NASCAR first raced in the 1940s. "I'm not an idiot. I know that there are issues with attendance and TV ratings and all that. But it gets exhausting, people talking gloom and doom all the time. They get obsessed. But do you see any gloom and doom here today? I don't."

Though, to be fair, it's never far away. Stock-car racing, the sport that was once the darling of Madison Avenue and press row alike, has spent recent months being pounded by headlines such as "After spinning its wheels in 2018, NASCAR putters in 2019" (Forbes), "NASCAR losing American fans" (CNBC) and "All that's left for NASCAR is the funeral" (Greensboro News-Record). This week, a South Carolina news station asked "Is NASCAR a dying sport?" The local newspaper, the Daytona Beach News-Journal, kicked off its always-excellent Speedweeks coverage with an in-depth interview with new NASCAR president Steve Phelps. The entire topic of conversation? Can the sport ever return to what it was not so long ago? Phelps, to his credit, stands firm by saying, "NASCAR's best days are in front of it." His optimistic defiance has been met with plenty of admiration, but also plenty of "Well, bless his heart."

So, no, it isn't hard to find negative NASCAR news and opinion. That is especially true in the Cup Series garage, where the wringing of hands, gnashing of teeth and the behind-a-stack-of-tires conversations of "What the hell are we gonna do?!" are nearly louder than the engines being tuned nearby. These are the people who are losing money and leaking fame.

But even among them there are those who stand with the infield fans and with Phelps. As the attacks on their livelihood have gained momentum, they have circled the wagons, particularly those who have been around the longest.

"Listen, nobody's had a harder time than I have, OK?" explains Richard Petty, whose family-owned team has won a record number of races, championships and Daytona 500 victories. But since it was founded by his father seven decades ago, Petty Enterprises and the iterations that have followed have also had to be repeatedly resurrected from bankruptcy and broken business models. "It ain't as simple as a glass half-full or empty kind of deal, but you do have to make a decision. Am I gonna let all that negative stuff be all I think about? Because if you do that, you won't last long, OK? Trust me on that. Or, are you gonna tune out the complaining and keep your eye on the ball? Don't worry about the problem. Worry about how you're gonna fix the problem."

"You can't live in an echo chamber, because there are no solutions in there," just-inducted NASCAR Hall of Fame team owner Roger Penske expounded last week. The Captain is a self-made billionaire who had a significant hand first in tearing apart and then in reconstructing American open-wheel racing, including the Indianapolis 500. "When times are hard, they have a way of clearing the room. The pressure of a challenge will boil a group down to only the people who truly love it. The people who don't want to deal with it, they probably weren't as dedicated as you needed them to be."

Penske driver Brad Keselowski, who grew up in a family of scrape-by racers, was more pointed in his assessment. "Give me the people who still want to be here when times are tough. The people who look at an issue and say, 'Let's work the problem.' Those are the real racers. Moving forward is what racers do. If you really love the sport, like I do and like Roger does and like the real fans do, then we are all in this together. We have to work together to get this boat turned around and headed in the right direction."

The 2012 Cup Series champion angles his eyes toward the exit door of the infield building where he's sitting, glancing toward the campgrounds. "That goes for the fans, too. Give me the race fans who are sticking with us. Those are my people. They are with us through thick or thin. Now might feel thin. They'll still be here when it's thick again. And it will be again. The real fans, I think they believe that."

Those are the fans that Phelps has admitted that NASCAR failed to listen to at the height of its powers, choosing to push so hard into the future that it unintentionally ripped its roots from the ground. "I don't think we listened to what the hardcore fan wanted," he told the Daytona Beach News-Journal. "Those days have ended."

If Phelps, Keselowski, Penske and Petty are looking for a place to hold a focus group, they could certainly do worse than the campsites over in Turns 3 and 4. But Tom and Bill have a message about that. "We'd be happy to chat with all the brass, but not this week," Tom says as he tips back a Natty Light. "Look here..."

He motions to the campfire, where he has a tinfoil trail pack of bacon sizzling. He points to the sky above, as stars fight to force their twinkle through the ring of light coming off the racetrack's high banks. In the distance, Hank Williams Jr.'s "Family Tradition" plays, along with squeals of delight from a group of people racing wheelbarrows.

"I've got cold beer, racing, good music and good friends. Hell, man, the Thunderbirds flew over here today. I know NASCAR has problems. But let's talk about that B.S. later. This ain't the time. I don't have a single damn problem right now."

Bill jumps in. "Anyone who'd have a problem sitting here, with the Daytona 500 on the way, their problem isn't racing. Their problem is them."