After finishing our bike ride this weekend, I watched the final ten laps or so of the Daytona 500 NASCAR race. True confession: as a teenager, I loved motorsports. I followed all sorts of racing, particularly Formula One (I was a huge Niki Lauda fan). I did watch lots of NASCAR in high school, back before it was as trendy as it is today. (Favorite drivers of my youth: Buddy Baker and Cale Yarborough.)
For various reasons, I tired of motorsports in college. After all, the NCAA does not have stock car racing among its scholarship sports. My affection slowly switched to a different kind of racing, the kind done with muscle power and will alone, not with a colossal waste of fossil fuels.
But I still have a vague affection for auto racing, and with nothing else to do after a long and tiring ride, I sat on the living room floor and watched the Daytona 500. The growing popularity of NASCAR in America is well-documented; it is well on its way to challenging football, basketball, and baseball for dominance in the hearts and minds of American sports fan and television viewers. Watching the interviews with drivers, it's not hard to see why.
They're all white. They're clean-cut. They have average builds. They are perhaps the only "athletes" (I have a hard time considering a racing driver an athlete, though I am confident some level of fitness is necessary) with whom red-state Americans can identify. The big three sports (baseball, football, and basketball) are dominated by African-Americans (and in the case of baseball, increasingly by Latinos). Hockey is dominated by whites, but the NHL has cancelled its season -- and besides, many of hockey's best players are Canadian and European. Even golf and tennis have been more successfully "infiltrated" by folks of color than NASCAR.
I'm not suggesting that NASCAR fans are all bigots. But I am suggesting that they want heroes who look like them. Cycling and ultramarathoning are also lilly-white, but they are too obscure and too middle-class to appeal to the red state masses. (I'm sorry if that sounds condescending.) In a world where most sporting heroes are black or brown, the hunger for a sport where virtually every recognizable figure is a white man must be overwhelming. Though they must have a certain level of fitness and reaction skills, one can more easily imagine oneself as a race car driver than as a football or basketball player. Some of that may be in the nature of the sport, but some of it may also be due to the color of the players.
Anyhow, it's at least partly sunny outside, and this guy is off for his run.