NASCAR is losing another Earnhardt.
For many longtime fans, Dale Earnhardt Jr. – or maybe more specifically, his last name – represents their deep-rooted affinity for NASCAR, which has been suffering declining ticket sales for years now. Earnhardt’s retirement announcement Tuesday could deal yet another blow to the industry, experts say.
Earnhardt never won a championship title like his late father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., but that hasn’t seemed to deter fans: The 42-year-old Kannapolis native has been voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver a record 14 consecutive years, according to Hendrick Motorsports, the team for which Earnhardt drove the No. 88 Chevrolet.
“The Earnhardt name is irreplaceable in NASCAR,” said Todd McFall, a Wake Forest sports economist. “It’s a really tough blow for NASCAR, and for the fans who follow (Earnhardt) closely.”
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Some fans, he added, might have “second thoughts about placing their time, money and attention into another NASCAR brand, especially with the intensity with which they follow Dale Jr.”
Earnhardt, who was sidelined for most of last year with a concussion, said deciding to retire has been a “bittersweet” process. But the charismatic son of one of NASCAR’s most revered drivers said he plans to stay involved somehow with the sport, and expressed optimism about its future.
“The sky’s the limit for NASCAR,” Earnhardt said in a press conference Tuesday afternoon at Hendrick’s Charlotte headquarters. Asked how the sport will survive in his absence, Earnhardt said although the transition between generations of drivers may not be seamless, he’s confident in a crop of about a dozen young personalities, including Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson.
“This is a new batch of guys that are going to do things in a new way. They’re going to bring a lot of new color, excitement and energy to the sport. We just have to get them in front of the fans, let the fans get to know them.”
Industry experts who have watched trends in the sport, however, aren’t so sure. Fan interest has historically waned following the retirement of popular drivers like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards.
It’s impossible to know exactly how many fans of Earnhardt had first cheered for his father, also one of the sport’s most popular stars before he was killed in a crash at the Daytona 500 in 2001.
Concord-based Speedway Motorsports, which owns nine tracks including the one in Concord, has warned that the departure of “megastar” drivers for whatever reason (retirement or injury, for example) can weigh on the sport’s overall success.
“Race car driver popularity and performance abilities can affect on-track competition, the closeness of championship points racing, attendance, corporate interest, media attention and the appeal and success of racing in general,” the company said in its annual report, filed March 10.
The company, which held 24 major annual racing events in 2016, said that admissions last year were down $10.1 million, or 10 percent, from 2015, primarily because of lower overall attendance at NASCAR racing events.
When Earnhardt announced last September he’d miss the rest of the NASCAR season because of a concussion, Sports Media Watch said the driver’s absence could be exacerbating the “especially steep downturn of late” in TV ratings and viewership.
In light of departures of longtime fan favorites, NASCAR executives have said they’re aware the industry needs to be proactive in helping create the “stars of tomorrow.” Key to that effort are development programs such as NASCAR Next and Drive for Diversity, which identify young drivers and help groom them off the track.
Many fans have said they’ve become disengaged with the sport because it’s become too “politically correct” – the days of rough-and-tumble post-race fist-fights, for example, are now mostly gone.
“We do want our athletes to be authentic and we want them to show their personality,” NASCAR Chief Marketing Officer Jill Gregory said in an interview Tuesday.
“We’ve spent a fair amount of time on that as we build our relationships with our young drivers. How do they let their personalities shine through? That’s how a fan is going to be attracted to them.”
An online presence is one way drivers have worked to show their personalities. Earnhardt is known for his prolific social media use, especially on Twitter, and for his interactions with fans. That’s another trait Earnhardt said he sees in some of NASCAR’s younger drivers.
“These guys coming in, they’re really sharp and smart about how to utilize social media, how to engage with fans,” he said. “They’re not afraid to show their personalities.”
It’s also possible that Earnhardt’s retirement could provide a temporary boost to race tracks around the country. Another big track operator, Daytona Beach, Fla.-based International Speedway Corp., saw a slight uptick in its attendance revenue last year, which Jeff Gordon said would be his last before retirement.
While Dale Jr. has won more than two dozen races at NASCAR’s highest level, his father won seven overall championships at that same level. Dale Jr. has never won a single overall title.
“People will come out and see him drive into the sunset. They’ll hope he’s successful, too,” said McFall, the Wake Forest economist.
He cited the farewell game last year of Los Angeles Lakers great Kobe Bryant, who scored 60 points against the Utah Jazz.
“Maybe Junior will go out with a win, too,” McFall said.