NASCAR: Where did all the human drivers go?

Why does NASCAR insist on its drivers being robots in interviews nowadays? Let’s take a look at what has changed over the years.

If you saw the ending of the 2021 Daytona 500, you saw the #34 Ford of race winner Michael McDowell catch Brad Keselowski’s #2 Ford and send it into Joey Logano’s #22 Ford. To some, this was as close to an early NASCAR Christmas present as possible.

McDowell’s little maneuver caused a massive collision, creating a horrific last lap fiery battle royale that amazingly everyone walked away from.

Yet in post-race interviews, no one blamed or complained about McDowell. The only way you would have known that it bothered anyone was via Keselowski’s radio call to his team, saying “He wrecked me for the win, the SOB!”

I watched in amazement and disappointment.

Whatever happened to tirades? Where is Tony Stewart saying he is going to “bust his ass”? Why wasn’t Keselowski saying “McDowell is an ass” like he did with Kyle Busch at Bristol Motor Speedway many years ago? No flying helmets? No pit crew fights? Wasn’t this act worthy of any of the above? Why are all the drivers so…nice?

There is no doubt that the drivers are told to tone down their post-race rants, but they’ve honestly been neutered. It is likely driven by sponsors; after all, the drivers are on camera with their logos emblazoned across their chests, along with their colors and a matching hat.

The problem is, to fans, these docile and downright polite interviews come across as terribly inauthentic. And people might actually like the product more if they like the driver wearing the logo more.

An inconvenient fact about NASCAR is that winning matters. Personality puts butts in the seats. And this has been a problem for awhile.

Personalities have always driven the sport. People still revere Dale Earnhardt, more than 20 years after his passing, and many can probably recite many of his sometimes homespun quips, such as the infamous “rattle his cage” line. They remember the “pass in the grass” and the 1998 Daytona 500 win and the Bristol Night Race win — really, all of it combined.

Three-time Cup Series champion and 2020 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Tony Stewart provided endless entertainment with his real and honest ranting. It got him in trouble sometimes, but he delighted his fans when he told it like it was, as much as when he was actually on the track.

The lack of empathy and “fighting” even drove Stewart to speak out on the topic in 2019, calling it “embarrassing”.  Stewart, despite having a long history of altercations, endeared himself to fans by being himself, even if some of his tirades featured NSFW language. People actually like “real” drivers, not corporate robots.

NASCAR, for its part, committed this sudden about-face on altercations at some point in the last decade.

Ironically, the sport celebrates the fight seen around the country at the end of the Daytona 500 in 1979, the fight which is frequently referred to as the turning point of the sport’s national exposure.

Why?

Because people saw Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough duking it out in the muddy grass after wrecking out. Hopefully most will also remember Richard Petty won the race, but any time that race is mentioned, its not the checkered flag that is shown; it’s those two fighting.

NASCAR consistently capitalizes on it, and it’s referred to as people gravitating towards their “passion and disappointment”, so strong that it drove them to fisticuffs.

So do people now not want to see people react honestly out of “passion and disappointment”?

What will today’s fans remember? The time that Brad Keselowski was so incensed at being wrecked at the end of the 2021 Daytona 500 that the most emotion he could muster was pursed lips as he told a reporter “these things happen”?

Alternatively, on the kinder end of the spectrum, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in the 2021 Hall of Fame class despite winning no championships, in large part due to his personality as well — just as influential, but nicer.

He continues to mean a lot to the sport, although his lasting contribution is being the face of the sport for so many years when there wasn’t one.

NASCAR is a business and they are obsessed with expanding the sport’s fan base. They try different things such as adding road courses, making the Bristol Motor Speedway spring race a dirt race, going to new cities and incorporating more minorities in broadcast segments as well as on the track to further widen the appeal.

Regardless of background, new NASCAR fans want to see what all the fuss is about. They obviously know at least some NASCAR history and will probably stick around longer if they get to experience some of it.

Whoever is advising NASCAR about what fans want to see really needs to find a new job. All sports are full of these kinder and nicer competitions. Look around; their viewership is down too. NASCAR can fill that void.

The aesthetic changes are all well and nice, but if NASCAR wants to really become “must-see TV” again, they need to take the reigns off and let these drivers tell it like it is (WITHOUT slurs) so people can see who they really are.

This, in turn, will help generate something this sport, and really all sports in general, have been missing, for years: real, honest, knock-down drag-out feuds. Feuds that boil peoples’ blood. Feuds that make people go to the track to yell at a driver in person, to spend money at the concession stands, to buy souvenirs, etc. See where I’m going with this?

Personalities and real passion put this sport on the map initially. They can do the same again if NASCAR can get out of the way and get this thing started!