Richard Rowell was raised rural. He embraced segregation, changed his mind, but not his identity. He is a Southerner. “A redneck,” he says.
He also is a race fan, and like others who love the sport, he has been saddened by NASCAR’s wandering eyes toward fresh audiences. He’s even suspected that the sport might be ashamed of its Southern roots.
Now, for the first time, he’s heard that confirmed.
Last Thursday, after a Capitol Hill news conference on his sport’s efforts toward diversity, NASCAR President Mike Helton told reporters, “We believe strongly that the old Southeastern redneck heritage that we had is no longer in existence.”
Mostly, though, it was the self-proclaimed rednecks who fired back.
“Believe me, if it weren’t for us rednecks, NASCAR would not be where it is today,” said Ruth Payne, a race fan for five decades from Greer, S.C. “NASCAR has become too commercialized for this redneck, so I will just keep my redneck butt home.”
NASCAR officials did not return calls this week. But Lowe’s Motor Speedway President H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler sympathized with Helton, whom he noted is from the hardly cosmopolitan town of Bristol, Tenn., and, Wheeler believes, didn’t intend to malign his own roots.
“They have to find a way for that (traditional) fan base to have a voice,” says David Carter, a sports industry consultant and head of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. “But there’s always this undercurrent of that fan base—a perception of it historically not being inclusive.
“The only way NASCAR becomes a bigger league is if they break down those barriers.”