In its modern era the argument could be made that NASCAR was at its most popular around 2006. It wasn’t unusual to see all sort of NASCAR themes in the mainstream: cardboard driver standups in the supermarket aisle, NASCAR themed displays in department stores, and TV commercials featuring drivers hawking all sort of products on all the networks.
After the Great Recession however, interest in NASCAR fell, and sadly, like a lot of industries fell hard. Empty seats at racetracks became commonplace, TV ratings plummeted, and sponsors closed their checkbooks. However, there’s been somewhat of a resurgence of popularity in the sport, especially in the last year or so as NASCAR led the way in professional sports returning to the track despite a global pandemic. The sport also dealt with social issues away from the track.
One of the more visible faces of this upward trend in popularity has been driver Bubba Wallace. Wallace, currently the NASCAR Cup series lone Black driver, became the face of change in the sport as NASCAR began to reconcile its past. The past of a sport born in the South that included Confederate flags and a great deal of racism.
Few could argue that NASCAR hasn’t done a good job with that reconciliation and that Wallace has helped lead that change. His efforts, along with NASCARs, attracted NFL players and NBA legends into team ownership, and fans of color to the seats. There was also another benefit for Wallace: sponsors both old and new to the sport, have lent their support to Wallace, and others.
When Wallace was announced as driver of the No. 23 for 23XI Racing, a new team co-owned by Denny Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan, it was announced that several “founding partners” had signed up for sponsorship.
Some had been in NASCAR before, like McDonaldsMCD0.0%, others were committing to NASCAR sponsorship for the first time, like Root Insurance. There was a total of five sponsors for the 23XI team. That meant that unlike his past years, Wallace has been a very busy guy meeting all his obligations both on and off the track.
“This year has definitely been busy on a more structured schedule, which I'm not really a fan of,” Wallace said with a smile. “You know, me, I'm more of just a go with the flow guy, but it's part of it. That's what it takes to be successful. Make everybody happy, make your partners happy and continue those relationships. That’s what it’s about.”
Having to juggle all those sponsors and their commitments, however, is a good problem to have. And Wallace doesn’t mind a bit.
“That goes a long way to show them that they're committed and that they're willing to stand behind us on the racetrack and off the racetrack,” Wallace said. “So, we'll do everything we can for them and continue to grow together.”
That growth may be leading to a resurgence of popularity for NASCAR as evidenced by its appearance back into the media mainstream. One of 23XI Racing’s founding partners, DoorDash, a home delivery service, and PetSmart announced a partnership in June. As part of the campaign, a series of commercials featuring Wallace have been placed in markets, and in TV programs, that have nothing to do with racing. And these ads star, not Bubba Wallace the NASCAR driver, but Bubba Wallace the dog dad. In fact, NASCAR isn’t event mentioned.
The real star of the ads is Wallace’s dog Asher. Wallace said the toughest thing during filming was getting his dog to act.
“I think that was the hardest for the producers because they were trying to get him to smile and look left and right,” Wallace said chuckling. “And I'm like, ‘Hey man, he's a dog at the end of the day’. And so that was probably the hardest thing, but super cool.”
After spending years catering to sponsors filming commercials and the like, Wallace said it was a nice change to do something different. Perhaps more importantly, it shows that NASCAR’s popularity is on the rise again, and consumers will see more of the sport in the mainstream. For Wallace, and other drivers, it’s a chance to do something different, something beyond simply wearing a firesuit and standing next to a racecar.
“That's the personal side of things,” Wallace said. “And showing how we can grow together off the racetrack and grow personal is super cool.”
That growth could be just getting started. NASCAR may soon be seen back in the mainstream where it once was with sponsors opening their checkbooks. It might not be long before consumers see a Bubba Wallace cardboard standup in the supermarket aisle, or perhaps even one featuring his dog Asher.
“Asher's a superstar,” Wallace said. “We're just living in his world.”