With two laps to go at Martinsville, drivers were racing not only each other but a sinking Virginia sun. If the light left, the race would end early. Screaming through the corners of the half-mile-long track, brake temperatures climbed well past the thousand-degree mark, and the rotors began to glow. Jeff Gordon led the way, and the crowd was on its feet. The early-November race was Gordon’s last at Martinsville Speedway, and another milestone in his twenty-third and final season on the Nascar circuit. While farewell tributes had been abundant throughout the year, wins had not: in thirty-two starts, he’d yet to be victorious. Each time he came up short, his shot at an elusive fifth championship grew more distant and his send-off more bittersweet.
Then Gordon rounded Turn Four at Martinsville for the final time, and fans squinted toward the finish line. “Did he.…?” one asked, nervously clutching her blue Gordon jacket. He did. It was win number ninety-three—Gordon is third on Nascar’s all-time wins list—and the celebration lasted well into the night. “One of my finest moments,” Gordon said afterward. With it, he took over as the winningest active driver at the track and set up a four-way championship battle at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which will unfold on Sunday. It’s the storybook finale that both he and Nascar were hoping for, and a bright spot for a sport that’s been watching its golden era slip away—an era that was largely built around Gordon.
It’s not that Nascar was struggling before he arrived. From its founding, in 1948, the organization rode personalities—war hero turned racecar driver Red Byron, “The Last American Hero” Junior Johnson, the great Richard Petty, Dale “The Intimidator“ Earnhardt—to steady commercial growth and a reliable fan base. Gordon, though, was different. “Nobody had ever done it like Jeff,” Marty Smith, a journalist who covers Nascar for ESPN, told me. “When Jeff came in, there was an older-guard feel. You had to earn the car.” Born and raised in California, then outside Indianapolis, Gordon didn’t have southern roots or a Nascar pedigree. But the owner Rick Hendrick took a risk on the twenty-one-year-old, and, Smith says, Gordon ended up with “great wheels right out of the box.”
When he crashed in his début—the 1992 Hooters 500, in Atlanta—people were quick to question the gamble. Too young, they said. But the sentiment didn’t last long. In 1993, Gordon won Rookie of the Year honors. In 1994, he won his first race. And by 1995 he was the sport’s youngest-ever cup champion. “Wonder Boy,” Earnhardt snickered. Playing along, Gordon toasted with milk instead of champagne at the awards ceremony, and went on to win three more championships in the next six years.
“He was young. He was handsome,” Smith enumerated. “He was a corporate American dream.” From Pepsi and Chevy ads to “Saturday Night Live,” Gordon and his rainbow-colored No. 24 car could be found in millions of American households. By the mid-aughts, the casually curious joined the Nascar faithful in the stands, and crowds soared to as many as two hundred and seventy thousand at Indianapolis one year. A record thirty-seven million people tuned in to the 2006 Daytona 500 on TV.
“It was nuts,” Carl Kemp said, sitting in his R.V. at Dover International Speedway, earlier this fall. Kemp has been coming here for eighteen years and usually sets up camp a week ahead of the race—always in lot ten, the “party lot.” It used to be so full, he said, that “they force-parked you. Backed you in and you were like sardines.” There were the “Dover Millionaires,” a group from Pennsylvania who came down in a school bus with a d.j., beer, and party beads. The tractor-trailer at the end of the lot was known to host a concert on Friday and Saturday nights. Most of the time, though, the fun was unpredictable. It just happened. “I wouldn’t go to bed,” Kemp remembers. “Afraid I’d miss something.” This year, Kemp said he had never seen the place so dead.
Part of the issue was a soggy mix of rain and wind that Kemp called duck weather. His flags—one American, one Confederate (with “Get ’er Done” printed across the front), and one Jeff Gordon—had been flapping wildly all week. But the weather only exacerbated a problem that Nascar has been battling for a few years now. “It ain’t nothing like it used to be,” Kemp said. His friend and camper neighbor Henry had tried to start his own party the night before, blaring ACDC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” out the side of his Ford pickup and turning the truck bed into a makeshift dance floor. None of the trickle of passers-by really joined in. They were in bed before midnight.
After years of growth, Nascar was perhaps due for an adjustment, or at least a plateau. Instead, there was a crash. “I think 2008 was a tough year for the sport,” Marty Smith said. The financial crisis was arguably the biggest blow. As fans watched incomes fall and gas prices climb, they were forced into tough choices about where to spend their money. Many decided that travelling to the race was a luxury. And Nascar made its own errors, too. Around that time, for instance, they introduced the “Car of Tomorrow.” Meant to address safety concerns, the next-generation racecar was universally maligned: drivers hated the way it handled, and fans rejected its boxy figure and generic appearance. Fans were increasingly frustrated by the league’s scoring system, too, which had been revised—and arguably made more confusing—in 2004. By 2013, the exodus got so bad that Nascar stopped releasing attendance figures and tracks began taking drastic measures.
“We got a thing in the mail saying you can’t have your seats,” Kemp said. From his new position, on Turn One (section 218, row 29), he pointed across the way to Turn Two, where he used to sit. “We knew them people for like ten years in a row, that we sit behind,” he said. “Now they’ve torn the seats out.” In the face of flagging attendance, the speedway cut capacity by about forty per cent in just five years. First, seat sizes grew from eighteen to twenty-two inches, and capacity dropped from a hundred and thirty-five thousand to a hundred and thirteen thousand. Then they started physically removing seats, including Kemp’s. Next season will open with eighty-five thousand seats. From Daytona, Florida, to Loudon, New Hampshire, and at most tracks in between, hundreds of thousands of seats have disappeared. And those that remain are proving hard to fill—by the 3 P.M. start time, Kemp had moved down the grandstand, skipping over three empty rows of bleachers. Now Gordon’s about to leave, too.
“[The] 24 and Gordon go together,“ Kemp said. The couch in his R.V. is covered in two decades’ worth of Jeff Gordon paraphernalia: scarfs, blankets, caps, beer koozies, the works. “You don’t jump ship,” he told me, more than once. It’s that kind of loyalty that Nascar is trying to rekindle. They retired the Car of Tomorrow in 2012, and last year they streamlined the point system into a play-off format. While neither Nascar nor the tracks release attendance figures anymore, other recent measures appear promising. Nascar says that its Web site has had more than a billion page views in each of the last two years. NBC and Fox have signed broadcast deals with Nascar worth $8.2 billion in the course of ten years (more than four times the value of the N.H.L.’s current deal). Still, Marty Smith of ESPN sees the sport as “treading water.”
Jeff Burton, a former driver and current NBC commentator, thinks that, to move forward, Nascar needs to “quit trying to be everything to everybody. If you don’t like it, that’s O.K.” He says that success has always been, and will continue to be, personality-driven. “It’s not that you’re watching that car go around the racetrack. You’re watching your driver drive that car,” he explains. “The tough thing for the fans is, who do I pull for?”
Gordon pioneered a youth movement that may yet help Nascar to recover. Drivers are entering the development pipeline earlier and earlier, giving Nascar more opportunities to cultivate the sport’s next big star. Perhaps Joey Logano or Kyle Larson, already top-flight regulars, will break into the mainstream. Or maybe Nascar’s first full-time Latino driver, Daniel Suárez, from Mexico, will broaden interest in the sport. There’s also Gordon’s successor in the No. 24 car, Chase Elliott, the nineteen-year-old son of the well-known racer Bill Elliott. Last year, Chase became the youngest-ever champion at Nascar’s lower level, and inheriting Gordon’s infrastructure should put him in contention at the top-tier next season.
For fans like Kemp, though, Gordon’s departure will leave a hole that will be hard to fill—even on days when he finishes twelfth. “That’s a bunch of shit,” Kemp grumbled, as lap four hundred at Dover wound down. Combined with the sub-fifty-degree weather, it was a two-beer kind of race. Usually the cooler’s empty. And next year, there will be even less to look forward to. “I do want to still come camping or whatever,” he said. The tentative plan is to keep his No. 24 gear and support Elliot, though maybe not every Sunday. “It won’t be the same. But I’ll make do of it, you know what I mean?”