The cure to what’s ailing NASCAR: A hipster revolution? – Yahoo Sports

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — A couple years back Dale Earnhardt Jr. went to Terminal West, an old foundry turned mid-sized concert venue in Atlanta, to see a band that had caught his attention. Lord Huron had popped up on his Twenty One Pilots Pandora station and Junior was hooked by the Los Angeles-based indie folk music.

Earnhardt had met someone close to the band, so after the show he was ushered backstage to meet the musicians.

“Swell guy,” front man Ben Schneider told Yahoo Sports via email. “Though we don’t know much about NASCAR.”

To Earnhardt, this was perfect. He’s lived his life in a spotlight, fawned over by everyone from common fans to massive celebrities. If this had been a country concert, he would have been hauled up on stage to cheering fans. Here, among the hipsters watching a rising band, no one recognized him. He was nobody.

“Just another guy back stage,” Earnhardt said with a laugh. “They couldn’t care less about racing. I don’t want them to. It’s fun for me to be a fan. I want to be a fan. It’s more enjoyment for me that they don’t know anything about it, don’t know anything about racing.”

For Earnhardt there is a bigger message to the story. NASCAR is again in transition and as Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500 approaches, discussion has centered around sagging attendance, television ratings and an aging of recognizable stars.

Earnhardt, 42, is one of them. Reigning champion Jimmie Johnson is 41. Kevin Harvick is 41. Matt Kenseth is 44. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards all retired over the past year.

Kyle Larsen, left, Ryan Blaney, middle, and Chase Elliott are the future stars of NASCAR. (AP)Kyle Larsen, left, Ryan Blaney, middle, and Chase Elliott are the future stars of NASCAR. (AP)

There is a school of thought that when those guys go, the fans go, an inescapable spiral of decreasing popularity and relevance. New, and younger, drivers will win (someone has to win) but it won’t be the same.

Earnhardt sees it differently and he points to hanging out at Lord Huron concerts as a small, but telling, bit of proof that everyone should relax. The combination of a new generation of drivers and their ability to convey their unexpected personalities and interests via social media could push NASCAR toward a boom time, as more people realize that this isn’t the homogenous, Southern-only, country-croonin’ sport they think it is.

“It ain’t that way any more,” Earnhardt said.

Many consider Junior the poster boy for old-school NASCAR. He’s actually not. He’s far more of a hipster than good old boy. His music taste? There’s Lord Huron, of course, and The Dangerous Summer, a rock band so obscure they broke up in 2014. Then there’s Matthew Good, a Canadian rocker, and Twenty One Pilots, semi-Emo rock band. While he says he’ll listen to any good song, from Taylor Swift to Barry Manilow, one genre is noticeably absent: country music.

“I grew up on country,” Earnhardt said. “I love ’70s country. My favorite song of all time is ‘Rose Color Glasses’ by John Conlee. But I just love music and I love learning new things. Man, when you find a band, like when I found Dangerous Summer, I found them late. They were already busted up when I found them. But when you find them and they have six, seven, eight songs you like, it’s really cool.”

So here is the tenet of Earnhardt’s faith. If he isn’t everything that people think he is, and he actually has broader interests and potential appeal, and if he, in his 40s and in his 18th season in NASCAR, with the most famous name in the sport, can have so much in common with some Brooklyn millennial, then imagine what all the new, young guys are like? And, more importantly, who they can reach and who they can draw in?

He points out that among current Cup level drivers, only he and the Dillon brothers, Austin and Ty, were born in North Carolina. The arrival of Californian Jeff Gordon in 1992 nationalized the sport and now the driver backgrounds reflect that. In fact, California will be the most represented state in Sunday’s Daytona 500. While NASCAR has found racial diversity among drivers elusive, on this, it’s been achieved.

Through modern social media, he believes they can reach their own communities and draw interest in their sport. You no longer need to read a Carolina newspaper or tune into Race Hub to learn about NASCAR. You might find out more about a driver than just their preferred tire pressure.

You might just see a guy clowning around on Snapchat and think he’s cool.

“It is going to take awhile but it’s going to come to the surface through social media,” Earnhardt said. “These young guys, their use of social media, even though we do a good job, they are doing it on a different level and they love doing it.

“They’re going to reach that demographic that we’re missing right now, that we are having a hard time targeting,” Earnhardt continued. “I’m not worried about the downturn in attendance and all that stuff because we have a good crop of young guys coming in. They are going to reach these new fans because they know where they are at. They are on Twitter and on Snapchat and what the hell ever else.

“And that’s how they communicate. People aren’t watching races in front of the TV anymore. These guys have a different style, they have different tastes and it’s going to look way more like the rest of America than NASCARs southern roots did.”

Maybe it’s 23-year-old Bubba Wallace posting video on social media of himself drumming to what Earnhardt calls, “hard, hard ass metal.” Or maybe it’s 23-year-old Ryan Bailey appearing on Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live.” Or maybe it’s 21-year-old Chase Elliott showing off his wakeboarding skills on Instagram.

“That tells me that these young guys have an audience and that audience is the one that we are missing right now,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t have a problem reaching the core fan or the fan that is 60 years old and has been around forever. They know me real good. I’m 42 and at some point I’m not going to be able to get these 20-year-olds to tune in and watch. Ryan Blaney can.

“We can get in those places where we’ve had trouble. Get in front of those eyeballs,” Earnhardt continued. “Those guys are doing it by being themselves. They do funny [stuff] on social media and goof off and make fun of themselves and are self-deprecating and have a lot of qualities that fans enjoy.”

Do young, diverse interests matter? Can social media and its ability to reach fans not looking for NASCAR content expand audiences? Can it stave off NASCAR’s concern about the future?

“We all think it’s very cool that he’s a fan and that he talks about us and we’re fans of him, too,” Ben Schneider of Lord Huron said.

So there’s one, a cool band with an eye at least a little bit on racing.

Perhaps Earnhardt has a point.

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