Dismissing `Southeastern rednecks’ raises ire

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."

The comment kicked up a storm from Southern racing fans, some of whom wondered if NASCAR had finally crossed a threshold — from taking its devotees for granted to publicly being embarrassed by them.

It’s a new strain of the old tension between corporate NASCAR and its working-class fan base. And with the 2006 season beginning this week, it’s an illustration of the sensitivities the sport still navigates nearly seven years after announcing a significant diversity effort.

Helton also managed the difficult feat of annoying several unintended targets, from Southern fans who don’t like the redneck label — "Please do not stereotype all of us," said James Roland of Florence, S.C. — to people who wonder if he has been attending many of his sport’s events lately. "Maybe out West they tone it down a bit," said Rock Hill’s Harry Williams. "But when they’re racing in Dixie, the track is slam full of rednecks."

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.

But Wheeler, the man who runs one of the Southeast’s premier tracks, finds himself in the middle of NASCAR’s tug between suits and jeans. Southern fans still bemoan North Wilkesboro and Rockingham losing their NASCAR dates, and Wheeler hears regularly from fans who worry that the sport has gotten too "fancy."

In some ways, he says, it has. "But as many people that try to take (the sport) away from this core, there are enough of us who are going to keep it."

NASCAR is clearly healthy with an audience of 75 million, and the Southeast is still the sport’s most faithful supporter — eight of NASCAR’s top 10 TV ratings markets last year were here.

Such tension about growth is similar to most sports — most recently hockey — that have made the transition from regional fan base to nationwide audience. But NASCAR is unusual in that as it grows, it faces issues about diversity long after society has generally accepted integration.

"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."

How to do that without alienating longtime fans?

"There’s no answer on striking that balance," Carter said.

Wheeler said the sport already is on its way. Although Confederate flags still fly at many races, he believes NASCAR’s newer generation of fans have grown up in — and are more accepting of — an integrated society.

More worrisome, perhaps, is another product of the new NASCAR — that blue-collar fans are having more difficulty finding drivers with whom they can identify. "I don’t think we have a working man’s driver," Wheeler said. "I hope one comes along soon, because we need that."

Richard Rowell agrees. He grew up a block from the Earnhardt home in Kannapolis. But since Dale Sr. died at Daytona five years ago, Rowell has no one like the Pearsons and Pettys — rednecks he recognized in himself — to cheer. It’s the surest sign of how much the sport has changed.

"I think a lot of people are like me," he said. "I’m just not as big a fan as I used to be."

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