Struggling Nascar's Plan to Get Back in Gear

Aging red-state fans. Cars that have gotten too boring. How racing is trying to reinvent itself for a new generation-at 200 m.p.h.

Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

A pit crew loading a car at the NASCAR Michigan International Speedway, 44th Annual Pure Michigan 400, August 16, 2013.

ESPN is a repository for all kinds of sports — baseball, football and basketball, not to mention billiards, X Games, cheerleading, Frisbee, even soccer. But as of 2015, it will no longer carry NASCAR, perhaps the most God-and-country of all American sports. It wasn't that ESPN lost a bidding war with NBC, which bought the rights earlier this year for $4.4 billion to populate its new sports network. ESPN declined to bid at all. What was one of the hottest properties in U.S. sports a decade ago has become a loser for many networks as ratings fade, sponsors flee and ticket sales drop. Persistent unemployment, a slow wage recovery and high gas prices have thinned raceway crowds like the hair on a 47-year-old — the average age of a stock-car-racing fan.

NASCAR is hardly the only iconic American institution left reeling by the lingering economic downturn and demographic shifts. The decline of traditional households, a growing Hispanic population and tightfisted consumers have challenged companies from Walmart to Best Buy.

In many ways NASCAR finds itself becoming a sports analogue of the Republican Party: solidly popular in red states but with a declining base that skews old, white, Southern — and in NASCAR's case down-market. The question now is whether it's too late to attract the younger, more diverse audience NASCAR needs to grow.

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