NASCAR has a youth problem, could answer be younger drivers, relatable sponsors?

By Brendan Marks - The Charlotte Observer

Kyle Larson has a busy day ahead of him.

For now, he’s climbing out of his car and peeling off his navy fire suit in the back of the garage at Chip Ganassi Racing. Next up: The barber shop, then McDonald’s.

But none of those errands are by chance. On Tuesday, Larson is spending the day darting across Charlotte, N.C., to film a commercial for First Data, one of his sponsors.

“I don’t think I have any lines,” Larson chuckled. “That’s the way I’d prefer it.”

First Data is essentially a tech company that offers credit card processing services to businesses large and small. Or as Larson simplifies it, they help people pay for stuff.

How does that relate to Larson, a 25-year-old NASCAR driver who is second in the standings and one of the favorites to win this season’s Cup Series championship?

Actually it does on a number of fronts. For starters, First Data’s technology is something you might already use every day, especially if you’re tech-savvy like many young people.

The company has over 2,500 interactions per second. Their software is in phone applications for McDonalds, Panera Bread and Chick-fil-A, plus a number of mobile banking apps. Basically, if you’ve ordered a sandwich and paid for it on your phone, you can thank First Data.

That matters because First Data is the sort of sponsor young people, those adept with ever-changing technology and their phones, can relate to. It also matters that the company sponsors Larson, who is part of the demographic NASCAR is desperately trying to reach.

“Any sponsor you get is great, but I guess when it is shifted more toward a younger demographic, I definitely think that’s good for our sport,” Larson said. “Our sport, and every sport really, is in desperate need of getting younger generations, but especially ours.”

He’s right. NASCAR’s fan base has been shrinking in recent years, partly because of waning fan interest and partly because of changing national demographics. As of 2011, only 10 percent of NASCAR fans fell within the 18-24 age group, the smallest group of any age. Comparatively, 22 percent of fans were 45-54, the most of any age group. By 2015, that number shrank to nine percent for people 18-34.

To make matters worse, a 2017 study found that NASCAR’s average viewer is now 58 years old, up the most of any major sport since 2006.

The sport, unlike some others, has failed to convert younger generations into fans, and as a result, viewership is consistently down.

But that’s why it is so crucial, even if it may not appear so on the surface, that Larson is posing for these commercials and teaming with a technology sponsor. It represents another step from NASCAR, perhaps one of the more significant steps yet, to pull in those young fans.

All coming from a 25-year-old with realistic championship aspirations.

“The world is so technology-driven, and NASCAR is too, so I think it’s a good culmination,” Larson said. “I hope young fans that currently use all their stuff will notice it and maybe pay attention to our race car.”

Larson certainly isn’t the first driver to feature more millenial-friendly sponsors — he’s just the best young driver to do so.

The sport as a whole has attracted some sponsors that appeal more to younger generations. Microsoft is one of the league’s official sponsors, and this year NASCAR adopted Monster Energy as the sponsor for its top division, replacing Sprint.

Other young drivers have done their part, too. Daniel Suarez, also 25, has the telecommunications company Arris as one of his sponsors. The video game store Gamestop sponsored Erik Jones, 21, at times throughout this season.

Still, there is no Apple car, and no Xbox or Nike sponsorships to be seen. Larson said those are the types of brands, the ones that younger generations already have a strong affinity for, that will hopefully bring more 18-24 year-olds into the stands.

But those potential sponsors that appeal to younger fans also need younger drivers to represent them. Drivers such as Larson, successful at a young age, are just the start. If the sport is ever going to reverse the trajectory of its viewership, it’ll need more drivers in the same mold.

For now Larson doesn’t think about carrying the flag for young drivers, or about single-handedly shouldering the duty of attracting younger generations. Instead he’s focused on this weekend’s playoff race at Dover International Speedway and the rest of the season beyond that.

“I don’t really think too much about (trying to bring in younger fans),” Larson said. “If I’m out there in the front and winning races, then I think that’ll help.”


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By Brendan Marks

The Charlotte Observer