On a morning that started in the high 20s in Metro Atlanta, Atlanta Motor Speedway officials had to sigh. There would be no ticket voucher “Good Weather Guarantee” for the free Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 Pit Party in Norcross. But that worry subsided when fans showed up in force an hour before the 10 a.m. kickoff time Saturday.
The rap on NASCAR for the last 13 years has been the declining attendance and television ratings. The 2018 season’s returns didn’t turn around that notion. But events like Saturday’s show that potential for a comeback for the 71-year-old sport is a possibility.
QT, Coca-Cola, and AMS arranged a DJ, tons of giveaways, food samples, a driving simulator, a tall inflatable slide, face painting, and drivers Bubba Wallace and Daniel Suarez to sign autographs. This soiree on the corner of Jimmy Carter Boulevard and Brook Hollow Parkway, just west of I-85, drew in many passersby, sure. But it also pulsated on the calendars of the diehard north Georgia race fans, who had to choose between this party and the CRA Speedfest super late model race a couple hundred miles south in Cordele with Kyle Busch and Harrison Burton.
21-year-old Diego Castoneda took an almost two-hour bicycle ride from Lawrenceville, in the freezing cold, to be the first in line for driver autographs at 9:30.
"To have all these cultures in NASCAR is huge, because not many drivers get an opportunity in this sport," Castoneda said, when asked about the significance to him of having Suarez, a Mexico native, in NASCAR. He put Wallace’s autographed hero card in a trapper keeper notebook full of driver cards. "It's an honor to get every driver you can. You never know when they're going to be big or when they are going to retire. Some of these autographs are going to be valuable. For me, it's just an experience."
Castoneda was one of hundreds who waited in the long lines for, first, Wallace and then Suarez. He is the rare Generation Z NASCAR fan. He said his dad had him watching races from the age of eight and similarly had the goal of getting each driver’s signature.
The 25-year-old Wallace, NASCAR’s only black driver, got generational in his media session, noting that his “Young Guns” class has a certain understanding of and with fans.
"I think the younger generation coming up through is changing the game a little bit, giving the fans something more to latch onto,” though Wallace notes that this will take time, as he and his cohorts adapt to the highly competitive Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. “You've got the dominance from the older guys, obviously. But it takes seat time for us to get comfortable."
Wallace is a big believer in the power that social media has in engaging fans. He starred in a Facebook Watch documentary before his rookie season a year ago and is very active on Twitter and Instagram. "We try to do as much as we can with the fans. Me, personally, I love doing stuff like this and when it's in-market [in the same city as a NASCAR track], you go out to dinner and you run into fans. It's just all about being engaging with them."
Steve Letscher loves Wallace’s vibe. The white 47-year-old doesn’t stand out as the top candidate to have Wallace’s unbridled millennial persona as his favorite driver. But Letscher diverted a two-day drive from South Dakota to Charlotte, to arrive for the Wallace appearance. He had Wallace sign 10 diecasts, each of a different paint scheme from his rookie campaign.
"I got about an hour outside of Kansas City and it was pretty early in the afternoon and I thought that since I had so many cars for Bubba, that I could make it down here and get some signed from him.” Letscher blew off seeing a friend in Shreveport to come to Atlanta, after learning of Wallace’s Georgia appearance on his Twitter page. “So I decided at the very last minute to keep driving yesterday afternoon. I was up 15 hours yesterday. I stopped about a half hour north of Nashville last night at about midnight, got about three hours of sleep, got up, got a shower, got on the road, and got here at about 11:30." After the Pit Party, Letscher will further show his dedication by driving to Charlotte to hang with his buddies for a week at the NASCAR Hall of Fame ceremonies. He has about 1,600 diecast race cars in his basement, he says.
Letscher thinks that the key to outsiders getting passionate about drivers is the wheelmen’s personalities. Undoubtedly, fans in the last 15 years have complained of the lack of color drivers show. The likes of Wallace, Suarez, Ryan Blaney, Noah Gragson, and others are trying to bring that back.
Suarez, who just turned 27, is not necessarily high on the overall NASCAR popularity charts. But he begins his third Cup season with a large legion of Latin American fans, as he is the only full-time NASCAR driver from Mexico. Telemundo and Mundo Hispanico covered him at the event. And several hispanic fans circled behind Suarez with enthusiasm, as he spoke to the media.
"For me, as a Mexican driver in the United States...you're always missing something [not] racing at home. I used to race in Mexico for a long time and I was used to racing in front of my family and a lot of friends. That was a hell of an experience. I've been missing that for a while,” Suarez explained fluently in his second language. “Now, for the last few years in Cup, more people are getting to know myself and things I am doing in the sport. It feels so good to come back to places like here in Atlanta where there are a lot of Hispanic people and places like Texas, California, Phoenix - all these places. I say this a lot: I don't get to race at home, but these places feel like home. I'm just very happy to be here to spend a few hours with a lot of great friends and I look forward to getting back here in a month."
Suarez says he has a chance to attend Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta and just may do it. And, like Wallace, he loves chances to actually talk with fans. "It feels so good. I wish we were coming to Atlanta more often, instead of just once every year. It feels so good to be back and to spend some time with the fans. When I am in the racetrack, it is a little bit harder to have these 10 to 15 second conversations with the fans, because you are going. You don't have a lot of time to do this stuff; you have to drive the racecar and focus on that. I really enjoy times like these, where I am not thinking about the racecar, I'm not thinking about the race. I'm just thinking about having a good time with them and that's what it's all about.”
Fans at the Pit Party had a great time, young and old, dancing to top 40 and hip-hop music from the last few years. Lines for each attraction stretched dozens deep. There wasn’t one mullet or country song played - not that those aren’t a large part of the racing experience. This was a jumping, energetic event that never lulled and saw a large cross-section of age, color, class, and style.
Newly-minted AMS GM Brandon Hutchinson looked impressed, as did his deputies. But when I told VP of Marketing and Promotions, Dustin Bixby, I was surprised at the turnout, I was even more surprised with his answer.
“I’m not! I know Atlanta has a ton of race fans.”
Hutchinson’s and Bixby’s jobs over these next four weeks will be to get this fan base charged up enough to drive to Hampton for the race weekend. If Saturday served as any indicator, the tide may be turning.
The Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race highlights the February 22nd-24th race weekend with all three NASCAR national series in action at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Get tickets and learn more at AtlantaMotorSpeedway.com.