Indigestion over politics has always been a feature of the sports world, with recent high-profile examples such as the NFL’s national anthem protests or the ongoing NBA protests China controversy. But in cracking down on the “Let’s Go Brandon” phenomenon, NASCAR finds itself in a uniquely difficult position to grow its brand by embracing a die-hard, Red State fan base with more pronounced political traits than their counterparts. In its sound, fury, and absurdity, NASCAR’s “Let’s Go Brandon” issue has become a charged case study for anyone trying to broaden their appeal in our fragmented, now almost inherently partisan, media environment.
A bit of backstory: “Let’s Go Brandon” was born in October 2021 when the aforementioned young driver Brown won his first NASCAR event at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. While NBC sports reporter Kelli Stavast Brown was interviewing about the win, a raucous, probably less than sober, crowd chanted the original, vulgar epithet loud enough for the TV crew to pick it up loud and clear. In a nimble act of rhetorical liberty, presumably for the benefit of the friendly viewers at home, Stavast hinted that they were indeed chanting “Let’s go, Brandon,” and an enduring piece of reactionary sloganeering was born.
It may have wowed conservative activists and right-wing crowds across the country, but it wasn’t exactly a welcome development for Brown and NASCAR. “Our whole navigation is trying to appeal to everyone because, after all, everyone is a consumer,” Brown said in his interview with the in mid-December Just. “I have zero desire to get involved in politics.” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said in December, “We don’t want to associate with politics, neither with the left nor with the right,” and the league has “tremendous respect for that Office of the President, no matter who sits [in it].”
That may be true, but NASCAR has long been entwined with conservative politics. Its founder, Bill France Sr., ran the 1972 Democratic primary campaign of Alabama Governor, Alabama, Florida, George Wallace. In 2020, Donald Trump became the second seat president to attend the Daytona 500 after fellow Republican — and wealthy mainstream politics advocate — George W. Bush in 2004. A 2020 Morning Consult survey found that many NASCAR fans self-identify as Republicans. And most infamously, for decades, the Confederate flag flew proudly and countless times through NASCAR crowds, almost symbolic of the sport itself — or did, until NASCAR other highly explosive political controversy of recent years.
In 2015, NASCAR made an official “request” as part of its year-long effort to expand the sport’s fan base. his existing fans to stop flying the Confederate flag at events. After that didn’t seem to have enough impact, NASCAR turned the request into one imperative in the summer of 2020, amid protests over the death of George Floyd and a vocal call for it from Bubba Wallace, the sport’s only black driver nationally.
Racial tensions at NASCAR soon only grew more pronounced: Later in June, a member of Wallace’s team NASCAR reported finding a noose in Wallace’s garage, a potential hate crime. The incident quickly made national headlines and resulted in a notable event sign of solidarity as Wallace walked into the next day’s race surrounded by his fellow drivers and a crowd of fans, many of whom were wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts. The scene would have been completely unfathomable to Wallace’s fellow governor of the same name; After the race, the rider confidently told the media that “this sport is changing”.
Given NASCAR’s history, it was and remains an amazing scene. But it quickly got complicated and recycled into another piece of culture war fodder: An FBI investigation found that the “noose” in Wallace’s garage was actually a pull-down rope attached to a round handle that had been there long before the garage was assigned to Wallace, and that the driver was therefore conclusively not the victim of a hate crime.
As understandable as Wallace and his team’s concerns were, given NASCAR’s historically reactionary culture and the tenor of this particular moment, conservatives immediately seized upon the incident as an example of overblown racial hysteria fueled by liberals. “Did @BubbaWallace apologize to all the great NASCAR drivers and officials who came to his aid, stood by his side and were willing to sacrifice everything for him only to find out it was just another hoax?” Then-President Trump tweeted. “This & Flag decision has resulted in the lowest ratings ever!”
It was a clear example of the no-win position NASCAR finds itself in today: a moment of reaching out to the not-die-hards that was immediately soured by the bias-affirming incentives of the partisan media. Almost every form of public entertainment has, in recent years, weathered an ongoing, tendentious debate about the extent to which said cultural artifact has or has not “awakened”. The frequent implication of critics is that by catering to social justice-minded audiences or progressive social mores in the pursuit of revenue, those in power have betrayed the elements that once made such things great.
Certainly, there are numerous examples of such non-serious gestures. A record harvest of “anti-racist” children’s literature is clearly being sought more anxious adults as real children. The (unfairly trolled) female-centric Ghostbusters reboot that briefly became a culture war flashpoint? Actually not very good and quite self-serving. And has anyone, anywhere, with any life experience, asked for one? orange M&M with an anxiety disorder? But to reckon with the deeply understandable fears of a black driver in a professional league founded by a state leader in George Wallace’s presidential campaign — or refusing to pass massive (and increasingly diverse) Crowds, including families with young children, who chant “Fuck Joe Biden” every time a certain driver hits the track – are not part of a nefarious corporate conspiracy; they are simply attempts to reckon with the world as it is.
Which would be fine if there was more consensus about what this world actually looks like: The “Let’s Go Brandon” dilemma would be one of occasionally driving a bevy of drunk Yahoos off the circuit if those Yahoos weren’t primed by cable news, social The media and politicians themselves believe that it is in fact evidence of a society-wide conspiracy to eradicate political dissent. In reality, the ban on stopping Brown from adorning his car with the slogan that changed his life forever was based on nothing more than a financial prediction: that the survival of a sport started by a pro-segregation businessman , could best be secured by making him more racist. It’s a calculated move, but one that reflects their assessment of the world in general, not an attempt to construct it.
While Brown himself won’t be able to dress his Brandonbilt Motorsports chariot in Let’s Go Brandon Coin livery, his creators still plan to do so finance the operation. Like former President Trump after his Twitter ban or Rush Limbaugh’s successor Dan Bongino after his Banned from YouTube this week, the undesirable element will slip out of the institutional view, but will still be undeniably influential. The invisible sponsorship, the persistent resentment from fans to the flag ban, and even the obfuscation of the original vulgar vocals themselves, reflect the rupture in public space that has brought NASCAR to this moment in the first place: if America’s most extreme partisans are still mired in this painful moment of coexistence, the only apparent solution could be change is to keep them from looking at each other.