Indigestion over politics has always been a feature of the sports world, with recent, high-profile examples like the NFL’s national anthem protests or the NBA’s ongoing China controversy. But in taking a hard line against the “Let’s Go Brandon” phenomenon, NASCAR finds itself in the uniquely tricky position of trying to grow its brand by defying a die-hard, red-state fanbase with more pronounced political characteristics than its counterparts. In its sound, fury and absurdity, NASCAR’s “Let’s Go Brandon” problem has become a supercharged 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 interviewed Brown about the win, a rowdy, likely-less-than-sober crowd chanted the original, vulgar epithet loud enough for the television crew to pick up loud and clear. In a nimble act of rhetorical license, presumably for the benefit of the gentle viewers at home, Stavast suggested they were, in fact, chanting “Let’s go, Brandon,” and an enduring piece of reactionary sloganeering was born.
It might have thrilled conservative activists and right-leaning arena crowds across the country, but was not exactly a welcome development for Brown and NASCAR. “Our whole navigation is, you want to appeal to everybody, because, all in all, everybody is a consumer,” Brown said in his mid-December interview with the Times. “I have zero desire to be involved in politics.” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said in December that “We do not want to associate ourselves with politics, the left or the right,” and that the league had “tremendous respect for the office of the president no matter who is sitting [in it].”
Which may be true, but NASCAR has long been entwined with conservative politics. Its founder, Bill France Sr., chaired the pro-segregation Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s 1972 Democratic primary campaign in Florida. In 2020, Donald Trump became the second sitting president to attend the Daytona 500, after his fellow Republican — and fellow moneyed champion of average-joe politics — George W. Bush in 2004. A 2020 Morning Consult poll found that a large plurality of NASCAR fans self-identify as Republicans. And, most notoriously, for decades the Confederate flag flew proudly and innumerably through NASCAR crowds, almost symbolic of the sport itself — or it did, until NASCAR’s other highly-charged political controversy of the past few years.
In 2015, as part of a yearslong effort to broaden the sport’s fanbase, NASCAR made an official “request” for its existing fans to stop flying the Confederate flag at events. This having apparently not made enough of an impact, NASCAR turned the request into an imperative during the summer of 2020, amid protests over the death of George Floyd and an explicit call to do so from Bubba Wallace, the sport’s lone Black driver at the national level.
NASCAR’s racial tensions soon became only more pronounced: Later that June, a member of Wallace’s team reported to NASCAR that he found what he identified as a noose in Wallace’s garage, a potential hate crime. The incident quickly made national news, leading to a remarkable display of solidarity as Wallace walked out to the next day’s race surrounded by his fellow drivers and a throng of fans, many wearing “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts. The scene would have been totally inscrutable to Wallace’s gubernatorial counterpart of the same name; after the race, the driver told media confidently that “this sport is changing.”
Given NASCAR’s history it was, and remains, an astonishing scene. But it was quickly complicated, and recycled into yet another piece of culture-war fodder: An FBI investigation found that the “noose” in Wallace’s garage was, in fact, a pull-down rope tied into a circular 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 fears were given NASCAR’s historically reactionary culture and the tenor of that particular moment, conservatives seized immediately on the incident as an example of overwrought, liberal-engendered racial hysteria. “Has @BubbaWallace apologized to all of those great NASCAR drivers & officials who came to his aid, stood by his side, & were willing to sacrifice everything for him, only to find out that the whole thing was just another HOAX?” then-President Trump tweeted. “That & Flag decision has caused lowest ratings EVER!”
It was a pointed example of the no-win position in which NASCAR finds itself today: A moment of outreach to the non-die-hards, immediately turned sour by the bias-confirming incentives of partisan media. Nearly every form of public entertainment has weathered an ongoing, tendentious debate in recent years over the extent to which said cultural artifact has or has not “gone woke.” The frequent implication from critics is that in pandering to social justice-minded audiences or progressive social mores in the pursuit of chasing revenue, the powers that be have betrayed the elements that once made such things great.
To be sure, there are numerous examples of such less-than-earnest gestures. A bumper crop of “antiracist” children’s literature is clearly aimed more at anxious adults than actual children. The (unfairly-trolled) women-centric “Ghostbusters” reboot that briefly became a culture-war flashpoint? Actually not very good, and quite self-serving. And was anyone, anywhere, of any life experience, asking for an orange M&M with an anxiety disorder? But reckoning with the deeply understandable anxieties of a Black driver in a professional league founded by a state chairman of George Wallace’s presidential campaign — or declining to invite massive (and increasingly diverse) crowds, ones that include families with young children, to chant “Fuck Joe Biden” any time a particular driver hits the track — aren’t part of a nefarious corporate conspiracy; they’re simply attempts to reckon with the world as it is.
Which would be fine if there were more consensus around what that world actually looks like: The “Let’s Go Brandon” dilemma would be one of occasionally expelling a gaggle of inebriated yahoos from the racetrack, if said yahoos weren’t primed by cable news, social media, and politicians themselves to believe that it was actually proof of a society-wide conspiracy to eliminate political dissent. In reality, barring Brown from emblazoning 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 founded by a segregation-sympathetic businessman could be best ensured by making it more racially inclusive. It’s a calculated move, but one that reflects their assessment of the world at large, not an attempt to engineer it.
As for Brown himself, although he won’t be able to drape his Brandonbilt Motorsports chariot in “Let’s Go Brandon Coin” livery, its creators are still planning to fund the operation. Like the former President Trump after his Twitter ban, or Rush Limbaugh successor Dan Bongino after his ban this week from YouTube, the undesirable element will be out of institutional sight, but still undeniably influential. The invisible sponsorship, the lingering resentment of fans toward the flag ban and even the concealment of the vulgar original chant itself all reflect the fracturing of the public square that led NASCAR to this moment in the first place: If America’s most extreme partisans are still stuck living together in this painful moment of change, the only apparent solution might be keeping them from having to look at each other.