Motorsports in the United States are deeply rooted in our country’s history. Everything from the Indy 500 to NASCAR, muscle cars, V8 engines, and more are at the very heart of America’s automotive culture. While racing and cars, in general, can be seen as a universal language by enthusiasts all across the world, America’s chapter is a bit more unique.
The inception of NASCAR, our nation’s premier racing series, is rooted in a captivating history that echoes with the defiance of the past. Emerging from the illicit world of moonshiners during the Prohibition era, NASCAR’s origins tell a story of ingenuity and determination. In the early 20th century, these moonshiners faced the daunting challenge of outpacing law enforcement officials in pursuit of their clandestine liquor operations. To overcome this obstacle, they embarked on a quest to engineer cars that could master the treacherous backroads of the Southern United States. This pursuit led to the birth of stock car racing, where these moonshiners transformed their ordinary vehicles into powerful machines capable of navigating rugged terrains and evading the grasp of the law. This era not only laid the foundation for NASCAR but also showcased the resilience and resourcefulness of a community united by a common cause.
Drawing a poignant parallel to the struggles of a century ago, we stand on the precipice of yet another era of prohibition in 2023. Much like the moonshiners who defied the constraints of the Prohibition era, car enthusiasts today face their own set of challenges. The local car shows, which were once events where enthusiasts could gather and appreciate the sports cars and exotics that rolled through, have now become a target of scrutiny due to individuals’ careless and reckless behavior—burnouts, donuts, and even crashing into oncoming traffic or hitting pedestrians on the side of the road. As a result, towns and local law enforcement have closed their doors to emerging car shows, as the liability outweighs the potential economic benefit of so many people gathered in a local shopping area. Likewise, the unlawful street takeovers in major American cities cast a shadow on the car community in general, despite the lack of direct involvement or connection to these events.
Consequently, despite car culture continuing to progress in the 2020s, there’s been a clear indicator that the bad press surrounding car enthusiasts has created a new form of an underground car community that’s going to the race track, whether as spectators or participants. This is also reshaping the approach automotive content creators have when posting on social media or on YouTube. There’s been a growing trend of YouTubers such as Adam LZ, TJ Hunt, Gears & Gasoline, and Rob Dahm who are increasingly becoming more involved at the race track than they were 5-10 years ago through GridLife, Drifting, and other track events. There is no coincidence that all of this coincides with YouTube cracking down on content creators who promote street takeovers or anything deemed unsafe by the platform, which is forcing people who once posted edgy content that could be seen as breaking the law to now evolve into Motorsports.
Simultaneously, the rise of racing simulators such as Gran Turismo, Assetto Corsa, and iRacing has exploded in popularity, with a little help from COVID back in 2020 when people were forced to stay home. With all the attention now focused on organized race series, the general public’s interest in F1, WEC, IMSA, and GT World Challenge is not only on the rise, but we’re also experiencing a new renaissance and appreciation for circuit racing that hasn’t been seen in over 50 years.
It was reported earlier in August at Road America that IMSA broke an all-time attendance record that was set back in 1979. While you could argue that this is due to residual effects from F1 becoming popular in the United States, Motorsport is clearly becoming a pastime for both those who view it and those who take part in it. Another track that’s become home to many in recent years is Lime Rock, where for the 2nd consecutive year they had record-breaking crowds when IMSA came to New England.
Even on a local level, you now encounter more enthusiasts and car photographers who split their time between car shows and the race track. For myself, the number of friends who attend a track day has steadily increased in the last few years. While perhaps we’re all getting older and our interests in cars are evolving, there could be a connection between members of the car community getting frustrated with the tightening restrictions surrounding shows and meets.
What I’ve learned to appreciate about Motorsport and spending a weekend at a track is that the full experience completely outweighs pulling into a car show. Every one of your senses is engaged. You hear the sound of the engines as the cars pass you by, but you also feel it in your soul, smell the racing fuel, and witness some of the world’s best drivers maneuver their cars in ways we can only dream of. While meeting up with great friends at your local Cars & Coffee and getting an up-close encounter with your favorite sports car is a perfect way to spend a Saturday or Sunday morning, the current trajectory of where car culture is today could signal the final days of a pastime unless we see a major reversal.
It’s for that reason that as we live through a new era of Prohibition, we’re watching a new generation of moonshiners clear the path for the 2nd wave of American motorsport enthusiasm that far exceeds NASCAR, Indycar, or even F1. There’s a grassroots movement of millennials and zoomers who work on their cars, understand the mechanical intricacies, and work on their skills both in the paddock and on the track. While old-timers may voice their opinions of doom and gloom and question what went wrong with the younger generations, we’re all a part of a special time in car culture that won’t be truly appreciated until all of us, like our predecessors before us, are no more.