NASCAR’s greatest challenge isn’t the graying of its fan base, America’s diminishing affection for the automobile or shattered attention spans. NASCAR’s biggest problem is that its most marketable assets — the drivers — have a disturbing tendency to, well, stop driving.
No team sport has this challenge. If you’re a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers, you can feel pretty confident that they’ll still be playing basketball five, 10, 20 years from now. If you’re a fan of Ohio State University, you know the entire football program isn’t going to shut down after several attempts at a title.
But in NASCAR, the checkered flag comes for every driver’s career. And if you’ve grown up a fan of Richard Petty, or Dale Earnhardt, or Jeff Gordon, or Tony Stewart, or Dale Earnhardt Jr., that career end — whether sudden or long-dreaded — can leave you adrift. It’s not easy to shift the bonds of fan affection from one driver to another, and NASCAR has spent untold hours and social media posts trying to make this new generation of drivers happen.
Now comes the sport’s biggest swing yet: “Full Speed,” a five-part Netflix series now airing and focusing on the 10-race playoffs from 2023. It’s an impressive, if familiar, achievement — substantial behind-the-scenes access, emotion on display, tension both in and between races. The antagonism is, for the most part, organic, and so is the drama. Had this series come out half a decade ago, it would be groundbreaking; at this point, it’s practically table stakes for any sport this side of the NFL.
Netflix’s original racing series, the Formula 1-focused “Drive To Survive,” looms large over “Full Speed.” Bubba Wallace even references DTS when he comes into a studio for his on-camera interview. “Is this the ‘Drive To Survive’ moment?” he asks when he sits down before a running camera, much like, yes, “Drive to Survive.”
The difference is that while “Drive to Survive” is a reality show with a veneer of competition, “Full Speed” is a competitive saga with elements of reality TV. But “Full Speed” lacks the worldwide scope of “DTS.” Cameras take you inside Denny Hamlin’s house, and yes, it’s a very nice house … but it ain’t a yacht off the coast of Monaco. The series travels from Daytona to Darlington to Martinsville to Phoenix, all notable NASCAR locations … but they’re not Monza or Spa or Baku.
NASCAR needs to forge connections between its current crop of drivers and its current (and future) fan base, and this is where “Full Speed” shines. After the requisite (and unnecessary) intro about how these guys are modern-day gladiators, risking their lives, et cetera, we get to see the spotlight drivers in their element, sometimes exulting, sometimes coping, sometimes cussing. (And no, there are no bleeps.) Tyler Reddick, Joey Logano, Ross Chastain, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney — each one gets a turn in the spotlight … which can reveal a whole lot about more of them than they might want.
Barely present, whether by design or circumstance: notable NASCAR veterans like Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and the retiring Kevin Harvick, which makes sense if you’re positioning this as a documentary pointing toward NASCAR’s future. Also not in the mix: Chase Elliott, NASCAR’s reigning Most Popular Driver, which may or may not be a huge loss given Elliott’s reticent on-camera personality. (“Drive To Survive” has done just fine without Max Verstappen front-and-center, for instance.) Other familiar characters step in and out of the narrative — wives, children, crew chiefs (Bootie Barker of Wallace's crew is a standout) and the odd Michael Jordan appearance or two.
Hamlin is the focus of the series — well, at least until he (spoiler) fails to make the final championship four — and it’s a wise choice, putting him at the center of the documentary. He’s as talented as anyone who’s ever wheeled a car; his 51 career victories rank 13th all-time, and only Petty and Cale Yarborough have more Daytona 500 wins. But he’s still lacking a championship, and he knows that’s a glowing neon asterisk floating above his head, his career, his life. He claims that he’d be fine without a title, but even a first-time viewer can see that for the defensive bluster it is. Hamlin’s combination of arrogance and insecurity, supreme talent and that hole in his resume, makes him the most fascinating driver in NASCAR, and one of the more compelling stories in sports right now. The anguish he feels at missing out on yet another title radiates through the screen.
And that’s the key to hooking anyone into NASCAR, newcomer or half-century-long veteran: the stories. The narratives that underlie each driver on the grid are what power this sport. They may not be as cinematic as Petty’s triumphs, as aw-shucks feel-good as Gordon’s, or as hell-yeah ass-kicking as Earnhardt’s, but they’re stories all the same, and the more NASCAR can figure ways to tell them effectively, the better off the sport will be.
Oh, and the sounds, too. Maybe it’s just that this documentary is hitting in the midst of a long, cold, NASCAR-free winter, but the sight of a colorful array of cars on track, the roar of engines that hits you in the chest before it hits your ears — that’s the feel that truly drives this sport. "Full Speed" has that deep in-your-gut rumble, and ought to be played on the loudest sound system available. Any medium that can capture that — documentary, movie, virtual-reality game, perfume, whatever — will always have itself a winner.