NASCAR. It’s one of the most American forms of motorsport as they come. But, surprisingly, it’s a series that’s gained a sizeable cult following outside of North America in recent years. This is likely thanks to internet distribution making it easier than ever to watch racing, although it’s probably also got something to do with teams realising that there’s a big market outside of NASCAR’s traditional fare. Justin Marks and his Trackhouse Racing outfit have been prime exponents of that, inagurating the Project 91 initiative to bring in well-known drivers from outside NASCAR for a one-off joyride. Kimi Raikkonen participating in the project for his first race after his Formula 1 retirement really got overseas interest piqued! It looks like NASCAR has really paid attention to this, as there have been quite a few rumours that it’s looking at holding at least one Cup Series race per year outside of North America.
No amount of chatter, however, could have prepared us for this to show up though. In a chat about the potential for other middle eastern nations to host Formula E races in the future, Saudi Arabian Grand Prix organiser Carlo Boutagy let slip that NASCAR might be interested in coming to the kingdom! Speaking about the potential of the new Qiddya facility that’s being built, which will include an FIA Grade 1 racetrack capable of hosting Formula 1 and MotoGP, Boutagy said “I think even probably they’ll get NASCAR! They want to go, I’m hearing they want to go international as well. We’ll see.”
NASCAR coming to Saudi Arabia? The most American form of motorsport in the world, going to the heart of the middle east? That’s something that feels unthinkable even now, let alone a few years ago! But, it’s something that maybe shouldn’t be so surprising. Saudi Arabia is getting really gung-ho about having big events held in the kingdom. This especially extends to things that are very much European or American, such as Formula 1 and WWE. In some ways, it’s really not that big of a leap to expect a discussion to take place between NASCAR and Saudi Arabia over having at least one race per year at Qiddya.
Obviously, there’s the money aspect involved. The Saudis like to spend big to get these events on their soil. The 10 year deal they signed with WWE to have multiple shows per year in the kingdom is worth huge amounts of money to the American wrestling promotion. It’s likely the deal they have with Formula 1 is similarly lucrative for the series, too. Whilst Saudi Arabia likely wouldn’t pay out as much for NASCAR as they would for WWE or F1, it would still be an amount of money that NASCAR’s management would find hard to turn down.
Removing the obvious financial aspect of things, it’s not like the racing would exactly be bad either. If we know anything from NASCAR’s recent trips to the Circuit Of The Americas, it’s that the series can have really good racing on FIA Grade 1 circuits. If anything, I feel like it’s one of the most fun and exciting races NASCAR goes to every year! The amount of times you see drivers going four or five wide into the first corner and taking much looser consideration of track limits than Formula 1 or GT cars do makes it a unique spectacle that you don’t really see anywhere else. There’s no reason to suspect that NASCAR at Qiddya wouldn’t be just as exciting to watch as NASCAR at COTA.
We can’t talk about Saudi Arabia without talking about the issues that surround the state, though. Of course, a lot of fans will baulk at NASCAR even slightly thinking about going to the kingdom. We are all very well-aware of how socially conservative the country is, even compared to its neighbours. Gay rights and womens’ rights just, well, don’t exist over there. Anti-Semitism is also a problem, something which NASCAR has recently taken a public stand against. The state-sponsored murder of Jamal Khashoggi is still fresh in the public’s memory. The kingdom even has “religious police”, who are known to overly enforce Saudi Arabia’s strict and puritanical Islamic laws.
If NASCAR is to go to Saudi Arabia, it will have to take a leaf out of Formula 1’s book and deliver solid and consistent messaging at the event against bigotry and authoritarianism. They will need to allow prominent allies to show messages of solidarity, much like Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have done whenever Formula 1 has visited countries with less than stellar human rights records in the recent past. Otherwise, it’ll feel like NASCAR is completely selling out to a country that’s attempting to sportswash its problems.
So, could NASCAR take the big leap and not only do a race outside of America, but one that’s in Saudi Arabia? I genuinely think it could happen. The money would be almost too good to resist and the racing could be really great. There’s just that obvious fly in the ointment when it comes to Saudi Arabia’s human rights problems. But, if Formula 1 can navigate it in a way where it looks like they’re not completely selling out but at the same time doesn’t anger the government so much that it causes big problems, then NASCAR could accomplish the same thing. The only real way we’ll know if it’ll work is if it actually happens.