Racing T-Shirts: A Connection Across the Catchfence

No matter what brand of auto racing you most support, there’s one common thread that keeps driver, sponsor, and fan connected throughout the whole experience: merchandise. It might sound cold and impersonal, but support through the buying and selling of consumer goods is a surprisingly warm experience for all parties involved when it comes to racing. Diecast models, bumper stickers, can-koozies, there’s a bounty of great merch out there to be had, but one particular product that stands out above the rest. In the land of racer goodies, the t-shirt reigns as king. A driver’s t-shirt communicates a lot about their team and their operations when presented and sold to fans, and as fans there’s no more significant direct support they can give than putting cash in hand and sporting the team’s colors at their favorite racetrack. But what does a fan most look for in a racing shirt? What does it mean to them to buy and/or wear one? For the racers, is this financially beneficial or is it chasing something more precious? Oh and of course, how do those oft-roistered pit lizards work into the mix? Looking at my drawers and boxes full of shirts left me with more questions than I could comfortably let stand aside. I reached out to all corners of the racing community to learn a little more about this important aspect of the racing experience asking one singular question:

Just what do these shirts mean to us?

Fans shopping for merch at Fonda Speedway. Photo Credit: Dylan Friebel

From the most basic entry level divisions of short track racing to full-time professional empires, t-shirt sales make up a portion of each and every racing event’s proceedings. Some with dedicated merchandise trailers as big as the rigs that haul the cars, some selling out of the back of their pit boxes, some using spouses armed with rolling peddler cases near the grandstands, and even some with no more than a box and a mailing address. No matter the logistics, most every driver has something cooking when it comes to shirt sales at one point or another. But what makes this such a common ritual? Back when I was interviewing Pennsylvania Dirt Modified racing’s John Willman, when asked about what type of fan support would most benefit a driver, his first answer was to t-shirt sales. “If they have shirts for sale, buy em’ up!” While every single dollar matters in racing, apparel sales aren’t large enough to be considered a windfall, or even all that profitable. Greg Reed, an up-and-coming sportsman modified driver from Delaware hits us with some hard facts. “It’s a tough call really. You end up giving a lot of it away. So, if you’re not a big name driver you kinda have to hope to break even. At most you’re making $5-$7 on each item you sell.” If we’re only talking at best a 2-for-$5 meal at Burger King on a shirt sale, why do teams try so hard to grind for it? Reed continues, “the main thing is that it helps get your name and your sponsor’s name out there…plus let’s face it, we all love seeing people wearing our merch!”

Bobbi Rhodus: “Miss Lake Cumberland Speedway” Photo Credit: SCOTTY NITRO

The fan relationship was the most common feedback I received when talking to drivers. One such fan outreach specialist that’s provided a great deal of information on this topic is Kentucky’s Bobbi Rhodus. Employed as “Miss Lake Cumberland Speedway” of Burnside, KY, Rhodus’ chief responsibility is helping to bridge the gap between competitor and fan for an enjoyable track experience. What, in decades past, may have been viewed as a mere beauty queen role, 21st Century “Miss Speedways” work closely with fans, teams, and of course the track itself in multiple aspects of the business. To that point, Rhodus has a great deal of firsthand knowledge about what it means to sell, and also what it means to buy racing t-shirts. One of the tougher parts of the role however is abstaining from favoritism, which means less opportunity for Rhodus herself to act as a fan.

Despite being offered free merch to wear on a promotional basis, there’s a greater desire to provide the support back to the driver. “I never feel like I can take from [race teams] without offering them at least something, because I know what’s behind it. If a store was selling a shirt for $10, I would happily pay $25 just to support the sport I love and appreciate.” She further confirms the tepid strength of the financials for race teams. “A shirt typically costs around $10-$15, and sold for around $20-$25, definitely tough to profit from sales. Even if you do it with a huge volume, you’d have to pay people to work those sales. In my opinion it’s not only for profit but for support. I know several drivers who have given away shirts to fans just because it would put a smile on the fan’s face.” Some may even be up to operate at a small loss if it means positive PR. Rhodus continues, “I know a couple drivers that would have $100 worth of merch, sell it for $50, but to see a group of people supporting their name makes them feel good.”

Twitter user and race fan Pippa @start_yr_engine

Naturally, the fans are the primary reason for this entire exercise. As they spend the money, their tastes and interests drive the t-shirt economy. What does a fan most like in a shirt design? For this race fan, I like a minimal design. Something small like a logo or number on the front, either on the chest or breast pocket area. The back can be a little “louder” but the main idea for me is to have a shirt I can wear to other places besides a race track. Moreover, if I like the design, I might order a shirt even if I’ve never even seen the driver race 3000 miles away. I took this question to the community and received quite the varied response.

But just like in my little anecdote, there’s more to shirt purchasing than showing pride for a driver. Most people are aware of the support the shirt purchase provides, and the relationship of fan and driver are made stronger through this whole thing. Still, while this wholesome examination warms my heart, for a certain brand of folks in and around the racing community….we’re just talking about sex, man.

Pit Lizards. Love them or hate them, we’ve proven here before that they do indeed exist on a universal scale, and they are an equally uncomfortable and fascinating part of the racing experience. My only question this time, do pit lizards buy and wear racing t-shirts too? Again, all answers provided under the cloak of anonymity, but the feedback was just about uniform. “Faithfully” says one veteran driver. “They use it as bait.” Far be it from me to determine who’s baiting who, but as we’ve proven, seeing someone wear your number is a gratifying experience. One other veteran driver was more to the point on the question of the racing groupies wearing driver shirts. “Sometimes to bed. Some drivers are getting women’s t-shirts and tank tops along with the [traditional style] shirts to appeal to women…hell, even <professional driver name redacted> had thongs back when he was single. Free thong…but come change in the hauler.”

Who better to comment of the notion of shirts and pit lizards than the most successful shirt salesman of all time? Gauge Martinez, Bang Banger champion of Weaber Valley Speedway, and former interview subject at TehBen.com has achieved nationwide acclaim for his charisma* and ability to move apparel on race days. A driver so famous, thousands of fans that have never even seen him race in person, and probably never will, own his merch. The Monterey Missile in his own words:

“T Shirt sells always help, they have helped me buy a brand new 1975 Ford Pinto in the offseason and some upgrades to our engine program. I am overwhelmed by everyone buying my shirts and all the hot girls and guys I see wearing them. The pit lizards wear my shirts a lot. Most of them cut the lower half and wear them as crop tops though but I don’t find it disrespectful

While the…social skills…of drivers will always remain intriguing, racing t-shirts themselves have a level of urban legend and mystique all their own. For as long as I’ve been a race fan, I’ve heard of a long-standing unwritten rule when it came to drivers: never wear your own shirt. This thinking was quickly confirmed, as one Delaware driver learned from a personal experience. Mike Stratton, veteran 1st State dirt racer speaks of a time when he made a critical mistake. “I made the mistake of wearing a team shirt one time that had a logo with my name on it, and I got called out for it. Never again. Only local shirts I wear are ones that are given to me because I don’t want to be partial, but I can wear a Kyle Larson shirt just about anywhere.” While calling it bad luck might be a bit over the top, especially as there’s already plenty of driver superstitions to go around, wearing your own name might just be the height of bad taste. One fan I spoke with put it best, “it’s like hearing a guy speak about themselves in third person, you know that driver is gonna be full of themselves.”

Part of Pippa’s Vintage Collection.

The last person I spoke with on the subject of racing t-shirts summed up the concept in the way I’d been searching for. Lesley Watt, who can be best described as the matriarch of the Watt dirt track racing family, can be seen at most northeast tracks during the Dirt Modified season selling the popular apparel of champion modified driver Ryan Watt’s 14w. Typically setting up shop behind grandstands at the track, the Watt operation is a throwback to the days where a driver’s PR and merch was handled by the same person that would be back in the pits helping the team when it was time to race. “Honestly, I just love it, I love talking to all of Ryan’s fans. I love listening to the stories they tell me about Ryan on track (as if I wasn’t there watching), and that’s the truth.” Despite the notion that a team’s apparel can be a strictly dollars and cents transaction, Lesley’s market research is a bit more precious. “I don’t really watch the profit-making part; I love looking in the stands and seeing the sea of Watt shirts. I sound corny, and some make fun of me, but I just love chatting with people.” While the 14w is no stranger to victory lane, the Watts understand there’s more to drawing the fan’s attention than collecting the trophy. “Ryan and I have this ongoing quote… ‘I don’t care where you finish, just make it spectacular for the fans so I can sell shirts!’”

There’s a lot of negativity that comes with being a race fan. Fandom rivalries, complaints about ticket prices or track experiences, the dreaded looming feeling that our sport is slowly dying due to factors out of our control…there’s a lot that can bog us down. But it’s important to remember the things that bring us together and celebrate the tangibles and intangibles to help find a common joy in the lifestyle that comes with a love of racing. During the worst of the pandemic in 2020, when the sky was falling and some of us may have wondered if racing (or life itself) would ever get back to normal, many of us found a lifeline in racing t-shirts. I personally bought about a dozen shirts during that early spring, and a lot of my racing friends did the same holding out hope that we’d soon get to wear them at our favorite tracks before too long. For all the bitterness that came with missing a passion so suddenly, I found something that could connect myself with drivers and tracks and hold hope that we’d be soon back together. Whether it’s a pandemic, an off-season, or just a night between events, the racing t-shirt will always be there to fill that void, to kindle that flame until the racing family is reunited once more. Treasure them, share them, design them, buy them, just never stop loving that sweet racing swag.

Thank you to everyone that helped make this article possible and see below for fan favorite shirts submitted by our readers!

Matt pens a heartfelt essay about one of the common threads that bind race fans across all walks of life: the racing shirt!

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