The Frontstretch: NASCAR's Social Media Explosion: It's a Small (and Connected) World... by Mark Howell -- Thursday March 15, 2012

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NASCAR's Social Media Explosion: It's a Small (and Connected) World...

Professor Of Speed · Mark Howell · Thursday March 15, 2012

 

Many NASCAR fans spent Tuesday on pins-and-needles; after all, focusing on work was difficult considering what was going down at the sanctioning body’s Research & Development Center in Concord, North Carolina. Rick Hendrick, Chad Knaus, and the No. 48 Lowe’s race team were appealing their Speedweeks 2012 penalty for being caught with improperly shaped C-pillars on the Chevrolet they planned to run in the Daytona 500. Here it was – three weeks after the 500 and almost a month after the violation itself – and fans anxiously awaited the verdict of the National Stock Car Racing Commission.

As the appeals hearing occurred that day, not only did NASCAR Nation know what was happening, but it knew exactly what went on as the events took place. As soon as the commission’s decision to uphold NASCAR’s penalty was announced, race fans knew it.

My, but how the times have changed…

Call me a geezer, but I can remember when being a NASCAR fan meant feeling as though I was a member of a secret society. Much of my time and effort was spent gleaning any information possible from any source available. This underground feeling was way back when – before the days of ESPN, TNN, or any kind of consistent, live, flag-to-flag, cable television coverage. It even predates CBS’s now legendary broadcast of the 1979 Daytona 500. Granted, I’m not THAT old, chronologically-speaking, as such things go (although I certainly feel that way some days), but I was one of those perpetually-frustrated NASCAR fans who watched races through the good graces of ABC’s Wide World of Sports – the popular program that treated sports (and especially NASCAR events) with a “Veg-O-Matic” kind of approach.

A NASCAR race would be taped in its entirety by ABC, then sliced-and-diced into a neat, concise synopsis of significant moments: the start, some early pit stops, all the accidents and engine failures, some of the more relevant passes up front, the closing laps, and the finish. The winner would receive a cursory interview in Victory Lane, with maybe one or two runners-up tossed in to balance out the coverage. All these highlights would then be broadcast three or four weeks (or more!) after the event was held, so it was pretty likely that you already knew the details of the race long before seeing it on television — if you were lucky enough to live in a region of the country where your local newspaper gave NASCAR any page space, in the first place.

Now consider where NASCAR fans can go to find coverage of the sport today. The local newspaper is likely to be far down the list of possible outlets where NASCAR news and views can be found, and it’s very possible that some fans are producing their own NASCAR-related content for mass consumption.

Being tied to events based on what was said and jotted down in a racetrack’s media center during a post-race press conference has given way to around-the-clock access. Modern technologies and the advent of social media have transformed NASCAR from a niche sport with an isolated fan base into a global juggernaut of information. As the sport has grown larger, its world has grown smaller; what used to be nearly impossible to find has become the stuff of everyday life.

Through the advent of social media, NASCAR fans do not merely follow the sport they love; they actually become part of its inner circle.

To say that social media has changed the ways in which we communicate would be a gross understatement; one could say that social media – in all its various forms – has reinvented the notion of communication itself. We no longer simply hear or learn about late-breaking events; now, we are able to sometimes report or control the news ourselves. As such, social media has made all of us directly involved in the dissemination and interpretation of information. What was once “the information superhighway” has become “the information superspeedway.” While this creates many interesting and exciting possibilities for just how large and global NASCAR Nation might get, it carries with it the possibility for misuse and misrepresentation.

There are three particular events in NASCAR which, over the past six months offer examples of what I mean. To gain a clearer sense of just how broad and influential social media has become within the sport of stock car racing, we need to consider Kurt Busch’s dismissal from Penske Racing last November, the two-hour red flag situation during this year’s Daytona 500, and the assorted events surrounding Chad Knaus, Ron Malec, and two improperly-shaped C-pillars on February 17th. Each of these stories, in its own unique way, explains the risks and benefits of social media and its relationship with the sport.

One form of social media is video sharing. The now-infamous cell phone footage of Kurt Busch’s profane tirade before ESPN’s Jerry Punch at Homestead – and its subsequent uploading to YouTube – resulted in Busch being released as driver of the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge. No matter that Busch’s comments were made in anger after his car had fallen out of the season finale with mechanical trouble – what mattered is that his fit of frustration was filmed by a spectator, quickly posted online, and promoted through other forms of social media (websites, blogs, and the like) that led curious fans to the explicit footage. Within the course of just a few short days, Kurt Busch’s outburst had “gone viral” across the internet, and his ride with Roger Penske was gone, too.

Had it not been for a garage area lurker with a cell phone, might Kurt Busch still be in the No. 22 Pennzoil Penske Dodge?

Is the rapid distribution of such news good for NASCAR? Kurt Busch’s detractors might say it was – that it showed the hot-tempered driver in his true light – but the YouTube footage from Homestead also demonstrated one of the pitfalls of social media: the idea that anything is up for public consumption, provided that the timing is right and the spread is quick. Had Busch’s tirade gone ignored by YouTube viewers, the entire episode might have blown over with little more than a frank discussion between the parties involved. This result would have been the way of ancient NASCAR, back during the “dark ages” when the sport labored in the shadow of limited interest and even more limited media coverage.

But NASCAR 2012 is a rapidly-changing business, one that’s grown exponentially through developments in social media. Take microblogging, for example – better known as what can be found on Twitter.

Consider what happened following the jet dryer fire during the Daytona 500. As drivers waited for the track to be made race-ready, Brad Keselowski took advantage of the two hour, five minute red flag period to send tweets (with photographs) from the backstretch. His impromptu reports from the track – mentioned during the FOX broadcast that night – boosted his Twitter account of roughly 60,000 by more than 160,000 followers. As of the time I write this column, Brad Keselowski has over 246,000 followers on Twitter, more than three times the amount he had a month ago.

Brad Keselowski’s on-site Twitter blast from Daytona nearly tripled the number of followers. It did not, however, help him with his late-race Las Vegas restart…

Such rapid growth is indicative of where NASCAR can expand its fan base. If the sport hopes to stay relevant in the decades to come, stock car racing must attract fresh, new faces to replace its current sagging, aging ones. The sanctioning body, of its own accord, has pledged allegiance to social media, publicly declaring that, “We encourage our drivers to use social media to express themselves as long as they do so without risking their safety or that of others.”

Despite the grumbling of some, most notably Brad Daugherty, co-owner of the JTG Daugherty Racing Toyotas driven by Bobby Labonte, the use of social media has no place inside a race car. Not that Keselowski, nor any of his other Twitter-friendly brethren, would ever try microblogging under racing conditions, but might such an indiscretion become a temptation at some point? Use of social media applications continues to grow among participants at all levels in the sport. Is the widespread use of microblogging something that NASCAR should police more closely?

Brad Keselowski’s tweeting at Daytona has prompted several interesting questions regarding what we can do — and what we should have access to — within the sport.

One question stemming from the rise of social media is the matter of transparency. Does our culture of disclosure and constant access encourage too much of an “open door” policy between teams and fans? This connection was always NASCAR’s unique advantage over other sports – the fact that fans could mix-and-mingle with drivers and crew members before and after events. Such availability allowed fans to gain access, but without getting too close to the inner sanctum of a race team; unless invited, fans were not encouraged go enter a team’s hauler, for example.

That’s all changed in this era of social media. It’s not that fans have immediate or continuous, physical access to all manner of team business, but that there’s an expectation that the virtual “shop door” is always open, in a manner of speaking. I saw this expectation play out while working with Cup teams over the years; people with garage passes would see their favorite driver’s hauler and simply walk in without asking. That sense of entitlement was pretty apparent in the years before social media. Now that social media is a constant influence in our daily lives, this attitude of openness is likely going to increase.

Much of this need for full disclosure spins back onto NASCAR itself as fans feel obligated to police the sanctioning body and its actions toward teams and drivers. Even though the penalties against Hendrick, Knaus, Malec, Johnson, and the No. 48 team were upheld after Tuesday’s hearing by the National Stock Car Racing Commission, some fans using social media quickly shifted blame/guilt toward NASCAR for being vague with both race teams and the official rulebook.

The subjective nature of the sport’s inspectors and administration came into question, as did the idea that the sanctioning body was gunning for Knaus given his previous “creative interpretations” of the rules. Absolutes gave way to assumptions, and this “angered analysis” becomes one of the pitfalls of social media: because users can say whatever they want, whenever they want, the eventual message is often more personal opinion than professional observation.

Given that social media is often overwrought with user opinion, it seems odd that NASCAR should be encouraging increased use of applications like YouTube and Twitter. There is a very fine line between microblogging and micromanaging, yet the two are often one and the same. Owning a laptop or a Smartphone gives us the opportunity to generate and share vast amounts of continuous content, but does having the ability to distribute material equate to having the authority to dictate actions and decisions? Fans are now more directly and actively engaged with NASCAR than ever before, and – if Brian France gets his way – this trend will continue for the foreseeable future.

Does encouraging active discourse among members of NASCAR Nation create a more informed and more egalitarian sport? We may become more informed, but we might also gravitate toward an increasingly trivialized atmosphere of rumor, gossip, innuendo, and paranoia. While communicating NASCAR news around-the-clock allows the sport to be a regular part of our everyday lives, trying to fill that time frame with bits and bytes of truly relevant information content is proving to be nothing short of impossible.

Perhaps NASCAR should relish its ability (and freedom) to keep competition decisions and business details close to its vest. While fans feel entitled (and are encouraged) to immerse themselves in the sport through the use of social media – of being able to directly explore the inner workings of the culture – might too much transparency bounce back to hinder NASCAR’s overall mission? How can I make a new rule (or enforce an old one) if my every move is being recorded, dissected, commented upon, and communicated instantaneously around the globe? With one keystroke, a revelation, a decision, an opinion, an accusation, a rumor, or an announcement can go from the sender’s mind to the reader’s eyes.

While this freedom lets us explore various applications of social media, might the opportunity to force transparency on NASCAR and its participants not muddy some already-murky waters?

The times have most certainly changed, indeed…

Contact Mark Howell

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Bill B
03/15/2012 07:52 AM
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There’s is no filter on anything that we call news today. The problem with that is something that shouldn’t be a “big deal” can be made to be a “big deal”. Other things, that really are news or important, can be over-shadowed by the sensational.