Thomas Bowles · Monday September 12, 2011
The “Have At It Boys, Era!” in NASCAR was supposed to create driver rivalries with their peers – not the press box. But as the 2011 season turns toward the playoffs, one of the biggest battles to watch leading into the Chase isn’t Johnson-Gordon, Harvick-Kyle Busch or even brother Kurt versus Johnson.
Nope. It’s drivers versus the NASCAR beat reporters who cover them.
Certainly, this topic isn’t one most media, especially those at-the-track each week want to touch with a ten-foot pole. I can imagine fans aren’t too thrilled about it, either, more interested in a competitive year with seven, possibly eight drivers in position to win a wide-open Chase. But the sheer number of conflicts, each involving high-level drivers have forced the issue; this weekend alone, three tiffs between drivers and reporters have reflected a continuing, on-and-off tension they’ve had with the media at large.
The AP’s Jenna Fryer was involved in two such incidents, kicking things off Friday when Tony Stewart grew tired of being asked the same (but valid) question about the pressure involved in trying to make the Chase, originally posed not by Fryer but ESPN’s Mike Massaro. Fryer, though sensing Stewart’s obvious frustration in the answer followed up with “What should we be asking you?” “I don’t know,” said Stewart. “I don’t do your job. Come up with something original.” The two went back-and-forth, Smoke resisting to go into specifics; instead, he claimed he “wasn’t worried about what’s going to make [Jenna’s] article this week,” knocking Fryer following a different question by ESPN’s Marty Smith.
“See, this is original,” said Stewart, responding to a question about the importance of naming a Competition Director. “This is somebody that is a good journalist because they actually know how to ask something original. It is a good question; it is nice to have that occasionally.”
Stewart, who remained fairly calm throughout the ordeal may have never seen this tiff go public. After all, in five years of covering him I’ve seen him rip reporters apart ten times worse for what he deemed stupid questions. But, as luck would have it ESPN’s NASCAR Now took a live feed of the press conference#! in what turned into a national, awkward “Candid Camera” moment. Smoke’s aggressiveness, for better or for worse was out there for all to see.
That merely set the stage for Saturday’s grand finale. Kurt Busch, after exiting his car was asked about his on-track incidents with Johnson by Joe Menzer, a NASCAR.com reporter. According to reports, Busch was asked by Menzer “Kurt, can either you or Jimmie win the Chase?” to which Busch responded, “How did I see you were going to come with that? We’re good.” Menzer also defended his question, a move that pushed Busch over the edge; turning, swearing, and confronting the reporter it took multiple Penske Racing crew members to prevent a physical confrontation.
Busch then walked in for his post-race presser, saw Menzer and immediately engaged in more verbal barbs; reports claim NASCAR PR head Kerry Tharp had to break up the mess. Moments later, though, things truly took a turn for the bizarre. Now up on the podium, Busch was asked by Fryer about a comment he made concerning “being in Jimmie Johnson’s head” uttered on live television. Well, Busch not only denied it, a shocker considering the video evidence, but then walked over to Fryer, ripped up the transcript in her hand (which contained that exact quote) and left the room.
Sounds like things are just peachy, right? And we’re not even counting last week, where Greg Biffle lit into a reporter for questioning his decision to miss President Obama’s 2010 Chaser Meet ‘N’ Greet.
“I’m disgusted by the comments I see, that people say we rejected or I can’t believe that Biffle rejected,” he said at Atlanta. “That’s disrespectful for people not knowing why I can’t go.”
Step back a bit, and there’s plenty of other minor incidents dotting the radar: Carl Edwards upset over a misreported contract, Kurt Busch angry over divorce coverage… the list can go on and on. So what gives?
Let’s start with Stewart, who seems to have consistent problems surrounding a line of questioning. Some people claim press conferences are filled with what some would call “generic questions and answers.” Let’s take the one about the Chase, for example. “What does your team need to do to make the playoffs?” doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out. At the same time, one thing that’s important to understand is that a lot of reporters write for a more generic, wide-ranging audience. It’s not a specialty site they’re working for, like the one you’re reading now where we might get very specific about, say, a particular chassis setup. Their readers, millions of “casual” or even “new fans” are looking for basic information, the main story: who’s in position to make the Chase, who isn’t and what the drivers on the bubble are thinking heading in.
If that’s your job, well an obvious question is going to be asking drivers how they’re handling preparations going into the weekend. Athletes understand such back-and-forth, and most have no problem giving the obvious answer. Stewart? Honestly, it depends on the day. Many times, it’s not a particular hatred towards a reporter rather than the actual process of going through those generic questions that seems to irritate him; the owner/driver thinks taking the time to answer them is a waste.
But in this case, Stewart’s response was over the line. Asking about the pressure of making the Chase, heading into the final week of the regular season was fair. If you were covering an NFL game, with the Colts, say going after a playoff spot in Week 17 would you simply ignore the postseason scenario altogether? Of course not. Whether or not they make the playoffs is part of the story, and asking about it is part of your job as a journalist. Whether the question was asked seven straight weeks is irrelevant; it matters now.
But Stewart’s actions, to me pale in comparison to Kurt Busch. For a clue into how Busch is acting, let’s go back to an August press conference at Pocono, held shortly after Busch and Johnson got together on the final lap. Both the Busch brothers were in attendance for this one.
Q. Kurt, were you not upset at all with the way Jimmie raced, were you just upset with him coming to you and —
Busch: Here we go, People Magazine. I’m glad you asked. We were racing hard. I think that’s what we saw on TV and exactly that’s what should be reported. There are a lot of times when the 22 is on the short end of the stick of the 48. And I raced him hard today. I’m glad I did. I have no regrets in it.
Q. Kyle, in response to Kurt’s comments, would you like to see just as much of that and a little less give and take afterwards by the drivers?
Kyle Busch: You wonder why we don’t because we have to come in here and answer battle questions like this. Just accept it: It was great racing.
The knock here, it seems is that these rivalries are overblown, that the on-track incidents and off-track squabbling (as in, those ‘in Jimmie’s head’ quotes) take on a National Enquirer tint while becoming bigger news than the racing itself. Kurt wants to have his cake and eat it, too; bump fenders with Jimmie on the racetrack, ruffling feathers at the No. 48 team then not talk about it afterwards to the point where it becomes a public distraction for himself. The degree of the rivalry, it seems, is directly connected to how much we make it a news story in his eyes.
But here’s the unfortunate news for Busch: he is not in a position where he alone can dictate the news cycle. More than ever, in fact, in this changing media world it’s fans who have a say through communication from Twitter, Facebook, and other mediums telling us what stories they want to hear about. And I have news for Kurt: guess what they wanted to learn after Richmond? Here’s a hint: it wasn’t about the right handling tweaks for Busch to finish fifth! Whenever you crash with the five-time defending champ not once, but twice it’s going to be a story and people are going to ask you about it. That’s what fans want to know the details of, like it or not and more importantly it’s part of the overall story of how the race unfolded.
I think another, less pressing issue here revolves around a shrinking, consistent NASCAR at-track media corps that hasn’t exactly welcomed in a large group of new members as of late. With opportunities for newspaper journalism shrinking, the crop of beat reporters is getting smaller and who’s left are the same old, same old people that have covered the sport for years. For the fans, it’s not a bad thing, as there are reasons these people have jobs: good journalists offering good coverage. But for drivers, it’s almost like a 36-week arranged marriage for years at a time: sometimes, people can simply get on your nerves and you get irritated. Just like there’s few Sprint Cup rookies, no new media members are coming in, switching it up, and pushing the envelope so there’s at least a new voice or two in a driver’s ear every week.
As for the reporters themselves? Understandably, Fryer’s response after Saturday night, on Twitter was subdued: “It’s getting harder and harder to remain passionate about #NASCAR.” (Funny, isn’t it; I’ve been told since February passion for what you cover isn’t needed to do this job. So why should it matter?) But to be fair, she was frustrated, put in a position where drivers stepped over the line in both cases. These media members deserve an apology for their actions, and NASCAR needs to step up and start drawing clear boundaries again on the professionalism between drivers and reporters. Busch’s actions, in particular might be deserving of a fine that could serve as a serious reminder. In this age of shrinking journalism coverage, they need to keep the lines of communication open for who does cover the sport as much as possible.
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