The Frontstretch: Ripping Reporters: Busch, Stewart Highlight NASCAR Driver/Media Tension by Thomas Bowles -- Monday September 12, 2011

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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 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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Carl D.
09/12/2011 09:12 AM

Stewart has always been a jerk when it comes to reporters asking questions he doesn’t like. Both he and teammate Ryan Newman have not only told reporters what they should be saying, but how they should frame it. Do reporters ask some stupid questions at times, sometimes before a driver has had a chance to calm down? Yes, but doesn’t make the driver any less of an ass when he gets nasty or condescending with the reporter. These guys are schooled in the necessities good PR, and most drivers are aware that their actions have a direct impact on their marketability. Tony Stewart was just being Tony Stewart, and the fact of the matter is that Tony is a jerk to reporters when the questions don’t suit him.

I had really come to admire the way Kurt Busch had matured since the speeding incident in Phoenix a few years ago. Now it’s one step forward, two steps back. What’s interesting to me is that I think a lot of people agree that what Busch said after the race was fine, and that Jimmie Johnson got what he deserved on the track. And Maybe Kurt was right; maybe he is in Jimmie’s head. Then Kurt goes and blows it by acting like a first-class jackass. What respect he had earned from me is now gone.

I wonder if Brad Keselowski’s recent success has Kurt a little envious.

Bill B
09/12/2011 10:03 AM

Sounds like some of these drivers didn’t realize that when they signed up to drive at the national level, make millions of dollars and become famous, they didn’t read the fine print. Part of the job is dealing with the media in a professional manner to promote your sponsor, the sport, their team and their own marketability.
If Busch and Stewart don’t like it they should go back to racing local tracks. Believe me, nothing they say will make it to the mainstream media of that’s their main concern.
Here is another piece of advice for them, if you don’t want the media to hound you with the same questions then stop doing stupid things or be honest all the time when you answer.

John Potts
09/12/2011 10:36 AM

I am reminded of an NFL playoff game about 20-25 years ago, while I was a newspaper editor, when a running back had piled up a stupendous amount of yardage, and had scored twice by simply running away from the defensive secondary.

In a postgame interview, a TV reporter asked, “Are you really that fast?”

The player had an incredible look on his face, and answered, “Evidently.”

The player was crucified the next day in the print media for giving a “smart aleck” answer.

Personally, I thought it was a pretty stupid question for someone who had watched him run away from those people.

Sometimes the blame does lie with the interviewer.

old farmer
09/12/2011 11:01 AM

Dumb—or offensive—questions by reporters call for dumb—or offensive—answers.

The problem is that they don’t look to be called out for them.

But they should.

I’ll vote with Tony, et. al.

09/12/2011 11:06 AM

Thank you John Potts! You just saved me minutes of keyboard pounding!! I second John’s comment!!

09/12/2011 11:17 AM

Just like the reporters that have been there for many years, so have these drivers. As a matter of fact I do think it’s getting sick of the “same old same old” year after year from BOTH sides! And I have suggested on multiple occasions that some people on BOTH sides should find something else to do, because I’M sick of hearing about it.
That said, for BOTH, get mad all you want, yap all you want, but taking it to a physical level is unacceptable. In this case, Kurt Busch owes 2 reporters an apology. Tony Stewart doesn’t.

09/12/2011 11:30 AM

Nice article Tom. Can you address the ongoing issue of possible media bias? I know Jenna Fryer’s charity for her kids school was picked by JJ’s foundation to fund this year to tune of $150k+. Sorry, cant believe she remains unbaised. No way should media be nominating charities in first place and certainly not ones that directly benefit their family. Jim Utter went nuts last year when media member got TV from Best Buy…why no one going nuts over this?

09/12/2011 12:55 PM

You say some reporters write for generic purposes so they need generic answers. Got it. My question is during a media event DON’T reporters listen to all questions and answers being addressed? If they do then it shouldn’t be hard NOT to keep asking the same mundane questions over and over. Heck it makes me want to strangle the reporter. I’m not reporter but I certainly can figure out ALL the drivers are under a certain amount of pressure..I don’t need to waste the viewers, readers, drivers, or my time asking the same stupid question. The bottom line is if you’re a reporter and you are a good should be able to ask questions that are interesting and informative..NOT boring, repetitive, and combative.

09/12/2011 01:19 PM

I cant imagine how annoying it must be to be warming the tires just before the start of the race and to have Dale Jarrett ask you how you think things will go today.

09/12/2011 01:24 PM

Tony was schooled by the master media manipulator Bob Knight.
Kurt a little less so but from the rotten state of Nevada.
Personally I cannot stand the questions asked by Nascar reporters. Never any real questions asked, most think Nascar is the only racing in the world, nuff said.

09/12/2011 01:25 PM

I agree that tony’s always been a jerk when it comes to answering questions and Kurt & Kyle rank up there as not really good at this PR thing. Kurt clearly made the comment on TV. Why not just stand by it? I thought NASCAR wanted rivalries? Heck I was happy that he’s the only driver who’s been willing to play rough with the 48 and GET inside his head as was evident by the fact that Johnson tried to wreck him back and failed. Personally I thought it was hilarious.

I do recognize that interviewers often ask the same stupid obvious questions, but unless it’s Jamie Little asking “how do you feel?” after your race car has been wrecked, it’s part of the gig.

I do think Kurt should be fined for his actions against the reporter – and I am not a Jenna Fryer fan. No points but $, yeah, that works.

09/12/2011 01:51 PM

This issue is nothing new and it didn’t start with Stewart. While fans have their opinions…I notice in the responses above even those

who think Stewart and Busch

are jerks towards the media they still note their ARE slot of stupid repetitive questions being asked. Maybe the media should bull by the horns and try and make their interviews more original, informative, and less Duhhh! Then instead of having to write an entire column about how mean the drivers are during interviews the media can actually write an article relevant to NASCAR.

09/12/2011 01:53 PM

Calling out these drivers for being aggravated with certain reporters or questions is as stupid as this subject. There are good reporters and then there are lazy reporters. Good reporters can find a storyline that others can’t. The lazy reporters copy or repeat the same crap over and over. The crap is normally a none story until the media beats it to death until a driver gets tired of it and responds to the reporter like a parent would to a kid asking,“are we there yet?” 20 times in a 5 mile ride.

09/12/2011 03:43 PM

The reporters are intentionally provoking the drivers and then whine when the drivers get angry. As an example when Kurt got out of the car and was asked he said he locked up the brakes trying to stay off of JJ. (Evidenced in the replay by front tire smoke). Then went on to say a few choice words in general about JJ. Then when the same reporter confronted Johnson she skipped the explanation for the wreck and went strait to the most heated remarks to intentionally mislead and anger Johnson.

You aren’t reporting the news you are inventing it on your own. Eventually the drivers are going to get angry when you continue to behave this way.

That said Kurt can’t get physical with reporters. That’s going too far. From what I understand though it was only intimidating and chest thumping as his crew was between them. NASCAR should probably have a chat with him and tell him to play nice, apologise and perhaps warn him for the future. Going after another driver is one thing, reporters and public are another.

Kevin in SoCal
09/12/2011 05:37 PM

I remember back in May a reporter asked Tony Stewart if what he learned while racing at the All Star Race will apply to the Coca-Cola 600 next week. Tony Stewart responded with something like “Of course it will. Just like you asked last year and every year before that. File this answer away for next year because the answer will always be yes.”
I love it. Go Tony!

09/12/2011 05:43 PM

Darren – Yes – I noticed that too – As a matter of fac,t Miss Little even made up some BS up to tell 5-Time. This is flat out lying and fabrication.

Old School
09/12/2011 07:10 PM

Glad to see Tony and Kurt responding to the the gotcha questions like most fans would. Most are dumb and less than original. That goes for the print & TV.

Bobby O
09/12/2011 07:50 PM

Oh Tommy……

Really? You want us to feel sorry for you?
Get a real job! Here is your crying towel!

09/12/2011 08:22 PM

Tom, if someone is writing for a “more generic, wide-ranging audience, “ they don’t even need to ask a question. Let the dedicated Nascar reporters ask the questions and then cut and paste what they need for their generic article. The generic audience won’t know the difference and the dedicated audience will more likely get real answers about things that actually interest us.

09/12/2011 11:17 PM

I’d be more upset about the way Kurt treats his crew and owner with his harsh comments. I know that they are said in the heat of the moment. However, I am completely surprised that one: Roger Penske didn’t fire his butt after his comments over the radio and two: He hasn’t “accidently” lost his brakes entering a corner due to the constant abuse he levels at his crew. I’ve always believed that everything you do should be a good reflection on your Mother and Father. I guess we know just how we’ll they did their job as parents.

09/13/2011 10:15 PM

Tony just being Tony and we wouldn’t want him any other way!!!

09/13/2011 10:39 PM

Let’s report facts, like Bob Pockrass did. Smoke had just came off the track after being held up by a crappy S&P driver in McDowell on his Q run. His draw, determined by said run, was affected and cost him dearly at a time where he needed a good run to lock into the Chase.

He was already angry about that before Fryer asked the standard, “How do you feel about the pressure of making the Chase?” question.

It’s like he’s the only person who goes after reporters. Harvick is pretty bad, so are the Busch brothers. If Smoke is a jerk, than most of the garage needs to be thrown in with him.

Earnhardt, Sr. could be a smart guy when he was asked a question he didn’t like and nobody said anything about it. His son barely has a pulse during interviews, but nobody reports about his lack of energy for fear of the Junior Nation. Journalists want guys to not be vanilla (aka Hendrick Motorsports Drivers). When they say anything, the reporters get angry and write scathing articles.

Tony Stewart is a chip off the old block of AJ Foyt. Last I checked, AJ had no problem going after reporters and nobody said anything. Smoke has 39 Cup wins and 2 Championships, he has earned a right to answer what he wants to. Ask Mulhern and a couple other guys, like Gluck about what its like to ask Stewart questions to instigate.

Kurt Busch is as brutal to media about this situation (because he has an issue with JJ) as he is to his crew. The fact that Roger Penske has not canned the guy shows he sees the talent and potential as a driver and looks away from the character flaws — something the writers cannot.

You guys need copy in the worst way, so attacking people who have a unique view is the way to go. Heck, Monte Dutton spent a bunch of time going after Smoke, but he has had an axe to grind with Stewart for years and he is an old windbag anyway.

09/14/2011 05:38 PM

Jimmy Johnson’s too vanilla .. but every time you get a driver with a personality, the media (Thomas Bowles, in this case) crucifies him.

Tony Stewart’s a jerk, but in those examples cited he gave good answers. Sadly, the media seems to prefer to interview third rate drivers who kiss their asses (Michael W).


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