NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Corps or Whores?

I’m getting a little dizzy here. NASCAR normally moves forward with glacial process when it comes to rule changes that at times make evolution look hasty. They’ll hold study groups and meetings, generate a ton of internal memos, send up a few trial balloons in the garage while maintaining plausible deniability, and then finally issue an earth-shattering decision that, yes indeed, the lug studs on the Cup cars are going to be a few millimeters longer this year. If you look at the time that elapsed between Dale Earnhardt’s death at Daytona (which had been preceded the previous season by the deaths of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper) and the rules change that mandated the common sense rule to require head and neck restraints, you’ll get a good idea of how the system usually works. In fact, it was only the death of Blaise Alexander in that Charlotte ARCA race that finally forced NASCAR’s hand.

The speed with which the new side-by-side restart rules were adopted after fans expressed interest in the format after the All-Star Race was stunning. The jungle drums are loud this week that NASCAR is going to implement new rules to reduce the horsepower in Cup cars sooner rather than later, trying to improve the quality of racing to woo back disenfranchised fans.

Then of course there’s this week’s stunning announcement that NASCAR is doing a dramatic about face and embracing Internet writers, or at least some portion of the Internet writers who report on the sport. NASCAR’s relationship, even with the mainstream media, outside the chosen ones, the NASCAR network partners, has always been a little prickly. You might recall Brian France sending Monte Dutton, one of the sport’s most popular, if controversial writers, a love note wishing him well in his new career though in fact Monte had expressed no interest in changing careers (other than this recent musical gig of his which came after the fact.) The implications of that note were pretty clear and meant as a warning shot to others in the sport.

My how the landscape has changed. In this economy several papers that were bastions of race reportage for decades suddenly released their beat writers who traveled race to race and replaced their columns with AP news releases. Some of those papers decided with the interest in Cup racing dwindling, they might as well run the scores from church league bowling tournaments in place of the former race coverage.

Most industries are struggling in this economy, but the newspaper industry has been driven to its knees by the twin blows of reduced advertising income and competition from the Internet. There’s an immediacy to the Internet that print papers can’t rival. If a major story breaks newspapers can’t report it until the next print edition, but the breaking story can appear on Internet in minutes. The best papers have adjusted to the new reality and built strong Internet sites of their own. The Detroit Free Press recently went mainly online in a struggle to survive. The face of the medium is changing and changing rapidly in a way it hasn’t since the dawn of television signaled the end of the radio soap operas and serials.

In the face of change NASCAR has announced they are forming the “NASCAR Citizen’s Journalist Media Corps.” Like I said Sunday, the name is so Orwellian that it send shivers up my spine. Those Internet scribes, the spiritual heirs of the lonely pamphleteers with their ink-stained hands, will be “embraced with open arms” and “given the very same access as the traditional media” according to NASCAR’s press release on the topic. NASCAR isn’t throwing open the gates to the Barbarians though. The decision on who is in and who is out is based on “professionalism, reporting, commentary and use of social networking tools.” (There was no mention if spelling and neatness also count.)

If I’m a cynic, it’s a cynicism based on experience and some battles lost. NASCAR initially reacted to Internet reporting on their sport with all the ardor of Fidel Castro embracing free enterprise. While NASCAR says the “Internet” is a “new” technology, it is in fact more than a decade old. I’ve been doing this gig for 13 years now in some form or another after convincing my boss at a small (and I mean miniscule) racing newspaper that we needed an Internet presence. His initial reaction can be summed up as “Hell, we aren’t making any money doing this anyway. Sure, let’s lose money in a new way.” Understand in that era the three “staff” members of the paper were sitting around in a two-room office next to a church where they handled snakes waiting to see if a check arrived in time to keep us in business.

The “Born On” date of the NASCAR Internet is generally considered to be 1996 when Jayski’s Silly Season page was born. A hard-working, tech-savvy guy from the Jersey shore started his small webpage trying to figure out what was going on with Lake Speed. Jay is a friend of mine so I know he’ll be embarrassed when I say that Jay is to Internet NASCAR coverage what another resident of the Jersey shore who started out small, Bruce Springsteen, is to rock and roll.

Eventually Jay, working out of the bedroom in his folks’ home started including links to other articles on the Internet related to the sport on his page, including mine. I recall my boss getting giddy and falling out of his chair when he saw the hits on our obscure website growing by the hundreds an hour after struggling to draw 100 readers a week. And so a new cottage industry was born.

The new industry wasn’t met with open arms, either by NASCAR or by our in-print brethren with their degrees in journalism in many instances. The first assault on the frontier outpost was the now infamous “Circle R” note we all got back in the day. NASCAR was insisting that if we were to use the name NASCAR we follow it with the circled R trademark that indicated those six letters were a registered trademark. The problem is even the lawyer who sent the letter couldn’t figure out what set of keys one had to use on a keyboard to make that circled R appear after the word NASCAR. (I knew it at one time and used it once a column as a sarcastic response to the edict but have long since forgotten it.)

Despite threats of lawsuits most of us just ignored the stupidity of it all. However most sites did include the required disclaimer that that particular site was not the official site of NASCAR on the Internet and readers should click on a link to go to NASCAR.com for the officially vetted propaganda of the day. I begged my boss at the time, Derek of Speedworld, not to include that burdensome verbiage. I wanted NASCAR to sue us. I had ACLU lawyers lined up to defend us pro bono. Eventually the battle ended with no causalities, though there was a lot of sniping from each side. Hell, I once ran the vanity plate “CRCLER” on my Thunderbird.

Then there was the whole Article Four boondoggle in which NASCAR said they owned rights to photos and reportage created at the track. That one was authored by Brian France himself back in the day. It too went over by a lead balloon with the NMPA (which only began admitting Internet writers this season) firing the fatal shots, but the Internet writers providing covering fire.

On a more personal note, I had that whole mess with R1 which I won’t recount here. It put me out of a job, but like a bad penny I keep coming back. I’ve made my peace with the fellow that pulled the trigger, but it still boggles my mind NASCAR’s sister company, the ISC, bought a website just to get me fired.

But let’s get back to the whole standards of admission to the NASCAR tree house more commonly known as the press box for Internet types; professionalism, reporting, commentary and use of social networking tools.

The difference between reporting and commentary should be pretty easy to understand. Reporting, as in recounts of the race, is reminding fans of what happened in the race they just watched. On this lap this happened and on that lap that happened and as a result Driver X won the race. Reporting also involves regurgitating in some semi-coherent fashion the press agents and car manufacturers’ press releases after the race as if you were sitting on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s lap as he offered up his latest bon-bons on how to lose a race. At its most extreme, it involves staying awake through the race winner’s post-race interview in the press box, offering platitudes to his sponsors and carefully, if quickly, crafted quotes prepared by his PR guy or gal.

Commentary is a different animal all together. It involves seeing trends through a thicket of trees to see the forest as a whole, adding your analysis of those trends and putting it into some sort of semi-coherent fashion based on your understanding of the sport in such a fashion it informs, entertains, amuses or alarms your readers. Done well, reporting or commentating is an asset to race fans, though as a commentator, I prefer the latter to the former.

“Use of social networking tools” is a bit harder for me to understand. It seems to mean that that NASCAR wants writers who text message or tweet their readers during races. I still don’t own a cell phone and have never text messaged or tweeted a single individual. I don’t have a Facebook page and I don’t know MySpace from outer space. I’m still getting used to this email thing.

It’s the “professionalism” requirement that truly worries me. Based on my experiences with NASCAR officials, “professionalism” equates to parroting the corporate line, or at least masking your dissent in such a way that it makes your output so bland it can be ignored or easily digested by the simple-minded. Any departure from the party line is seen as unprofessional. That’s the same sort of mindset the governments of the USSR, China, Cuba and North Korea have adopted.

To effectively wield a big stick, one must also offer a carrot. In this case what is being offered to the Internet media as a carrot is full and free access to the garage area, which is denied to most fans. But the stick is there as well. If NASCAR doesn’t like what you have to say after your time in the garage, you get the stick and the carrots get taken away. That’s the sort of threat that could turn some members of the media corps into whores.

I remember the first weekend I was headed to the track with full media credentials. I was practically giddy with excitement. I was finally going to get my peak behind the curtain. I was going to be in the press box. I was going to be handed a sheaf of press releases to let me know what the drivers thought after the race. And I was finally going to interview Earnhardt (Senior not Junior) on why he was in an apparent slump. As I’d learn, no, Little Grasshopper, you’re not going to get 10 minutes one on one with the Intimidator despite your press pass. He only talks to the big dogs and you are still a pup. If you’re lucky the nice Chevy PR lady will hand you an official press release of how he felt after the race and if you report it verbatim, perhaps one day you’ll get to ask Dale a question in a post-race press conference.

Hell, even Robby Gordon, who was running so bad that nobody else wanted to talk to him, dissed me when I asked him a legitimate question while he was standing around doing nothing other than preparing to pack up and go home after failing to qualify at Dover. He wanted to know who I wrote for before giving me 30 seconds of his time. I told him I wrote for an Internet site and he told me that he had no time for Internet types. And it’s been game on ever since. Don’t pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel or who has unlimited bandwidth at his disposal.

On that ride to the first race (ironically I think it was at Rockingham), my boss Mike Calinoff tried to temper my enthusiasm. He told me something that was going to stick with me for life. He told me that the more access I got to the garage area, the more I learned about the people who ran the sport and the people who made up the sport, the less I was going to like it. You look behind the curtain and you risk learning that the wizards are only mortal men. I was naïve then, I never thought it could happen. It did.

So the chosen ones, the new member of the NASCAR’s Citizen Journalist Corps, I offer this advice, because though I’ve gotten a glimpse of the Promised Land, I won’t be crossing with you. Like Calinoff told me, once you have insider access you will like the sport less, not more. A merry-go-round laden with happy children is a beautiful thing to behold until you get into the inner-workings of the machine and see that it’s all ready to fall apart. You’re mileage may vary. Perhaps you’ll be able to dwell on the positive side, the drivers who take time out of their busy schedule to interact with Make-A-Wish kids over and above the call of duty, and stuff like that. There are a lot of genuinely good folks in the garage area. But when you see the warts, call a strike a strike and be honest in your opinions. The ultimate litmus test isn’t the NASCAR officials who dangle the carrot, but your hard-won readers who expect honesty and can sniff out deceit like bloodhounds on the trail of a fugitive. Once you lose your credulity, the most precious gift you have as a writer, it’s like losing your virginity. You can never get it back.

There’s a joke I head a long time ago in the garage area. A rich man arrives at a local tavern and lays the keys to his Ferrari on the bar. He spies a beautiful woman at the bar and asks if she’ll sleep with him for a million dollars. “For a million bucks… well, yeah, I guess I will.” He asks her if she’ll sleep with him for a quarter and she’s offended. “What sort of girl do you think I am?” she huffs indignantly. “Ma’am,” he responds coolly, “We’ve already decided what sort of woman you are. Now we’re just negotiating over the price.”

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