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Happy Hour: NASCAR & the “Citizen Journalist”

Editor’s Note: Kurt Smith is currently in Las Vegas losing both his proverbial and metaphorical behind. Since he won’t be able to recoup his losses without his salary of untold millions contracted in a per-column basis, he gave us his thoughts on NASCAR’s recent edict allowing “Citizen Journalists” media access to Cup garages. He would have talked about it sooner, but Matt McLaughlin beat him to it, and Matt was more qualified to comment anyway. But at any rate, we hope you enjoy Kurt’s thoughts on the subject… and thanks for reading commentary from the People’s Republic of the Frontstretch!

As most of you know, recently NASCAR renewed their efforts to connect with its most devoted fans, with the initiation of the “NASCAR Citizen Journalist Media Corps.” The idea is to allow writers from NASCAR-themed websites the same media access to garages and pressrooms and such that had previously been offered only to newspaper and television types.

Here’s a quote from NASCAR’s website in the press release: “As the newspaper industry adjusts to a new age of information, NASCAR fans and former traditional media have taken it upon themselves to report, cover and opine on the sport.”

Since nothing I’ve written for Frontstretch has been printed in a major publication to my knowledge, and because we don’t have a TV show, I expect that I am still a “citizen journalist” by NASCAR’s standards. But I find the title insulting. It stirs up images of someone sitting in front of his computer ranting about how much NASCAR stinks these days in between sessions of self-stimulation and refusal to bathe. I’m sure that’s not how it was intended, but it does seem to attach a lower level of legitimacy to what we at Frontstretch do.

That NASCAR has changed its attitude towards Internet writers does suggest that it is finally beginning to appreciate that it can’t squelch dissension like it once could and did. But when the caveat is added about “professionalism,” that still means “we can exclude whomever we want,” and you can bet that someone like a Matt McLaughlin might fall short on the “professional” part somehow – if he were interested.

With that said, it does seem as though the naysayers have won a battle to a certain degree. Somehow, I have a hard time believing NASCAR has softened towards its critics, but this gesture certainly shows that it has blinked in the face of declining interest.

All the same, I get the impression that this could be another attempt by NASCAR to change its ways that lasts until about five minutes into the going getting rough. Sort of like NASCAR saying it would allow more emotion from drivers, which lasted a few weeks, or until Tony Stewart openly blasted them for debris cautions on the radio. Or saying that the sport has had all the change it could stand for awhile and then increasing the severity of penalties, slowing Toyota engines, changing the venue for the Labor Day race again, eliminating testing, and giving in to demand for double-file restarts… after 62 years of single-file restarts hadn’t killed the sport.

It may come as a shock to many to hear a commentator – sorry, “citizen journalist” – say this, but NASCAR’s problem isn’t that it doesn’t listen to fans enough. If it has a legislative problem it’s that it sometimes listens too much, regularly scrapping long-established traditions based on the whim of whatever the sentiment is of some fans at the time. That’s at least partly how we got the Chase, the new car and the four cars per team rule.

Even so, NASCAR has never been good about swallowing criticism from anyone involved with the sport. Following his debris caution rant, Stewart’s team was stopped from unloading its hauler until he wrote “I will not compare NASCAR to the WWE” on the office chalkboard 50 times. This may explain why it has been slow to embrace the Internet… it has become much easier – and even profitable – to voice one’s negative opinions about NASCAR and be heard. NASCAR is just starting to deal with that.

Frontstretch, and other sites like it, provide commentary that not only is equal in quality to that of ESPN or Fox Sports’ or NASCAR’s own website, but that also isn’t bought and paid for in a sense by NASCAR or the networks that broadcast races. We have great writers, too.

The “citizen journalists” (it makes me giggle) are, to look at it realistically, true dyed-in-the-wool fans with a voice. Which is what the “official” reporters are anyway, aren’t they? And if they aren’t, what are they doing there?

Journalists for independent websites aren’t going to parrot the line that the Chase is a wonderful thing because their employer broadcasts these races. One of the reasons for Frontstretch’s popularity is that sometimes writers on the site do cross the “professional” line (as some might define it) and write with emotion because they’re angry with the poor treatment of paying customers. And they don’t care about what it will mean to their writing careers if something needs to be said. Somebody should have been speaking for people who bought a ticket and fought through traffic for the Indianapolis race last year, especially after the initial arrogance NASCAR displayed following that disaster. Maybe we’re not washing the feet of the poor in Calcutta, but at least we’re trying to speak for people with an emotional attachment and a tight wallet.

Please don’t get me wrong here. I truly do appreciate that NASCAR is making efforts to reach out and embrace the voice of independent journalism, which isn’t going to be fully represented by someone working for NASCAR. Darrell Waltrip is never going to write a column about how annoying Digger is, and that’s fine. But if they want to reach us, they aren’t going to do it by demanding their own standard of “professionalism” which, given their history, generally means “being uncritical of NASCAR.” I truly don’t have a problem with that, but NASCAR could also demonstrate bigness and openness – or maybe “diversity” if you want to use a buzzword – by embracing those of all stripes and creeds. If they allowed Matt McLaughlin in the pressroom, I’d greatly respect their ability to take a punch and rise above it.

But between you and me gang, if NASCAR simply put on the best show that it could (and that means fewer commercial breaks and corporate sponsored race interruptions!) and stopped worrying about criticism, fans might start coming back. Few things have irked the longtime fan more than the constant meddling, the constant implication that racing isn’t exciting enough. Nearly all of the efforts to legislate excitement in NASCAR have backfired and done the opposite.

And now NASCAR is in a bind that offering free donuts to misfits like me sitting at computers isn’t likely going to fix.

Although I’d say nice things about the donuts.

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