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500 feet before the finish line of the 53rd Daytona 500, Trevor Bayne started cruising towards an impossible dream. He was about to become the youngest winner of the Great American Race, driving a car whose co-owner, Glen Wood, is on the short list for the NASCAR Hall of Fame despite last winning nearly a decade ago. As a record-setting race (74 lead changes, 16 caution flags, Valentine’s Day-like two-car drafts) came to a close, it was clear these memorable few seconds transcended them all.
That’s when the atmosphere at NASCAR’s 2.5-mile oval changed into something rare; fans of all 43 drivers uniting as one, they stood and roared in approval of the type of achievement you don’t see in person but once a lifetime. So as that No. 21 Ford crossed the finish line, the walls of the infield couldn’t keep out 21 years of passion for motorsports in my own heart. Before I could control it, my hands were coming together to join them, caught up with fans and media alike in a moment we could all appreciate – but one fans and media are told never, ever to experience together.
That day marked my first and last claps working as a NASCAR reporter for SI.com.
Five years ago, covering cars going around in circles seemed a virtual impossibility for my sports career. Instead, 18 months out of Syracuse University with a Master’s in Broadcast Journalism my days were Office Space-like: fill a FedEx tub, ship it and make sure nothing gets lost. Those are the days of a lowly production assistant, working for a sports network out in New York City where opportunity knocked, but only if you put in the time: years as a television slave stocking tapes, making those TPS reports hum (in the form of logging footage) and even getting the manager a coffee.
It was here, in the midst of one of those mindless days, Sports Illustrated made a sudden, life-changing phone call to me in 2006. Turns out they’d discovered my writing here, on Frontstretch.com, then a fan site where I covered a sport I’d loved since I was eight years old. It was on a summer day in 1989 when I turned on the television and watched an orange-clad, No. 17 Tide Chevrolet driven by Darrell Waltrip wrestle its way into the favorite athlete portion of my heart; stock car racing was then drilled into my soul. Since his retirement in 2000, I had channeled that passion into a side job, writing for smaller sites on various NASCAR topics I followed with gut instincts built from a lifetime of devotion, knowledge, and persistence toward following stock car racing. To go from the small-time to an audition opportunity with SI online, courtesy of an expanding department was the equivalent of an American Idol dream turned reality.
That’s where the story takes its inevitable turn, not all that dissimilar to thousands of stock car crewmen, drivers and executives who gave it all up, building their careers on the back of hard work and sacrifice. Giving up the full-time job was what the movie tells you to do, but they skip over all those risky scenes of worry, canned food and sleepless nights about whether it’s all going to work out in the end. I still have my checkbook register that showed $41.72 to my name before getting over the hump.
But I did. SI offered me a freelance contract, one that kept growing as I successfully pursued a NASCAR television career that earned me an Associate Producer credit and two Emmy Awards. In the meantime, my reporting career became increasingly influential in the sport. When Mauricia Grant, the African-American NASCAR official brought a $250 million lawsuit on racial discrimination, sexual harassment and other charges I had the first one-on-one in-person interview. I sniffed out Tony Stewart’s move to driver/owner, was on top of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s crew chief carousel and broke the story of the old Petty Enterprises’ “death” on national radio.
Two weeks ago, I was covering my fifth 500, ironic seeing five seconds of my own clapping brought it all crashing down. You see, no matter how much of a Kodak moment happens around you, many insist “sacred rule #1” of being a sportswriter is Don’t Cheer in the Press Box. Even smiling in public–revealing emotion–stamps you with the Scarlet Letter of bias for eternity. It’s a fatal flaw, the old story goes, corrupting the impartial analysis, factual and critical thinking skills that make media members “larger than life” compared to the fans that read us. Defending my position on Twitter was enough to break media rule #2, “Apologize Profusely When Important People Think You Have Sinned.” And suddenly, three days later, those defenses led to the perfect “three strikes and you’re out of a job” conclusion.
Except my position hasn’t changed. I took those ethics courses in journalism just like everyone else; I understand the importance of impartiality in reporting. But last time I checked, where you’re supposed to be judged is whether that actually shows up on paper. Just like Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001, an incident that I’m certain left some media crying, events can overcome all of us in exceptional circumstances. Understanding works both ways, in times of tragedy and triumph; so if we agree on nothing else, know that what we saw last Sunday, whether you’re reading as a NASCAR fan or an interested observer certainly qualifies. Bayne’s victory was a ray of hope for a sport beaten down the last five years, a 30 percent ratings decline for this race alone from ’05-‘10 spurring more criticism and negative storylines than the careers of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan combined. I was far from the only reporter who clapped that day; the sad part is I’m the only one bold enough to admit it in the face of peers overly focused on the values of reporting rather than the act itself.
Turns out the modern, professional media is ignorant of a changing culture beyond their control, one where “just the facts, ma’am” is increasingly replaced with the instant gratification of “just the facts, ma’am… and here’s how I think those facts should get interpreted. What do you think?” It’s a place where the “official” media claim to follow the rules, then give us their opinion seconds afterwards on verified Twitter accounts while hanging “off the record” with the athletes they cover during the week. (That’s all something that happened fifty years ago, by the way, when these presupposed “values” existed but the general public wasn’t able to take a peek until the memoirs got written). Even the most stringent, by-the-book newsman is caught by the modern push of facts with commentary in reporting.
So the first step to a solution is recognizing the clapping problem, which is that we’re all inherently biased: wired to judge, love, hate, and experience every emotion in between, parts of the brain we can’t shut off like a water fountain. The key, then, to me is to know how to turn that off in your writing, a story focused on getting the facts right first before transitioning into actual analysis. Fact: I clapped, and then shook Trevor Bayne’s hand on the way out along with many assembled media in attendance. Analysis: I still wrote a well-reasoned, well-thought out post-race column on a variety of topics that would have happened if Bayne or Kyle Busch had won. It’s a statement readers will have to agree or disagree with, as in many ways they hold the key: without them, there’s no stories or sport to write about in the first place, no future for me as I’m settling into an unemployment market too many of them find themselves in. Let’s not get all holier-than-thou about this stuff; sports, in its purest form are glorified entertainment for us all. Some people are just fortunate to write about it and get paid.
Perhaps that’s why amateurs in increasing numbers, watching events unfold from their couch are getting read just as much as the modern media these days.
Years ago, a good friend gave me a quote I keep in my wallet: “There’s a fine line between fear and faith.” Writing this column comes fraught with risk, my future undefined beyond this point. But this site – whose assets I purchased, with the goal of a new, independent-based journalism voice two years ago – is run on the principle of writing without fear. How could I stand up to 24 writers here, most of whom I consider family after years of building a vision and say I couldn’t tackle my own termination? If someone had come to us, insisting their livelihood was cut because of a few rounds of applause I’d have my staff seeking a one-on-one interview in a heartbeat.
I know the consequences; even at 29 years old, these words could leave me permanently dangling on the wrong side of the NASCAR fence. But if a supposed lapse of ethics proves to be my downfall, despite an undying passion and thirst for knowledge regardless of the consequences, so be it. At least I can look in the mirror at the end of the night, smile and give a round of applause for staying true to myself.
Even if that display is powerful enough to cost me a career.
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