Race Weekend Central

A Mindful Mind Full

It’s back-to-school time, which means it’s also make-the-Chase time, too. The postseason format for stock car racing has now become synonymous with the start of autumn. Once the checkered flag flies at Richmond, the final ten Sprint Cup races take their place in the media spotlight alongside college football, early season games in the NFL, and late season games in major league baseball. That’s precisely what Brian France intended when he explained what the “Chase for the Championship” was hopefully going to accomplish back in January of 2004. Here we are, eight years later, and France’s vision seems to have come true. The Chase, roller coaster TV ratings aside seems to have earned its recognition among the other “mainstream” sports of fall.

Part of what makes today’s “Chase for the Sprint Cup” so readily accepted in sport culture is the fact that NASCAR, overall, has become more widely recognized. As stock car racing slowly earned its place alongside other established pastimes, it was only inevitable that people would try to find information about the drivers, the cars, the teams, and the rules in order to satisfy their growing curiosity. Information is knowledge, and knowledge is power, so for NASCAR Nation to achieve power, it would have to explore the vast wealth of information that comprises the sport.

NASCAR Decisions Lesa France Kennedy and CEO Brian France would once keep behind closed doors are now a part of the world to see on a daily basis. That’s the era of transparency for you… a trend that’s not reversing itself anytime soon.

The power provided through access to information has been on my mind much of this week. As I stated earlier, it’s “back-to-school” time, and this means spending the final, few, precious days of summer break in pre-semester meetings at the small college where I teach. These meetings — both faculty-related and/or departmental in nature – run anywhere from six to eight hours over the course of three (or more) consecutive days. During these sessions, my colleagues and I learn about recent developments in enrollment, administration, planning, and pedagogy.

We also hear about emerging trends in college relations between institutions (our college) and their clientele (our students). Despite my well-intentioned wishes to NOT see our little school as a business, it quickly becomes very apparent that our college is, in fact, quite a regional industry. Students in search of knowledge and skills come in one door; graduates who’ve earned degrees and marketable talents leave through another. In the middle of it all, our students are provided access to information, and that information provides them with the power they need in order to succeed in life.

Much of the information I’ve had access to this week revolved around this thing called transparency – the idea that people engaging with your business (and that’s really what a college – and a professional sport – is) are privy to information tied to how the institution operates. Regulations and requirements are shared with the client/student (how I hate that comparison) with nothing concealed from view. Just like students deserve to know how final grades are calculated, understanding what they must complete in order to receive those grades, the community deserves to know where funding and policies originate. It’s all about the freedom of information, and the freedom provided through open and honest access to that information.

In our present-day “Information Society,” it’s technology that opens both doors and minds. We all know the drill: you can utilize the internet to learn anything and everything about pretty much anything and everything. A Smartphone allows you access to people, places, and all manner of things, including particulars about government, business, industry, and entertainment. When talking about NASCAR, we’re talking about all of these.

This thought crossed my mind yesterday while sitting through yet another lengthy meeting about trend of transparency – the “you can run, but you can’t hide” school of organization. At the college level, this means providing students with access to admissions opportunities, financial aid information, registration guidance, course enrollment, and content delivered through online systems available anywhere the student (or potential student) might be. Technology, whether we like it or not, lifts the veil of secrecy away from the ivy-laden walls of academia…. and that is part of what forces colleges and universities to operate in an honest and forthright manner.

The same can be said for NASCAR, which finds itself at the mercy of an informed fan base equipped with the latest-and-greatest in emerging technology. What used to be hidden from public view in the days of Big Bill France (and even during the early tenure of Bill France, Jr.) is now typically out in the open for all to see, read, and interpret. NASCAR has had to make its inner workings more transparent than ever before, and if the sanctioning body refuses to do so, the media will insure that any curtains of confusion are torn down.

There was a day when rule changes, driver feuds, problems with sponsors, and all related penalties would occur, for the most part, behind closed doors. Trips out to the “big red truck” were secretive affairs, as were the results from such visits. If a driver, car owner, or NASCAR honcho wanted to “leak” specifics from such a private conversation, it was totally up to them. Once a detail had been leaked, then it was up to journalists to either pick up the tidbit, choosing to report it or simply leave the unofficial “rumor” to ruminate around the media center. Some stories were better left unexplored…

But not today! A culture of transparency is propelled by full-and-immediate disclosure, one that makes it all-too-necessary to share details deemed relevant to the knowledge base of NASCAR Nation. A driver has problems with drugs and/or alcohol? Spread the word! A driver or car owner is embroiled in a nasty divorce? Tweet the details before someone else gets the scoop! A team gets nailed with a penalty for breaking a rule? We demand to know who it was, what they did, and how much the violation will cost!

Our contemporary culture of transparency often forces the parties involved to share information against their better judgment. Such a culture also tends to condition people into expecting quick-and-complete access to such personal business.

Perhaps that’s why NASCAR initiated its social media relationship with Twitter a couple of months ago at Pocono. Maybe it was the “if you can’t beat ‘em” notion that motivated the sport into embracing immediate and constant contact with its fan base. Building off the interest spurred on by Brad Keselowski tweeting during the red flag delay at Daytona in February, NASCAR entered a brave new world of open and seemingly spontaneous communications. If the intent was to capture a younger and more connected fan demographic, the experiment was a noble one.

However, there’s a problem inherent with transparency: the idea that any information you willingly and readily share with your customers (and that’s ultimately what race fans are) only has to appear “real”. Think about how much misinformation is to be found posted on professional-looking websites and in seemingly-authentic tweets; the allure of open communication and the promise of intimate details can look sincere, but it doesn’t have to be.

Again, consider NASCAR’s arrangement with Twitter beginning at Pocono last June. For all the information coming straight from fans, drivers, crew members, car owners, officials, and the media, there was also the suspicion that someone on NASCAR’s payroll was likely moderating the open flow of communications. If an angry crew chief, observant spectator, or knowledgeable media member tweeted about a “missed call” by NASCAR officials, might that missive be “deleted” by the administrator of the Twitter feed?

Sure, such information could easily be diverted from the public’s eyes. The same is true for highly “private” particulars that are only accessible on a “need-to-know” basis. This was the way NASCAR operated back during Big Bill’s era. This was also the way NASCAR operated under Bill Jr. during his early years at the helm.

In those pre-internet years, a fan in search of true NASCAR information had to either know someone in the sport, have easy access to pit road and the garage area at an event, or be a devoted reader of publications like Stock Car Racing Magazine (under Dr. Dick Berggren) or the National Speed Sport News back when Chris Economaki was running the show. Not that such an approach would result in the “truth” about NASCAR and its inner workings, but – for a knowledge-starved race fan who wanted to know as much about their favorite sport as possible – you had to find any port in a storm.

That port calling us to safety and security today is the internet and all the factual information it provides. Despite all of its pitfalls and problems, the internet seems to be the established vehicle for disseminating useful and/or necessary information. Access to more-and-more information makes the world a more transparent and less suspicious place. How do I know this fact? It’s because the folks in charge of the college where I teach tell me so… just like the folks running NASCAR so often do.

And who are they to try and hide anything from me?

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