I think I got an early start on Twitter, relative to many in the NASCAR community who’ve only recently discovered the social media platform. I joined Twitter on January 4, 2009 – nearly seven years ago – and my first tweet was, not surprisingly, about NASCAR.
“I am doing a phone interview Monday with Aric Almirola. I think he will have an interesting perspective on the new season and DEI/EGR.”
I first wrote about the way Twitter and NASCAR intertwined two months later – in March 2009 – in an article entitled, “NASCAR Networking is Better with Twitter.”
As I recall, the two drivers who were tweeting regularly in those days were Max Papis and Bobby Labonte. From the onset, I loved the way Twitter provided a direct line from the drivers to the media and fans without passing through the filter of a PR department. The comments and pics drivers posted were spontaneous and candid. You could tweet a question or comment to a driver and get a reply, or just read their tweets in your timeline and enjoy an intimate, behind-the-scenes look at their lives on and off the racetrack.
Not long into my Twitter experience, I heard the term “tweetup” being used to describe a real-life gathering of people who had connected on Twitter. NASA embraced this phenomenon and helped popularize the concept of Twitter meet-ups. The first official NASA tweetup took place at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Ca. in January 2009.
It’s no surprise, then, that NASCAR fans who became friends on Twitter would be interested in meeting up at the races they were attending. In keeping with the spirit of Twitter, fans also wanted to meet the drivers, team personnel, and even media members they interacted with via social media.
Jeff Gluck, currently a motorsports writer for USA TODAY, became the de facto organizer for trackside tweetups after fans started asking to meet him in person on race day. His first attempted Twitter gathering was at the Atlanta race on Labor Day weekend in 2009.
“I maybe had 2,000 or 3,000 Twitter followers at the time, and people started to say, ‘Hey, if you’re going to be at the race, I want to say hi,’” Gluck told me. “I can’t really run all over the track and say, ‘I’ll meet you’ and ‘I’ll meet you,’ so I said, ‘Why don’t we meet at this one spot?’ I think I had seen the term tweetup somewhere, maybe from NASA’s Twitter account, and I said, ‘We can tweetup at this location.’”
Gluck recalls, “Three people came to the first one. We did it again the next week at Richmond and two guys came. It was kind of awkward, almost like a blind date. I didn’t know who they were and they didn’t know who I was. We said we would meet over by this post and it was like, ‘Are you guys here for …?’ ‘Yeah, hey!’ It was just me and those two guys, and that was the whole tweetup.”
Michael McDowell was the first driver to take part in a NASCAR tweetup at Homestead that year, and as word spread on Twitter that drivers were attending, the number of fans participating grew quickly. “For a while, we were getting about 100 people, but I think it has kind of settled in to around 30-60, which is a nice number,” said Gluck. “I’m happy with it not being too crazy, because then you can’t get to talk to everybody and you’re just yelling at a group of people. I like to actually have conversations with people.”
Corrine Webber, a NASCAR fan from New Smyrna Beach, Fla. is a tweetup veteran, having attended five of the pre-race meetings at Daytona International Speedway and one at Homestead-Miami. Webber’s first tweetup was in November 2009 at Homestead, after learning of the event from Gluck on Twitter. She has met many drivers and NASCAR celebrities at the tweetups she’s attended, including McDowell, Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Samantha Busch, Jordan Fish and Mary Lou Hamlin (Denny Hamlin‘s girlfriend and mom), spotter Joey Meier, and Miss Sprint Cup Ann-Marie Rhodes. The guest at one of her very first tweetups was NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France.
“I would have never had some of the experiences I have had without Jeff [Gluck] and his tweetups,” Webber said. “I got to meet Brian France – how many other fans can say that? I was able to hang out with Brad Keselowski on his birthday and give him a card a few years ago. I’ve also been able to make friends with fans of other drivers that I would have never met because I don’t frequent those fan pages or message boards.”
Webber didn’t ask France any questions that day but was still excited to meet him in person. “I didn’t expect him to be so friendly,” she explained. “I thanked him for coming to hang out with us. The entire experience was pretty surreal.”
Greg Biffle was the surprise guest at a tweetup at Phoenix International Raceway a few weeks ago. Gluck said that drivers initially started coming to tweetups out of curiosity, but notes, “As time went on, it got harder for me to find people every week. Fortunately, a lot of the tracks have stepped up now. Phoenix is one of the top two or three tracks in organizing it. A lot of times we’ll put a call out on Twitter like, ‘Hey, we don’t have any guests,’ and people answer the call. Joey Logano’s spotter, Tab Boyd, has done that a few times.”
NASCAR fans Christopher Galle and Jenna Oliver of Surprise, Ariz. both attended their first tweetup at PIR in November and said they will definitely participate again. “To be able to interact with a driver, crew chief, owner, etc., is a great experience,” said Galle. “On Sunday, for 10-15 minutes, I was standing with Greg Biffle, which was a cool feeling.”
Oliver was surprised to see two other drivers (Hamlin and Clint Bowyer) wave to the tweetup crowd on their way to another destination and said she is already looking forward to the next gathering. “I wanted to see what it was all about. It was fun to try and guess who the guest was going to be and to have him answer questions.”
Gluck said he works hard to monitor how the crowd is interacting with the guest, especially when it is a top-tier driver. “You want to keep the conversation about racing,” he explained. “You don’t want it to turn into an autograph thing where they’re just signing, signing, signing, because I don’t think that’s fun for them.”
Well-known writers like Gluck, Bob Pockrass, and others on the national scene are often asked to take photos with fans or sign autographs at tweetups. Webber said that when she first met some of her favorite NASCAR writers in person, she thought of them as celebrities, but eventually they became more like friends. “I have a bunch of pictures with Jeff Gluck, and a few with Tom Jensen and Nate Ryan,” she said. “I think I have one with Dustin Long and Jay Busbee, too.”
For his part, Gluck is quick to downplay any notion of himself as a celebrity.
“I’m always really hesitant about that and it’s very uncomfortable for me. There are times that people will ask for an autograph and I think, ‘Why in the world would you want this? I’m going to ruin your t-shirt,’” he said. “It’s more a reflection of their passion for NASCAR than it is about me. I remember one time Kyle Busch’s web guy came out – the guy who does his website – and somebody said, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re Kyle Busch’s web guy? Can I have a picture and autograph?’ It’s really just anybody associated with their favorite sport that they see on a week-to-week basis.”
With more than 150 tweetups now in the books, it’s not surprising that a few unusual things have taken place. Gluck said one of the most memorable was at Kansas, when a marriage proposal was made and accepted during the tweetup. He later received an invitation to the wedding from the happy couple.
Everyone I spoke with at the Phoenix tweetup agreed that fans who have not been to a Twitter meet-up should give it a try next season. Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) and Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) typically post details about the upcoming week’s event on Twitter, and most of the tracks share information in their Twitter feeds as well.
Gluck said the biggest misconception of first-time participants is what does – and doesn’t – happen at a tweetup. “We don’t stand there looking at our phones and tweeting. That’s what most people think – a tweetup must be a time where they just go stand around and tweet. But, really, nobody is on their phone. This is a time when you interact with people. We met through Twitter, but we’re actually having a conversation and meeting face to face, and finding out what you like and don’t like and what you think about things.
“To me, it’s the highlight of every weekend.”