News & Media


Inside NASCAR: Social media is here to stay

June 29, 2011, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

Drivers, teams, sponsors and the media no longer consider social media a fad

It helped Kenny Wallace find sponsorship for last year's Montreal race. It may have cost Denny Hamlin as much as $50,000 in fines. It's changed the way the fans interact with drivers, the way NASCAR markets and promotes the sport and even how the media goes about reporting stories.

It's the phenomenon known as social media -- everything from e-mails, bulletin boards, chat rooms and instant messaging to sites like Blogger, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube -- all of which have combined to revolutionize the way information is disseminated.

"I think it's smart for me to stay in the regular social networks -- the ones I can see."

--DALE EARNHARDT JR.

And not surprisingly, the sport as a whole has found itself facing as many questions as answers when it comes to how best to harness the amazing power and immediacy of social media. The explosion of user-created content, particularly in the past two or three years, has changed the way nearly everyone connected to NASCAR looks at the relationship between those inside the garage area and those in the grandstands.

It's a huge, untamed virtual space, and a potential marketplace of younger, techno-savvy users that dwarfs the current NASCAR audience. The statistics are mind-boggling. Social networking accounts for nearly a quarter of all time spent online. Facebook has over 600 million active users. Twitter averages 190 million tweets per day.

The strategy for effective social media is clear, even though the process of going about it may be easier said than done: Identify the target audience and engage it. But in what way, and to what end? That's where each segment of NASCAR is unique.

For all the positives about the future of social media, there are definitely some issues of concern. And even though there is a fear that you'll somehow be left behind if you don't actively maintain a presence on Facebook or Twitter, there are those who don't feel the need to keep up.

"I don't have anything on Twitter as far as I know of," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "There's tons of impostors out there. I don't have a MySpace, a Twitter or none of that crap.

"There's a bunch of impostors out there though that you have to beware of. I really would never get into social networking -- it's just a dangerous area to be involved in, especially if you're high profile. So I think it's smart for me to stay in the regular social networks -- the ones I can see, you know."

Kenny Wallace signs autographs for fans prior last year's Nationwide race at Nashville. Wallace used social media to connect with fans and to find sponsorship needed for the race at Montreal in 2009.

Drivers and social media

Kenny Wallace is now a believer, but that wasn't the case originally. Wallace found out about the untapped power of social media quite by accident. In the spring of 2009, he was pursuing sponsorship of his Nationwide car for the Montreal race later that year.

At the time, he felt Facebook "was for kids" and didn't see any particular value. However, he was eventually persuaded to start a personal page, albeit for networking purposes.

"We didn't know anything," Wallace said. "I got on there and said, 'Hey, I don't have a sponsor for Montreal, Canada. Does anybody know of any companies in Montreal?' And all of a sudden, this gentleman came on and said, 'Kenny, let the fans sponsor your car for $20 apiece.'

"It kept going on for a month or two, so I ran the idea by NASCAR and they thought it was a great idea so I went ahead and did it. We signed up 7,000 people on the fan car."

"It's a way to get my feelings out. Ninety percent of the time I say what's going on. I'm bored at an airport or after lunch, and I'm just decompressing. And I like talking anyway. The other 10 percent of the time, I mention my sponsors. "

--KENNY WALLACE

In an unexpected way, Wallace's plea for help struck a chord with fans. And NASCAR took notice of the innovative way Wallace used social media.

"I knew I was on to something when somebody at NASCAR had a team meeting with all the car owners," Wallace said. "When they stood up, they said all of us can take a lesson from what Kenny Wallace did with social media."

Wallace now has approximately 48,000 followers on Twitter and between 35,000 and 40,000 Facebook friends. Figuring the amount of overlap, Wallace estimates that's at least 60,000 people who want to know what he has to say -- and perhaps more important, want to tell him what they think.

"The great thing about social networking? I tell everybody, 'You all are a bunch of nuts. Some of you are cashews and some of you are almonds, but you're all nuts,' " Wallace said. " They like that, because social networking is a great way for people to release their steam.

"When they're mad at Kevin Harvick or mad at Kyle Busch, they get on there and let it fly. It just makes them feel so good. You can either compliment people or bash them."

For Wallace, social networking is an outlet for fans to air their gripes about whatever's on their minds. And his sessions are like therapy for those who may not think their opinions are important.

"My nickname for it is sport bashing," Wallace said. "It happens in all leagues: the NFL and major league baseball. But social networking has become the No. 1 place for sport bashing. It really lets the fans interact.

"It's like AM talk radio. I start out with, 'State your complaint, caller.' And boy, they load up by the thousands. I call them sessions. And I'll say, 'At 7 o'clock tonight, I'll be in my living room with my iPad,' and I'll have a session. Because there's more complaining than there is fun. I think that's the phenomenon of social networking, is being able to state your complaints."

The Kenny Wallace who fires off tweets about anything and everything is as close as a fan can get to knowing his true personality.

"I want them to see the real me," Wallace said. "So that's what I do with my social network. Listen, I've gotten in trouble with Twitter. But before I press 'send,' I read it about three or four times to myself. And there are times that I've written things and erased them."

For Wallace, using social media is almost like writing in a diary. But he also understands the power he possesses, particularly when it comes to activating sponsorships through social media.

"It's a way to get my feelings out," he said. "Ninety percent of the time I say what's going on. I'm bored at an airport or after lunch, and I'm just decompressing. And I like talking anyway. The other 10 percent of the time, I mention my sponsors.

"That's a big part of my sponsorships. ... So they'll tell me, 'When we're sponsoring you that race, can you mention us?' That's the future. It's the same thing for Lowe's or Menards or Home Depot. They use social networking to say what's on sale, information. That's the future of it."

Still, Wallace is amazed by the width and breadth of social media, and where it may lead.

"Never did I think in a million years in March of 2009, that it would become like it did," Wallace said. "But that's how it happened to me. It was quite strange. And I just kept doing it because I'm smart but I'm a little off-centered. I'm eccentric. I don't think like other people think. I'm a people person. That's the biggest difference."

The media and social media

Jeff Gluck, the motorsports editor at SB Nation, found social media to be a matter of necessity when he was a victim of NASCAR Scene cutbacks in January of 2010.

"The first thing I did was text my mom, 'Hey, bad news, I got laid off,' Gluck said. "And then I went outside the building. At the time, I had about 3,000 Twitter followers and I said, 'Hey, everybody. Just want to let you know I'm looking for a job.'

"Through all of the news, the SB Nation people called me the next day. That really hit home to me how important it is. As a writer, it doesn't really matter what your outlet is, as long as you can tell your readers, 'This is what I'm writing.' And you can bring them there. You can send them out that link. It's opened up a completely different world."

Gluck began tweeting at Phoenix in the spring of 2009, following some of the NASCAR social media pioneers like DeLana Harvick and Max Papis. But he didn't have a clear sense of where it might lead him at the time.

"I did MySpace, but not for work purposes," Gluck said. "MySpace got very cluttered because they let people customize their page so much, so once Facebook came out -- which is the same sort of style and the layout was standard -- people just dropped MySpace so quickly and Facebook went through the roof.

"Before, a reporter might get that lead and chase it behind the scenes. Now it's kind of being done publicly, and a lot of the media will even fish out there about a tweet, and somebody will respond, which adds to the information gathering of the story. "

--JEFF GLUCK

"I used a Facebook fan page for myself because I went to a social media conference and they expressed how important it was for writers to brand yourself, which is what happened to me when I got laid off."

Gluck's interdependence on social media -- and his interaction with his audience -- lays the foundation for what he views as the important topics of the day. Unlike a traditional medium, which processes and distributes news based on decision-makers inside the business, Gluck is beholden to his readership and what they consider newsworthy.

"With Twitter and social media in general, it's more like 'What do you want?' " Gluck said. "And you get that instant feedback. You can see from the link shortener sites what is being clicked on, so you can post something on Twitter and if something takes off right away, you say, 'Wow, people are really interested in reading about that,' as opposed to writing about something or some driver, and nobody cares.

"It's sad from a journalism perspective, because you don't do as much good journalism, but those are your ratings. It's a business and to survive -- and having been laid off, it's all about survival now -- you have to give people what they want. So as a result on SB Nation, there's always Dale Jr. stories. That's what gets clicks."

In addition, the erosion of traditional media deadlines -- due in part to the instantaneous nature of social media and the Internet -- has created a transparency to the news gathering process that hasn't existed until now.

"It's really fascinating because you can see the stories developing," Gluck said. "If you're following the right people in the industry, which I think even the fans are following the same key people that a lot of the journalists do, some little tidbit might float out there and it turns into something else, and then it turns into something else.

"Before, a reporter might get that lead and chase it behind the scenes. Now it's kind of being done publicly, and a lot of the media will even fish out there about a tweet, and somebody will respond, which adds to the information gathering of the story."

But Gluck admits there's a downside to a 24 hour/7 day news cycle, particularly when you're going it alone.

"You have to constantly be connected to it or it's gone," Gluck said. "If you go away for just a couple of hours, there might be this little tidbit out there -- which has happened to me a couple of times. I'll go to dinner or a movie, you get back on and you might not hear about something, and then you hear the same thing the next day and people respond, 'We heard that yesterday, Jeff.' There's times when I'll take my laptop on a date and put it in the trunk of the car, just in case.

"It's almost like a doctor being on call. You can't unplug. You'll miss something. The Hendrick crew chief swap happened at 6 o'clock, two days before Thanksgiving, when everybody's getting ready to go out of town. There were no murmurs about it, and all of a sudden, it was like 'Boom! Hendrick changes crew chiefs!' Huge story, right? And then it's just a scramble. The news can come at any time. You would have had a day to react to it before and now, every second that goes by, I think you're losing a potential reader by not getting the story up fast."

What has also changed is the lack of a filter to separate truths from rumors or even biased points of view.

"The people who are reading the story, more than ever before, they're going to be challenged with determining what is valid news and information and what is being spun for other people's purposes," Gluck said. "In some ways, the newsmakers are now putting out their own news. But readers have got to remember, that's that person's slant on it.

" So just because somebody says something, that doesn't mean that's exactly how it came about. You, as a reader, have to determine who are you going to believe and when are you going to believe it. It's becoming a lot more difficult."

If there's a concern in Gluck's mind about the future of how social media will affect the way he delivers his product, it could come from the increased use of search indexes.

"Everything is going to be pushed to you," Gluck said. "Readers' habits are already changing, where even a few years ago, we used to bookmark our favorite sites. Now, I follow certain people on Twitter and get the latest news that way. People do that on Facebook and some of the other social media sites now. That's just going to snowball in the future, I think."

NASCAR and social media

NASCAR senior vice president and chief marketing officer Steve Phelps said the sanctioning body realized fairly quickly that it needed a major social media presence. And it turned to its digital partner, Turner Sports Interactive, for help.

"About 18 months ago, we said we have to ramp this up and got with the Turner people and looked at what we were doing on Facebook and how it was going," Phelps said. "Then we tried to fine-tune that. Since February of last year, we've quadrupled that number.

"We were at about 400,000 around the Daytona 500 in 2010, and now we're at 1.6 million and climbing. In Twitter during that same time period, we were at 8,000 and now we're well over 160,000 and growing more each day. It's an important medium -- a growing medium -- so we obviously need to be there."

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But why? For Phelps and NASCAR, it's a two-fold answer. And it's a major reason why the sanctioning body is focused on adding a senior director for digital and social media in the near future.

"One, it does give us that feedback, immediate feedback [from the fans]," Phelps said. "We can hear what they're saying and hear their voice. Two, we're not suggesting that people my age and older aren't using social media -- they are -- but it's how young people communicate.

"If we are not there with rich content for them to talk about, then we're certainly missing an opportunity. We're going to try to get better and smarter. That person will really be able to help us be even smarter about what we are doing in that space, so we are relevant to that group and what they want."

NASCAR has used social media successfully, particularly when it hosted a concert and outdoor festival in Miami during the final race weekend of the 2010 season.

"It was a great opportunity to use social media in talking to those folks and getting them down to South Beach," Phelps said. "We were able to put out a message, 'Hey, we've got the Zac Brown Band playing.' It really gets a buzz. We're able to push things we want to push to a very targeted audience.

"This is a good way for us to expose NASCAR to a different audience, whether that's a younger audience or more multi-cultural, it's a great way for us to do that."

Ultimately, driving new fans to NASCAR's marketing and promotions initiatives is the primary goal, Phelps said. But that needs to be hand-in-hand with quality content.

"We believe social media is going to continue to grow, as people start to communicate with each other as opposed to doing it through e-mails or on the phone. "

--STEVE PHELPS

"We need to make sure that we're very strong in this space and we'll continue to ramp up our efforts by adding more people and making sure what we're Tweeting or what we're putting on Facebook is rich and interesting, so that the fans will want to continue to be engaged," he said. "I think you'll see continued growth in that space for us. It's just one more avenue for us to speak to the fans, which is great."

In any case, NASCAR knows social media isn't a fad. It's here to stay, and the sanctioning body will work on fine-tuning the way it's used.

"We believe social media is going to continue to grow, as people start to communicate with each other as opposed to doing it through e-mails or on the phone or whatever," Phelps said. "It's hard to predict where it's going, and I'm not an expert, but I certainly don't see it slowing down significantly any time soon.

"And as what is getting delivered gets better and better, that's how you capture the imagination of the people who are using it. Our fans want to be heard. They want to interact and tell their fellow fan about it. That's great because it really gets people talking and giving them their voice, both with each other and certainly with us."

One of the unique aspects of social media is in the field of interactive games, where people create virtual aquariums, plant virtual crops and play adventure games. And now, NASCAR is attempting to break into what appears to be a lucrative potential fan base.

Through Facebook's Car Town game, NASCAR partner Turner Sports Interactive has launched the NASCAR Pro Championship presented by Sprint, a follow-up to the Daytona Challenge earlier this season.

The goal is to give the nine million users of Car Town another avenue to connect to the sport, according to NASCAR.COM senior director of business operations Justin Williams.

"Through our NASCAR.COM features including video highlights, live leaderboards and RaceBuddy, fans can engage in an interactive viewing experience," Williams said. "Adding the NASCAR Pro Championship presented by Sprint allows us to reach fans already engaged in social media gaming and continue to provide them with a fully immersive NASCAR experience."

Where do we go from here?

Gluck found himself in the middle of a firestorm last year when a public Twitter conversation he had with Hamlin after a Nationwide Series race at Chicagoland reportedly was used as evidence by NASCAR. The sanctioning body decided to take action against Hamlin for several insinuations about the legitimacy of caution flags in an effort to manage competition. It permanently changed the way Hamlin uses social media, and his perception of the message he wants to convey.

"You definitely view it differently, whether you want to or not," Hamlin said. "You can say it really doesn't change you, but obviously it changed how I use it quite a bit.

"I've been made aware that when you say stuff that's negative towards NASCAR, it does affect how the fans perceive NASCAR -- and it's a fact."

--DENNY HAMLIN

"I used it to kind of interact and give my opinions of races while they were going on and things of that nature. Now I don't do that. I just kind of watch and let it be and keep it updated more like something like a Facebook -- that's kind of just letting people know what you're doing at that moment in time."

For Hamlin, it was a lesson learned.

"I do view it a little bit differently and I do use it differently now simply because I've been made aware that when you say stuff that's negative towards NASCAR, it does affect how the fans perceive NASCAR -- and it's a fact," Hamlin said. "We see it in studies and stuff like that. I don't want to do anything to hurt NASCAR's perception of the race fans.

"So, in my opinion even though the fans might not like it as much, it's pretty much what I have to do and what I do to kind of use it for what it's meant to be."

But even though that episode seemed to have a chilling effect on what gets said publicly, Phelps said NASCAR doesn't want to impinge on open communication as much as set guidelines that will provide a positive message.

"We haven't seen it a lot from our athletes, but you see it from athletes as a whole who have said some things that they probably wished they hadn't, whether through Twitter or Facebook," Phelps said. "It's so instant. Once it's out there, it's there.

"I think we'll ultimately -- as a sport -- put some guidelines for our athletes and ourselves that will be beneficial and we don't want to constrain what people are saying. It's not in our best interests because we certainly want our drivers to be themselves and authentic. That's what resonates with the people using this medium anyway."