NASCAR officials privately met with the drivers Friday morning at Daytona International Speedway, a biannual meeting to discuss the state of the sport and ongoing initiatives.
Last July, this meeting did not go very well for me. I’d like to share that story with you now, since hopefully enough time has passed to discuss it publicly.
On the Friday of the summer Daytona weekend last year, a story of mine was published in USA Today with the headline “NASCAR Looks Beyond Declining Attendance, TV Ratings.” This story had been in the works for months, ever since editors watched the April race at Bristol and noticed the tens of thousands of empty grandstand seats.
The conclusion was to do a story explaining to readers what was happening in NASCAR, and I was given the assignment to write it. NASCAR knew the story was in the works — I interviewed chief operating officer Brent Dewar for it, along with 200 fans — but wasn’t happy it was coming out.
Obviously, people who follow NASCAR closely were already familiar with topics like ratings and attendance, but the general audience USA Today served may not have been as aware. And since Brian France is known to read USA Today, anything negative in the newspaper often comes under a microscope.
Knowing this, I walked into the track that day braced for some level of blowback. That’s the nature of writing for a national outlet like that.
But even though I knew some in NASCAR would be upset — just as they were over the Wall St. Journal story this February — I was totally unprepared for it landing on drivers’ radars as well.
However, NASCAR made sure it did. During the midseason update meeting, a high-ranking NASCAR executive held up a copy of the newspaper with my story and told all the drivers in attendance that this was the type of coverage that was killing the sport. You have to remember this was in the midst of a title sponsor search for NASCAR, so it was a particularly sensitive time for everyone.
Shortly thereafter, I was approached in the media center by David Higdon, who was leading the NASCAR communications department at the time. He gave me a heads up I’d probably be getting some hostility from the drivers in the coming weeks, because the story was discussed in the meeting and not received favorably by the drivers.
I was skeptical upon hearing this. NASCAR spending time in a meeting with all the drivers to discuss a newspaper article? Come on.
So I texted a driver I really trust to tell me the truth and asked him if my story was discussed in the meeting — and if other drivers were angry about it.
“Call me,” the reply said.
The driver told me that indeed a copy of the paper was held up in the meeting and discussed as an example of the kind of negative coverage the sport didn’t need and couldn’t afford at the time. And that, yes, some other drivers were upset with me (apparently Carl Edwards was the most vocal about it, but we’ve since gotten back on better terms).
This was sort of devastating news for me. It’s so hard to build relationships in the garage (and I’m not great at that in the first place), and it felt like all that was suddenly in jeopardy. It was a terrible feeling, because I’d made a concerted effort to walk the tightrope of writing about the assigned topic without going too easy or too harsh on NASCAR. I tried to play it straight down the middle.
But the fact the story existed at all — as the main story on the front page of the Sports section during a holiday weekend — was enough to really anger some people in the garage.
I wondered how much damage control was necessary, so I started texting several drivers with whom I had good working relationships and asked them if they were upset. To my surprise, even some of them said they weren’t happy about it.
The best thing to do in situations like that is make sure people have a chance to yell at you and express their displeasure instead of stewing over it and talking behind your back about how much you suck. So I tried to be very visible for the rest of the weekend, walking up and down pit road to show my face before the race.
I don’t want to get into all the conversations since most of the drivers are still around, but I’ll share a couple.
Before the race, Brian Scott was leaning against the wall at the entrance to pit road and interrupted a conversation to call me over.
“Oh man, NASCAR is so pissed at you,” he said with a grin. “What kind of crap have you been getting from people?”
Then I walked further down pit road, and bumped into a driver on his way to the car. He stopped and put his hand on my shoulder.
“You fucked us!” he said.
“Come on, did I?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know, that’s just what they told us in the meeting,” he said. “I didn’t read it.”
For the next couple weeks, drivers continued to bring up the meeting or the story. An example: After finishing a 12 Questions interview with a driver, I stood to leave and thanked him for his time.
“Wait, wait,” he said. “So what’s it been like for you after that story? NASCAR was pretty mad about that!”
Anyway, the whole experience served as an important reminder: Each tweet, story or interview helps shape a reporter’s reputation. And it’s a lot easier to ruin it than build it up.