Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to share their thoughts on social media usage. This week: Brent Dewar, who was named NASCAR president on July 13 after previously serving as the company’s chief operating officer following a career a General Motors that lasted more than 30 years.
You’ve been on Twitter since 2009 — the early days of the platform. So I’m curious, what attracted you to want to get on Twitter in the first place, way back when it wasn’t as big as it is now?
I came on the marketing side of the automotives, and each of the social media platforms were developing. I liked Twitter because it was like an open email. I was intrigued that you had to get a message out in 140 characters or less. I found that very interesting.
As a marketer, you grew up with 60-second commercials, then it went to 30s, and I love 15s. If I could have done a seven-second commercial, I would have. So I like that aspect and kind of learned the dos and don’ts over time.
So even before society went to this shorter attention span thing, you thought that was something that people would pick up on?
I think it’s not so much shorter attention span — that’s one factor, there’s no question — but as a communicator, the less you say, (the) better and more poignant, because we as humans only retain so much. So I was always intrigued by it. I don’t think I always practice it as well as I want to in those 140 characters, but that’s the essence as a marketer.
As it’s evolved, how much do you use Twitter now, and how much value do you place on it in the role that you’re currently in?
Obviously we have a huge fanbase and they’re very active on all social media. I’ve had accounts through most of the major (forms of social media), and I’ve really focused on Twitter.
What we ask our team is to find your voice. So our voice for competition is Steve O’Donnell, and so we want to make sure he feels comfortable and has the authority to interact on the competition aspect with fans, with the industry and with just folks in general across the industry.
What my role is to play as chief operating officer and now as president, is to find my voice — and I don’t want to step on the competition side of the voice, I don’t want to step on the marketing and (chief marketing officer) Jill Gregory.
So I use it primarily as an amplification tool to the messaging in the industry. That’s been my role, my focus. You might get some business aspects from me because I do the business of NASCAR, but at the end of the day I’m a fan, and so I really approach it from a fan’s perspective.
That’s very interesting that you say that, because my next question was going to be about how you retweet a lot of people in NASCAR. So it sounds like that’s a strategic thing, where you’re taking little pieces from here, little pieces from there, and you’re saying, “Hey, I want to make sure people in the industry are seeing this message.”
Exactly, and that’s one of the big powers of social media, is that first message can cascade so much further. So it is a purely strategic intent; that is the role that I play. We teach that to many of our other executives as well, because if you can connect with the chain on a broader basis, the message goes much further. You can be a Dale Jr. and have four million followers, or you can be a connected part of the industry — and both are very effective in terms of amplifying the message.
Even though you don’t want to step on Steve O’Donnell’s toes, there has to be times where you say, “I really want to say this” or “I really have an opinion on this.” And because you want to stay in your lane, you have to hold off. Are there times where you have to stop yourself from expressing your own opinions?
Yes and no. I would say my lane is never the competition lane, even though I do it in my job. It’s not my social media role. And so I would never be intrigued to go on and do that.
There are times when I do want to say something, and it’s usually a direct message to the driver or a direct message to the industry person and it’s pretty effective as well. You and I have tweeted direct messages back and forth with each other. So I’ve used that mechanism, because at the end of the day, this is a sport, and sometimes people get lost in that. We’re a release for a lot of the things that go on in the world. Like all sports, it’s entertainment, and I just want to make sure that I stay within that and enjoy it at the same time.
You’re known as somebody’s who is very hard working; there’s a lot of hours that you put in and it sounds like you pour your soul into this job. How does the daily social media grind fit into your role? Are you able to see everything that happens on Twitter?
It’s a challenge. I think the expression is “time poverty.” We all suffer from it, so I’m a believer in technology. I always have been. I’m an early adopter. I think I was one of the first BlackBerry users; you don’t want to know what I paid for my first BlackBerry. It’s shocking. But I think we use technology to expand the hours of the day.
I’ve always been fortunate or unfortunate — depending on my mother’s point of view — that I never really slept too much, even as a kid. So I’m awake for the better part of the 24 hours of a day. So I use all these different tools, techniques from technology to get us there.
I try to make sure that I’m consuming the sport with 360 degree view. I’m definitely on Sirius/XM when I have my time for that on the drive. And the guys definitely know when I’m on, because I’ll usually pull off to the side of the road — I don’t text and drive — and I’ll send a couple of direct messages to them if I feel like I need to comment. And same with TV, same with digital, same with social media.
So they all have their place. I think the days of a single medium consuming your information, those days are gone. When I grew up as a kid, we had a big network broadcast and it was pretty easy to get your news. Everybody tuned in at the nightly news. That’s not the case today; it’s instantaneous, so you find your mechanism and platform to get your information and to also share information. So I try to balance it throughout the day.
I think we’ve all found social media can be a drain at times because of negativity. I’m sure I irritate you at times with my tweets where you’re like, “Oh, come on.” So my question is, why do you choose to be on Twitter with all the negativity goes on?
I would say this is the marketing researcher in me. I’ve always been intrigued in human behavior, and sports is the craziest experience of human behavior. So I think what you have to recognize is that sports fans are passionate. That’s where the word “fanatic” came from. Sports fans are 365/24/7.
I think what you have to recognize is that some of the callers, when you talk on a radio sports show, are a demographic unto themselves. And so usually you have to manage the filters and understand that it’s not absolute; it’s directional.
Same with social media: you can’t just read the good clips. You can’t (just say), “Wow, that’s fantastic,” and ignore the other side. So what you want to do is filter and capture the passion, and not the raw emotion. The emotion can get very negative, and you can’t have too thin of skin. You have to really balance points, and you’ve got to put it through a filter what you’re hearing.
Everybody has a response. It’s like, “I’ve got a bad back” — you’ve got to get those symptoms of what’s causing that bad back. Is it a disc, is it weight, is it poor posture? What is it? Don’t respond to the aching back; get to the root cause.
And I would say out of all of these conditions, when you get to the negative, there’s a reason; there’s a root cause. Some of it maybe is just someone jumping on a bandwagon. If you can peel back the layers and you’re truly passionate about it, you’re gonna get to (the truth). And that’s why I try to look at it.
When it gets to hate or real negative stuff, then I’ll turn you off. There’s no place for that in society. But other than that, if it’s just raw emotion, it’s OK.
I argue with Motorsport.com’s Jim Utter about Twitter sometimes. I’ll say, “Everybody on Twitter is saying this,” and he’ll say, “Well Twitter’s this echo chamber, it’s not representative of society because only 25 percent of people use Twitter.” How representative of the overall NASCAR fanbase is the opinion that appears on Twitter?
That’s a good question. I’d have to think through that a little bit more, but I’d say it represents the direction. I think where we tend to get caught up is absolutes versus direction, if that makes sense. So it’s directionally correct and absolutely wrong. It’s kind of funny to say it.
What you’ll find is there’s a wave, because it’s an amplification tool. The core elements of what is being said positive or negatively is there, and some people are just amplifying. They don’t even share that opinion, and what I learned also in the early days back in ’09 and ’10, is don’t be taken by the sheer volume (of opinion on Twitter) because in some cases, they don’t even have that point of view. They’re just sharing that point of view with someone else, saying, “Can you believe what someone else had shared?” And you have the understand the mediums, right? You have to get to it and understand it. So I’ll take that assignment on, I’ll have to think that one through.
One thing social media is also good for is getting to know someone personally, and I know a lot of NASCAR fans want to learn more about you. You occasionally share pictures of your daughter, Olivia, who seems like she’s been a lifelong NASCAR fan. How does her fandom shape your view of social media today and NASCAR as a whole?
She’s been with me from the beginning, this is my only child. So before I joined NASCAR, I took her to the Daytona 500. It was the year Jamie McMurray won, and it was also the year of the concrete, the big delay in the race. But it’s really interesting: Even at a very young age, probably 3 at the time, I saw the race through her eyes. She had a Jimmie Johnson jacket.
Over the years, we went to Europe (where he lived for a job assignment) and she would sit in my lap and we would watch tennis — she loved Rafael Nadal because he was left handed — but she would love all the NASCAR races. She would sit in my lap and watch NASCAR from Zurich, Switzerland.
And it’s gone on and on every year and it’s evolved, and she is truly a passionate NASCAR fan. But she’s also a great critique. She asks me questions about, “Dad, why aren’t we doing this? Why aren’t we doing a different thing?” So I always remind her she’s not yet working for the sanctioning body, but she’s kind of a valuable input.
What I look at is she’s not too dissimilar to any other kids. There’s no difference to when I started, going to a racetrack with a friend or a family member. That’s the essence of NASCAR: It’s family, it’s faith, it’s patriotism. And we have to rekindle that.
She just turned 11 last week, which is a funny story. For her birthday, I asked, “What would you like to do?” and she said, “I want to go to Bristol.” And she’d been at Michigan the week before. So she’s gone to Michigan, Bristol and Darlington — three consecutive weekends.
She’s with her dad and her dad’s working, but to see how she’s evolved and what’s important to her, the social aspects are important for her. She loves stage racing because there’s a break in the action where she can talk to her dad or talk to her friends.
We didn’t set out to do stage racing for that reason. We did it because the number one complaint from fans was breaking from green-flag racing for a commercial. And we’re one of the few sports that does it, all motorsports does it. When we worked with NBC and FOX, we worked on a program and the industry came together to create it.
As a 10-year-old at that time, she couldn’t identify that as an issue, but she sees the benefit as a fan, and that’s what we learn about our fans — don’t worry about change; they’ll accept change. What we’re learned over time is that when talking about change, study it, get ready, make sure there’s a benefit for the fan and just do it for the right reasons.
How do you see this continuing to evolve where you can get more of Olivia’s friends to watch and get them interested in it? People get hooked as a kid, so it seems like Olivia’s generation is important. How do you guys keep continuing that and building that initiative to get more of it?
There’s no question. It’s not just sports or NASCAR. Brand preferences are formed somewhere between 7 and 10. There’s been lots of market research and marketers who have studied that for a long time. It could be a precocious 6 year old, but generally that form, they have an understanding of what they value and what they don’t.
And so we’ve worked with the industry, with the track council last year to provide kids under 12 free admission for the Truck and Xfinity races and discount tickets at the Cup level, because we need to get the families to come back together. We actually developed some interesting marketing programs. We’ve talked about the STEM program, we’re in Scholastic in the schools, physics at 200 miles per hour. These are all the enablers to try to connect that you just don’t wait until you’re grown up to get to the racetrack.
The key thing with NASCAR, the 80 million fans we have on an annual basis, it’s the core folks, the 2.5 million that come to the racetrack. Because if you come to the race, it’s just not to attend and have a great experience and that 360 engagement. We know when you watch the broadcast, you look differently at it next time — and they do a great job, but you see the sport differently. You’ll hear the calls from the Sirius/XM guys deeper and much better if you’ve been to the race. And that’s kind of the approach we look at.
I still remember my first race. I was a NASCAR fan growing up in Canada, I was working for an auto company, and I got the assignment to go to Bristol, Tennessee. It was 1988, and I was already a fan. I was grown up — I was working in the industry — but I was a young marketing executive, and I still remember that hauler with what had to be 300 or 400 people standing in front of Dale Earnhardt’s trailer on a Friday at Bristol. I was stunned, I couldn’t believe it.
And that next day, the race, I think (Alan) Kulwicki won the pole, and Earnhardt came in first, I think he beat (Bill) Elliott in a really close race. I’ve seen thousands of races, but that race to this day, even though that was my very first (was memorable).
Bristol was very different then. Still, the shape of Bristol, the core coliseum concept was alive. I took my wife and daughter last weekend, and they had never been to Bristol. They’ve been to lots of races, and they had that same experience that I had. You could just see their eyes light up, the August race under the lights at Bristol. It’s remarkable.
What else do you follow in Twitter that are your interests outside of the sport? I’ve seen some of your tweets. Obviously, you’re a hockey fan. Do you follow any hockey stuff on Twitter, do you follow any entertainment stuff that you enjoy, or is it mostly focused on your work?
I do. I get my news, so like a lot of folks, every news broadcast, NBC, FOX, ABC, and the whole gang.
Most people don’t realize I’m a huge environmentalist. I always have been, growing up on the West Coast. I’ve had that influence since a young age, so I’m very much following what’s happening in the world with those things. We race outdoors, so we understand climate change. The NASCAR Green program isn’t a slogan, we really do care about all those aspects. So I’ll kind get these bits of information as well.
We are in the entertainment business, so we’ll cross-link (with celebrities). I’ve had the pleasure in this job to meet very interesting people from industry and entertainment. So many of them you get to know, and you get to follow them and see what information they have.
Having an 11-year-old daughter, I do follow a lot of the people that she likes in terms of music. We went to an Ed Sheeran concert in Orlando last week, which was remarkable. If you’ve never seen Ed Sheeran in concert, (he’s a) one-man show, incredibly talented.
You can get really insular in your sport, and you have to make sure you don’t get insular and understand what’s happening around you.
Finally, this is a little bit of a tough question to answer because nobody really knows, but where do you see social media going next?
I think it’s about fragmentation. The beauty of the good ol’ days, back in the day you could make your communications (widespread). John Kennedy was elected at the time and used the mass media networks to tell his messages. It was remarkable.
Over time, TV has become more fragmented. So that’s a challenge, but it’s also a positive, because it can be more vertical. It can have a food channel, a sports channel, those kinds of things. So with those fragmentations comes more opportunities which can be more targeted to the audiences.
I think social media is not what some people think it is. It’s truly the media of today’s generation, and it’s not a medium for the young; it’s all generations.
So I think what you’ll see is more fragmentation, which will be challenging because you have to follow what’s new and hot, but you’re also gonna see it come back to much generalizing as well. So it’ll be a place for both.
And I think what you’ll see, it’s the old Marshall McLuhan (theory): The medium is the message. If you can approach it that way, you want to stay relevant as it adapts, but you’ll also want to recognize the platform for what it can deliver. And if you don’t mix those two pieces, I think there’s a place where social media will continue to evolve.
It’s not a fad. It’s really truly a medium for today’s generation of technologists and people around the world. I can communicate through WhatsApp with my family in Brazil. That’s amazing technology. We can instantly communicate. They’ll be following the race today at Darlington, and they’ll be messaging through WhatsApp, which is their medium to communicate with me at the track today.
So I see a great future for all social media. I think we just have to utilize it as a tool to be able to express and receive information and be able to contribute.
This interview was brought to you by Dover International Speedway. The cutoff race for the first playoff round takes place at Dover on Oct. 1. Here’s a link to buy tickets (and make sure to come say hi at the tweetup).