NASCAR Media Tour: Fernando Alonso appearance a rare treat

Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson said he had a fan moment by meeting two-time Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso on the NASCAR Media Tour.

Fernando Alonso has walked the Formula One paddock in places like Monaco and Spa. He has strolled down Gasoline Alley at the Indianapolis 500.

On Tuesday, he was somewhere much different: The Charlotte Convention Center, where he appeared on the NASCAR Media Tour.

Less than an hour after Truck Series driver Ben Rhodes wrapped up his media session, two-time F1 world champion Alonso plopped down in the same seat — a NASCAR-branded director’s chair in front of a NASCAR backdrop.

That’s pretty damn cool, and even drivers were impressed. The likes of Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick made detours to greet Alonso, who was in attendance to promote his upcoming race in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“I’ve been a huge Alonso fan for a lot of years,” Johnson said. “I mentioned to him out there that the way he came and ran Indy — he handled himself so well, really did a great job and I think brought a lot to the table. He brought worldwide attention to motorsports and it was really good for us here stateside.”

Alonso, in turn, said he was flattered by the respect shown to him by Johnson and other American drivers. Despite being an F1 champ, the Spaniard said he was “surprised” to get so much respect.

“I’m quite a shy person, and when I see these top names, I see them at a different level I cannot achieve,” he said. “In their category and their series, they are the masters. I’m aware that to reach that level, it would take me many, many years — if I can get there.

“When I see they respect me and they follow my career and my racing as well, it’s a surprise and I feel very proud, because I respect all those names.”

Alonso said he first heard of Johnson around 2003 while playing a NASCAR video game. He didn’t know who Johnson was, but he liked the color of the No. 48 car.

“I used to choose him, not knowing him, just because of the car,” he said. “I remember playing with another friend of mine — he likes a chocolate company I will not name now — and he was choosing that car and I was choosing Jimmie’s car.

“But that was the first time I heard of him, and obviously the success that he has had in the years of motor racing, he became a legend of our sport — and massive respect.”

Naturally, Alonso was asked if he would like to try NASCAR someday. He said maybe, but it would be far off because it would be tough to match the experience level of the NASCAR regulars. He’d like to test first and see if he’d enjoy it; if so, he said, it’s a possibility.

“The (NASCAR) races are great because they are all in a group,” he said. “It is not predictable at all and until the last lap, you don’t know what is going to happen. We love watching from the outside, but I don’t know from the inside.”

RELATED: Fernando Alonso wins American hearts at Indy 500

Social Spotlight with Formula One’s Frank Arthofer

Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to share their thoughts on social media. This week: Frank Arthofer, the global head of digital and new business for Formula One.

I noticed you came on board in June. As you get started here, what are some of the immediate challenges that you want to tackle, and what do you see as something you want to steer toward improvement?

As you know, and as our fans most importantly know, we’re not really engaged in making a big investment in the digital space to serve fans. I think our platform is a little bit dated in terms of and the F1 app. We have a team of — you wouldn’t believe it — less than five who are running all the content on our website and our app. We hasn’t participated in the fantasy gaming space at all.

So there is I think a lot of opportunity to deliver an experience to fans that makes us a core part of the way they interact with this sport and the digital space. That certainly exists on our own platforms, and even moreso probably on the social media space. So to me, that’s probably the biggest opportunity: Just investing to drive engagement and ensuring that when fans wake up every morning and Formula One is an important part of their life, that we’re a part of that life and we’re making it better.

So you come in and see these areas of need. Where do you even start? You don’t have huge staff and you don’t have all these things. What do you decide to tackle first?

I guess you sort of start with what your North Star is, which is I guess a strategy question. I’ve spent a dozen years in media tech, sports and entertainment, and for me, it’s going and looking at the big governing bodies who do this really well — the NBA is a great example — and kind of understanding what it is that makes them great.

Do they act as a media company and try to cover the sport somewhat independently as an example? Are they invested deeply in the platform and the technology side of the house to ensure that they’re personalizing and experience to fans, serving up the right content at the right time to the right people? So that’s kind of where we started. What are the people who do this best doing, and what are the common elements that we want to try and take and make exist in the Formula One world?

People in the F1 world, from what I understand, have gotten used to doing things a certain way for a long time. Did you meet any sort of resistance when you want to change this, or say “I’d like to do this, we want to improve this?”

Yes and no. I would say that all the incumbent staff who are in place in Formula One, almost to a man and woman has embraced changed in a material way. So internally, I think there has been very little resistance to it and, in fact, most of our best people have been waiting for this moment.

I think the challenge is in changing perceptions outside of Formula One, our relationship with teams and drivers. I think we’re slowly but surely working to build a more collaborative one. I think certain sponsors, probably in the old world of Formula One, wouldn’t have been interested in participating in the sport given some of the challenges in terms of the way it was operated. I think now it’s sort of moved to where actually we can be leading.

The brand is really strong and improving; we’re one of the most technologically sophisticated sports in the world, which really helps us given the way the market’s moving. So I think it’s more about the external educating process. And the most important of those constituents are the fans, and they too are rightly a little skeptical when we say, “Hey, we’re gonna invest in a big way in making great digital content.” Because we haven’t really done that for them at the league level — teams more so (have invested) than we have in some cases — for decades. But I think we’re cracking away at that foundation across the board.

In the NASCAR world, it seems like people are fans of certain drivers, but overall they’re fans of the sport. I don’t know how that compares to F1, but how do you present content to your audience with that in mind?

I think we’ve done a really good job building our foundations of being fun, being interesting, providing fans unique access on social. But I do think there are two things that make our sport unique and are both an opportunity and a challenge.

The first is the global nature. After the NBA, we have the second most fans of any annual global sporting event in the world. And if you take the U.S. out, we’re bigger than the NBA. So if you look at it through that lens, that’s a great opportunity — but it also means you need to be relevant to different tastes, different cultures around the world. And I think that’s something that we need to start to bring a little bit more to the way that we program and develop and deliver content on social.

The second piece is we have largely a very unique and exclusive rights position, particularly as it relates to what happens on the track, and we work closely with our broadcast partners to ensure that they have de facto exclusivity aside from us in most markets. I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job of taking advantage of that, frankly — that opportunity that exists from a video rights perspective. If we’re the only place aside from broadcast partners in the market where you can go and get great data around the race that’s live or get the official highlight at the end of the race that’s immediately available — which we are — I think that’s a really great unique selling proposition for fans. It’s a reason for us to be a part of their daily or weekly cadence with the sport, and we haven’t really elevated that enough. So I think that’s probably the second opportunity or challenge that we’re faced with.

I read your bio and it seems like you’ve done a lot in the OTT space, which is “Over the Top” streaming content. How do you see that evolving for the future? All of our habits are changing so rapidly.

Well certainly it’s obviously disrupting the media business in a material way, no more so than here in the U.S. as we sit in the Austin Grand Prix in the Haas tent. But I think for us as a sports right holder, it probably more than anything presents an opportunity, right? There’s more competition in the market for rights, which is a good thing. I think there’s more ways to reach fans through the Internet, which is a good thing, particularly in markets where cable TV isn’t as mature. And I think it presents an opportunity for us to go direct to consumer and build a subscription service that for our hardest-core fans who will always be the most important to us, super-serves them, and deepens their experience in relationship to the sport and with Formula One. (Note: F1 is planning to launch a subscription streaming service.)

Where is this all going? Are we even going to be watching TV as we know it in 10 or 15 years from now?

We’re getting into a philosophical conversation about the future of TV now. How much time do you have? (Smiles) Yeah. People will continue to watch TV. I think it’s an impossible question to answer because it’s so broad, right? Video viewing time is going up, so the value of premium video content will, in my mind, continue to grow. The ways people watch it, the devices on which they watch it, the ability for advertisers to reach consumers in the way that they’ve always done is going to change.

If you take advertising as an example, you’re gonna see more and more branded content on TV. It’s become the ad sales “soup of the day” from a digital content perspective. There’s not any big RFPs (requests for proposals) in the market nowadays that don’t come with some kind of branded content element that’s editorially authentic to the fan but also integrates the brand in a way that makes sense. You’re going to see that on TV, it’s not always going to be 15-to-30-second TV spots for two minutes every 10 minutes. And that’s the break in the content.

So we’ll see that in other spaces for sure, but I think it’s all sort of rooted in the notion that if you offer a premier piece of content, people are going to care about it and continue to watch it. Technology is unlocking more ways to consume it rather than disrupting that in a material way.

Do you have a sense for what kind of content F1 fans like? And I’m asking this from a place of pure ignorance. Are F1 fans in general more into the technical aspects of it, where they love the telemetry and the data? Do they want driver interviews? What does well for you guys?

So not all fans are the same, obviously, and I think it depends on what platform you’re on. Social, by nature, is going to be a broader platform, and you need to appeal to a wider set of tastes. Then your own platforms are, by nature, going to be a slightly smaller group of people as you’re further down the funnel. And as you go even further, the subscription products, you’re even further down the funnel and you have an even smaller audience base.

So I think the hardest-core fans that are the least price sensitive who want to spend more time and money with Formula One are going to be the ones that understand every element of the sport deeply. They want the (NBA writer) Zach Lowe-style piece for Formula One — statistically driven, really data driven, almost like I’m in the strategy room making the decisions around the car and how it gets set up.

And on social, I think access … to some of the lighter elements of the sport. We like to say we take F1 seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously. I think that’s probably a space that appeals to a broader range of people and can be kind of viral and shareable. That’s fun. We want to be fun on that platform and it’s required, because we’ve got 15 million followers on social versus a million or so that use our platforms on a weekly basis. It’s just a different group.

In the NASCAR world, the drivers have sort of been conditioned to play along with social and be really a big part of that. How willing are the F1 drivers to accommodate the requests you guys have if you have a pitch for them? Are they in that mode yet, or do they have more work to do to get there?

I would say at the moment, we don’t pitch to drivers directly because we try to build that relationship with teams. I will say that there are a lot of drivers who want to work directly with Formula One and sort of see the direction we’re taking in terms of investing in capabilities, investing creatively and editorially in this sport. And I think equally there are teams who support that, too, and kind of look at it as, “Hey, if F1 can help us grow this sport, that’s a good thing for everybody.” It’s not so much, “We have to grow the Red Bull team only,” or the Ferrari team only.

I guess the short answer is varying degrees. But I think most have kind of come around to the notion of social media presence, digital presence, direct relationships, interactions with fans. It’s pretty much net positive from everybody, from a commercial perspective, from a sport perspective and from a brand perspective — even if your brand is Daniel Ricciardo. So I don’t think there’s a lot of education to do; it’s more about finding the right operating model to work together on it.

I know the hot topic around here, or at least I’ve heard about it this weekend, is what F1 can do to get it more relevant in the United States. It seems like a long road, since motorsports in general is struggling at times in the United States, NASCAR included. Is there anything from a digital standpoint that you guys see that can help, or is it something that is going take time?

It’s funny, I was walking around Austin yesterday and I saw so many F1 shirts and hats. I heard people talking about it. I heard store owners commenting on how busy they were because F1 was in town. So it feels to me like Austin’s pretty healthy. I know that the sales have been incredible this week.

But yeah, obviously we’re not in the zeitgeist in the same way that other major sports are, and the same way that, frankly, we are in most other countries in the world. I think digital will help and the presence of OTT will help. I think our ESPN relationship will help, as that’s always been a great platform for growing sports. And I think in general, the presence of social media and the investment we’re making in that space, given how mature that is in the states, should help, too.

So I think it’s a lot of things. It’s not one silver bullet, it’s more like a collection of a lot of small initiatives that will hopefully lift this sport. I mean, it is the greatest racing spectacle in the world, so I think it’s more about getting fans to try and understand it than it is about really anything else. So we’ve gotta do a good job there.

What else do you want people to know about the efforts that you guys are doing that you just want to pull out there? Do you have a message to your fans?

Continue to give us feedback from a fan perspective. We look at Reddit every day and we see the fan forums, so it’s helpful to know how everybody feels about it. And then I should also plug the Susan G. Komen Foundation; obviously we’re going pink this week in Austin and it’s a really important initiative for us in Formula One, and it’s near and dear to my heart, actually. So those are the two big messages, I’d leave you with.

12 Questions with Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean

The 12 Questions interviews continue this week with the first Formula One drivers to be featured in the series: Haas F1 Team drivers Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

KM: It requires both. Getting to Formula One is a lot about the natural ability, showing that in the Junior Formulas and the categories you race before Formula One. You’ve gotta work really hard, that’s all.

RG: I guess we’re only 20 (F1 drivers) in the world, and my grandfather was vice world champion (silver medalist) of skiing, and he said it’s 80 percent work, 10 percent talent and 10 percent of chance. I think he was kind of right, because work is the main one. Of course, if you don’t have the talent, there’s no chance you’re gonna make it to the 20 top Formula One drivers in the world. So you need everything right, but work is what takes the most of us.

2. What pitch would you make to convince people to become fans of yours?

KM: I wouldn’t do that. (Laughs)

RG: I’d say never give up, because my whole career has been about ups and downs. I came to Formula One, got fired — same as Kevin — and then came back. Yeah, just never give up.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

KM: The travel, probably. Going to the places that we race, it takes a lot of energy. But it’s not so bad a lifestyle, really, to be honest.

RG: The hardest part is being a dad. That’s not my job, so whenever I come to a racetrack, I’m like that’s something I control 100 percent. Being a dad is every day a new thing. But yeah, leaving the house is the hardest part, especially with the kids.

4. Let’s say a fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

KM: Yeah, I don’t mind.

RG: I don’t mind as long as it’s when you’ve finished. Not like when you have a big piece of meat in your mouth and you’re like, “Yeah, I can’t do a picture right now.” But it’s always nice.

5. What’s a story in Formula One that doesn’t get enough coverage?

KM: I don’t even know.

RG: There are two things I see. It’s the teamwork, how much effort the mechanics and the engineers are putting in. And on TV, we’re never gonna replicate the G forces, the speed and the agility of the cars. I wish one day we’d get the TV to actually give us (the sense of speed). Like when you watch tennis, the ball goes pretty slowly on the TV, actually when you go to Roland-Garros (for the French Open) or the U.S. Open, it goes really, really fast and you’re surprised.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

KM: Probably Romain.

RG: Probably Kevin.

That makes sense. In NASCAR, a lot of the drivers are friends and hang out a lot. Do you guys have relationships with other drivers at all?

KM: Not really. Not like relationships. We spend a lot of time because we do the whole season together, so when we get off the races, we tend to spend time with our families and friends outside of racing.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

KM: In principle, not really. At least I don’t feel like an entertainer. I got here because I want to race and everything else around it is something that you have to do as well in order to get racing. The racing part is why I’m here and the rest just follows.

RG: I think we’re athletes. We do a sport. Sport is entertaining, so I guess we kind of are. But I think our first thing is to be athletes and doing high level sports.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack? Do you ever shoot the middle finger?

KM: No, only because you get a penalty if you do. Otherwise, it’s tempting sometimes.

Is that right? You get a penalty here if you do that?

RG: You better not do it. Sometimes I do it, but I just keep it in the cockpit so no one can see it.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

KM: No, not really. There’s not the same kind of teamwork in Formula One as perhaps in NASCAR. But I like the way it works in NASCAR, it’s just not the way we do things in Formula One, really.

RG: No, not really. Sometimes they do it, like they can block you on a fast lap, but I’m trying to be as fair as I can like everyone else.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

KM: The most famous is maybe (legendary F1 driver) Stirling Moss? I think so.

RG: I had dinner with Rafael Nadal. He’s pretty famous, he’s a really cool guy. So yeah. (Rally driver) Sebastien Loeb as well. I’d go with Nadal.

Was Nadal pretty down to earth?

RG: He was really, really nice. We had a nice dinner and he’s a really cool guy. We chatted about everything and had a really great relationship.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

KM: I don’t know. I’m going to go with a boring answer and say everything. There’s not one thing that I need to improve, I’m gonna try and improve everything. And every aspect of my skill set and aspect of being a racing driver, I need to improve.

RG: I think it was just managing the frustration. It’s something that’s getting better; I’ve been working on it this year. It’s getting better and better. But every year there’s something new that you can work on, and — who knows? — next year maybe it’s managing the lead in the world championship. (Smiles)

12. The last interview I did was with NASCAR driver Ty Dillon, and he wants to know: who is more athletic, Formula One drivers or NASCAR drivers?

KM: Definitely Formula One drivers.

RG: Sorry guys, we are.

The next interview that I’m going to be doing is with Danica Patrick. Can you guys come up with a question that I can ask Danica?

KM: Who’s got bigger balls — Formula One drivers or NASCAR drivers?

RG (pretends to leave): I’m out of that one. I wasn’t here. (Laughs)

First Impressions: Kevin Magnussen and the mysterious tattoo

It’s not every day someone invites to participate in a group interview with a Formula One driver (FACT CHECK: This has never happened before), so I decided to take advantage of Haas F1 Team’s generous offer on Thursday.

Kevin Magnussen, a 24-year-old from Denmark, is the team’s new addition. He replaced Esteban Gutierrez and joins Romain Grosjean as the drivers for America’s (F1) Team this season.

I’d never met Magnussen before and didn’t know much about him, aside from that his dad (Jan) made a Cup start for James Finch at Sonoma in 2010 (FACT CHECK: I actually didn’t remember that without looking it up).

Anyway, my professional colleagues asked Magnussen a bunch of racing questions, and it seemed like he gave sort of the standard answers. Excited about the opportunity and all that.

Magnussen smiled a lot when he spoke and generally seemed to be very pleasant, but was a bit guarded. I tried asking a couple personality-based questions to see what he was all about, but they didn’t get me very far.

For example: What’s the best and worst part about being an F1 driver aside from the actual driving?

“The best part is obviously in the car and the race weekend,” he said. “Everything in between is just preparation. When you go racing, that’s the best feeling. … Sometimes traveling can be tough, but that’s a small price to pay.”

Why is Denmark the happiest country in the world?

“Maybe because our wives are so pretty,” he said.

But one thing I couldn’t get past was the giant tattoo on Magnussen’s right forearm. This dude was INKED by race car driver standards, with a tat featuring a large stopwatch, roses, dice and playing cards.

Fortunately, NBC’s Nate Ryan broached the subject: What’s the story behind the tattoo?

“There’s no story,” Magnussen said.

“Viva la Vida?” Ryan prodded, reading the wording on one part of it.

“Yeah,” Magnussen said.

Everyone chuckled. I chimed in and noted I saw dice and playing cards as part of it.

“Good,” he said with a half-smile.’s Lee Spencer tried to help, too. Are you a gambler, she asked?

“I guess racing is a little bit of a gamble,” he said. “You could do more safe things.”

“So the cards (on the tattoo) –”

“– have nothing to do with it.”

More laughter.

It was clear he didn’t really want to talk about it, which is fine, but of course it piqued my interest. So I Googled “Kevin Magnussen tattoo” after the interview, and it turns out he shared a pretty simple explanation with last year:

Everything together has a meaning: hope, belief and love! For us Danish it is a way to live – probably like Sisu for the Finnish. I changed that a bit to my situation: the dice are hope, the stopwatch of course is time, or belief that I will make it, and the roses symbolise love.

So maybe the tattoo isn’t much of a mystery after all. It was likely more a case of interview weariness after a long day of answering questions.