This is the latest in a weekly feature called “How I Got Here,” where I ask people in NASCAR about the journeys to their current jobs. Each interview is recorded as a podcast but is also transcribed on JeffGluck.com. Up next: Jay Pennell, manager of communications and content for Richard Childress Racing.
Can you tell us what you do with Richard Childress Racing, and why you were in victory lane at the Daytona 500?
I am the manager of content and communications for RCR. I primarily work with Daniel Hemric in the Xfinity Series and the No. 21 team. We’ve got a great partner with South Point Hotel and Casino on the car this year and we’ve got a great group over there.
I also handle a lot of our website stuff, help with our social media, and just kind of anything that really needs to be done. So luckily I was able to stay over on Sunday for the Daytona 500, I worked on some content and some videos and things we were putting out for our website and our social media outlets, and was doing that until about 50 laps to go.
Then we kind of sat down (as a PR team). We don’t typically put together plans or anything like that, but a group of us talked about, “Hey, if this does happen what are we gonna do?” Thank God we did that, because lo and behold, Austin Dillon won the race.
There was that initial, “Oh man, this is actually happening,” but then it was, “OK, we still have work to do.” So it was cool to go to victory lane, it was a lifetime experience and something I would have never imagined would be a possibility.
I’m not dreaming. That actually happened. #DAYTONA500 champions. Thanks to @austindillon3 & the entire @RCRracing organization for the experience. Work hard, kids. Don’t take no for an answer, chase your damn dreams & make it happen. pic.twitter.com/ckKvBpo6yR
— Jay W. Pennell (@jaywpennell) February 19, 2018
You talked about a lifetime experience. Was this always a path for you? Did you grow up as a race fan and say, “I want to work in NASCAR someday?” How did you even get started?
It was always something that was in my life for as long as I can remember. I grew in a town called Delanco, New Jersey, but my mom’s side of the family raced at Mobile (Ala.) International from about the 1940s until the mid-1990s. So I went down there as a kid when I was 3 or 4 years old and went and saw a race at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola (Fla.), went to Mobile and watched my family work on the cars in the garage and stuff.
I would have loved to have been in the driver’s seat or working on the cars, but that separation between New Jersey and Alabama was just a little bit too big. So every weekend we watched as many racing programs and races as we could. I taped every race on VHS. We had NASCAR Scene, NASCAR Illustrated, Stock Car Racing magazine — all these magazines and newspapers and outlets that my parents got me to really get me interested in it. I was definitely the kid that a lot of people made fun of for liking NASCAR in New Jersey.
I went to my first Cup race in 1991 in Dover, saw Harry Gant win in part of his Mr. September run, and I’ve just been hooked ever since. I think I’ve gone to at least one race every year except for maybe 1998, and just lucky to have had good people in my life that have supported me and encouraged me to keep doing what I’m doing. Just a lot of drive and determination to kind of make this now my career.
So it’s one thing to say, “I’m a huge race fan, I would love to work in NASCAR someday, it’s my passion,” and it’s another to make that happen. Out of all the people that I’ve met in all of NASCAR, you might be the one that really willed it to happen the most and made it happen without any sort of help whatsoever. So you had no journalism background?
Not at all. I went to Queens University in Charlotte, I got two degrees in history and American studies. I studied German history and American subcultures and countercultures and things like that, and really honed my writing skills and learned how to think and ask questions and just be very observant about things.
I still loved NASCAR and I’d still go to the races, but my interest had kind of waned a little bit. And then when Rusty Wallace was retiring, he was my favorite driver, so I really got back into it again.
When I got out of college, I worked at Ben & Jerry’s scooping ice cream and I had a bunch of other jobs, but I found an internship with the SportsBusiness Journal working on the resource guide and fact book. And when I found out that I was on the same floor as NASCAR Scene and Illustrated, it was one of the greatest things that had ever happened to me. (Longtime racing writer) Steve Waid was down the hall, Kenny Bruce was there, Bob Pockrass, yourself, there were a lot of people that I really followed and grew up reading that were on the same floor. And I just happened to have their email addresses now.
At the time, social media was such a new thing. I realized you could really utilize MySpace and social media to get your stories out there and tell other people who you are. So I decided to make another MySpace page dedicated solely to writing and to NASCAR. And so I would just take what I had grown up doing — which was watching racing and knowing everything I could about racing and trying to absorb it all — take these races and apply the writing skills that I had learned in college and put it together into some sort of race recap. And I would just e-mail blast every single person at NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.
It really worked, because I was able to go to Steve Waid and get some critiques and get some advice on how to take a four-hour race and make it into a 200-word story. It was really one of the greatest experiences and just kind of a luck of the draw deal. So it was really that first step I needed in this path down this career.
People reading are probably thinking, “Well, then that led to some job.” But it didn’t. Nobody helped you there in terms of, “We’re gonna give you a chance,” so you had to make your own chance, which involved unpaid writing for small websites.
While I was doing the MySpace blog, I went to the groundbreaking of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. I was sitting there, taking notes, and I think Robby Gordon was sitting in front of me or something. This guy happened to be sitting behind me, watching what I was doing, and after everything went on, he came up and talked to me. His name was Ray Everett, and told me, “Hey man, there’s your interview right there.” So I went to talk to Robby and did all that and came back and talked to this guy and he said, “Hey, I’m starting this website, it’s called HardCoreRaceFans.com, we haven’t launched yet, but if you’re interested, I’d love to have you come on.”
So I did that and helped them design the website and planned out how we were going to do coverage and initially we did a lot of stuff, sort of like Jayski used to do — where we take other people’s articles and post them on there and give them credit and link back. And then we started writing our own stuff.
It was really before you had citizen journalists (being welcomed in NASCAR). We got denied credentials at Charlotte, Atlanta, Bristol, Darlington. We were really trying hard to get into these racetracks so we could have coverage and we were not a reputable source, so we were getting turned down. So that made our jobs pretty tough, but we just kept at it and kept at it and eventually we found a spot in the sport. NASCAR came out with the citizen journalists media corps, and they really kind of provided help that we had already gotten ourselves. So it was kind of nice that we had already done all that leg work and really didn’t get a whole lot from them. What would have been helpful is like sponsors and things like that, but you know, it was what it was.
I moved on from there to Frontstretch.com and AllLeftTurns.com and I think at one point I’d raised my hand in the media center and had three different outlets I had to say. There were people who helped, but I think one outlet — I won’t say which one it was — I wrote almost every day, I edited at least twice a week and I got a check for like $75 at the end of the year.
So by this time, I’ve got a family, I have a child that was born, I have a house, so I’m working basically as a full-time writer, traveling to races when I can and still have at least three or four other jobs on the side. So it was a lot.
I remember the days, you were at Ben & Jerry’s at Charlotte. You’re scooping ice cream for customers and trying to write a story when you were helping me at SBNation.com. I’d be talking to you and say, “Oh, can you write this story?” And you’d be like, “Yeah, I just got a couple of customers right now.” From what I could tell, you literally had the laptop there trying to write between scooping ice cream. Is that right?
Yeah, very much so. I was the manager there and I worked at Ben & Jerry’s for about 10 years, but I would open up my laptop and I would keep TweetDeck up and I’d have my email going and I’d be writing stories. There were actually times where I’d have to close the door and lock the door (to keep customers out) because I had a phone interview to do. So I’d have to go and I’d pull out the phone and I’d do my phone interview, and I’d record it and I’d go back and open the door and I’d have to sit there and write it.
It was a cool experience. I’m sure it would have been a lot easier to do it other ways, but I loved what I did and it just shows that if you have a passion for something and you really want to do something, you’re going to find a way to work hard enough to make it happen.
The funny story about the Ben & Jerry’s deal is, at one point, I was managing the Ben & Jerry’s in Gastonia, North Carolina, so it’s not very far from Belmont Abbey College. Belmont Abbey College has a motorsports program, and these kids would come in all the time and talk to me about racing, because I guess they knew who I was through SB Nation and Twitter and all this other stuff. Well, I’d say about four or five of those kids are now PR reps in the NASCAR series. One went to victory lane in the Duels and one went to victory lane for the Xfinity race.
And you remember them from when they were students coming in the ice cream shop?
So Ian Moye, who now works with Ryan Blaney, I knew he kind of looked familiar and he reminded me a couple of years ago. I was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s really cool.” There’s a really big group of them, so it’s funny. Small world.
Along the lines of you not getting paid, you’re also not getting paid travel-expense wise. So how were you getting to these races and covering so many races? What did you have to do to get there?
Go in debt. (Laughs) I would drive my car everywhere. I called it the Hotel Kia, so I would drive my car to the racetrack. We’re here at Atlanta, and you go out the tunnel and there’s a parking lot right across the street from the tunnel and I’ve slept there four or five years covering race weekend. Slept in my car during Talladega. One time I drove all the way from Charlotte to Homestead, slept in my car down there just for a day or two.
Luckily, places like Talladega, if you have a race ticket or way into the track, you can camp for free, so a lot of camping, staying with friends, staying with other media folks who were nice enough to let me stay there. Luckily, I could write this stuff off on my taxes a little bit in terms of milage, but a lot of it was out of pocket. The money side, it’ll come eventually.
But that was probably the biggest actual sacrifice, was I had these day jobs. I was lucky enough to make my schedule or work with the people who I was working with to have the time off.
The real impact came paying for car repairs. I think one time, I was leaving Talladega and the alternator died. I’ve had flat tires before (during race travel). It’s a big expense, but it’s totally worth it if you want to make it to where you want to make it.
How many years of covering racing was it where you were sleeping in your car before you started getting your travel paid for?
I think it was from 2007 until the Chase started in 2011.
So at least 30 races total — probably more — where you slept in your car the whole weekend?
Yeah, and you make a lot of friends out there in the parking lots and the campgrounds and things like that. It really kind of connected me to the fans, it gives you new perspective. It was always nice when somebody like Old Spice came to Talladega and gave away a bunch of deodorant. You’re like, “This is great!” It’s those little things like that you take advantage of.
But every time now we fly out every weekend with Victory Air and we’ve got a wonderful travel agent, Ms. Leslie at RCR, and you definitely don’t take those things for granted when you’ve slept in your car for years and years and years.
What was your big break? How did you get from sleeping in the car and being totally on your own to where you were finally being welcomed in as a professional?
I think when everything ended with SB Nation, it ended so soon to the start of the season that I was kind of out of options and I really didn’t know if I was going to continue. I really kind of didn’t want to go back to sleeping in my car and doing all this stuff because it was a lot of work and a lot of time away from the family — not only traveling like we do all the time but then also doing the regular jobs. I think I started my own blog at that point and just tried to do that.
Luckily, my sister found this job someplace on some job board and it was for GMR Marketing to do social media for the Speed Channel. I luckily went in and interviewed and had some good references and somehow landed the job. And so I started the first race of the Chase in 2011 — thrown to the wolves, you know. I remember I got to fly down and stay in a hotel. It was great!
So I did that for a couple of years and helped run Speed’s social media. We covered obviously NASCAR stuff, but we covered Barrett-Jackson and sports car stuff. It was really good experience because it got me into a corporate kind of atmosphere to see you have to go to an office and you have a desk and you’ve got co-workers. That was all kind of new to me. You have a salary. You have insurance. Those are things where you were struggling and you were worried about, but now you have them and that it was really nice.
So then, that becomes FOX Sports and then you kind of just ended up on there. But then that ends, and it looks bad for you yet again because it’s like, “Oh no, now has my path ended?”
I will say that when the Speed stuff ended, I was lucky enough to go work on the Miller Coors account with GMR. So I spent honestly, it was maybe a month or two on that account and then one of the folks over at FOX called me and said, “Hey, we’d love to have you come on.” And that initially started as somebody to help with social and upload stuff to the website, and that morphed into writing, and then the next thing you know I was writing with Tom Jensen as probably the No. 2 NASCAR guy on that website.
That had to be a pretty unbelievable time at that point in your life.
It really was. When your name and your byline is on the front page of FOXSports.com, it’s a pretty cool deal. You feel like, “Man, I’ve really kind of made it.” And during that time, I was lucky enough through (veteran writer) Ben White, who’s somebody I grew up reading and really admire, landed a book deal and was able to write a book (Start Your Engines: Famous Firsts in the History of NASCAR). That was a really cool part of my life and a really cool time.
The way the media had changed at that point, and the way that we were covering things, I wanted to do something different. I’d go out in the garage and spend a lot of my weekend working on a story. I’d write it and pour my heart and soul into it and I’d post it and then nobody would read it. And then we’d write something about social media and it’d just catch on fire. So I was getting a little frustrated with that and wanted to do something different.
I had something else lined up, so I left FOX, the other thing fell through, and then here I am again, up a creek without a paddle trying to figure out what I’m going to do.
Luckily through all the hard word I’ve had through the years, hooked up with NASCAR.com, did some freelance stuff up there, rewrote a lot of the content on the NASCAR Green website. And while I was doing that, I found out that RCR was looking. So, talked to folks like Jeff O’Keefe who’s now with Toyota and Traci Hultzapple who works with Ryan Newman on our team, and just gave them my resume, sent in my resume to the folks up there.
At the same time, I was talking to IndyCar about doing their social media. And their first question was, “How soon can you move to Indy?” Which is a big move. So I had about four or five interviews with IndyCar, and that would have been a cool experience, but I really wanted to stay in Charlotte, wanted to stay in NASCAR. I told RCR that. I interviewed one day and later that week they offered me that position, and next thing you know here I was again.
This has been a whole crazy experience, and it just goes to show that certain doors will open at times you don’t think they’re going to, but you gotta work hard to kind of kick them in every once in a while.
You’ve been at RCR for a couple of years now, and ultimately you started this season in victory lane at the Daytona 500. Did you take any time while you were there to sort of reflect and say, “Wow, not too many years ago I was sleeping in the parking lot here in my car just trying to get a chance?”
It’s really incredible. I mean, as many times as I’ve been to that track, I never thought that would be a possibility. I could remember as a kid, I had this VHS tape and it was like the highlights at Daytona. It starts with this little kid running around these with little Matchbox cars on the ground. Next thing you know, he’s running Late Models and next thing you know he’s in victory lane. It’s kind of what I thought about. Like man, this is cool, because I remember I used to get so hyped about the Daytona 500 on race day when I was like 8 years old, and here I am standing in victory lane.
You think of folks who are no longer with us like my grandmother, my aunt, my mom’s cousin, folks down in Alabama, and just like, “Man, this is really cool.” You also think of folks that helped you get there, folks like yourself, like Ray Everett, Joe Donatelli who helped me with All Left Turns and hooked me up with Playboy to write an article about NASCAR. It’s just cool that all those people got you to where you are, and helped you along that way.
I think I had one of those moments last year too with Hemric when we were going for the championship in Homestead. Like I probably couldn’t talk to anybody on the grid at Homestead because it was just like so emotional. Like, “Man, we might win a championship here.” So that was really cool.
People are reading this and they’re thinking, “Man, I’d love to do it but it’s not in the cards for me, I just can’t make it happen.” What do you tell those people? Can anybody who really wants to who’s reading this work in NASCAR and make it, in your opinion?
I think so. If you think you can’t make it, you’re not gonna make it. You have to just never take no for an answer. It’s funny that we’re doing this at Atlanta because this was actually the first racetrack I came to to work at with HardcoreRaceFans, and Curtis Key, who owned a Truck team at the time, hooked us up with Truck passes so I could only be here until Friday. I used to have to sneak into the media center, and one of the things that Ray Everett told me then was, “Just walk in like you own the place.”
And so it’s kind of how I’ve carried myself through this whole deal. Sometimes you gotta kick doors in, sometimes you’ve gotta be patient to let somebody else open it. You just have to work hard. I don’t think that’s just NASCAR, I’m thinking of just in life: You have to work hard for anything that you want, and never give up on your goals. If you do that well enough and you’re good enough to people, you’ll make it happen. It might not be what you envisioned it would be, but you just gotta take whatever opportunity comes your way.