How I Got Here with Kristine Curley

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 Up next: Kristine Curley, communications coordinator for Toyota Racing.

Before we trace your career path, what is your current role with Toyota? What do you do?

I help coordinate all our social media — with help from our partners — across a bunch of series. Not just NASCAR, but also NHRA, Formula Drift, POWRi, some of the lower series, ARCA. So there’s a lot, and it’s a lot to coordinate all that.

Then I also kind of serve as a liaison, because I’m on the marketing side now with corporate communications and the PR, make sure we’re all working in lockstep. I always say social media has a marketing and a PR presence, and it’s melding those two and making sure they’re all working together. So we’ve got a great team, and I’m super proud working with some people that I’ve known in the garage for a long time. So that makes things easy. Relationships are 100 percent key in this sport, as you know.

You mentioned that you’ve known people in the garage for a long time…

Are you saying I’m old, Jeff?

No, you mentioned that! But that’s a good place to start, because you were already very established by the time I got to know you and came into this career. So I really don’t know that much of your background or how you got to NASCAR in the first place.

It’s a tangled web of a story.

Well let’s get into it. How did the web begin?

So I graduated from the University of Kansas — Rock Chalk — with a journalism degree. My sisters always say, “You were lucky. You knew exactly what you wanted to do when you went to college.” And I did. I was in was the magazine sequence, which back then, was not really a sequence in journalism school. We were one of the first universities that had it. I really wanted to do broadcast journalism.

I graduated from KU, and then I wasn’t ready to go into the real world, as I like to say, so I went to be a ski bum for a year. Well that year turned into three and a half years. And so while I was there working five jobs — including adjusting people’s ski boots in the ski shop and working in a restaurant at night — I figured I’d better keep my skill sharp with writing.

That’s one thing I will say: Writing is important. I don’t care what you’re doing, you have to write, and you have to be able to communicate. And so I think that is the best advice I’d give everyone: Read and write and keep your writing as sharp as you can. Because whether it’s social media or whether you’re writing a press release or whether you’re writing talking points for someone, you have to know how to speak.

So anyway, I went to work in the ski resort town in Crested Butte and I thought, “I’d better do something so that at the end of this, when I’m looking for a job, I’ve got something to show for it.” So I basically started the sports page of the local little Crested Butte paper. We used to have the extreme skiing competition there, so I’d do that and I’d find little things to cover.

Then I fancied myself a columnist. I’ll never forget, (former Florida State football/basketball star) Charlie Ward was coming out (of college) and trying to decide what sport he wanted to play. So I wrote that he should be a football player. And I remember my dad was like, “What in the world? Why would he be a football player?” That was my first taste of writing a column and having someone not agree with me — my father! Is there anyone that’s gonna bring you down to earth than your dad or your mom?

(Being in Crested Butte) had forced me to get out there and hustle and do things. I also got some odd jobs writing for like the Chamber of Commerce and things like that, so at the end of the day, when I went to the real world, I had something. So I went back to the real world and I wanted to get into television.

Wait, so you just said, “I want to go back and I’m just gonna try and go to a TV station?”

Right, exactly.

That sounds tough.

And I didn’t have a broadcast degree, I had a magazine degree. So I went back to Kansas City where I’m from, and I’m like, “I guess I better start calling around to the TV stations.” I didn’t have a tape, didn’t have anything. So I called around to the TV stations and got ahold of a gentleman in the sports department at a place where at that time they were the number one TV station. And (former quarterback) Len Dawson was the head sports guy.

Anyway, the producer there (John Crumley) was just the most amazing man. To this day, he is still one of my mentors. I don’t remember what I said to him, but I basically talked my way into the sports department and basically said, “I’ll carry cable for free.” And in the meantime, I was also writing for the Kansas City Star — very poorly, I will say — but the gentleman who was there (Tom Ibarra) was also a mentor of mine and to this day we still talk.

And you had your clips from Crested Butte? You just said, “Hey, let me do some stuff, I’m from here?”

Correct. They didn’t have a position. Again, talked my way into it. Covered (future UCLA star) JaRon Rush; I would cover local high school sports. I’d go in and write my stories. And in the meantime, I wanted to break into television, so again, talked my way into the sports department there. I would go cover the games, go get sound afterwards, so I’d have to go into the locker rooms.

So you just had a microphone and camera or something and they’re like, “Hey, go get us stuff?”

So for the Chiefs games, I would go and we’d cover the game and I would write down time codes like, “Touchdown at this time,” and then we’d go get sound in the locker rooms. Same with college sports. Sometimes we didn’t have a camera to go cover it.

I remember that Tim Duncan, who is one of my favorite basketball players, they were playing at Mizzou, and no one would get a camera. There was this old cameraman who no one got along with. Well, I loved him. He was the nicest guy. I said, “Hey, listen, I know you’re off. We don’t have a camera, but it’s Tim Duncan. Can you go? Let’s cover it, and we’ll get sound.” He’s like, “Yeah.”

So we go up to the game and Tim was a superstar then at Wake Forest. The only reason you went to the game was to get sound from Tim Duncan, right? Well, we’re waiting around, waiting around — and in college, you weren’t allowed to go in the locker rooms. So I’m like, “Where is everyone? Why am I the only one standing out here?” Finally I looked at my photographer. I’m like, “Do you think he’s in the locker room and everyone’s in there getting him?” He’s like, “Well, it looks like it.” I’m like, “I don’t know what to do.”

I was scared to death. Am I just gonna walk in? What if I do — will I get in trouble? But I’m like, “If he’s in there and I don’t get the sound, then that’s on me.” So I said, “Alright, we’re going in. I’ll go in first and if someone stops me, we’ll just be like, ‘I’m so sorry. We thought everyone was in here.'”

Sure enough, everyone was in there. So I was like, “Gosh darn it.” At this point there’s a mob (of media around Duncan). Well, I was so mad that I wormed my way to the front, got down in front of Tim on one knee. I remember I was balancing because I had to get down low enough, I remember he looked down at me and laughed, but I just looked up at him and asked questions, got my microphone in there, got the sound and we left. I was petrified, you know what I mean? But I was just like, “You’ve gotta carry yourself, you’ve got to know what you’re doing,” and at the end of the day we got sound.

Back during that time — not to make it sound like it was ancient times — but were women in the locker room as accepted as they are now? Did you have any obstacles that way?

I wouldn’t say there were obstacles. Actually, one of the other anchors at the station was a woman and she was one of the first ones. But whenever I got those opportunities, I looked at it this way: Someone gave me a chance, and the last thing I’m gonna do is make them look bad by giving me this chance. So for my friend John Crumley at the station, the only thing that would make me feel worse about what I was doing is if I disappointed him. And so I knew that I had to go carry myself in that locker room in a certain way. I was there to get sound, and it’s intimidating.

I remember Jason Whitlock at that time a columnist for the Kansas City Star, and he’s like, “Why do you walk in these locker rooms (with) your nose always in the air?” And I said, “Exactly. I have to walk in here like I belong, I have to conduct myself professionally, I have to get my sound and I’m getting out of here.” It’s not a very friendly place to come, and it is intimidating, but at the end of the day, I have a job to do and I’m gonna do it the best that I can and do it professionally.

At the end of the day, the guy who is the head publicist for the Chiefs was on my resume. He was one of those guys that was really hard to get to know, but at the end of the day, making those right relationships and Bob Moore was certainly someone to this day who helped open some doors by just having his name on my resume.

How did you go from that point to the PR side and into racing?

That’s an interesting question. So I’m at the TV station and at this point I’m just gonna say, I wasn’t gonna make it on the air.  I should have gone to broadcast school. I was at a crossroads.

I was producing, and one of the things that I really enjoyed was producing a live football show that aired right before Monday Night Football for us. I was actually nominated for a local Emmy for it.

I remember one of the shows, I had to sit in the booth — and I am deaf in one ear. So when you’re in the booth, you have to have your headphones on so you can hear back … to the station and still be talking to your people on air. Well I couldn’t, because I can’t hear out of one ear, so I’d have to switch (the headset) over to talk to people. But I loved it. You had to come up with stories.

All of that led me to do a better job as a PR person. (In the racing world) I always looked at things from a producer side when (TV people) would come to me for story ideas. Like I would know, “You know what, if we got this, this is gonna be a good sound bite” or “This is good B-roll,” because I really enjoy producing. I like coming up with the stories.

People make fun of me, but I love to watch pregame. Like last week, we were at our (Kansas) alumni association watch party and they didn’t have the pregame sound up. I was like, “Can we turn the sound up?” Because I love to see the stories. That’s what gets you excited about sports — you can identify with the athletes.

I was at a crossroads, and so it was like, “Do you want to go be a producer?” I was working at the ABC affiliate, which is obviously associated with ESPN, and my mentor’s like, “Do you really wanna do that?” I’m like, “I don’t know.”

So I took a little one-year break, and that one-year break…I kind of got lucky, let’s put it that way. I decided I didn’t want to do television producing as a career, so I was still kind of looking around. In the meantime, one of our friends owned a company, which to this day is brilliant. She managed a bunch of non-profits — because if you work for a non-profit, you usually are short-staffed. But she’d come up with this model where you would move people around from the different charities to help with the other charities’ events.

So they wouldn’t have to go big on staff.

Correct. And so the charity that I was in charge of, I wrote grants and I did the newsletter and PR and all that stuff, was the ALS Association. And the ALS Association in Kansas City was one Kansas City athlete’s charity of choice.

Think back — who is probably the biggest athlete to come out of Kansas City?

I’m blanking.

George Brett.

Oh, duh. Now that I think of George Brett, I think of ALS stuff too. That connection sounds familiar.

Anyway, it just so happened to be the year he got elected to the Hall of Fame (1999). And when he did, the city wanted to do something for him and he had said, “I want it to benefit a charity.”

So we did a week of events that were amazing. One of the big events was a roast of George with (former Dodgers manager) Tommy Lasorda, Larry King and Bo Jackson. Chris Berman and Bob Costas were the emcees.

It wasn’t my event to run, but I helped. And one of the things I did was help Berman and Costas with their script and the setup of how we were gonna do it. And I was like, “You know what? I really like working with athletes and talent.” I came out of that and I said, “Now I know what I think I should do.”

So that’s when it hit you. You were like, “I really enjoy the star part of this and helping them do something.”

Right. And I’ve been lucky to meet a lot of people, but at the end of the day, they’re just people like us and we all have a job to do. But I really enjoy it because of all of that experience.

So I was like, “OK, what am I gonna do?” Enter my mentor at the TV station, and the assistant news director he was friends with had gone to one of the big advertisement firms in Kansas City. One of their new clients was Sprint, and they were getting in racing.

I remember I was in the middle of all of this stuff with George Brett. I had an interview, I remember he asked me, “Can you handle death?”

(Gets choked up and pauses to collect herself.)

And I was like, “Yeah. This sounds exciting.”

In the interview, they asked you, “Can you handle death?”

Yeah, and I didn’t know what he meant by that. He’s like, “Can you travel and all that stuff” and I said, “Love to travel.” I didn’t quite get what he meant. And so I started working with Adam Petty. (Speaking through tears) And let’s just say I grew up a lot in the year that I worked with him. (Editor’s note: Petty was killed in a 2000 crash at New Hampshire at the age of 19.)

But what I learned is how this sport is a family. And so after Adam passed, I decided I wanted to stay in the sport just because of the people. Like if you’re not happy and you don’t work with good people, it’s not fun. So I made a decision that I wanted to stay in the sport, and there are amazing people. Again, relationships are 100 percent key.

Adam Petty and Kristine Curley (photo courtesy of Kristine Curley).

Was that a hard decision for you, or was it sort of obvious at the time to stay in the sport?

A little bit. Kyle (Petty) finished out the year in Adam’s car, and so Kyle asked — I helped finish out the year with Kyle in the car. I think after that is when I was like, “What do I want to do?” And so an opportunity presented itself to stay in the sport, and I decided it was time for a change. I’d have to move to Charlotte for it, and I thought, “I’m gonna just try it. And if I don’t like it or it’s too hard, then I’ll get out of it.”

Seventeen years later of working with drivers, and it was good and I’ve worked with some amazing drivers.

Then I went to work with Bill Elliott and Ray Evernham.

That was immediately after the Pettys?

Yep. One of the things I was always intrigued with my father was a lawyer, and law always intrigued me. In fact, in journalism school, (law) was a weed-out class. It was a class everyone had trouble with. And I remember, one of my friends, she was straight A’s and had the hardest time with it, and I loved that class. Didn’t even really had to study for it. Like my mind just thought that way.

And I remember Cindy Elliott (Bill’s wife and Chase’s mom) was talking about, “Our sport needs some good agents.” And she was like, “Maybe we should send you to law school.” I told her that (recently) and she laughed, like, “Did I really say that?” I’m like, “Yes.” And to this day, I’m like, “Why didn’t I (become an agent)?” That is my one regret. My path certainly would have been different. But I didn’t do it, I stayed in PR and did that for a long long time.

So you were doing Bill Elliott’s stuff. How did it come to be that Jimmie Johnson was next?

So Bill retired. And I will say, working with Ray Evernham back then helped me prepare for the next step (with Chad Knaus). But anyway, yes, after that, Bill retired and again, it was, “Do I wanna stay in the sport?” A friend of mine who was doing Jimmie’s PR for the first two years was going to come off the road and work for Jimmie. He said, “We think you’d be great.”

I met with people from Lowe’s who become another mentor for me — the person who hired me. And I said, “Listen, here’s the deal: You can look at my resume, but at the end of the day, 90 percent of this job in this sport is through the relationship you have with the drivers. And they have to trust you that when you go to them and say, ‘I need you to do this AM radio station,’ or ‘I need you to do this’ that there’s a reason for it, and there’s a reason something’s on the schedule. That you vetted through it and talked through it and you give them the tools that you need to succeed on it.”

So I said, “Alright, give it a try, we’ll see.” This was a point in time where I was either gonna stay in the sport for a while or I’m gonna go try something else. So ended up staying with Jimmie for 10 years, and then went to work with Clint Bowyer, two totally (different personalities). (Laughs) But again I had to learn how each of them are very different.

And Bill was very different. An interesting thing — Bill back in the day would much rather do an interview one-on-one.

Instead of a big group session?

Correct. I think he’s just more comfortable that way. And he’d very much rather sit and talk like that. That’s just more his style. I think big groups were not his thing. Other drivers would just prefer to just get everyone there together, except for if it’s a special one-on-one request, but again, it’s knowing that and understanding what it is that is gonna set them up to succeed that’ll get you a good interview.

Can you just give us a sense of what it was like during the Jimmie years? You were there for his whole rise in some ways and were there for like six of the championships. So that had to be an unreal time in your life, experiencing all this and seeing all of it first-hand of what’s gonna go down as a legendary period in NASCAR history, I imagine.

Yeah, it was great. I will say this, and I don’t mean this to sound ungrateful. Winning is great; winning is absolutely why we are in sports. But I will say I would go back and work with Adam where I never won a race in a heartbeat. I’ve told Jimmie that, and he knows that. Because winning is important, but it’s the people that you work with who are important, and I’ve been lucky to work with some of the best, and I don’t know how I lucked into that.

Each of them to this day — Kyle Petty is still a dear friend, Jimmie is a dear friend, Clint is a dear friend. You can tell I’m a crier, but I shed a few tears for him (winning at Martinsville). Martin winning last year, amazing, both him and Sherry (Pollex).

Again, when you are surrounded and get to work with good people, what more could you ask for, right? And those people take a vested interest and care about you.

I always tell my family, if something ever happened and I needed to get home, it might not be the driver I work with, but there’s someone there in that garage that would get me on their plane and get me home. And I think that’s the thing that keeps people (in the sport).

It’s a grind. This sport is a grind, and it will tear you down and it will wear you down sometimes. But it’s also a family. Sometimes we’re a little dysfunctional, but at the end of the day, we care about people and we want to make sure that those people are taken care of.

So yes, it was certainly amazing to be able to win championships, and I’ve been lucky to win a few. You meet a lot of people, so that’s amazing. But again, I don’t mean to sound like it’s not a big deal,  but I only have one picture hanging up of me with an athlete. And it was with Buck O’Neil, the old Negro Leagues player who passed away a few years ago. He was just an amazing, cool guy. And of all the people that I’ve been lucky enough to meet, and there have been a few, he’s the only one that I have a picture of myself with hanging up. Now if I met Willie Nelson, that picture might be up too.

Kristine Curley and Buck O’Neil (courtesy of Kristine Curley).

So you talked about how other women might be listening to this and hoping to maybe do what you’ve done someday. It’s quite a path that you’ve had and so many people you’ve gotten to meet, like you’ve said. What’s some of your top advice that you’d give to somebody who’s just trying to make it on their own path?

My biggest advice is, you have to be professional and you have to carry yourself sometimes or carry yourself to a higher standard maybe than is expected. And that’s OK, right? One of the things, I was sitting next to a co-worker the other day and he heard me speaking to someone, and I got off the phone and he gave one of the nicest compliments anyone could ever give me. He’s like, “I want my daughters to meet you, because the way you talked to that person, I could tell that they were being disrespectful to you, but the way you held your ground and the way you spoke back to him, I want my daughters to feel empowered that they can do that, too.”

And of course, anyone that’s listening to this knows I cry, so of course I cried at work. I’m like, “Well thank you. There is no higher compliment that you could give me as a woman than to say that.”

But it’s hard. It’s not easy. Back when I was doing stuff at the TV station, I was covering the Chiefs, and we’d be out sometimes — my friends and I — and some of the Chiefs players would be out. My friends would be like, “Let’s go over and say hi.” I’m like, “No, because they’re out on their personal time and they don’t need to see me and I don’t need to see them because when I go into that locker room, they need to know I’m there doing business.” And sometimes that’s not fun, sometimes you want to go.

In my head, I always had to keep things very scheduled, very professional. Like for Jimmie, there’s always so many things we had to do, right? Sometimes we had to be down to the minute, like, “You’ve got seven minutes (for an interview)” — but at least I’m giving you seven minutes, right? I’d come to you: “What are your questions? What do we need to prepare them for so when we get into the interview, you’re getting what you want and Jimmie or whatever driver it is are expressing their true selves?” So again, it’s setting everyone up to succeed.

Thank you so much for being willing to do this.

I don’t think I’m worthy of a podcast, but if there’s one little girl or high school, college, whatever someone who’s struggling — just don’t give up. Keep calling, keep after it, be professional when you do it. But all it was was me picking up the phone and asking someone to give me a chance.