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Each week, I’m asking someone from the racing industry about their social media use in a feature called the Social Spotlight. Up next: Kenny Wallace, the longtime driver and FOX Sports analyst. This interview is also available in podcast form.
You were one of the first people in NASCAR to really understand social media, understand how to use your Facebook page, your Twitter page. You’ve always been so into it. Why did you embrace it early on? What did you see in it that made you feel like you need to be part of that?
Well this is incredibly true: It had nothing to do with me. What happened was I had a gentleman who was running KennyWallace.com, and I thought it was boring, and I said to him, “We need to put video on KennyWallace.com.” He said to me, “It’s too expensive.” So then all of a sudden, he said, “Let’s go to Facebook and you can do videos for free there.” And then I remember saying, “Facebook is for children.” And he was appalled; he says, “No it’s not.”
So fast-forward. My career was kind of not going real good and I was driving the U.S. Border Patrol car for Jay Robinson (in 2009). Well, they said, “You’re gonna have to start and park in Montreal, Canada, because U.S. Border Patrol is not gonna be a sponsor there.” Made sense. But I remember being appalled (about being asked to start and park).
First of all, I want to say this: we all do what we have to do, and I’m no better than anybody, but I do not start and park. Maybe it’s just because of my father and my family being so competitive. And I wasn’t broke, but I was not going to start and park.
So I called NASCAR up and we had this idea to create a fan car. So NASCAR said, “You can get away with it, Kenny Wallace.” I remember them saying that. So then that’s how it started: it was everybody could put their name on our car that we raced in the first Xfinity race in Montreal, Canada.
We raised an enormous amount of money (roughly $100,000) and some 7,000 people’s names were on the car, and I wrote Jay Robinson a check and that is the way that I got it out, on Facebook. And then that’s when I went, “Wow. OK.” Then it became entertainment and that’s how it all started with me.
So you are very entertaining on all social media. I’m sure there’s been times where you put out something and you were like, “Oh my gosh, did I go too far with this?” Because you are not afraid, from what I can tell. How do you know when you go too far on social media?
Well, when I look back, there’s things that I’m embarrassed of. In my early days, I still listened to Howard Stern — and I still listen — and people just had this fascination with going to the bathroom. So I felt, “Well, I’ll try this. I’m not gonna copy Howard but…” So I was taking pictures of myself around porta-potties, in porta-potties, and I’m like, “This is ridiculous.” They had the most retweets, they had the most (reply) tweets. Am I embarrassed by that nowadays? I’m like, “Oh my gosh,” you know.
But we all have this fascination with bathrooms. You know, I don’t know if I’d do that over again. Of course, I did something a little about pooping today, which was a little lighthearted. But you know, I really do get something ready to go, I read it and read it and go, “Nope.”
Oh my God, I’ve deleted so many things. I can promise you right now, the hardest thing for me to do is not involve myself in this political viewpoint we have right now because I’m a Republican, and I have so much to say, but I just know you can’t win. And then it becomes no fun and that is when I think I’ve gone too far nowadays.
And I don’t like to hurt. For some reason, I like to crack a joke. I did say something the other day that I did delete. Somebody said that (Eric) Thames with Milwaukee in Major League Baseball has 11 home runs, and what do other players think of that? And I sarcastically tweeted, “Ask (Ryan) Braun” — Braun got caught with PEDs, steroids. And a fan said, “Come on Kenny, can’t a guy just have a good start this season?” And I thought, “Yeah, that was mean of me.”
But I did put that laughing face behind it. But I went back and deleted the tweet. You know, it just came to my mind right away, so it is natural for me to be conversational, tweet because I’m bored at an airport. I don’t like going too far.
You talked about some of the blowback that you might get sometimes — you know, political tweets, whatever. How do you handle people who say something mean, because you’re a very positive person from everything I’ve been able to tell all over the years. Do you just block them, or do you ignore people? How do you handle it if somebody’s coming at you?
That’s a great question, because I’ve had to teach myself and I’m like anybody else: I get my feelings hurt. I’ve been roughed up, I’ve felt like it’s been 300,000 people against me. But I’m tough, so I never say, “Why me?” and I’m really into therapy. I mean, I don’t take therapy, but I tease some really good friends of mine that are very mature and are good to me.
So what I did is when people would rough me up, I would turn it around and I would kind of play a game with them. I would say, “Wow, what happened in your childhood to make you so negative? I really feel sorry for you.” And I would never argue with them. And so I would always use the childhood thing. That always seemed to work — go back to why they’re so mean.
Then all of a sudden, I felt, “Well, this is silly. Don’t even respond.” So I literally started this one deal I had. I said, OK, you can say, “Hey Kenny Wallace, you were no good as a race car driver.” And I would say, “Well, you know, at least I tried.” Or I would say, “I didn’t accomplish what I wanted, but I made a lot of money doing it.” That would be a little bit of a sarcastic innuendo.
So all of a sudden, I said OK, you can debate with me. You can rough me up. But as soon as you cuss me out, if you go really hardcore, I block people. And I’ll tell you, I’ve probably blocked 100 people, I would say that. And it really silenced the noise.
Well it’s interesting because you want to be interactive with people, you want to be fan-friendly, you want to be approachable, all that stuff, but once somebody is like ruining your day with their tweets, they forget that everybody on the other side of it is still human. You still have feelings. You can’t just say, “Whatever, that doesn’t mean anything to me.” If somebody says something, it can get to you. So you can actually make it more fun for yourself by eliminating seeing these tweets in some way.
Here’s what I learned about. Years ago, a dear friend of mine, Felix Sabates, and myself got in a knock-down drag-out over something I said about Chip Ganassi Racing. I simply said they weren’t a top 10 team. I said Kyle Larson’s goal should be to run in the top 20. Well, Felix got really mad at me, and he attacked me and we talked to each other, we were about in tears hugging each other.
So here’s what I say about tweeting: I can start at first in the points in any series. I can start with Kyle Larson and I could go to the 40th place driver, and I could say negative, mean stuff about them — and it’d be true. But that’s not right. So my point is: you can take a four-time champion, Jeff Gordon, and I’ve got enough on him where I can really hurt his feelings. Just because he won 90-something races, everybody’s still got… you know they can be hurt, and they all got secrets, and I know them.
So I said to myself, “Isn’t that something? If I wanted to, I could hurt anybody. Anybody that’s really good!” I could hurt Jimmie Johnson. Just because you’re good at any type of sport doesn’t mean you’re perfect. And once you realize that, and you see Jimmie Johnson get roughed up, it’s like, Jeff Gluck, you, or I, we could get roughed up. Hell, they rough up a seven-time champion more than they do us, so that’s when you really start to bring in the scope. If they can rough up anybody, then that’s when everybody’s free game. And then, it’s just not right.
Part of your social media success in my view is it’s an extension of your personality. When I see you with people, you’re very warm, you’re very approachable. Somebody will come up to you and say, “Hey Kenny, I’m a big fan!” And you’ll put your arm around him, you’ll make it seem like you’ve been friends for a long time. I feel like I want to be more like that in someways; I need to be warmer with people. I guess my question is, how do you open yourself up to people you’ve maybe never met, or you don’t even know what their motives are necessarily, but you are willing to embrace them. How do you do that?
Well, when I look back on my childhood — now what I’m telling you now, I had to learn about myself. So my mother Judy says, “Kenny, you’re an old soul.” And I was like, “What is that, Mom?” And she says, “Well, you’ve been here before.” And I am laughing a little about it. But if you believe in reincarnation, and God knows that we have dreams when we go to bed, it’s kind of voodoo, like, “Gosh, I think I’ve done this before.”
So, with that being said, I was in school and I was always squeaking my chair. I was seeking attention from the teachers. I was always in trouble and they sent me to a therapist. And the therapist said, “He has a sibling rivalry with his brothers. Kenny is reaching out for attention — he’s competing with Rusty Wallace and Mike Wallace.” Well that’s untrue, because I know myself.
What I can tell you I learned about myself is for some reason, if there’s tension or people are arguing, I don’t like it. Now, I am a leader and a boss, but I don’t believe in roughing people up. I believe in organization and big nice meetings, but I don’t believe you have to be a total prick.
So I was born a lover, and I mean that, because I’ve read some things by Steven Tyler, the lead singer for Aerosmith. I’ve seen Steven Tyler give the biggest obese lady the biggest hug and just embrace her, when most people would go, “Oh my God, you’re too big. You’re nasty.” And my mother said, “Boy, Kenny, you are always good to little old ladies.” And it just taught me that, you know, you can’t just hug good-looking ladies. Everybody needs love. So Jeff, I kind of compiled all that and I’m like, “Everybody needs the love.”
You know, my brother Rusty, he’s won 50-something races and he flat-looked at me one day and he was mad at me. He said, “OK, Kenny, you win the ‘Everybody likes me’ award.” And I looked him, and it had crushed me. My brother Rusty was jealous of me that everybody liked me. So, you know, but I’m jealous of Rusty — I’d love to have one Cup win. But here I’ve never won a Cup race, and he wants what I have.
And Jeff Gordon said to me, “God, I wish I could laugh like you, Kenny.” And he was serious. And I take these great drivers, and then I had to learn that, “Oh my God, all they’re good at is driving a car around in circles really fast.”
You know, I really started learning what was wrong with us. So somebody can hit a baseball really far, and what, now you can solve world peace? So I just know that everybody needs to love everybody and nobody is really better than anybody. And if you’re really good at something, I really respect you and I admire you for it. But it doesn’t mean you’re a good person.
Well that’s important and I think that can come through on social media and make a difference because there’s so much negativity out there. If you can sort of cut through that and spread a positive message, make people feel good, show that there’s a different way, put aside the angry people and try to have fun with it, I think that seems to be the key to enjoying social media. I feel like you, maybe more than anybody I see out there, have sort of captured that. Is that fair to say?
Yeah, and I take my chances. This has nothing to do with you, and I want to make sure that you don’t get in trouble for what I’m gonna say, but you know, Jenna Fryer’s a very strong-willed lady, and I recognize that and I’ve known that for years. But she got roughed up (in written form) by one of the world’s greatest race car drivers, Mario Andretti, and it almost appalled me. You know, Mario went at her (about a controversial column regarding Fernando Alonso), and then everybody started going at her.
But you know, we put ourselves out there. And I already knew what she was going through, and I said that it’s amazing that sometimes the media will eat their own. And what I mean by that is that we are in a new environment where it’s insane, you know? Either people are too sensitive or they’re too harsh.
Listen, I’ve got a lot of bad things to say, but there’s no way I would have said them because they’re too hurtful. And it goes back to what I said: If you want, I can go right down the line. It’s like the movie where the man goes around the table and literally makes fun of everybody. It’s like, “Oh my God.” So, social (media) is brutal and it’s great and it’s bad.
What advice would you give to younger drivers who are trying to navigate this world? Right now, the sport’s in need of people to show personality like you’ve shown throughout your career. How would you tell them to do that?
I would tell them that I understand they want their privacy and I understand that they’re quiet. Being quiet is not a cool new thing. Me and Ryan Blaney had a conversation about this. Ryan Blaney said that he wanted to send a message that he’s very serious when we know he’s not. He’s funny, and he has a lot of good wit; he’s funny.
And I said, “Why are you walking around the garage area all serious?” He goes, “Well, I want to send a message that I’m serious.” But then you look at Clint Bowyer, who runs second, wins races, and just is as crazy as me, and he can get away with it because he runs good.
I would tell all race car drivers coming up now today: Be yourself. You know, if you’re waiting for an airplane or you’re somewhere eating lunch and you’ve just gotten moments that you’re just bored, get on social (media). I mean, I’m on social (media) all the time because I truly am bored that much. I’m waiting for an airplane, I’m drinking coffee.
So as hyper as I am and as many places as I go — when you travel as much as we do and you do, it could appear we’re busy, but we’re not. We’re not that busy, we’re just traveling. Get on your phone and create entertainment. It makes me laugh.
Well, thank you for joining us.
No, thank you. And I admire you; I really do. You know, I just want to make sure before we’re done that, you know, you took a chance, you quit your job, you got out on your own, and that’s the American dream, and that’s very hard to do. It’s very scary for me to watch you do it, but you’re my hero, and I wish more of us could do that. That’s kind of what America was built on. So good job and keep digging.
Thank you very much, and the feeling is very mutual. Like I said, I wish I could be more like you a lot of times.
You’re good. (Laughs)