I was walking through the NASCAR Winston Cup Garage when a familiar voice called out, “hey boy, where you been?” I turned and saw Cale Yarborough headed in my direction, big smile on his face and his hand extended.
The year was 1981. I had been working in Charleston, S.C. for three years and moved to Jacksonville in the spring. This was before everybody was wired with cable, and way before satellite television was all the rage. Cale lived in Sardis, S.C., northwest of Charleston and had a huge antenna on his garage so he could get Charleston television. Turns out, he watched my station for news all the time.
“I moved to Jacksonville,” I answered.
“Well, it’s great to see you,” Cale said as he patted me on the back.
Boy, have things changed. It seems like a million years ago, but NASCAR has moved into the big time. NASCAR used to be the easiest sport to cover. The garage area was uncluttered, just a few writers and very few television cameras. No fans, no sponsors. The drivers were eager to talk, eager to give their sponsors publicity.
NASCAR didn’t get a lot of coverage in the mainstream media, so they created their own. Magazines, newsletters, their own radio network, all devoted to NASCAR, fulltime. There wasn’t a lot of money in the sport, and actually only a few teams had a chance to win. They had the money to do the testing, to buy the best parts and to have the right guys on their team.
I can remember sitting in the garage with Dale Earnhardt and saying “what’d you learn out there today.” “I learned we don’t have enough car to win,” Dale snapped back, and then smiled. All of that has changed.
Since cable television discovered NASCAR and began showing every race, the sport has exploded. The garage is packed now, dozens of writers and television crews with fans and sponsors granted access by NASCAR as well. Because they never needed it in the past, NASCAR never developed a public relations arm. The drivers sought you out.
Now, with drivers running in the other direction every time they see a reporter with a notepad or microphone (unless it has a network insignia on it), the relationship between the competitors and the media is beginning to be like every other sport: a bit frosty. Each team is beginning to hire their own pr staff, ensuring their driver and his sponsors will get airtime.
From a regional sport to the big time, NASCAR has made the transition with purpose. They’ve prepared to take the national stage bit by bit. Going to Indianapolis, promoting their own Daytona 500 as the “Super Bowl of Racing,” even holding their year-end banquet in New York, they’ve taken cautious steps before stepping into the spotlight across the country.
The new television contract, the extended season and just the sheer amount of money in racing now will demand they be prepared to take the good with the bad while under the natural scrutiny the exposure will bring. Up until now, the sport has been clean. The only scandals involved on-track incidents. No talk about the drivers’ personal lives. No investigations into what they’re up to off the track. Nobody but their loyal fans cared. Not anymore.
NASCAR is huge. Are they ready?
I think so.
They take care of their core fans, catering to them at the track and on television. You can buy just about anything and everything with Dale Earnhardt’s picture on it, or the number “3”. Want to listen to Dale talk with his pit crew, his car owner and his spotter? No problem. Here’s a pair of headsets with the frequency of every driver on the track. Need to know the rpm’s in the turns? Right on your screen, the in car telemetry tells you.
They’ll be made fun of, for sure. The way they talk, the billboard advertising on the cars and drivers. But aren’t they just taking the first steps where other sports will follow? Golfers have sponsorship worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even baseball and football uniforms have the first sign of manufacturers logos on them.
New fans being exposed to the sport for the first time will learn the drivers, their numbers and their owners and crew chiefs. They’ll know something about the personalities as well. NASCAR has taken a piece of the network television pie.
They’re sitting at the table with the other “major” sports.
Will they be served the main course?