Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Nascar, Kyle Petty and the future of sports coverage

Back in May, while covering the Nascar All-Star race and Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway for The New York Times, I conducted a little independent study. I made a list of the reporters who asked questions of five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson in a pair of press conferences held in the media center.

Of the 16 questions asked over the two weeks, 15 came from reporters or broadcasters who work for media outlets that have a financial relationship with Nascar, from the Motor Racing Network to Only one question came from a reporter who works for an independent television station.

That's meant mostly as an observation and not a criticism of Nascar, which decides who gets to ask questions of drivers during press conferences. I think it's partly a function of who is in the media center these days. And why they are there.

With many independent media outlets reducing coverage of Nascar, from Sports Illustrated to The Washington Post, those seats have increasingly been filled by stakeholders -- companies that have a financial stake in the success of the sport from radio and television networks to their affiliated web sites. These days it seems like Nascar, perhaps more than any other sport, is reported on and written about largely by those stakeholders.

And although some very good journalists work for some of the media outlets that have financial connections to Nascar, they aren't necessarily being paid to be journalists anymore. They are there to provide content in support of the marketing of Nascar.

That inevitably changes the tone of coverage.

Because with fewer independent reporters in the media center week to week and fewer major newspapers devoting money and space to Nascar, there are fewer independent questions being asked. And likely fewer critical examinations of controversial issues within the sport.

Which brings me to broadcaster and former driver Kyle Petty, who had the apparent audacity to offer an unscripted opinion of Danica Patrick last week. Petty works for TNT, one of those media outlets with a stake in Nascar, but is an independent thinker who speaks his mind rather than the company line.

Petty certainly didn't do Nascar any favors by pointing out that Patrick is more a "marketing machine" than competitive racecar driver.  Patrick is one of the brightest stars of Nascar, able to draw new sponsors and fans to a sport that has seen ratings and attendance declines over the years. She helps the networks sell Nascar and that fact is reflected in the coverage of her by some.

Never mind the absurd argument put forth that Petty doesn't have the resume to criticize Patrick. As longtime Nascar writer Monte Dutton points out in his blog, it's hard to fathom that someone with 829 Cup starts, 30 years as a driver and a lifetime association with the sport somehow isn't viewed as credible.

Danica PatrickBut this isn't about Petty's qualifications. It's about the backlash that comes when somebody goes off-message. It's just so rare to hear a discordant voice in Nascar, which might be why Petty's commentary stood out even though he essentially repeated something he had said about Patrick three years ago (h/t Nate Ryan). Or why a column suggesting Nascar missed an opportunity to join a national conversation when Jason Collins came out as gay created such an uproar a few months ago.

Of course, every sport is heavily managed these days, with independent media kept increasingly leashed or at arms length. But given the economics of newspapers, web sites and the cost of coverage, I have to wonder if more sports will be like Nascar in the future with press boxes filled primarily with stakeholders and de facto marketers rather than reporters.

That might be good news for sports leagues that work tirelessly to manage and control the message. I'm not so sure it is good for all those who benefit from a healthy skepticism and critical examination of sports.

But do fans really care?

Danica Patrick photo credit: Paul K. Stout


  1. I wish there were more independent and honest thinkers covering NASCAR. I'm still hoping that a new David Poole will come along some day.

    In my opinion, there are many things wrong with NASCAR right now and the grandstands and TV ratings prove it.

    After more years and more diecast purchases than I care to admit, I've stopped watching NASCAR races this season. Maybe that means my opinion shouldn't count, but I still watch other motorsports and find them entertaining.(IndyCar, Formula One, MotoGP)

  2. I'm a healthily skeptical type, so NASCAR's relentless message control is one reason I'm not a fan.

    That said, access is overrated. I could live a long happy life without ever hearing reporters ask variations of "How important was it that [insert name] came up big at the end?"

    Some of the best sports writing is done from a distance. In fact, the writing is better when reporters aren't worried that frankness will cost them face time with a star.

  3. I applaud and would love to give some of these "people in charge" a piece of the real race fans mind. At some point paying all these people who don't give a rats ass about the sport and and no idea what they are doing when they bring the 15 minutes of fame type Kardashian/Patrick on board is going to finally drive away the real fans. In scripting the whole "event" around Sparkle Pony these people have a deep seeded hatred and disregard for the smarts and loyalty of MOST Nascar fans. You can spin her till the day is long, I do not believe what you are saying, I see her stats, I have been watching this sport for a long long time and I am saddened that the backlash of Kyle, who is more qualified than all of us, growing up around racing to have his name in today's society view him as attacking a women when they don't know the first thing about racing. If we were talking about her skills, then she would be in the back with the other males who garner zero in media attention. Nuh said. Kyle is RIGHT!

  4. Kyle is a breath of fresh air in a sport where the other broadcasters all toe the company line.

    Whether or not you agree with his view, it's a good thing to have some diversity of opinion.

  5. Kyle placed in the top 10 in points 4 time, top 5 twice. All under an un-contrived championship system.

    Kyle has 8 wins

    Kyle led 490 laps of a 492 lap race.

    Danica has.............??

    Kyle has every right, not audacity, to says what he wishes about Danica.

    He is, in fact, spot on in his assessment.

  6. This report is so right on! Nascar is like an ostritch,head in the sand,and oblivious to the reality around them.

  7. Yes, the thought police in NASCAR are in full control. Everyone in the media says the same bland things every week. NASCAR's management continues to tell all of the fans "everything is wonderful", when it has been obvious for some years now that the sport is falling behind. Changing the look of the ugly car isn't enough w/o improvements to the competition. A sport that used to be SO exciting is boring every week.

    So the fans are reduced to arguing about Danica's marketing prowess and Johnson's whining, rather than the on track product.

    Petty's opinion is his own and one that I share. Danica didn't do much in Indycar and hasn't done nearly enough in NASCAR to warrant the amount of coverage she gets, except that NASCAR needs another savior to augment Jr's popularity. I'd like to see another female in a well-funded, well staffed ride and see what would happen.

    But since that won't happen, sparklepony will continue to get coverage on everything she does.

  8. I do agree with much of what has been posted above. Danica gets way more coverage than her racing position would warrant. She however has done no worse than many other open wheeled driver that have come over to Nascar. I would like to have seen her in a second year in the Busch series (excuse me) Nationwide. Give her a year, then see how she does.

    I would also like to see Johnna Long in a well funded Nationwide car to see what she can do.

  9. This conversation is silly.

    First off, good on Kyle for his remarks, and he made them in a dignified way, saying only that Danica Patrick could certainly drive a race car, but had yet to prove herself as a "racer," i.e. someone who can stalk the car in front of them and make a green-flag pass for position. She may develop that skill, or she might not. If she makes money and draws sponsors, she may never need to.

    But let's be real about NASCAR in general. It's been maybe 15 years since it was dubbed "The World Of In-Laws." The insularity of the family-owned organization is nothing new, and not the source of any problems.

    The sport has always had thoroughly average drivers who seemed to somehow find the money or sponsors to show up on a regular basis, but weren't particularly a threat to win -- Bobby Hillin, Rick Wilson, or whomever you want to bash. Again, nothing new.

    And exactly what are the problems with NASCAR, except for the same problems that have rattled most other industries in the American economy? Like the housing industry, NASCAR experienced a "bubble" in the early 2000s. It over-expanded. When the available customers -- fans with money to spend -- got hit by the economic downturn, attendance declined. That should surprise no one.

    By any measure, NASCAR is putting a better product out than ever. Folks who claim to be longtime fans ought to know that.

    Consider that 2010 was the most competitive season ever in the 60-plus years of competition in terms of average lead changes and leaders per race. There was an average of 25.4 lead changes per event in 2010, the most in the history of NASCAR Sprint Cup competition. Additionally, there was an average of 11.4 leaders per event, also the highest average since the series' inaugural year of 1949. The previous highs in both statistics were 24.9 lead changes in 1981 and 11.0 leaders in 2006.

    The good old days were really not as good as you imagine.

    There was not a diversity of winners. In 1974, there were just 5 winners in 30 races all season -- Petty, Pearson, B. Allison, Yarborough, and 1 for Earl Ross. In the entire decade of the ‘70s, there were just 22 different race winners, most of them with names you recognize: Petty, both Allisons, Pearson, Yarborough, Parsons, Baker, Isaac, Foyt, Donohue, Glotzbach, Waltrip, Bonnett, Hamilton, Hylton, Marcis. In the 2011 season alone, there were 18 different winners, and then 3 more different ones in 2012.

    Margins of victory, up until the '80s, were often measured by laps, not fractions of seconds. Rarely did more than a handful of cars finish on the lead lap. Today, a restrictor plate race will find practically the whole field on the lead lap at the end.

    Up until even the 1990s, winners usually came from the first 6 starting positions. Practically nobody charged from the back of the field or scored an upset win. In 1971, there were 48 Cup races, and 45 of those winners started the race 5th or better (Why even hold the race? Call it good after qualifying!). Even as late as 1998, when there were 33 Cup races, 25 of the winners started the race from the first three rows. Compare to each of the last four Cup seasons, when less than half the winners started in the first three rows.

    The cars were less safe. It’s been 12 years since we lost Earnhardt, the last Cup driver to die at the wheel. We used to lose winning drivers practically every year.

    Today, even in a bad economy, most of the field still runs fully sponsored for all 36 races (well, 39/40 if you include the Shootout, All Star Race and Gatorade Duels). More money in the sport makes for more sponsors and more competitive rides.

    The softening of TV ratings is a legitimate issue, and you could chalk it up to scheduling, competition from a broader selection of programming, or something else. But I definitely don't think the product on the track is the issue.

  10. I watched the Kyle Petty interview and have wondered ever since why 100% of the comments I have seen (hundreds) all seem to mis-characterize his statement. What he said was, drivers like HIM AND DANICA are not real Race Car Drivers like David Pearson and Richard Petty. With the exception of his Marketing Machine comment he placed himself in the same category as Danica. It doesn't make for as good of a story, but then the facts seldom do.

  11. Bernstein, you wrote "not a criticism of Nascar, which decides who gets to ask questions of drivers during press conferences."

    That describes a PR event, not a press conference. If you really do not meant to criticize Nascar for that then you are not a journalist, either, just a publicist for Nascar on the payroll of the NY Times.

    1. Please note the qualifiers "mostly" and "partly" in that sentence. I didn't track all interviews, so I am comfortable making an observation but am careful not to make an accusation.

      Those who have read my coverage in the Times would never accuse me of being a publicist -- including Nascar.

  12. Great post! The fact that you means someone is reading and liking it! Congrats!That’s great advice.

  13. I thought I heard if a "reporter" covering Nascar races wrote anything negative about Nascar then their media hard card would be revoked? Maybe that's why 1. There weren't any "nonvested" media at the media center and 2. why softball questions are always asked.

  14. Here's the other question - what will it take for NASCAR to see that controlling the press is NOT good for the sport?