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 Nascar.com. 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.
But 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