I'm going to start this post out with a story.
Back in 2005 when I was still a part-time staff writer with the Aurora (Ill.) Beacon News, we received an e-mail from a NASCAR Busch (now Nationwide) series team, offering to make a reporter a "pit crew member for a day" when the series ran at Chicagoland.
Without a second's hesitation, I took the assignment. Actually, since I was the only racing fan in the department, they assigned it to me without asking!
I've done some cool things in my writing career, but that one is one of the best. When I arrived at the track I was given one of those fancy team shirts, got to walk out to the start/finish line to watch driver introductions, and then spent the race atop the pit box with the crew chief and team owner.
My guy had a tough weekend. They qualified 33rd and spent the day treading water in the back of the field before finishing 27th in a race that was won by Kevin Harvick. Watching the race up close was something I will never forget, it was so much louder and faster along pit road up close. Jimmie Johnson was in the pit stall behind ours, and it was just a wild and crazy day and gave a great glimpse as to what a race is like "inside the ropes".
Just like pro golf (which is where I borrowed that phrase from), from that perspective it is a completely different animal. It just sounds and looks different.
I went back to the office and wrote a 90-inch story on the race. Just for reference, an average sports story is about 12-15 inches or 400-500 words. I was given as much space as I wanted and so I took advantage if that. In the finished product, only one thing was missing -- a quote from the driver himself about his take on the race.
Now, both the driver and crew chief were more than happy to talk to me beforehand, but when I asked the PR person if I could get a quote after, she told me they were upset with how things went and it wouldn't be a good idea.
And you know what? That was total BS. Now, I'm not going to name the driver or the team, but when you invite a guy to come out and give pub to your driver and race team, you need to talk to them, for better or for worse. You don't "big league" someone just because you had a crappy day, especially when you invite them down for the express purpose of spotlighting your organization. If he had done well, I'm sure he would have been extremely chatty, but win, lose or draw there are obligations, and that was one of them.
Fortunately there doesn't seem to be many instances of that happening in IndyCar. Most of the drivers are stand-up individuals who go in front of the mic or a tape recorder no matter what happens. It is something that I really like about the series.
Because you know what? And here is the point of Part 2...in my mind, it is something they should do, as driving the car is just a singular part of their jobs. The most important part, of course, but there is a lot more to it, and if IndyCar wants to keep making gains, dealing extensively with the media and fans are what they need to continue doing.
In essence, a driver is the quarterback of the team. Lots of people are responsible for getting that car on the track, but the success or failure on any given weekend is ultimately in the hands of the driver. As the face of the team, you always have to be that leader, no matter what happens.
I know these guys are busy, but that has to be a point of emphasis now and going forward. No matter who, and no matter what, they should give access to any legitimate media organization that wants a few minutes of their time.
I'm not an advocate of the "guerrilla media" that is prevalent these days. If a driver wants to blow someone off who asks a confrontational question or sticks a mic in their face before they have cooled down after an incident on the track, I'm cool with that. Those people aren't true journalists and should be ignored.
Otherwise, I think if the opportunity to speak to members of the media is there, they need to do so. Canned quotes that are made up by PR people and sent out in releases are boring and useless, take five minutes and show some personality, give someone a little time to learn something and write something interesting. It goes a long way and people like to read it.
I think that taking a few minutes here and there, whether it is to speak to the media, talk to and sign autographs with the fans, and perhaps even providing content to team websites via blogs, online chats, video or Twitter, would go a long way towards the "activation" that is needed to further publicize the series.
The best way to bring in fans is to get them to become personally invested in you. Look around at the most popular drivers, and think about why they are so well-liked. It's because they give the time to the fans, they show their personalities to the media, and they get you to like them. In the end you root for them because you feel like you have a connection with them. You feel like they are going out to perform for you.
Especially with kids. I remember meeting athletes years ago, and the guys that signed autographs and took time with fans were the people I rooted for. Heck, even as a sportswriter, the guys I hope do well are the people that I have come across that were cordial and generous with their time. All of the athletes I call "favorites" are people I have dealt with that were just awesome people to be around.
I'll give up an allegiance here...I am a Tony Kanaan fan. I love the
way he drives, and I enjoy the way he has a passion for his job, and his
life, and how he lets that part of him show when he is around the
track. And from what I have read and seen, he is kind, outgoing and
passionate when no one is looking too.
I root for him because he drives hard and wants to win so badly. I know they all do, but TK is one of those people who wears it on his sleeve, and I like him for that.
The closer a driver can be to being "one of us", the more people want to root for them. Like Dale Earnhardt Jr. in NASCAR. No doubt there is name recognition, but even though he hasn't won in 131 races, Junior is still the most popular driver in the series, because with his personality and his interaction with fans, he is what most of us think we would be if we were race car drivers. We'd be cool and chill and have buddies over to race go-karts in our backyard and race people on iRacing in the middle of the night. He has fan loyalty because he does all of that, and people respond to it.
Another example is Dan Wheldon. When he was sponsored by the National Guard, he said many times how much he thought driving for the Guard as a sponsor was a privilege, and how he wanted to provide those soldiers with thrills and entertainment, and to race in a way that represented their courage and commitment. That's what made Dan so popular, he brought you in, he made you feel like if you were a fan, he was racing for you.
Dan (and TK) got it. That whenever you have the chance to promote the IndyCar series, you need to do it.
Making connections is what brings people to the track and plops them in front of the TV on race weekends. Doing whatever it takes to get them to do that should be the focus, bar none.
Because the way I see it, if they don't care about us (and by "us" I mean, fans, sponsors, media, etc) then why should we care about them? It doesn't take a lot of time, and they should be willing to give it.