Race Weekend Central

Dollars & Sense: Twitter’s Angry Dark Side – Is It Costing NASCAR Fans?

NASCAR and Twitter are rolling out the groundbreaking #NASCAR hashtag partnership during the Pocono 400 Presented By #NASCAR in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. It’s an exciting new venture, one the powers that be hope turns into a way for hundreds of thousands of new fans to be introduced to the sport. But I am here to tell you that the best-laid plans, while groundbreaking in nature are already far too late.

Twitter, you see, has been ruining NASCAR for quite some time.

Sunday will be the first race where the social media site is supposed to improve the #NASCAR hashtag, to add things that would be missed due to the relevant and important post not having the hashtag in it. This alliance shows that NASCAR and Twitter recognize each other as being significant and may prove to be an important milestone in sports history going forward.

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However, this concept also poses a predicament, a long list of possible fan frustration clustered all in one place. Twitter, you see in my view has already opened up eyes towards the problems in the sport, not the positives.

Let me first give you a little background on how I got involved in NASCAR media and how myself and a few other fans see the state of the sport, before and after Twitter came on the scene. Prior to Twitter’s existence and the NASCAR community’s overwhelming acceptance of the social media tool, I started watching stock car racing as a child and budding sports fan in the early 1980s.

Because I picked my favorite drivers based on paint schemes, though (after all, I was just a kid) it was hard to get hooked on the sport due to the constant sponsorship changes.

Further complicating things, the Indianapolis 500 was about the only racing to get major media attention where I was growing up in Minnesota. NASCAR’s TV deal wasn’t around back then and for a while it became little more than a passing interest.

It wasn’t until I watched the 2002 Daytona 500 with my father-in-law that I was completely hooked on the sport, to the point my life was changed forever. Later in the 2002 season, I had to start considering the possibility that NASCAR was becoming more important to me than the Minnesota Vikings, my favorite sporting entity to watch for the past 20-plus years.

Not due to any fault of the Vikings, but because NASCAR had an aspect that football just couldn’t touch for me. It had a business allure to it and a dream was born that somehow I could get involved in the sport.

During my first eight seasons as a serious fan of NASCAR, before I transitioned into a member of the media, I didn’t notice many problems with the product that the sanctioning body put out on the track. I could count my major gripes on one hand: Darrell Waltrip, Larry McReynolds, Jeff Hammond, Wally Dallenbach Jr. and cookie-cutter racetracks.

But one serious problem I had that isn’t related to watching the races was the difficulty I encountered trying to find someone to have racing discussions with. Other than my father-in-law, whose family described to me as a huge NASCAR fan when we were introduced, I had nobody to talk to face-to-face about the sport.

Although he is nowhere near what I call a “super fan” and only watches the sport occasionally on television, I can have a fun conversation with him about whatever is going on in NASCAR.

Fans responding to a poll on Frontstretch seem to have a similar issue with finding someone to talk about a race with. Other than a parent or grandparent, not a single respondent mentioned any other relatives, friends or co-workers.

“My mother is a huge NASCAR fan,” said Jeff Cunningham, Assistant Director of Sports Information at Hampton University. “In fact, she’s the only person in my day-to-day life with whom I can talk extensively about the sport. We attend anywhere from three to five races a year together and we make it a point to watch every race on TV.”

But for those who don’t have a person to talk to, there’s now a virtual, popular way to participate in all sorts of weekly discussions surrounding the sport: Twitter. As a part of being a NASCAR writer, I hopped back on my dormant Twitter account in Dec. 2009 to promote my business articles.

I immediately started following somewhere around 600-700 accounts of NASCAR teams, writers, PR people and fans that interacted with me regularly – not unlike many of you do on your own accounts today.

Because of the clutter in my Twitter timeline, I found it almost impossible to read other people’s posts during the race. But during the week, I would read as often as I could through the Digsby app and then later TweetDeck. It is in the posts throughout the week that I have learned so much about the “sport’s problems,” beyond that of the annoying broadcasters and cookie-cutter tracks that the sport has been stuck with since their growth spurt in the mid-to-late 1990s.

Besides knocking certain drivers, the top Twitter issue brought to light would have to be all of the conspiracy theories that NASCAR is fixing the sport or shaping things to help a certain driver or outcome.

Prior to Twitter, I didn’t think these accusations had much juice behind them. However, the constant posts about it and all the “evidence” to back it up makes one wonder how big the problem really is. At the very least, it makes you have to hear it out; and of course, just the perception of impropriety is not good for NASCAR’s reputation.

When Frontstretch asked some fans what new problems they noticed since following NASCAR on Twitter, Betty Clark of Council Bluffs, Iowa stated that cautions benefiting a specific or favored driver have come to her attention. That wasn’t apparent to her prior to using the social media application. Others answered in a similar manner.

I also find that to be the case; what has become commonly known as “phantom” debris cautions are getting a lot of mention on the social media platform. These cautions were something that I was aware of before Twitter; however, it didn’t personally bother me. I saw it as NASCAR calling a caution after a long run, typically after pit stops cycled through, to clean up marbles on the track. Excessive rubber and small bits of asphalt could pose a hazard.

Phantom cautions were very predictable. You knew the yellow flag would wave for debris if someone didn’t spin out or hit the wall on their own during those extended green-flag runs. One could say that this “manipulation” is NASCAR fixing the race or just trying to make it more exciting. And those accusations have a case behind them, since all NASCAR needs to do to squash the claim would be to direct a camera to the debris.

Unfortunately, they rarely do show any caution-causing debris on your TV screen. That criticism would be limited in scope, except the Twitter complaints offer a constant and consistent voice you can’t erase while watching the event.

Another Twitter “hot topic” has been the long green-flag runs of late, and the incessant complaints that followed as fewer cautions have occurred due to less crashes. But long green-flag runs are also something that never crossed my radar screen pre-Twitter.

I appreciate a long green-flag run in the middle of the race, as it showcases the pit crews and makes for a lot of excitement and an added element of pressure to perform that doesn’t always come with pitting under yellow. I would only be angry if the cars buzzing around the track for so long hypnotized me into such a trance that I couldn’t wake up for the pit stops.

Twitter, in contrast doesn’t seem to think these stretches of racing are awesome; instead, the keyword here is “awful.” It gives a lot of attention to the racecars spreading out single-file and drivers taking it too easy. In the Twitterverse, you hear the drivers are just not racing as hard as they could and the tires aren’t falling off enough to create exciting racing. These are things I wouldn’t have noticed without the constant complaining on Twitter.

Most viewers wouldn’t think of safe, durable tires as a problem, unless people are telling them it is. Sense a pattern here? Now, some might say the hardcore fans, posing the majority of Twitter voices are always going to complain more than most. After all, racing purists just want to see good, hard, clean racing, the type of white-knuckle competition you strive for and pose just a small, but vocal minority in every sport.

It turns out the keyword here is “vocal.” While you can’t always please them, these purists on Twitter have more power than ever, an expansive voice that makes them very capable of turning people off.

That’s not the only issue. Television commercials have always been a nuisance but a necessary evil for NASCAR, as the sport depends on sponsorship more than any other. The trick is better placement of the ads and switching back to the race when something of interest happens, if at all possible. More split-screen commercials lately show that NASCAR and the networks have made attempts at improvement.

Recently, I started following the #TDP1 hashtag, where fans have an outlet to complain specifically about the race coverage. Prior to Twitter, you wouldn’t be able to find a venue for your complaints pointing out the negatives of the broadcast.

Since I never saw other points of view, I was always left to wonder if the majority of other race fans couldn’t stand the broadcasters. Fellow northerners would have me convinced that these voices were who the southern race fans wanted to hear.

Now, the constant negativity I see, people frustrated over “bad broadcasting” only causes many curious potential race viewers from having any interest in watching.

Now that I have been around my wife’s family at their get-togethers, I’m able to make sure NASCAR is on the TV for my father-in-law and me. He probably didn’t have the interest in causing a stir with the television before I came along. Nobody else in his large family is a fan of the sport, but now that I’ve subjected them to the races, I quickly learned how the talking heads that I’m annoyed by have suddenly become an embarrassment to me.

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Many complaints on Twitter are based on replacing these broadcasters in the booth with more professionally polished speakers.

Television complaints seem to be the most ignored of all issues the sport has to deal with. Track and competition-related issues are the types of improvements that NASCAR is quickest to respond to. For example, possibly the biggest change during the past few years to show this sport is listening to fans are double-file restarts.

Their base audience spoke in great enough numbers that NASCAR paid attention and made adjustments. However, one look at Twitter would indicate fans have done so much complaining to the point it would seem like stock car officials are constantly hitting the “ignore” button.

See the downside? Twitter, while providing instant reaction also amplifies every complaint and makes NASCAR look ridiculous to the newcomer and fans alike. Is there any correlation between the decline in television viewership and NASCAR’s acceptance of Twitter? Yes, in my view there has to be!

Now, as we are halfway through 2012, it’s to the point I have changed my Twitter habits during the race, where I only have a select few writing peers filtered in TweetDeck to show me their posts. I also have the #NASCAR hashtag populating the latest tweets with the hashtag. I’ve had to teach myself to find what is interesting in the quick instant that is necessary, before it scrolls out of my feed.

I, like many others, do not seem to care at the moment about following the “improved” version of the #NASCAR hashtag: while some are worried about negativity being eliminated (that’s not true – the algorithm prevents that), I’m more concerned about a glutton of unnecessary info.

The lack of excitement from those polled by Frontstretch reveals initial skepticism over this Twitter deal. “I’m not sure,” said Kristen Schneider, student and NASCAR blogger from Ohio. “We’ll see how this Pocono #NASCAR thing goes over. I believe it may open up the sport to the new level of fandom, the one that lies in Twitter and technology, but it all depends on how far they go with it.”

Or how far fans are willing to whine about any little thing that goes wrong. Prior to Twitter, fans could watch the race in a trance and not complain about very much. Since the inception of social networking and NASCAR’s presence on it, the constant negativity is threatening to change the views of the NASCAR fan, causing them to care less about the sport.

A social media application designed to bring fans together could instead wind up scaring away the potential new fans this sport needs.

About the author

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The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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