Follow me on

Twitter Feed Facebook Feed RSS Feed Linked In Youtube

From boots-on-the-ground: the view from the NASCAR trenches

  Talladega's Grant Lynch (R): Fishing....for answers and solutions to some very vexing issues (Photo: GrantLynch)

   By Mike Mulhern



   ANN ARBOR, Mich.
   The back table at Zingerman's famous Roadhouse, on the westside of town (nearer the race track), was piled high with plates of slow-cooked Memphis ribs and BBQ beef, and pulled pork and melt-in-your-mouth pit-smoked chicken, and chicken-fried steak smothered in gravy, and grits and sweet potato fries…and even some artisanal macaroni, artistically in tune with the bacon-braised greens.

   What part of North Carolina did you say we're in again?
    The ringmaster at the table is Grant Lynch. Boss of Talladega Superspeedway. Long-time sports marketeer at R. J. Reynolds during its heyday in NASCAR. And perhaps best-known as the man who put together the amazing Kansas Speedway project and the curious Chicagoland Speedway project for the NASCAR Frances.
    (So Joliet still isn't Chicago? Hey, you wanna find 800 acres or so of prime racing property in the Chicago market, have at it. Cicero was pretty much a non-starter…..)
    At the moment Lynch is boasting of his latest achievement at Talladega – a mammoth shower facility for race campers, over by the third turn, with nonstop hot water, via one of the largest waterheaters ever built. It might just become one of wettest wonders of the sometimes zany NASCAR world. Campers, grab those towels. (Free hot water, free camping; so put another log on the fire….)
    Now that's a far cry from the time that legendary 'Dega boss Jim Hunter and a few close pals camped out somewhere behind the Talladega first turn, back when…..Ahem, one of those now-classic NASCAR weekends that fortunately has become a bit hazy over time.
    Ah, the stock car racing war stories the men at this table could tell….
    Like the time Jim France did a Forrest Gump coast-to-coast and back again, on his motorcycle, just for the fun of it. And the time he did it again…..
   Jim France. Brother of the late Billy Jr. Two men with distinctively different personalities. Bill France Jr., an in-your-face, down-home country boy promoter. Jim France, perhaps more cerebral but much quieter and shier…the man who now owns and runs this vast sport, and who needs to kick things up a notch during this sparring period before signing some new multi-million-dollar TV contracts.

   NASCAR campers at Talladega: hot water for everyone! (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   However, in a larger sense, this was a dinner in memory of the most recent star NASCAR racing journalist to bite the dust, in the latest wave of the death throes of what was once the great American newspaper world.
   Las Vegas' Jeff Wolf. Along with some two dozen fellow Vegas journalists ingloriously thrown to the side of the road…abruptly axed, in the most recent act of this sad, four-year American media debacle.
   …out of the blue and into the black….Hail! Hail! Rock 'n roll….
   Because the conversation at this table was plain and blunt:
   With the agonizingly painful, and long-lingering death of newspapers as we all once knew them, how are we going to get the message out, the news, the opinions, the comments, about NASCAR racing to the world at large? How do we reach today's fans, how do we reach tomorrow's fans?
   It is not a question with easy answers.
   More bandwidth?
   Nice quip.
   That might help, yep.
   But then that's what this particular dinner is all about -- brainstorming the issue of how better to reach not only the hardcore NASCAR fan but also the casual drop-in NASCAR fan, and how to tease potential new NASCAR fans into this game.
   Just Googling for some stock car racing news is one way, but it's not very efficient or logical, or long-term.


Talladega means you'd better not blink (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Surrounding Lynch at the table are his marketing men, also eager for some answers, and Motor Racing Network boss David Hyatt, a player in all this too, with his own media agenda and issues to lay out for discussion.
   Of course, Lynch asks 'Well, how many different ways can reporters write the same story? If just about every newspaper in the country is using the same AP story, well then, how many reporters does it really take to cover a race weekend? Just one?'"
   And, Lynch asks somewhat ominously, what might that mean as far as filling the grandstands?
   It's probably not just an academic question, since there appears to be some correlation between the decline of American newspapers and sluggish attendance at NASCAR races, perhaps more than just the economic side of things.
   Consider the decline of the Brickyard 400, during the same stretch – coincidence? Probably more than that. (And if filling Sunday's 257,000 seats at Indy is already a problem, how well will a crowd of some 30,000 or so look for next summer's Grand-Am and Nationwide races there?)
   Brian France himself, a few years back, talking to the American newspaper industry, in one of its annual meetings, was pointing out the personal touch that each paper provided, with a dedicated NASCAR reporter. A more personal touch than just another weekly semi-anonymous, bland wire service story.
   This all, remember, is about firing up the fan base, and firing up a new fan base, and keeping everyone interested in Boris Said-versus-Greg Biffle, or Kyle Busch-versus-Kevin Harvick, or Kurt Busch-versus-Jimmie Johnson, or Danica Patrick-as-NASCAR's Kim Kardashian (famous for, well, just for being famous), or whatever the latest NASCAR storyline might be.


  Two of the most powerful men in racing: NASCAR's Jim France (R) and Indy's Tony George. Hey, how was Sturgis? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   It was once so different. Each city along the NASCAR stock car trail once had a newspaperman whose forte was NASCAR…living, breathing, eating the sport for breakfast and dinner. And on race weekends wherever the circus stopped, the crowd of media on hand was well-known and easily seen.
    Now the sport's journalistic army has been so decimated that we're down to barely a squad of veteran reporters.
    To fill NASCAR's many large and bright-new media centers around the country, tracks are dishing out credentials to just about anyone with an interest and a laptop.
    Each weekend, when we stand up and survey the acres, it's usually something like Butch once asked Sundance: "Who are those guys?"
    Local 'bloggers' with no financing to venture far from home?  A strange group of essentially volunteers.
    To find some answers, Lynch has been on the road all summer, trying to figure out just who the media are these days.
    Who are these people that arrive with laptops and big backpacks of high-tech electronics, demanding internet bandwidth by the truckload, and sending out who-really-knows-what to whomever and wherever?
    Twitterin' and Googlin' and Google+ in' and Facebookin' and Tweetdeckin' and what all…..
    Who is at the receiving end of all this stuff?
    And how does all this translate into a bottom line of butts in the seats and butts on the TV couch watching the big race?

    With the Black Plague epidemic sweeping through the American landscape of NASCAR journalists, the question is 'Who now, how, and to whom?'
    There is a veritable army of stock car racing bloggers out there.
    But who are the good ones? Who really know what's going on? Who asks the right questions? Who demands legitimate answers instead of puff? And who are the ones just sitting around the kitchen table simply kibitzing?
    Precisely where is the value-added here?
    Who has the boots-on-the-ground?

    So in a sense Lynch's newest project is not dishing out thousands of gallons of hot water to sweaty race fans but rather to try to help build a new NASCAR media army.
    What's the right template?
    One obvious problem is the expense: if newspapers themselves have given up on covering NASCAR, with its $600 to $700 weekly hotel bills, and $400 airfares, and $200 rental cars, and all such, how is any small blogger going to ram through this sport's economic brickwall?
   Besides, who in their right mind would even want to go into any type of journalism today? The world may be ravenous for news, but the current delivery system is, well, seemingly kaput. Or at least extremely poorly run.
   So let's see what Lynch and his guys can do.
   After what he pulled off in that once-desolate west-Kansas City farmland – now not only a major league NASCAR track, but also a vast urban shopping complex, complete with a huge casino – Lynch is indeed the kind of guy who gets things done.
   Here's hoping he can come up with some good answers.
   Pass the plate, please.

  Another one bites the dust: veteran NASCAR journalist Jeff Wolf (R), the latest stock car racing reporter kicked to the side of the road as America's newspapers continue the death march toward oblivion (Photo: NASCAR)



Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.

© 2010-2011 www.mikemulhern.net All rights reserved.
Web site by www.webdesigncarolinas.com