I went to my first NASCAR race on Sunday in Atlanta. While the Advocare 500 did not take place as planned, I walked away from the experience with a few takeaways of how the journalism profession is a little bit like NASCAR (or vice versa):
The race to be first. The aim of every race car driver is, or at least should be, to win the race. This means finishing first. As fictional race car driver Ricky Bobby put it in the film “Talladega Nights” “if you ain’t first, you’re last.” Reporters, meanwhile, have long prized being the first to a story. Outlets love to claim credit for “breaking the news” just as drivers love to turn circles in Victory Lane.
Delays are inevitable. Even the best made plans can go to waste. Sometimes, a reporter will work on a nice feature package that is set to run on Sunday. Then, hard news breaks, whether it is a natural disaster or man’s making, and all bets are off. The story is bumped to later in the week to make room for the breaking news coverage. In this case, the race was scheduled for Sunday but because of rain and storm remnants from Tropical Storm Lee on Sunday and Monday, the race was delayed until Tuesday, only the second Tuesday race in 30 years. The race outcome- Jeff Gordon’s 85th win- is the equivalent of a nice feature story (feature articles on anniversaries and milestones are commonplace).
Know your audience. Journalists write for a specific audience, whether that be for the mainstream masses of a daily newspaper, the niche audience of middle-aged men for a sports theme magazine or perhaps young women for a celebrity gossip blog. Audience matters. While you want to appeal to your base, you also want to grow your readership by appealing to new audiences. This is the same for NASCAR. NASCAR has long had a reputation for having “redneck” Southern fans. While I certainly saw many instances of this stereotype on display in Atlanta, I also saw many other faces in the stands, including a Muslim family, that definitely defy the stereotype. The point is that NASCAR began with a niche following but has broadened its appeal to the masses. With 100,000 fans in attendance, everyone at the track had a story to tell about their NASCAR fandom.
Be prepared. As a journalist, you should have that Scouts’ mentality and always be prepared to cover a story in a moment’s notice. This means having pen and paper on you (and in this day and age, a smartphone, video camera and audio recording device nearby). Seasoned vets who have covered homicides and natural disasters know that having a change of clothes at the ready is also a good idea. With rain expected for the race, we took a change of clothes, raincoat and bags to the track. Unlike most sports, NASCAR actually allows you to bring food and drink into the stands. My group stocked up on water, soda, pizza, sandwiches and snacks for the occassion.
Patience is a virtue. Reporting is hard work and the best stories take time to develop. Good journalists must be patient, while also tenacious in pursuing leads and making revisions before they’ll ever see the byline for their efforts. NASCAR, best as I can tell, involves a lot of patience. And sitting. And waiting. We sat for about 2 1/2 hours on Sunday night for a race that never came. Then, we sat in traffic to head home. But we still had a fun time.
Sponsorships are important. Advertising helps sustain journalism and pays the bills for quality reporting at most major media outlets. Sponsorships pay the bills for the race teams, and the track represents a giant moving advertising billboard. There goes the Lowe’s 48 car! Look it’s the Amp Energy 88 car.
Do your homework. Journalists have to do their homework. This means doing some background research before conducting an interview or covering an event so the journalist has a basic understanding of the subject matter he or she is writing about. NASCAR fans also need to be informed to truly understand what’s taking place on the track. Sure, you could show up and root for whatever sponsor you like or what car looks cool, but you’d be missing out on important storylines, such as the race to capture the final spots for the Chase, an understanding of how the points standings work, or that the top two finishers were Hendricks Motorsports’ teammates.
Passion is important. The best journalists are passionate about what they do. This same type of passion for a profession runs deep among many involved in the sport, from the pit crew to the crew chief to the drivers and owners. NASCAR fans are loyal and passionate about their sport, just as news junkies are passionate about following efforts of top journalists.