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Minter: Media Centers Getting Darker

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, January 6 2010
NASCAR Scene writers Kenny Bruce and Mike Hembree at last year's Daytona 500. This year, Hembree will not be there for Scene. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

NASCAR Scene writers Kenny Bruce and Mike Hembree at last year's Daytona 500. This year, Hembree will not be there for Scene. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

There was a time back in the not-too-distant good ol’ days that a mid-morning call from a fellow writer on the NASCAR trail immediately got the adrenaline flowing. The call most likely meant there was big news afoot. A big-name driver was leaving one team for another. NASCAR was about to make a big rule change. A new manufacturer was coming to the sport. A big penalty was about to be assessed.

It was a time to work the phones, write a story, meet a deadline, outwork the competitors, who in some cases were the same ones who called earlier in the day to talk about the potential of a big news story.

But lately, when a familiar NASCAR-related number pops up on the screen of the cell phone, it’s not an adrenaline rush that comes over you. It’s a sense of dread. Has another friend lost a job? Or worse?

Tuesday morning’s calls brought the news that not one, but several friends, were cleaning out their desks. It was part of a consolidation of the staffs at NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated, changes that reportedly will lead to a combined publication, which adds up to a loss of coverage of the sport.

A group of the sport’s best writers and reporters have now joined a growing corps of NASCAR writers who have lost long-time jobs.

When you read, write and hear about lower TV ratings, lower attendance at tracks, it’s bad news for the sport, but there’s no sense of real loss. Fans, it seems, are just doing something else with their time. There’s a little less money for shareholders and stakeholders to split. But it’s not that simple.

Bad times at the track and with the economy have real consequences for real people, good people.

When NASCAR-related jobs are lost it means friends you’ve spent time with on the road for years, in the media and in other aspects of the sport, are having to look for work in a bad economy. They’re having to readjust budgets, deal with the punch-in-the-gut feeling that comes from losing one’s main source of income, face up to increasingly difficult issues like health insurance.

The sport and its fans will suffer too. People like Mike Hembree, Steve Waid, Ben White, Rea White, David Griffin and Mark Sluder are to the motorsports press what the Allisons and Earnhardts and Pettys and Pearsons were to the driving ranks. And relative newcomers like Jeff Gluck and Dave Exum were like young drivers on the rise, working their dream jobs and doing well at it.

Some likely will resurface elsewhere in the sport. Some may not.

It brings to mind the words of the old George Jones song, “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?”

How that question is answered will have a lot to do with how the sport fares in the future. The media centers at tracks, already showing numerous vacant seats, are likely to become even emptier.

The argument can be made that the sport is still being covered by TV and on the Internet, and that transcripts and video of interviews are being distributed by NASCAR staffers. But what good are those transcripts if the questions being asked aren’t the right ones or the best ones? Can a really good, in-depth story really be written based on a 10- or 15-minute interview session with reporters crowded around a driver behind a hauler in a noisy garage?

And what happens when the once-brimming pool of institutional NASCAR knowledge continues draining away?

The facts are that the old ways of covering NASCAR, where publications put writers on the road at considerable expense, may never return. And for the sport to continue to receive the media coverage it deserves, changes have to be made on both ends.

Already, displaced writers are resurfacing and doing good work on Internet sites like RacinToday.com. On the drivers’ side, it’ll take more than quick sessions in media centers and behind haulers to reverse the current trend.

– Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, January 6 2010