Woody: Dealing With Media All Part Of The Job
Larry Woody | Senior Writer
The first time I met Dale Earnhardt he came to the sports department where I worked to be interviewed.
It was in the mid-1970s and Earnhardt was scheduled to race at Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedway the coming weekend. The track PR guy, Joe Carver, called and asked if I could come out to the track and interview Earnhardt for a story to promote the race. I explained that I was stuck in the office (in those days writers had to work on the copy desk in addition to covering beats), but I told him if he’d bring Earnhardt to the newspaper I’d do an interview and knock out a story.
Shortly afterwards Carver escorted Earnhardt into the sports department where he plopped down in a chair and muttered through an interview. I could tell he didn’t particularly enjoy it, but he did it. Earnhardt and I went on to become friends, and over the years I’d kid him about coming to a sports writer to be interviewed.
I was reminded of that long-ago incident during Kurt Busch’s repeated media flair-ups this season. In the first incident Busch confronted a reporter in a profane-laced rant and continued it in the Media Center with other reporters – at one point grabbing a quote sheet from the Associated Press’s Jenna
Fryer and ripping it up.
Then, to cap the season, Busch pulled a repeat performance with mild-mannered TV reporter Jerry Punch. Busch dropped out early with car failure and took his frustrations out on Punch who was merely trying to do his job.
And there was the infamous incident a few years ago involving Tony Stewart, in which Stewart knocked a reporter’s tape recorder to the ground, breaking it.
Stewart embarrassed himself, his team, his sponsor and his sport by his behavior, and Busch did the same thing – twice – this season. Busch and his team, Penske Racing, issued apologies, but repeated apologies for the same bad behavior grows old.
Kurt’s team owner, Roger Penske, is the personification of class and professionalism. Busch is the face of Penske Racing, and you can bet the boss is not pleased with the image.
Meanwhile, Kurt’s kid brother Kyle was suspended by NASCAR for a race because of his actions on the track. His Cup car ran its final two races without primary sponsor M&Ms. The company opted out because of Kyle’s behavior. When a sponsor does that, it’s the ultimate warning signal to a race team.
The Busch brothers are extremely talented and when they can control their temper they’re pleasant company. But I’m tired of excuses for their blowups – that they’re fiery, intense and competitive.
No driver was more fiery, intense and competitive than Earnhardt and other greats such as Cale
Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip – yet they never engaged in such confrontations with reporters.
Sure, dealing with the media can be a pain. It’s often inconvenient, the questions get tiresome and drivers aren’t always in a chatty mood. But it’s part of the job. Without media coverage no sport, pro or amateur, can survive. That’s particularly true in a sponsor-driven sport like NASCAR. Companies don’t spend millions of dollars to advertise their product on a race car because the board members like the smell of burning rubber; they do it for the exposure. When that exposure turns sour and negative, sponsors become uncomfortable.
Back in the ’70s, when big sponsor money first began to pour into NASCAR, drivers understood that part of their job was to help promote the sport and its sponsors. That meant cooperating with the media, which was just starting to seriously cover stock car racing. The more exposure the sport received, the more sponsors wanted to be part of it, and the more sponsors, the more money for teams and drivers.
Drivers back then were smart enough to understand it. I’m not sure about some of today’s young hot-shots.
I’m always amused when I hear a driver say that all he wants to do is drive his race car and be left alone. Fine. He’s free to go out and race at any of hundreds of obscure little dirt bowls around the country. He’ll be left alone – and also left without a pay check. If he wants to play in the big leagues, there are certain big-league obligations.
Some drivers are like other celebrities – they want to bask in the fame and attention when it’s convenient, and turn it off when it’s not. They don’t want to be “bothered,” or have to do anything they don’t want to do – like deal with the meddlesome media.
I realize fans don’t care about hearing the media moan, but they DO want to know about the drivers they follow, and the media is their conduit to them. Maligned as it sometimes is, media coverage is the life’s-blood of the sport.
Roger Penske, Joe Gibbs other team owners with problem children understand that. In the wake of this season’s embarrassments, you can bet that they’ll remind their drivers about where their paychecks come from.
– Larry Woody can be reached at email@example.com Comments