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How Much Driver Access Is Too Much Access?

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 17 2012

Fans can get up close and personal with the drivers in NASCAR. Too up close and too personal? (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Gregg Ellman)

By Jeff Hood | Senior Writer

BRISTOL, Tenn. – It was business as usual during Saturday morning’s NASCAR Nationwide Series drivers’ meeting at Bristol Motor Speedway as drivers, crew chiefs, team owners, race and track officials, sponsors, dignitaries and media gathered in a small conference room just inside Turn 3.

There was little fanfare as Nationwide Series director Joe Balash made a brief opening remark before directing the drivers and crew chiefs to watch a short presentation on two widescreen monitors that was narrated by Eli Gold, who outlined the rules of today’s Ford Eco Boost 300.

The biggest applause during the 10-minute meeting came after Balash recognized honorary race starter Carl Edwards.

Six days earlier, NASCAR had opened up the drivers’ meeting prior to the running of the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Fans were allowed to watch in the Neon Garage as NASCAR’s David Hoots presided over the weekly meeting two hours prior to the green flag.

But the fans’ presence at a drivers’ meeting in Las Vegas wasn’t a first for NASCAR.

Before the green flag waved in 2008 at Mansfield (Ohio) Motorsports Park on the Ohio 250 for what is now known as the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, spectators were allowed to line up alongside drivers and their crew chiefs just outside of Turn 4 to hear Wayne Auton’s lead that afternoon’s drivers’ meeting.

I happened to be in attendance in Mansfield that day. To the best of my recollection, the fans were very well-behaved.

Because of its tight infield confines, it’s unlikely that drivers’ meetings in Bristol will be open to fans attending events here anytime soon.

But it could happen on a regular basis at superspeedways with massive garage space and infield areas to pitch large tents.

NASCAR has long been billed as a fan-friendly sport.

But is allowing fans to stand a few feet away as their favorite drivers obtain last-minute instructions from NASCAR crossing a line?

Three of NASCAR top drivers aren’t yet sold on the concept.

“I don’t like it,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver for the past decade. “I like the drivers’ meeting to be with the drivers and the crew chiefs and be about the race.

“It has become less and less about that. It has to be cool for a fan to be able to have that kind of access. But I think there is probably a way to give them that kind of access without going to the lengths that they went to at Vegas.”

Denny Hamlin worries that too much access can lead to saturation and fans becoming disinterested in NASCAR.

“That’s kind of our space I feel like, with NASCAR and with executives from different companies,” he said.

“I think that [the Vegas driver’s meeting] went fine and well, but how does it work at other race tracks? I don’t know.”

Five-time Sprint Cup champion admitted on Friday that he wasn’t even aware that NASCAR had already started streaming a live video feed of the weekly drivers’ meeting for fans to view.

“I think that the driver’s meeting needs to be more intimate,” Johnson said. “It needs to be an area where drivers, crew chiefs and NASCAR officials can talk about some things.

“It would be a little tough there, even knowing that it is televised, and I wasn’t aware of that. I didn’t know that was taking place until last week and I was like ‘really? That’s going on?’

“I just feel like we need an opportunity to sit there and have open communication weekly. And with all the eyes [watching] it limits that ability, I believe.”

– Jeff Hood can be reached at jhood@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 17 2012
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