Greg Biffle, Dale Earnahdrt Jr, Landon Cassill and Joey Logano (from left) wait for Brad Keselowski as they walk down the track toward the fire that brought the NASCAR Daytona 500 to a halt. Photo: Bill Friel/Associated Press
By Matt Hardigree, Jalopnik
America’s wonkiest social media platform, Twitter, and its (supposedly) most backward sport, NASCAR, exploded in a massive fireball fueled by jet fuel, secret phones and good timing last night during the Daytona 500. It’s the story of how one driver picked up 100,000 followers in two hours and how the sport of good ol’ boys may be forever changed.
To the uninformed, NASCAR may seem like the last place a technology like Twitter — created by and for and the kind of hip techies who know which breakfast taco places have free wifi during SXSW — might thrive. To these people, NASCAR is just a bunch of guys driving in a circle.
But NASCAR, like baseball, grows more interesting with context. It’s an epic soap opera, and fans thrive on information. Who’s pitting? How’s their car doing? What’s the track condition? Such things are the currency of NASCAR fans on race day. Although they may not be among the most tech-savvy fans, they may be the most voracious consumers of info outside the Fantasy Baseball crowd. Just look at their apps.
Most drivers have Twitter accounts, and savvy fans flock to knowledgeable reporters like SBNation’s Jeff Gluck and AP reporter Jenna Fryer, both of whom have more than 20K followers. (How many AP reporters can say that?) Fox Sports’ NASCAR anchor Mike Joy has more than 16,000 followers. There’s an unofficial NASCAR weatherman and a page for the unlucky Jet Drier that (usually) keeps the track dry.
So fans clearly use Twitter a lot. But something special happened last night that merged the technology to the sport in ways almost certain to be permanent.
Well, as permanent as anything can be when it comes to technology.
Emergency workers battle a fire after Juan Pablo Montoya’s car hit a jet drier truck during the NASCAR Daytona 500. Photo: Bill Friel/Associated Press
The Daytona 500 is the first race of the year, which makes it a Very Big Deal. But it also was Danica Patrick’s debut in NASCAR’s top series, which also is a big deal.
The race was slated for Sunday, but an an untimely rain delay pushed it Monday night. Fox, seeing a potential bonanza, preempted an episode of House no one cared about and an episode of Alcatraz no one would watch to show the race in prime time.
This expanded the audience to include a lot of people who wouldn’t have otherwise watched the race. They weren’t disappointed. The first crash came just two laps in when Patrick got mixed up in a pile-up.
It was the first of ten cautions, none of which could match the (literally) explosive power of Juan Pablo Montoya crashing into a jet drier clearing the track of debris. The impact, which happened under caution, ignited 200 gallons of jet fuel, creating a giant fireball and a river of flame. It brought the race to a halt.
Unplanned TV often is the best TV. Montoya walked away from his mangled car, no one was seriously injured and the video made for riveting television. Explosions are inherently sexy and tap a deep part of our subconscious. Just ask Michael Bay. Preliminary reports show the race’s ratings climbed from 7.8 to 8.8 after the accident, possibly giving Fox its highest-rated Monday night since the World Series.
And there we were, all of us watching men fight a river of fire when something even weirder happened: Popular NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski pulled a phone from his pocket, snapped a pic from inside his car and posted it to Twitter.
Most people never suspected a NASCAR driver circling a track at 200 mph might have a phone in his pocket. So of course it set off a Twitter storm, immediately giving us direct access to the thoughts of a driver even as commentators were prattling on about the weirdest thing they’d ever seen in racing. It was far more immediate, and intimate, than listening to a driver’s radio.
As the wait went on:
It was, as far as I can tell, unprecedented in modern racing. Keselowski was funny, charming, informative and interactive. In other words, he was a perfect spokesman for everything that’s great about Twitter.
And for those who wonder, NASCAR has no problem with Keselowski’s tweets:
Because it’s the NASCAR Sprint Cup, there’s already a push from Fox to get people to follower commentators, reporters and everyone else on Twitter. Last night it went into overdrive. The fire became less important as everyone was talking about Twitter. Keselowski picked up 100,000 followers while tweeting from the track. He was up to 211,265 by mid-day today.
I’ve asked Twitter for the full numbers, but I suspect we’ll find those new followers weren’t simply NASCAR fans who weren’t already following Keselowski — already one of the most popular drivers on Twitter. I think we’ll find two groups added to Keselowski’s impressive number:
The first is NASCAR fans joining Twitter to find out what was going on and get in on a social media platform they’ve only now come to understand the significance of.
The second is casual racing fans or non-fans who, watching the strange spectacle unfold, started following Keselowski just to get in on the excitement. That’s why I started following him.
Of course, the fire brought the race to a halt, and eventually drivers started getting out of their cars. Then they started talking. And what did they talk about?
Dave Blaney, who found himself in first place as the bizarre scene unfolded on the track, became a trending topic. Blaney, who had never won a race despite 397 race starts, was being asked whether he was on Twitter, not what he thought about being one thunderstorm away from winning one of the world’s biggest races.
And the memes! Oh the memes. So many memes. The guys at @SpeedSportLife — who typically tweet the entire 24 Hours of Le Mans but rarely a three-hour NASCAR race — were madly tweeting images by our own commenters before we even noticed.
If you were watching the race but you weren’t on Twitter, you were missing the latest info, best jokes and most insightful views of one of the wildest races ever. The race eventually restarted, Keselowski put his phone back in his pocket and a guy no one knows (Blaney) lost the race to Matt Kenseth, a guy who’d won it before.
Who won ultimately doesn’t matter. The outcome was more than a victory for one driver or one team. It was a victory for NASCAR. The 2012 Daytona 500 was the merging of two cultures, a union that, in retrospect, was inevitable.
NASCAR relies on short, timely bursts of information, which is exactly what Twitter does best. The rest of us just figured it out.
Via Wired Autopia: http://www.wired.com/autopia/