While most sports finish its season with its biggest event (such as the NFL with the Super Bowl), NASCAR is different in that its biggest race is the season’s first, the Daytona 500. And two years ago marked the most bizarre Daytona 500 on record. First, rain showers moved into Florida, postponing the race’s noon start-time on Sunday to noon the next day. Then the rains picked up again the next morning, and NASCAR made the decision to move the race to 7pm Monday, marking the first time the race had been postponed as well as the first time it would run in primetime.
The race began and for the first time all weekend, things got back to normal. But all that changed with 40 laps left in the race. There was a wreck, and what typically happens with a wreck is that there will be debris on the track and possibly liquid from the cars involved. So trucks will be sent on the track to clear the track and while this is happening the race will be put under caution. Meaning cars will stay on the track, but their speed will be greatly reduced (from 200 MPH to 50-60 MPH) and their position is frozen and so is the racing until the debris is cleared from the track and officials signal to the drivers to resume the race.
Driver Juan Pablo Montoya had reported some problems with his race car just before the wreck, and during the caution as his car was circling the track, something ‘broke’ and he lost control of his car and it spun out of control into one of the trucks on the track to clean up the mess. When his car collided with the cleanup truck, the truck literally exploded, creating a huge fireball. Luckily, both Montoya and the truck driver were fine. NASCAR immediately ordered all drivers to stop their cars on the track where they were, as they cleaned up this additional mess.
And then, serendipity struck. As the drivers were sitting in their cars on the track unable to move them, it turns out that one of them, Brad Keselowski, actually had his phone with him in the car, and took a picture of the track, and tweeted it to Twitter. Marking the first time in the sport’s history that a driver had taken a picture and shared it during a race.
And just like that, NASCAR discovered social media. Brad gained 55,000 followers just in the hour or so it took to clean up the mess, and during the downtime while waiting for the race to resume, Brad’s sudden fame on Twitter became the story. Fox Sports showed Brad out tweeting and other drivers talking to him asking him what in the world he was doing. Over the next few weeks, several of NASCAR’s drivers and on-air personalities started using Twitter, and the sport began pushing Twitter as a channel to connect before, during and after the race. Typically with NASCAR races, since they are run outside, if there are any weather issues such as rain, the race will be delayed until the weather clears. During this downtime, drivers will use social media to stay engaged with the fans, while the broadcast teams will interview the drivers on-air during the delays. Fox has reported that some of its best rating periods for races actually come during delays when its able to interview drivers and get ‘behind the scenes’ chats and give fans a better sense of what their lives are like at the track.
On Sunday night, NASCAR kicked off its 2014 season with the Daytona 500, and again dealt with a rain delay that caused the race to be postponed until primetime for only the 2nd time ever. But the wait was worth it for NASCAR and many of its fans, as the sports most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr, won The Great American Race.
And then he celebrated by joining Twitter.
What I love about Dale’s Twitter account is how he’s using it. Even though the account has only been up for a couple of days, Dale has been giving fans like me a behind-the-scenes look at what he’s been experiencing since winning the Daytona 500, including pics from Victory Lane, and trips to do media appearances with David Letterman and ESPN. This is exactly the type of content that fans want to see. And to NASCAR’s credit, the organization has been very open to its drivers using social media. They immediately saw the impact that Brad’s tweet from 2012 and how it resonated with fans, and the sport realizes the ability of Twitter in particular to drive interest in ongoing races. Plus, NASCAR has always been a fan-friendly sport.
As for Dale’s Twitter account, the sport’s most popular driver is pretty popular on Twitter too, racking up over 300,000 followers in his first 6 hours on the site. If Earnhardt can parlay this fast start into his first points championship this season, the business of NASCAR will get a huge boost. And if the past two years are any indication, its fans on social media will be along for the ride.