Sunday, May 6, 2012

One-on-One with Jeff Gluck

Credit: Debbie Ross/Skirts and Scuffs
If you've ever attended a NASCAR Tweetup, you're familiar with Jeff Gluck, but how much do you really know about the man behind the latest NASCAR news?

Currently Gluck is a writer and editor for SBNation.com and has been covering the NASCAR beat for eight seasons now, five of which have been full-time. With his wildly popular column 12 Questions, Jeff dives into the headline-makers of the sport while keeping a light spin, 12 questions (hence the name) and a question included is even from the last interviewed subject.

Gluck himself is a fresh face to NASCAR - by that I mean he did not grow up in the sport. Growing up in Northern California, Gluck says, “I am not even sure I knew who Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt were growing up.” In fact, his early thoughts on the sport are far from the passion he shares for it today. 

“Well I used to think NASCAR was pretty stupid. I never was a fan growing up. It would come on TV and I would think, ‘Seriously, cars turning left? Oh my God, no way, I am not watching this."

After being sent to Rockingham Speedway for the first time, Gluck's childhood feelings changed, but getting him there was not an easy task. Asked to cover the track by his editor, Gluck resisted. 

“I said, no ... I don’t think so; I do not know anything about NASCAR. He (his editor) said, ‘well you really need to go cover it, you never know where your career path is going to lead you and you need to be versatile.’ I watched the 2004 Daytona 500 and Rockingham was the next week. I kind of semi knew what was going on, but not really,” Gluck recalled on his NASCAR start. “I went down to Rockingham not really knowing what to expect and I was just like, totally blown away! I loved it right away. The whole spectacle and the sounds and speed of the cars, just how big everything was and the access you get to the drivers. I remember going to the Rockingham drivers meeting at my first race I ever covered and looking at all the drivers interacting, thinking this is so cool, you could never do this is football or basketball. From then on I just started writing about it as much as I could, kind of moved up the NASCAR ladder as much as I could I guess. And eventually, got full time in the sport.”

To many fans, Jeff Gluck has the dream job as he embarks each week on traveling the NASCAR circuit and intermingling with the stars of NASCAR. What does he enjoy most about the job of being a NASCAR reporter?

“Honestly, my favorite part is probably meeting the readers and interacting with them, especially at Tweetups and things like that. I love getting feedback and hearing what they think, who their favorite drivers are, who don’t they like, what they think NASCAR could do better, are they interested in Danica or do they think it is overblown; things like that I really like hearing. Sometimes you can get that through Twitter but to stand there and have a conversation with somebody in person, I really value that. It is really cool to be able to go to so many different tracks, I feel like when people come to Tweetups you see half familiar faces and half new faces. It is really cool to see some of the familiar faces because you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember you from here,’ and you can catch-up with people. I like that part of it the best.”

With that being said, not all fans are so positive to the media members. As Gluck said when asked if he has received a negative response to anything he has ever written, “Oh yeah, a lot. But not in person really, in person people will say, ‘You know, I don’t agree with you sometimes’ or they will say, ‘Hey I didn’t agree with you on that one thing but I agree with you on a lot of other stuff,’ things like that. I have never had anybody come up to me in person and say, ‘You are a real asshole, what are you talking about?’ On Twitter, people will just … I cannot say anything without someone saying something negative back. I remember I said once, I think it was Dover last year, ‘It’s just a beautiful perfect day in Dover, it’s going to be a great race today.’ Somebody said, ‘what are you trying to do, make us all jealous, way to rub it in.’ I was like, geesh, I can’t even say that it is a nice day, the sky is blue without somebody getting mad.”

Miss Sprint Cup Kim Coon and Gluck flash a peace sign to Skirts and Scuffs
photographer Charlotte Bray during the Atlanta rain out in 2011.
Gluck went on to explain his approach to the critics. “The first year of me being on Twitter, it was kind of startling but now I am just kind of used to it. I can kind of brush off when people get mad at me.” With that being said, readers have gone to the extreme and wished death upon Jeff. “One person said to me, ‘I wish Jeff Gluck had died instead of David Poole,’ and you’re like, OK … that is pretty strong. After about five minutes or so I feel like I am able to shake that stuff off.”

What doesn’t shake off so easily for Jeff? “Stuff that really bothers me is criticism from people I know, like my colleagues in the media or a driver who didn’t think I was being fair. The people that I have to deal with and work with, I really want them to think that I am a fair person and that I treat people with respect. If that doesn’t happen, then I would probably get upset about that, but some random person, it comes so often that you kind of get used to it in some way.”

A perfect example of some criticism created from Jeff’s writing was a recent controversy with Kenny Wallace. Wallace was upset because Gluck did not censor him and team owner Robby Benton in their interviews with SBNation. 

Gluck explained, “I didn’t totally agree with Kenny’s comments because he was acting like I burned them from printing exactly what Robby Benton, the team owner, had said. He was referring to the 12 Questions I did with him last year where he dropped a couple F bombs and I printed them, but SBNation’s policy as a company is if they said it in a quote, quote them on it.” Gluck explained that the readers of SBNation are mature enough to handle a few F words here and there but he does omit those words from his Tweets due to the age ranges on Twitter. “I think Kenny was maybe trying to shift the blame a little bit, but he later said that he was not mad so I will have to take him at his word.”

The highlights of 12 Questions

As mentioned, the 12 Questions interviews are a hit. Fans love them and seemingly, so do the drivers. The answers they give are fresh and definitely not rehearsed. Asking a writer if they have a favorite interview is like asking a parent who their favorite child is, but Jeff obliged first stating, “Wow, that is really tough.”

After thinking about it for a bit, “Some of the drivers really try hard to give good answers and I really appreciate that. I’ve had some bad experiences, when you can tell that the person just doesn’t care and is not into it, and you walk away going ‘well that sucked.’ Some of the drivers really try hard, one of the recent ones I thought went really well was Kyle Busch. He gave me maybe 20 minutes I think and most of them have been taking about 8-10, he gave me really long answers and was really engaged. I really appreciated that. Then last year, Jeff Gordon was outstanding. He gave me as much time as I wanted and that was great. One that stands out last year as well, I asked Greg Biffle’s people (PR) if he would be willing to do one and during this huge rain delay at Darlington they emailed me and said I could come over now and do it. He was so relaxed because he had nowhere to be, he just gave long answer after long answer. Totally in-depth, the interview was probably a half hour long and when he gets on a roll he is just exceptional; he is really opinionated, sharp and funny, thoughtful and I really enjoyed that one.”

“I hate to keep piling them on here, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. to start the season this year was really good. He was in a really good mood, he was really engaged. I think we have all seen on TV sometimes when Dale Jr. has his head down and not there in the moment I guess, not interested in answering questions but this was one of the times when Dale Jr.’s eyes were lit up and bright, he was smiling and laughing. Whenever you can get that in an interview, you get such better stuff and I think the readers can tell when someone is having fun with it.”

As you can tell, writers just cannot pick a favorite. Each interview has something unique, whether it be something funny (ha ha) or just funny strange. 

The emotional side of the sport

Sports are emotional; whether it’s the defeat of a loss of the fan favorite or on the opposite side you have the highs of winning, the emotions that flow as you think of the struggles it took you to get to this point in your career. Being a reporter, you hear these wonderful stories but have to remain emotionless so it does not affect your writing. I asked Jeff what has been the hardest story for him to cover, emotionally.

“I would have to say the Dan Wheldon thing, that was just awful. I was at home in Charlotte and watching the coverage, but I knew we had to post something about it on the website. Like everybody else I was just waiting and watching to see what the outcome would be and hoping that there would be some kind of miracle that he would pull through but kind of knowing in your gut that he didn’t. It was just really excruciating because like I said, I came into racing in 2004 and since that time I have not had to come a death, nobody in NASCAR has died, knock on wood. Nobody really high profile in IndyCar had died where I had to cover it, so that was really my first experience of having to do something like that. I had never met Dan but from what I had seen and heard, he was such a good guy, so fan friendly. I had seen his interviews on TV where he didn’t have a ride and he was walking up and down pit road with Robin Miller as he is interviewing the drivers. He had such a good attitude and humor about him, it was just so horrific to see that. I had a hard time keeping it together but at the same time, you have a job to do and that makes you take the emotion out of it. If you get emotional about it, you cannot do your job. I hope I never have to cover something like that in NASCAR but I fear that I will someday, I am really, really dreading it.”

Gluck’s statement shook me a bit because of his tone. I hope and pray it never happens because of the safety advances in NASCAR today, but that awful feeling always looms. That is the clear and present danger of auto racing versus the stick and ball sports.

Getting the scoop

With 43 drivers in the Sprint Cup Series, there are plenty of opinions that float around the garage area. When writing about the sport's big issues, who would Gluck seek out to ask their thoughts on the topic at hand? Gluck’s answers were a bit surprising

“There are probably three voices that you have to have. The first one is Jeff Burton - he has been like that for years, is the most respected when it comes to media because he gives answers that are really thoughtful and tremendously in-depth. That’s one. Jeff Gordon is another. He’ll usually shoot you pretty straight and give you a pretty good answer for something like that. Jeff Gordon never blows off questions really. I think Brad Keselowski is also becoming like that, he is so opinionated and most of the time will not hold anything back, if he feels like he is able to speak on a subject he will knock it out of the park. He is a great quote!”

“Tweet, Tweet…Let’s Meet”

Tweetups have become a race day essential; go and hang out with Jeff and maybe even have the chance to meet a driver or two, or Larry and Susie, the Tweeps you have been talking to for the past three years. Really, it is a groundbreaking idea, but how did it all start?

“At the Atlanta race in 2009, at the time I had probably 2,000 followers so not that many in the grand scheme of things, but there was about three or four people who said, ‘Hey, I am going to be in Atlanta, maybe I can say hi?’ So I thought instead of trying to meet up with everybody at different times and go all over the track, why don’t we just do something where we just all meet at the same time. I just put out a location and a time and sent it to the people who said they were going to be there.”
Landon Cassill, Jeff and Marianela Pereyra at the Texas Tweetup
Credit: Debbie Ross/Skirts and Scuffs
As for the Tweetup name, Gluck said, “I had heard the name Tweetup somewhere before but I don’t know where. We did a Tweetup and three people came to the first one and I thought that was pretty cool. ‘I can’t believe there are three people who follow me and came.’ We had great conversation, talked and everything and the next week was Richmond, I tweeted out to everybody the details and two dudes showed up. We talked about half hour and again, I thought that was great. Overtime, as I started to do these they started to grow to 7 people, 10, 20 people and now sometimes you have a situation where we have had 150 people. ‘Oh my God, where have these people come from! This is crazy!’ I never set out to make them what they have become; drivers showing up, giveaways. I just thought it would be a cool way to meet with people you talk to on Twitter.”

“If anyone is reading this and hasn’t been to one, it’s a nice time to come out. It’s pretty casual and just talk about racing, sometimes we have special guests. It’s pretty low-key but I would love to say hi to anyone who comes to the race,” Gluck said with an open invitation to all fans.

Favorite Tweetup memories:

Again, I put Gluck on the hot seat asking him to choose his favorite Tweetup memory. He has hosted guests from the entire living class of the 2012 NASCAR Hall of Fame Inductees to the five-time champion Jimmie Johnson. How could one choose?

“At Daytona last July, Jeff Gordon through his public relations representative had expressed some interest in coming to a Tweetup. We worked for a couple months to find a good race and a spot that he could come to. We decided on Daytona but kept it a secret - we didn’t want to ‘hey, come meet Jeff Gordon,’ or it would get overwhelming. We kept it a total surprise and all I said was that there was a special guest coming. We had a really good crowd at that one for some reason, probably about 125 people.”

Fans react to Tweetup guest Jeff Gordon.
Photo courtesy of Jeff Gluck and SBNation
The fans reaction to Gordon’s arrival at the Tweetup was a state of shock. 

“Everyone was like ‘Woooahhh, Oh my God, Jeff Gordon came to the Tweetup!’ It was so cool, he probably answered questions for about 20 minutes.”

A close second place to Gordon just happens to be his HMS teammate and Mr. Five-time Champion, Jimmie Johnson.

“What we did was, I picked out a really, really remote corner of a parking lot way in the back where no cars were parked. There was maybe only 25 people that came, it was a small crowd, and here comes Jimmie Johnson rolling up on a golf cart. He stood and told these great stories. It was like, ‘Dude, how cool is this, the five-time champion hanging out with people in a parking lot on the day of a race … for free!’

And if you are heading to a race and trying to plan ahead, don’t ask Jeff the Tweetup plans weeks in advance. He won’t usually scout a location and guests until the last minute.

After spending an hour talking to Jeff, just the list of questions I asked gave me such insight into the world of a "traveling" NASCAR reporter. I am thankfully to have had the opportunity to speak to Jeff. His insight was much appreciated.

2 comments :

Very nice interview, Amanda! Enjoyed getting to know our buddy Jeff a little better!

Sweet interview, I have been to 8 tweetups and try not to miss them when I am at the track...I will say my favorite to date is the Daytona July 2011 with Jeff Gordon, 2nd being the 1 in Charlotte with the entire living class of the 2012 NASCAR Hall of Fame Inductees and third would be Marinsville with Jeff Burton...But even when there is no special guest it is great to catch up with Jeff, Bob Pockrass and Mike Calinoff.

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