Friday, August 7, 2015

Aggressive and Passionate: Five Questions for Watkins Glen

 Credit: Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images
I miss Steve Byrnes.

There is not a day that I don’t think of his work, his laugh or his impact. It comes and goes daily like a train passing through. If I’m sitting at my laptop and fighting writer’s block, I ask myself what he would do. And then the words just fly out. He always knew how to ask questions in a stern but a personable way. Every piece of work he produced was perfect, down to the last detail. I strive for the same clarity.

He was one of the last ties to a different era of motorsports journalism, and it made him the standard.

In the past couple of months, I’ve had two dreams concerning Byrnes. The first one sticks in my mind the most. He gave me a tour of the FOX Sports studios in Charlotte. He had a blue button-down shirt, khaki pants and that signature smile. He showed me cameras, stages and office cubicles. I hung on his every word as we sat and talked.

All I remember him saying is, “You have to be aggressive and passionate.”

It was a short dream, but it hangs with me. I firmly believe dreams are subconscious messages. Whenever I have one and look up its meaning, it rings true. So what was I trying to tell myself by bringing Byrnes into this?

I’ve always wanted to be the best. I've had many goals, and I'm more than capable of achieving them. Sometimes, I need to remind myself of that. My second year of college is right around the corner, and a deep fire burns within me. I want to cover the sport and take it to hundreds of thousands of televisions across America. I plan on using my broadcast journalism degree to work on an amazing sports network. The phrase “sophomore slump” doesn’t exist in my vocabulary. I can’t wait to attack the world.

I hope I can be aggressive and passionate enough to make Byrnes proud. I also hope I can link modern-day NASCAR to the motorsports coverage that made it so great.

Sadly, I will never get to tour the FOX Sports studios with this amazing man. Losing him was a huge blow to the NASCAR community, and he won’t ever be replaced. We miss you, Byrnes.

This week brings us a lot of twists and turns — in both directions. Road courses personify aggression and passion, and it will certainly be on display. As NASCAR invades Watkins Glen International, I have some questions about the biggest stories in this sport and society. Let’s roll into this week’s Five Questions.

Do people not understand how fuel mileage works? I’m going to start by addressing the outrage over the finish at Pocono Raceway. It was thrilling and unexpected. We haven’t seen fuel mileage determine the ending of many races this season, and I make that statement specifically because of the fans’ disappointment. Every race is a fuel-mileage race. The cars couldn’t go without fuel, and the strategy behind fuel windows is in play at every track. Last weekend showed us what happens when teams expect more caution laps and miscalculate. I see it as a refreshing reminder that more than horsepower goes into making these cars capable of winning. It was something different, and it will possibly come into play this weekend at Watkins Glen.

What if Lewis Hamilton invaded our sport? This week, F1 championship-winning driver Lewis Hamilton said he’d like to give NASCAR a try. It’s not every day a driver from a different racing series wants to join our series, so this is something to explore. Hamilton is a popular name, which would bring in some crossover appeal. I think the greatest thing that could come from this is showing people how difficult stock car racing is. The F1 cars are much lighter than ours, and they require more strength to control. It’s always interesting to see this happen, like with Juan Pablo Montoya’s stint in NASCAR. Hamilton would bring spectators, but he said he only wanted to try it once. Maybe one day?

Can Stewart perform despite having missed the last two races at WGI? There’s no doubt that this weekend will be mentally taxing for Tony Stewart. He hasn’t raced at the track since 2012; he broke his leg in 2013, and he missed the 2014 race due to the death of Kevin Ward Jr. Many people will focus on the latter issue, and that’s their prerogative. However, I want to focus on his recent upswing. At Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Pocono, he qualified the No. 14 in the top 10, and brought home a ninth-place finish last Sunday. That means Smoke is on the prowl. Everyone wants the “old Tony” to return, and he can’t return in full. Parts of him still reside in this Tony Stewart, and they’re starting to shine through. Despite all his struggles, the three-time champion has the ability to win again and become competitive. The only thing standing in his way is his mental restraints. That barrier is slowly fading away.

Are we secretly hoping for rain this weekend? After years and years of debating, NASCAR has decided to take rain tires to the track. People want Mother Nature to crash raceday for the first time in forever. Though seeing the stock cars on wet pavement would be exciting, it doesn’t seem practical. Road course racing is unpredictable enough. Why ruin it with this tire? Many fans want to see it, yet not many within the NASCAR circle feel the same way. That tells me it’s not a good idea. Besides, the weather looks absolutely amazing for this weekend. If you want to watch racing in the rain, then you’ll be disappointed this weekend.

Does the ever-changing media landscape help or hinder the sport? I had a conversation on Twitter with a few of my fellow young NASCAR people about this subject. Over time, the average attention span has significantly decreased. In 2000, it was 12 seconds. The past 15 years have dragged it down to a measly eight, according to a Microsoft study from May 2015. It gets confusing when we try to figure out whether new marketing tactics are causing this downfall.

In NASCAR, for example, PR teams now communicate through emojis and GIFs. On one hand, it’s smart to target the young crowd since it’s been a problem area for the sport in the past. It’s also the PR folks staying on top of current trends, which is crucial in this evolving business. The other side of the coin details the negative side effects. If you think about it, emojis are basically hieroglyphics making a comeback. It takes less brain power to decipher them. You’re bringing in an audience that doesn’t even want to waste time reading a 140-character tweet. I personally love GIFs and little emoticons, but they do have their limits.

The mainstream media is also indulging in the latest writing trend: clicks/clickbait. Many sites pay their writers based on how many clicks they produce. In turn, the headlines try to reel people in. “You’ll never believe which celebrity called Taylor Swift fat!” and other titles that are meant to persuade a read. Even if you see the answer in the first sentence and close the page, it still counts toward someone’s pay. This has trickled into NASCAR, but it’s not overwhelmingly annoying ... yet.

There is some good that can come from diving into the current trends. However, it needs to be done in a careful, reserved way. NASCAR’s survived this long without indulging in it too much, so why start now?

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