Dayton Beach, Fla. — Fernando Alonso doesn’t like every aspect of his job but understands professionals have obligations they must meet.
For the two-time Formula One world champion it meant daily press briefings during his stints in the Indianapolis 500 and the Rolex 24 at Daytona. He flew to North Carolina to promote the sports car race, made a video at NASCAR’s request for Jimmie Johnson, participated in autograph sessions at both events and signed autographs for fans in the garage.
“You understand there are some obligations when you accept a job, and you try to enjoy those obligations, even if it’s not your favorite part of your job,” Alonso said after yet another visit to Daytona’s media center.
Then he explained that fans had sent him photos of the scoring tower at Indianapolis when it showed him leading the race. When he led two laps in the Rolex over the weekend, fans sent him similar pictures.
“I think those moments, they pay off whatever obligations you have to do,” he said.
There’s a debate in NASCAR, started last week by Kyle Busch, over the way the series is marketing its drivers. The current push is behind a crop of young, fresh faces who should captain the sport for the next two decades.
That irks Busch because he didn’t receive the same marketing support early in his career, and he believes some of NASCAR’s attention should be placed on the veterans. It’s a fair point, but one that likely annoyed NASCAR brass.
Why? Because Busch is part of a generation of drivers that grew far too entitled to remember how the sport grew to its current heights.
The drivers in the Hall of Fame right now used to sit in chairs outside their haulers chatting with anyone who stopped. They leaned against stacks of tires to talk business, they killed time hanging out with NASCAR’s competition officials in the at-track office.
Then came the private planes and motorhomes and golf carts. Drivers now ride carts out of the gated motorhome lot at Charlotte Motor Speedway and through the fan zone to get to the grid. They don’t walk through the crowd and sign autographs. They go from Point A to Point B and don’t want anything impeding their trip.
Track owners complain the drivers don’t want to do enough to help promote races, journalists argue they don’t get enough access to drivers. Both are correct: NASCAR drivers simply have not been as accessible as they need to be for a sport that is losing fans at an alarming rate.
In defense of the drivers, though, their schedules are stretched thin. But much of that is taken by sponsor requirements – fulfilling the obligations set by the people who pay their bills – and team dealings. When they are finished, the race to the airport is almost as exciting as the Daytona 500.
There was a time when NASCAR insisted that the top 12 drivers in the standings hold a news briefing every weekend. It was modeled after Formula One, where Alonso learned what is required of a professional driver, and the daily briefings drivers are required to hold. The F1 drivers talk daily at the race track in different sessions, one for print media, one for electronic media, and sometimes once in their native language.
Eventually, the mandatory media sessions for the NASCAR drivers went away. Now, only a handful of drivers agree to hold news conferences. The ones that don’t? Well, try to catch them in the garage before they hop on a cart and head to their motorhome.
NASCAR has a crop of young drivers who are active on social media, they engage with fans, they understand that if they want to own a private plane one day, they’ve got to put the work in to rebuild the sport. When the concession stands weren’t open during a recent test session at Texas Motor Speedway, Ryan Blaney spent his lunch break eating pizza with fans.
So, yeah, NASCAR has picked the right group of drivers to market to its fan base. They’ve gotten behind drivers who don’t mind doing extra work, who don’t turn down every request, who don’t complain about the unpleasant parts of their job.
If more drivers had the same approach and attitude that Alonso applied to Indy and Daytona, NASCAR would be much better off.