NASCAR exec talks about social media

Brad Keselowski is two points behind Jimmie Johnson in the Chase but is in front on Twitter. Tom Pennington/Getty Images

After John Farrell was introduced as the new manager of the Boston Red Sox last week, he said one piece of advice to his players would be to avoid distractions such as social media.

That’s a directive that Roush-Fenway drivers such as Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth never would hear from NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations Steve O’Donnell, who also has helped spearhead the sport’s push into social media.

The official NASCAR (@NASCAR) Twitter feed has more than 784,000 followers. Among the top drivers on Twitter are Danica Patrick (@DanicaPatrick, 662,000-plus followers), Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson, 321,000-plus followers), Jeff Gordon (@JeffGordonWeb, 304,000-plus followers), Brad Keselowski (@Keselowski, 301,000-plus followers) and Kyle Busch (@KyleBusch, 286,000-plus followers). Dale Earnhardt Jr., arguably the sport’s most popular driver, has an official Twitter (@DaleJr) account with more than 160,000 followers but has yet to post a single tweet. Earnhardt’s official Facebook page boasts 1.4 million Likes and updates frequently during race weeks.

NASCAR appears to be headed for another down-to-the-wire finish this year. Sunday’s victory by Johnson at Martinsville Speedway left him with a two-point lead over Keselowski heading into the final three races of the season.

Recently, O’Donnell (@odsteve) spoke to Playbook about NASCAR’s status in 2012 and plans for 2013 in a number of areas -- including social media -- and his thoughts about concussions, competitiveness and the challenges faced by the sport:

Explain NASCAR’s efforts in social media this year and where are they headed.

"NASCAR has very bright future, but we’re still somewhat behind when utilizing social media. It’s one of the cool things about our sport. We feel like social media gives us that direct access to some of race fans. We’re very comfortable with our drivers out there talking to the fans. The more they can interact with fans, the better. We’ve had issues in the past with not having all the rights to our own website, but next year NASCAR is going to own the rights to [NASCAR.COM] and that will open up a ton of new avenues for us in social media and allow us to add some pretty cool things in terms of video and interaction."

How important was Brad Keselowski’s tweeting during the crash delay of the Daytona 500 in formulating NASCAR’s overall social media strategy and why didn’t NASCAR punish him for it?

"I think a lot of it was seeing the reaction from race fans. He’s a champion of social media and one of the guys the fans have come to like and we like what he’s doing in that space. Our ultimate goal is to bring people into the drivers’ seat during the event as possible -- show them what’s going on and give them access. There are always challenges that may creep in as to what does or does not create a competitive advantage for one team. We don’t want to upset that balance, but the more information we can bring to the race fans that we can, we will. We’ve got to do it in a smart way."

How can NASCAR better police drivers when it comes to concussions and what is the status of baseline testing?

"Any driver prior getting into car is required to pass a physical and during the year they are required to let us know if there are any health changes within five days. It’s obviously an issue every sport is facing right now. If you ask any doctor when they are evaluating a patient when it comes to concussions, they will say the athlete must be up front and honest about the symptoms. What Dale Jr., did is a step in the right direction to show that it is OK to say’ I need help and something is not right.’ That’s helped us spread that word throughout the industry, so we look at that as a positive, candidly. When it comes to baseline testing, even the folks who created the ImPACT tests will tell you there is so much data out there that even they aren’t even sure it makes sense to use that. There are ways to manipulate that test, as well. We’re evaluating it. I wouldn’t rule it out, but we’ve got a pretty good practice with our doctors."

(Via YouTube H/T: Sporting News)

What can fans expect from the new cars in 2013?

"The fans have asked us to put the stock back in stock car racing. The cars look cool. (The above video was shot during testing at Talladega earlier this month.) They get back to that design that the manufacturers wanted to see on the track."

NASCAR will host its annual After the Lap event in Las Vegas again this year, which featured a break-dancing Jeff Gordon in 2011. How important is fan interactivity to the sport?

"Fan interactivity is our sport. Our ability for our race car drivers to connect with the fans is what built the sport and still drives it. Everything we do from the race track, to the off track, is to bring our drivers to the fans. They’re the best athletes in the world at doing that. They’ve got a ton of different people they have to answer to, but they do a tremendous job. We know once people meet our drivers, we know they’re going to like them."

Are you satisfied with NASCAR’s current attendance figures and TV ratings?

"We’re never satisfied. We’ve had some challenges in the past couple of years when it’s come to attendance and ratings. We’ve started to see ratings stabilize. 2013 will be a key year for us with the new car. We’re seeing a really cool industry action plan where all the racing teams and tracks in NASCAR have come together better than we ever have."

Assess the rest of the season?

"Last year’s chase was unbelievable. You’re seeing drivers like Brad Keselowski make a case for himself and Roger Penske is more than due to win a championship. Of course, Jimmie Johnson is always there, too."