How NASCAR race coverage has sunk to a new lowOn Monday, 19 June 2017, after the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race at Michigan International Speedway, a column appeared on the front page of the sports section in USA Today. Titled “Kyle Larson’s win at Michigan highlights NASCAR’s lack of outsize personalities,” the column seemed to promise a look not only at Larson’s amazing job holding off NASCAR champions to win the race, but on the new crop of drivers moving up through the sport. Readers, however, were instead treated to a shining example of how yellow journalism is alive and well today and spreading into sports news.
“Yellow journalism” is a term that was first coined in the mid-1890s as a way to characterize sensationalized and sometimes baseless articles in newspapers. Articles written in this style are often exaggerations of actual events, relying on little to no legitimate research and a clear lack of detailed understanding of the subject by the author. The underlying purpose of yellow journalism is an attempt to garner readers and subscribers through sensationalized reporting, playing to the basest instincts of humanity, much in the same vein has modern horror movies with their emphasis on blood and gore. The yellow journalism of the 1890s and early 20th Century was the direct ancestor of the TV new era motto “If it bleeds it leads,” and the 21st Century computer media idea of “click bait.” All have the underlying purpose of gaining viewers through sensationalism.
Despite the fairly mundane and non-sensational title of Shawn Windsor’s USA Today column, the “click bait” style sensationalism starts right up front. The column’s lead — the first, short paragraph of the story meant to further entice readers and usually serving as the article’s summary on Internet search results — states in no uncertain terms, “They’re handing out participation trophies in NASCAR now. Or what amounts to them, anyway.” Fourteen words designed and calculated to pander to the basest instincts of society and entice as many readers as possible. While a typical NASCAR-related article in a newspaper, even a publication with a nationwide audience like USA Today, would normally only receive readership from amongst the NASCAR fanbase, the column’s lead in this case ensures at least triple the normal number of readers as it brings not only the loyal NASCAR fans, but also those who disdain the sport, seeing in the words of the lead the epitome of why they dislike NASCAR, as well as those non-NASCAR readers of the sports section who feel that the era of “participation trophies” — particularly in youth sports — has cheapened sports in general and weakened the fiber and character of America’s youth. In fact, other than the word “NASCAR,” the title and the lead share nothing in common and fail even to support each other as they are intended. The title promises a discussion not only of Kyle Larson’s win at Michigan, but the impact of personalities on the incoming crop of young NASCAR drivers. The lead, however, seems to indicate that the column will focus on how NASCAR has cheapened its brand and tarnished its sport by resorting to “participation trophies” for the drivers in the events.
In fact, however, all three readership groups are done an incredible disservice by Mr. Windsor’s column and USA Today’s decision to place it on the front part of the sports section. For the loyal NASCAR fan looking to read about Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 race at Michigan, they found nothing other than the title and the name of the winner. For the other two groups of readers who thought that in this column that had found further documented evidence to support their particular world view, they, too, were deceived. They were instead presented with a column that was ill-researched, poorly edited, and containing falsehoods and misrepresentations. It is a column that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be — an honest discussion of NASCAR’s future or a condemnation of what the sport has become — but ends up being neither in the end.
The signs of yellow journalism in this particular column are many. The dramatic title that implies that NASCAR’s drivers are without distinctive personalities today and that it is a problem that needs to be remedied. The sensational lead that eagerly and authoritatively denounces NASCAR as catering to the “self-esteem crowd” by introducing a system of “participation trophies” for drivers to be awarded without having to earn them.
A correction had to be issued the following day due to the misspelling of the names of three of NASCAR’s young up-and-coming drivers — the very drivers that the column’s title claimed would be discussed and have need to develop “outsize personalities.” To make matters worse, all three were fairly easy names to get right: Erik Jones, Chase Elliott, and Daniel Suarez — a clear failure on the parts of both the author and the editing staff.
The author states, “Dividing the races into stages and awarding points its new to NASCAR this season, and it smells like desperation. The thinking is that race fans will follow more intently. Really?” The simple truth of the matter is that NASCAR’s thinking on this turned out to be true. A number of fan surveys conducted by NASCAR, as well as the relative race crowd sizes compared to last year, indicate that fans are paying more attention this season due to the stage racing and the bonus points being awarded. Likewise, tuning in to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Channel 90) on the Monday after a race weekend will yield scores of calls from fans praising the stage racing for the excitement it has brought back to the sport. Again, lack of research on the part of the author. Add to that the fact that by introducing stages to the races, all NASCAR has done is model their races to look more like the heat-and-feature races found at your local short track on Friday and Saturday nights, with drivers rewarded for what they have earned during the short heat races leading up to the final feature event when the majority of points and the overall trophy are awarded. Participation trophies? I think not. These drivers are earning the bonus points they take away from the stages, just as local racers do when they finish a heat race before the feature event. Still further evidence of a complete lack of research by the author as well as a failure to understand the subject matter before putting pen to paper.
The author further states in a subsequent paragraph, “All you had to do was take a walk around the MIS grounds Sunday to see it. Or to see what wasn’t there: fans. At least not near as many as there used to be. Anecdotally, the stands are half of what they were even 10 years ago; the track doesn't release attendance figures. On this Sunday, the wide swaths of unoccupied bleachers were even starker.” While it is true that NASCAR’s overall attendance numbers at the track have been down the past four years, most tracks have seen a modest increase in attendance this season, due at least in part to the stage racing. More than that, attendance was down at the Michigan race this year due as well to weather concerns (rain and thunderstorms in the area before the race) and the later start time to the event. What Mr. Windsor fails to acknowledge is the role that TV networks and TV coverage of events have played in the decline of at-track attendance. With the entire NASCAR race schedule available for viewing on FOX, NBC, or one of their dedicate sports affiliates, there is less and less reason for fans to venture halfway across the country to attend a race in person. See similar problems suffered by Major League Baseball over the past five to 10 years. Again, poor research and exaggerated claims on the part of the author — hallmarks of yellow journalism.
Mr. Windsor’s insightful analysis of NASCAR’s woes doesn’t stop there, however. After introducing the idea of “participation trophies” and their detrimental impact on NASCAR’s fanbase, he then jumps to the conclusion that the sport needs more “larger-than-life” personalities. Because that’s what every sport needs when the veteran players start to retire, right? When Peyton Manning retired from football the question on everyone’s mind was not “Who is the best talent we can find to take his place at quarterback?”; it was “Who has the biggest, most outrageous personality to take his place at quarterback?” No, it wasn’t. It’s about the talent, not the personality of the individual, and the same is true for NASCAR. Personalities come as time passes; they’re developed over a number of seasons and based on the experiences of that individual. It’s the talent behind the wheel of the racecar that you’re looking for.
Mr. Windsor’s assertion appears to be that with NASCAR veterans such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. retiring, the new class of young drivers don’t have the personality to be able to replace the veterans. But this is another example of where the author appears to have not done any homework. The days of the rough-n-tumble redneck moonshiners is gone. The era in which those moonshiners lived and in which stock car racing saw its origins — Prohibition — is gone. And while society has changed over the past 70 years, so has the sport of stock car racing, the personalities of its drivers, and the likes and dislikes of its fans. The days of brawls and fist fights between drivers in the infield is gone. The days of drivers and crews cursing each other out both on the track and over the radios is passing if not already gone. Today is a new era for NASCAR and a new era for American society as a whole. Like it or not, today’s society is more courteous than before and that has spilled over into sport. Yes, today’s NASCAR drivers are more courteous, they complement their sponsors, and while they do still trash-talk each other, there is very little real animosity between them. Mr. Windsor’s assertions, however, that today’s crop of young drivers has no personality is completely unfounded. The author has clearly not met, heard any interviews with, or seen the social media feeds for the likes of Ryan Blaney, Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, or Austin Dillon.
The state of journalism today is precarious, and it will behoove us all to make sure that the yellow journalism that helped propel this country into the Spanish-American War in 1898 doesn’t once again take the tiller from our hands. The new media at one time, the mainstream news media, was a trusted source of information, educating and informing the populace through print, radio, or television. But today’s media outlets have become polarized and politicized, as newspapers, radio stations, and TV networks align themselves with one political viewpoint or another, twisting their stories to present only the information their “market,” their audience believes and wants to consume. Dwindling quickly are the truly unbiased and nonaligned media sources. The faster they disappear and the more politicized the news media become, the more polarized our society will become. It’s up to us, the American people, to reject the politicization of news and demand the full stories, the complete truth, no matter how much it may disagree with our ideals and our political leanings. Only the complete truth allows us to fully comprehend the world around us and make the future a better place for our children.