Monday, February 25, 2013

NASCAR’s Anti-Social Media Creates Uproar

Well NASCAR finally got its wish.

For several years the organization has been trying to make a mark in the world of social media.  It created a special department to lead the efforts, built a Facebook page which now has more than three million “friends” and setup a YouTube channel.  It created a twitter account – with nearly a million followers – and encouraged drivers to do the same.  NASCAR, which has seen its at-track attendance and television viewership decline in recent years, was trying to attract new and younger fans who rely primarily on social media channels for news and information.  

And for a time this past weekend, NASCAR was at the center of the social media world – but for all the wrong reasons.  It was in the eye of the storm.

Following Saturday’s last lap crash in the Nationwide race, a spectator in the stands posted a video he took with his cell phone on YouTube.  He was just a few feet away from where the tire came to rest.  It was a short clip, not particularly graphic or “horrific” to my eyes, although some have referenced it that way.   It immediately generated comments, mostly concern for those possibly injured and respect for those who rushed to aid them.  I didn’t see a single anti-NASCAR comment.  Most were similar to the following:
“All I saw was a great bunch of people trying to help someone who was injured.   Hats off to all of those great folks!” was a typical comment.
The guy who took off his shirt to aid one of the more seriously injured received a lot of attention.
“A real redneck will take the shirt off his back to help anyone out in need,” one person wrote.
Shortly after it was posted, however, the video was gone, replaced by a black screen, YouTube’s frown face and “This video contains content from NASCAR, who has blocked it on copyright grounds.”
And just like that, the social media world exploded.  Whatever limited progress NASCAR may have been making on the social media front suffered a serious setback.  Social media sites and pundits who have probably never watched a NASCAR race were suddenly attacking the organization for what they saw as censorship of a news story.
Now NASCAR, like most professional sporting organizations, has long claimed copyrights on the video and even still photos at events it sanctions.  Tickets and passes read:  “NASCAR owns the rights to all images, sounds and data from this NASCAR event … The bearer of this ticket agrees not to take any action, or cause others to take any action, which would infringe on NASCAR’s rights.” 

For the most part, however, the organization has not tried to stop fans from taking videos and pictures, for their personal use.  But if you’re walking around the garage area or on pit road with a professional looking photo rig and without a NASCAR or track issued press photo vest, you’re going to attract the attention of the NASCAR’s copyright police.  It’s about money, as usual.  If you’re a sponsor, a manufacturer or just someone who wants to take photos or video of cars on the track for marketing or advertising use or personal profit, you’re gonna have to pay NASCAR first for the right.
But by invoking the copyright clause in pulling down the YouTube video, NASCAR moved into uncharted territory.  It was a foolish move by NASCAR that showed a complete lack of understanding of what social media is all about.
YouTube realized its integrity also was being challenged and quickly reacted.  It issued a statement saying: “Our partners and users do not have the right to take down videos from YouTube unless they contain content which is copyright infringing, which is why we have reinstated the videos.”  Obviously YouTube saw the video as news, not a copyright situation.
NASCAR, in full damage control mode on several fronts, tried to defuse the situation with a statement of its own.
"The fan video of the wreck on the final lap of today's NASCAR Nationwide Series race was blocked on YouTube out of respect for those injured in today's accident.  Information on the status of those fans was unclear and the decision was made to err on the side of caution with this very serious incident."
Okay, not a bad response.  Too bad NASCAR didn’t say that from the start.  Tyler Alexander, the teenager who originally posted the video (just the target audience for NASCAR's social media initiative), tweeted that he understood and accepted NASCAR’s decision.  Later he tweeted that he was overwhelmed by all the attention and his only concern was for those injured.
While all this was going on, the lamestream media wasn’t exactly covering itself in glory.  ESPN, which originally broadcast the race, actually led a SportsCenter broadcast shortly after the wreck with an update on Danica Patrick, before moving into accident coverage.  On the other extreme, the Associated Press was on Twitter, looking for additional fan footage and photos. 
Only Speed was making a commendable effort to cover the story.  Adam Alexander did an excellent job coordinating reports.  Kyle Petty was the star of the evening.  He shared the story of a race in which his father, Richard Petty, crashed and lost a wheel that went into the stands and killed a fan. He talked about the death of his son Adam, in a racing accident, and tried to provide insight on what makes drivers tick.  More Kyle Petty please.
Online, back at ESPN, they were doing their best NASCAR impersonation, deleting negative comments about the two organizations as quickly as they were posted.  NASCAR itself withdrew from the Twitter universe, shutting down for several hours after a tweet from Mike Helton expressing concern about those injured.
It was a tough, difficult situation.  Everyone acknowledges that.  But it also was a critical test of NASCAR's understanding of social media and its commitment to the medium and the organization failed miserably.


  1. good article. NASCAR, as always, wants to have their cake and eat it, too. As you mentioned, they should have "led" with the concern for the fans. People would have been a lot less indignant.

  2. It's interesting how they didn't remove the video of Kurt Busch going ballistic on Dr. Punch.

    A very self serving bunch, these NASCAR folks.