During a recent test session at Nashville Superspeedway a writer wanted to interview Jeff Gordon but was told – through Gordon’s crew chief – to get lost.
I wasn’t there, so I don’t know the details: Was Jeff busy at the moment? Did his crew chief even pass the word to him, or just take it on himself to brush off the reporter?
I do know that I’ve seen other modern-day NASCAR stars refuse interview requests under similar circumstances. Other drivers testing at the Superspeedway found a few minutes for reporters, including points leader Jeff Burton, Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman and even mercurial Tony Stewart.
But not Gordon, who is on track to exceed $100 million this year.
The reason why Gordon and other young hot-shots are making millions is because of forerunners like Richard Petty, who cultivated fans and media.
Petty signed a jillion autographs and was never too busy for the media. He might have had time for only a minute or two – sometimes he had to promise to get back to the writer after practice – but during almost 40 years of covering the sport I never once heard of Petty ducking an interview request.
Petty ran his final race at Atlanta in 1992 – the same race in which a fuzzy-cheeked kid named Gordon made his big-league debut.
It was a symbolic changing of the guard. Petty represented the end of one era, Gordon the beginning of another.
It wasn’t only Petty who was accommodating back then. Bobby Allison, Benny Parsons, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, Buddy Baker … even the sometimes cantankerous Cale Yarborough and reclusive David Pearson cooperated with the media. Dale Earnhardt could be gruff, but was shrewd enough to know that the press was a conduit to his fans.
And Darrell Waltrip was a media master.
Back then drivers realized that the press was important. It promoted their sport.
Today’s drivers apparently don’t study their history. They don’t know about the days when NASCAR had to hustle and plead to get a 10-second blurb on TV or a back-page story in the newspaper.
Maybe they figure NASCAR’s so big that they don’t need the media any more. Sometimes they act the same way about the fans.
They’re living large thanks to drivers like Petty, who took time to build a rapport with the media and fans, and in the process built the sport.
Perhaps it’s time for a reminder.
Larry Woody is a veteran sportswriter in Nashville and has covered auto racing for almost four decades.