BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Roger Curtis wasn't necessarily looking to catch a ride on the social media wave.
While he's one of the most visible individuals among track executives in NASCAR right now, the president of Michigan International Speedway admits he's struggled with the nuances of social networking technology.
But when Sammie Lukaskiewicz, MIS senior director of communications, introduced Curtis to Twitter earlier this spring, a lightbulb turned on in his head. Ever the entrepreneur, Curtis quickly saw social media as a promotional avenue and as a means to interact.
Twitter, Curtis realized, wasn't just about directing a message in 140 characters or less. It was about engaging with race fans and promoting not just the events the Brooklyn, Mich., track hosts -- including today's NASCAR Quicken Loans 400 -- but answering questions about the upcoming race weekend, addressing a fan's concern that the track didn't host IndyCar racing, even quoting movies. In a recent tweet, Curtis referenced Superbad, the 2007 teen comedy starring Jonah Hill and Michael Cera.
Microblogging has provided a glimpse into Curtis' personality and his passion for the track, but it's also a part of the MIS social media initiative, which is a microcosm of what's taking place in sports and entertainment, particularly in auto racing.
On local and national tracks, drivers, team owners, crews, and administrators are using social media -- particularly Twitter -- to reach out to fans, to disseminate information, to provide commentary, and to offer glimpses into their daily lives.
Michigan International Speedway has launched an app for Android, iPhone, and iPad that emphasizes track and event interactivity. On the ARCA Racing Series circuit, 16-year-old driver Erik Jones not only has a Twitter handle, but he and his racing team have attached a QR (quick response) code that race fans can scan to download an app for Android phones and iPhones.
"You always try to be ahead of the game and hope that you can be the next big thing," Jones said. "If we can be the first to do it, hopefully we can be a pioneer in those kinds of apps."
It's not uncommon to see decals of Twitter handles and Facebook page addresses for drivers and racing teams on the sides of race cars, and it's not uncommon to see drivers engaging with fans and media members by way of Twitter.
As a fan, Kim Kent's Twitter feed is primarily made up of NASCAR drivers, crew members, fans, and media members. She likens the stream to a radio feed, as there's a constant flow of information and commentary.
"With the ability to reach out to almost anybody at almost any time, I've made friends with other racing fans," Kent said. "The ability to be able to reach out and express what you want to express by pushing buttons, as well as the availability of it, has made it bloom a little more.
"With auto racing, it's a sport where the drivers do more to associate with fans and make them feel a part of what's going on. You don't get that out of basketball or football."
Curtis sees social media and technology not just as a way to engage and to promote, but to bring in a new breed of fans who have a level of expectation when it comes to technology and social integration.
"We just ran a report here at MIS, that 30 percent of fans here were brand new," Curtis said. "We don't have demographic data on them yet, but I have a sneaking suspicion that we're going to find that they're younger folks who want to get engaged in NASCAR and want to try that at MIS. And that generation, they are fully engaged on every social front there is, whether it's smartphones, iPads, iPhones, or social media.
"And it's not to say that the older long-term fans aren't. They're adopting social media at a pretty amazing clip, as well. But we need to be prepared for these new fans."
A bold initiative
NASCAR recently became the first professional sports league to partner with Twitter on a marketing initiative.
Last weekend at the Pocono 400 presented by #NASCAR -- the first time a hashtag has been used in the title of a Sprint Cup Series race -- NASCAR curated tweets and photos from drivers, broadcasters, fans, and crew members at Sunday's race, and added a specific section of its Web site, nascar.com, that's devoted solely to posts during the race -- a portal to a hashtag event page, twitter.com/#NASCAR.
Mashable.com, a social media and technology Web site, reported that the Twitter page was designated specifically for NASCAR events and not for the NASCAR brand. However, Twitter did not elaborate on what events it would use specific event pages for in the future.
TNT's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series broadcasts also integrated Twitter into its race broadcast.
TV broadcaster and former NASCAR driver Kyle Petty welcomed the interactivity of the initiative, which is in place for the remainder of the season. At the same time, the TNT analyst hopes it doesn't detract from his on-camera responsibilities.
"The downside is, you start talking about what they're talking about on Twitter and not what's going on on TV," Petty said. "We're not doing our job then. We have to talk about the race. We have to take the approach of, don't let Twitter drive the broadcast. We have to drive the broadcast."
Still, NASCAR's digital initiative was unique. Before last weekend, other athletic entities have only incorporated social media in events on a smaller scale: Earlier in the spring, the University of Michigan's athletic department painted "#GOBLUE" on the field at Michigan Stadium for the Wolverines' spring game, and during the 2011 season, Mississippi State painted "#HAILSTATE" in the north end zone at Davis Wade Stadium. This summer, the Washington Nationals are featuring each player's Twitter handle when they come to bat at Nationals Park in Washington.
Not for everyone
There are more than 140 million active users worldwide on Twitter. Sam Hornish, Jr., who drove in Saturday's Nationwide Alliance Truck Parts 250, has nearly 19,000 followers on Twitter. But the Defiance native doesn't use Twitter as avidly as other drivers, or some other people.
"I'm one of the ones, if I have a couple tweets a month, that's pretty good," said Hornish, who drives for Penske Racing. "We put on what's going on during race weekend, but I don't feel that everyone really cares what I'm going to have for breakfast. That might be too much.
"Social media's definitely something that's taken off. You can't say it's a fad when 800 million people have a Facebook page, but it's pretty cool. It's a way to keep up with people. And it's definitely changed the game for everyone."
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., has a Twitter account, but has yet to send a tweet. His rationale? He doesn't have time or energy for it, he said.
Twitter has been under some fire in professional sports, as athletes and personalities have posted less-than-savory photos and messages.
Jones, who has made four starts this season on the ARCA circuit, has ground rules for using social media.
"There's definitely a limit," Jones said. "You just can't tweet whatever you want -- you have to make sure you don't put something that could offend somebody. You can't look down on someone else's views on something, and don't be political. It's something fun where you can post updates and interact with people."
While there hasn't been a red-flag situation with online decorum in NASCAR, a photo taken and tweeted by Brad Keselowski at the Daytona 500 did raise some questions.
Keselowski, a native of Rochester Hills, Mich., gained more than 160,000 followers after he posted a photo of Juan Pablo Montoya's crash into the back of a jet dryer from the cell phone he kept in his car during a stop in racing at the Daytona 500.
"I don't believe that he would have gained that many followers if people weren't watching the Daytona 500 on TV," Petty said. "He picked up followers, but which came first, the chicken or the egg? I think people were watching on TV, and then they said, 'This guy is tweeting while he's in the race car. They're talking about it on TV. I'll go to Twitter and I'll follow Brad Keselowski,' and that's the way it kind of works."
Keselowski joined Twitter essentially out of boredom, as he got an iPad after winning the Nationwide Series in 2010. He wasn't sure what to do with it other than use Twitter. But after utilizing the application in a rather unorthodox manner, he became, in a sense, a social media trailblazer in auto racing.
"It's a bit of an honor that I feel lucky to have, certainly from a competitor's standpoint," Keselowski said. "I would look to other members of the media, NASCAR media, specifically, who pioneered that process, and I really feel like I'm just following a bit of their lead and I'm just lucky to get a little more attention for it."
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: email@example.com, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.