One of my favorite things about working with clients in USF2000 is the amount of personality the drivers have. They’re almost euphoric each day at the track, enjoying the fact that they’re in a race car, hoping to one day become a professional driver. They’ve only gotten a small glimpse of marketing, sponsorship proposals, the cost and amount of responsibility of professional race weekends on the scale of the 24 Hours of Daytona, and other things that make up the overall business of racing. As they advance up the motorsports ladder, their responsibilities and expectations from others will only grow. They’ll learn and adapt, but they certainly won’t as carefree as when they entered the sport.
The USF2000 series is usually the first step in the motorsports ladder where drivers are expected to hold some level of professionalism. It’s the first time they’ve experienced being under a microscope. The series as well as each team starts to instill in the drivers the level of professionalism expected of them, especially as focus on young racers continues to increase. There are new kinds of pressure they find being added: the pressure to write effectively and professionally, the pressure to provide an acceptable interview in a time of high emotion, and the pressure not only to create your brand, but sell it. Most importantly, they’re now faced with the task of representing the brand of a race team, and upholding the team’s standards on and off the track.
As with teenagers, they’re strong willed, full of personality, and desperate to stand out. These three things are necessary in racing, but only to an extent. There was one instance in particular where statements from a driver had to be revised to the brand standards of the team he was racing for. Although somewhat understanding, the young driver made the comment that he was turned off to the censorship being inflicted on his statements.
This got me thinking. Every professional figure, including athletes, go through a time of learning how to properly work in the public eye. You learn how to convey your message effectively while still being true to yourself and those who sign your paycheck. Of course, the newer one is to the experience, the more there is to get used to. However, at what level does brand representation shift from plain common sense to censorship? How do you draw the line?
In this Roundtable, each of the 2014 KBru Communications drivers from the TUDOR United SportsCar championship, Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge and the Pirelli World Challenge sat down to discuss their thoughts on the topic. Now professional racers, their insight offered unique views based on their own experiences, mistakes and observations.
Alex Figge, 33, K-PAX Racing, Pirelli World Challenge
Dion von Moltke, 24, Flying Lizard Motorsport, TUDOR United SportsCar Challenge
Jan Heylen, 34, Wright Motorsports/Dempsey Racing, TUDOR United SportsCar Challenge
John Edwards, 23, Fall-Line Motorsports and BMW Team RLL, Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge and TUDOR United SportsCar championship
Matt Bell, 29, Stevenson Motorsports, Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge
Robert Thorne, 24, K-PAX Racing, Pirelli World Challenge
In interviews and your own social media, is it to find the balance between being professional and voicing whatever is on your mind?
Alex: There’s an appropriate use of emotion and an inappropriate use. If there’s a controversy in any sport, people want to hear from the athletes. Whether you’re talking about something as simple as a green-white-checker rule or whatever, people want to hear what we think. One thing I’ve always thought about is if I see the end of a golf tournament. Some guy is railing on the course. He just made the amount to buy a super yacht for playing flipping golf. Let’s maybe be a little bit reasonable about how much you hate your life and how unfair the world has been to you. There’s a line you have to draw. “I don’t like this rule and this race was a great example of why this doesn’t work. So I’m on the side of the fence that says I don’t care for it and I wish it was different.” That’s the way you do it. Not “Well, everyone’s against me! I can’t get anything to go right in my life!”
Also, if you’re not a comedian, written social media is very difficult. If you’re a professional comedian, then everybody knows you’re kidding. You can say what you want. But if you’re an athlete, you may want to watch it. I take guys I know really well, like Ryan Dalziel. He’s an extremely funny guy, but he’s not on twitter, or whatever, being hysterically funny all the time. One reason is, it’s hard to translate it; two, Ryan and I are 32 years old now. I just don’t know if we should be on social media all the time. It’s not something we think about. In spoken word interviews, you can still convey a sense of humor. With each medium, you handle it differently. It’s not so much the number of followers you have, but your perception within an industry that isn’t a huge part of being image based.
Dion: You’re always under a microscope and you have to realize that. But we still want to be able to show personality, and we still want to show the fans that we are not robots. And it’s difficult as a driver because the fan base that we have and the sponsors that we have are very affluent and highly educated people, so that puts a certain pressure on looking a certain part. Being able to show flare, passion, and enthusiasm often can cross into a grey area. So you do have to sometimes step back before you hit the tweet button and think “How is the actually going to be perceived? Will the words coming out my mouth actually get perceived in the way that I want them to?” It makes it difficult. For instance, when everything was going on with the NFL, I wanted to ask questions about the NFL the policy that it has. But I don’t want it to come across as condoning anything these players have been accused of doing. To be able to write your ideas and your thoughts on a subject matter without alienating yourself from certain populations or coming across in a really bad way is really hard to do.
It’s a really fine line when you get hired on the team as a professional driver because you’re representing them, the sponsors, and the brand of the car. Even if that brand of cars does not hire you on to drive their cars, they are still associated with the team. All the actions I take away from the track and on the track all reflect on how the team is itself. So I have to keep that in mind, as well as PR Newswire and the rest of my personal sponsors. I think we look at today’s world, especially in the last few months in sports (Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson) and you see how easily affected a brand can be. When a brand as strong as the NFL is really being effected like this. In college sports, Jameis Winston yelling obscenities, like any other college student might do on campus, but he gets suspended a half of a game.
Jan: It’s not that hard to draw the line. A lot of it has to do with how you’ve been brought up and the course you took in your career. I’ve always been surrounded by good people. I was very fortunate with that. It doesn’t cost me any effort at all. You’re always going to compromise a little bit. I can say different things to my teammate and my team than I can to the media or on my own social media, but that’s normal. It’s that way for everyone. I don’t have to twist my words too much to say what I want to say. I’m as close to being myself as I can be at the race track while I’m still working and professional.
John: As sponsors got more prevalent, there was a shift towards everyone being robots, and within the past few years, I’d say people started realizing that everyone was just being told what to say. Fans didn’t like that, and as a result sponsors stopped liking that. Now, I’d say it’s even a little more difficult to still let your personality be out there, without having a slip up or saying something that someone thinks is politically incorrect, insensitive or anything like that. With so many forms of social media, it’s a lot easier to upset someone these days. But at the same time, fans don’t want robots. It makes it tough, but you have to watch what you say sometimes. For the most part, you just try to be honest on both social media and in interviews.
Matt: It depends who is at risk for me to offend. If I’m only risking my personal reputation to a certain degree people, for example my private Facebook page. It’s in a relatively private manner, where I don’t feel it has the potential to reach millions of people, I’ll probably be a little less politically correct. My personal belief is that you do as much damage being overly politically correct as you do when you’re actually expressing those feelings with no filter. You have to walk the line between being consciously aware of how it would feel if someone said the same thing to me. Would I take offence to it? You really have to be aware of how to get your point across efficiently. If I’m doing a TV interview, I’m not going to be saying things that are really questionable. I’m not going to say them in a way that they’re going to be focused on all the weird comments I said. If it’s in a more casual environment, I might be able to express my personality a little bit more and maybe not care as much about political correctness. I have to do it all the time: I live in California and don’t drive a Prius. I’m not able to label myself as a trendy thing.
Robert: Generally it’s when someone asks me a ridiculous question and they’re so far out of line with it that I struggle to not respond in a mean way like, “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard and it’s obviously not true.” But you can’t say that. You have to say, “You know, I’m not sure about that. I haven’t heard that from my side, but I’m sure it could be possible.” But when I have a customer who wants to do something on his car and I have to tell him how it is without being a dick.
How do you find that happy balance between being a robot and being completely candid?
Alex: You see it in every sport, right? You see it in business too, especially when emotion is involved. In sports, emotions are always involved. It does take some thought and patience to not get yourself in trouble with your mouth. For celebrities, or people with any kind of public fame, it’s almost an unfair amount of scrutiny. If you ask an average person a question in the heat of emotion, they’re all going to tell you to fuck off. You just have to practice to somehow to get your feelings across without polarizing 90% of the people who may be listening, and that’s whether or not 90% is 5 people or 5 million people.
Dion: I think it’s all a grey area. There’s never one thing that fits all. We do have a platform, and we do have a stage. I think it is only right if we use that platform and stage to deliver a message. It would be a waste to have an audience, to have people who listen to you if you don’t do anything with it. I’ve decided I’ve got to go out there and present a message and present my ideas. But in the way and manner I do it, I ask for help, I ask for advice, I ask people in what they think and what this comes across as. The other day I tweeted about my opinions on the stuff that’s going on in the NFL. I asked a question “Should we be as athletes or anybody else out there, guilty before they are found innocent,” which is the way that it seems to be going right now. In one of the responses was “You all should be held to a higher standard.” I completely agree with that, but I don’t agree with the guilty before proven innocent. For instance, try to relate that message without condoning what Ray Rice did or is accused of doing is a fine line. So everything has a grey area. So this is where you need to ask advice from other people in “how does this come across?” What may come across in one way in your mind may come across a completely different way to another person and that’s where things can go wrong.
You get better at talking to the press, and people in general as you get older. I was a little bit shy when I was younger. If you have respect from people and you know what you did or didn’t do, it’s not that hard to talk to people. You can always speak your mind, but you think first.
John: I don’t feel like I change in an interview, but the way I speak changes. It’s a little strange doing interviews because I feel like I’m just directing the whole thing by just talking rather than having a conversation. That’s the biggest thing that changes for me: when suddenly it’s for a camera or press conference. But I think I am always careful with what I say, whether I’m behind closed doors with my engineer talking about car setup, or speaking in front of a camera.
Certain people have different personalities though. James Hinchcliffe or Jordan Taylor are guys that I’m friends with and respect a lot for what they do on track as well as their personalities off track, but they just have a different personality than I do. I’m not going to be the type to make videos and post them. I never have been. It’s not because I’m censoring myself, it’s just that it’s not me.
Matt: There’s a ton of stuff that really pisses me off. If the people I’m talking to are in a position where they’re not going to benefit me, or even worse, risk my career by showing others that I’m not what they expect me to be, then obviously, I have to watch what I say. I have to consciously have to think how a conversation will hurt me if our opinions differ. It’s a different result from when it’s a personal friend, verses someone random from the public, like a gas station attendant. If he has no connection my career, I may tell him he’s an idiot. Nothing against gas station attendants.
I don’t want to say anything where I’ll have to take it back. I try to mean everything I say, and I care more than I should. When I talk to people, I’m almost always playing it back a day later in my head. I’m always nervous I’ve said something. It’s always the direct connection to my career. I never want to put my foot in my mouth at the track, or have it ever reflect back to my career on track. Half of the conversations I have, I question the things I’ve said. I don’t know if that makes me sound like moron or not. Sometimes I’m more conservative than I want to be.
Robert: Practice. It takes time to figure out what you like yourself to sound like and how far, negative or positive, you want to be. Often I feel that it’s more of looking back and seeing that I over censored myself and it was obvious.
What are your thoughts on the public figures who take pride in having no filter at all?
Alex: There are always drivers with the hype of they say what’s on their minds. It’s like Paul Tracy with his new announcing gig. He says something like, “Oh yeah, everybody told me, ‘don’t toe the line,’ so that’s what I’m doing.” Of course he’s towing the line. You don’t get on national TV and be a total dickhead. Nobody would pay attention to you. Even those of us in the industry would be like, “Paul, a little bitter, bro?” Of course he doesn’t do that. You’re always going to censor yourself because you’re an adult in an industry that’s a combination of a very high level of expenses and in a very small world. No matter what team I’m on, I could leave here and the team would replace me tomorrow. It’s the same with Robert, Bryan Sellers, Wolf Henzler, John Edwards; they’re all very talented guys, but they’d be replaced tomorrow. You don’t have to be a robot, but you have to be a respectful human being like you would in any business endeavor.
Of course in 16 years, I’ve done a lot of interviews. I think back to some things where I was pretty bratty. Trying to get a rise and be one of these guys who’s like “Yeah, I say what I want!” I look back on some that I think to myself and think, that was probably an opportunity to make a point that could have gone over well with a lot of people I respect and I probably didn’t.
The louder guys are the ones you have to be the most suspicious of their social media presence. For instance, one area I’m public about being interested in is off-roading. They have this huge presence and you notice that everyone has 10,000 followers, and then one guy has 250,0000. Now, Kelly taught me that you’re going to go through that 250,000, and sometimes it’s not going to be a legitimate fan base. At what point do you say it’s interacting with fans, being a valuable public presence, and at what point do you say it’s just loving to hear yourself talk? Social media is a whole new thing. A lot of people get into a lot of trouble. You can develop that reputation for not so much providing too much information, but it’s the type of information that’s being relayed.
Dion: When anything gets people as passionate and hotly debated as that you have to understand that sometimes it’s a topic to just avoid, like I don’t want to go anywhere near that. Again using the Ray Rice example, for the first few days I didn’t want to go anywhere near that story because I thought there was nothing positive that could come to that. But as the story started developing, other players started to get suspensions and this and that. Then the Adrian Petterson thing came out. It has nothing to do with motorsports but I still think it has a following of people, it’s something I care about and I’ve got an ability to spread a thought. You have to take advantage of that in the right way.
I don’t know of many drivers who have had a long and very successful career that don’t have the ability to guard their thoughts. I think if you look at the best identities in sports, the people who are most highly regarded, they speak their opinions but then they also have a team that gives them advice and they don’t say exactly what’s on their mind to a public base. The other thing is you have to be educated on the subject matter. If I’m not in the ability to understand everything, to fully understand all the details, and to be educated in it as well, it would be poor on me to go out and say something. I think a lot of people maybe jump to conclusions and jump to things without knowing all of the facts about understanding all the subject matter. So for me that’s part of the problem. I keep going back to the NFL because of how media focused it is and how many personalities are really good in a good light. I look at Russell Wilson who’s a young guy and how careful he looks after his image and he balances that line very well. A lot of it is from outside help giving him opinions and it’s something that you have to guard. It’s our face to the public and if you’re not careful with something like that things can get out of hand. The media dominates perception of identities.
For instance, the guy who drove into me today on track, he’s not a person who usually does this. He’s a world class driver, he’s won mega races, and to get to where he has gone he is obviously capable of racing clean. So knowing that, I’m not going to go on twitter and give him slander. I’m more than happy to say “Hey, I owe you one,” because I think that’s in the area of being ok. Maybe it’s slightly controversial but it’s not like saying “I’m going to destroy your car next time I see you” or “you’re a horrible driver, you suck.” It’s within the scheme of being ok. So really in every situation it’s a big grey zone. There’s never going to be one set of rules to follow. If you’re a driver that wants to be picked up by a manufacturer, you have to have a certain bit of guidelines or maybe a little bit stricter than someone who doesn’t really care. Or even if you are a driver who has been with a manufacturer for many years, who has really cemented himself in there, he may have a little bit more leeway. But they still want him to fit their image and their brands, not only in this market but worldwide. When you want to be a factory driver there’s going to be a lot more censorship behind it than if you want to find a two million dollar or 20 million dollar sponsor or bring the money yourself.
Jan: None of us are here to judge anyone else and how they express themselves. I look at my own situation and try to improve myself when I can. I learn from my mistakes. If someone says something that involves me, you can’t play at that game and lower yourself to that level. Unless it’s really important and involves the outcome of my career, I have no need to get involved in that. I know my own situation. It’s so easy to talk about other people or situations, but half of the time, those people only know half of the situation. There’s little benefit in getting involved in stuff like that.
John: I think it’s just a personality difference. That’s not me. I deal with things differently. If I have a problem with something, I’m generally not going to just go straight to social media about it, but the same is true about things that go well for me. I make an effort to post anything related to racing, but I have never been the type to post constantly on social media even in my personal life. It depends. People who are posting a non-stop stream tend to be about a number of topics that they’re upset about. There are plenty of things that upset me, whether it be at the race track or in my daily life, but I think that for me, complaining about it on twitter doesn’t really solve anything.
I’m personally not huge into social media. I was one of the last people to get a twitter account. Kelly had to talk me into it to begin with. I definitely see the value, but I’m not the type of person where the first thing I think when I’m doing something is “Oh, I need to post about this or take a picture of this.” For better or for worse, I don’t feel like I’m posting to social media very often.
Matt: When it comes to other drivers, that’s always the big question, right? It comes down to trusting others as an adult. There were times where I just didn’t know the guy, but had built a perception of them regardless. Then we came in contact together professionally, and I realized he’s an okay person, there was just some instances where someone said the wrong thing. It’s always risky, and you always get people trying to label things as a rivalry. Not to mention, with the teams, you have multiple drivers in the same cars, and it’s a rotating door. There’s a strong chance you’re one day going to have to work with that guy.
There are two kinds of over sharers. Type 1: the ones that literally see it as a game; it’s their job. They have 40 million fans and followers, who really want to see what they eat and hear about the movie they saw. Their purpose is to pollute the twittersphere with that stuff, and they know it. Type 2: they don’t mean to. They’re responding to the fact that when they post a photo of driving their car, and a bunch of people comment back, they go “Oh, this is a thing. I can do this.” But they’re fishing. They don’t mean to do it or do it because it’s a game. They’re a part of the game now. They’re not controlling anything, just reacting to what’s popular. You can tell when someone is trying really hard to be that guy, like every 3 posts in your feed is that person, vs. the people that have the constant influx of posts, and they don’t follow a trend. We all know those guys who are super obnoxious. It all comes down to the topics they pick. The Type 1 oversharers (yes I made up that word) feel a need to do it. They’re the more politically correct ones. They’re the ones that never say everything wrong and are neutral on every topic. Type 2 can still use their feed for fun. I get much more frustrated with the people who are doing it on purpose, because it takes the fun out. They’re the pay per click ads on Facebook at that point.
Robert: There’s a level of censorship for everything, social media being one of the least. The percentage of useless information you provide is a line you cross so that everything you say might as well be useless babble. Like Alex said, you just want to hear yourself talk.