Sarah Fisher signs autographs for fans after throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before an Oklahoma City RedHawks game. Fisher is consistently one of IndyCar's most popular and fan-friendly drivers. (Photo By Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
When you see Milka Duno's lap times on IndyCar.com's timing and scoring monitor, you wonder how on earth the officials of the IZOD IndyCar Series can possibly justify keeping her around.
But when you see her with fans in the paddock, a lot of those questions go away. You realize that she gets her opportunities in the sport because of her bank account and the number of digits Hugo Chavez and CITGO write on the sponsor payment checks. But you also realize that she stays because, as slow as she might be on most tracks, she has a lap-and-a-half lead over her competitors in one very critical department: reaching out to fans.
This era of professional sports is marked by a quasi-personal relationship between fans and the celebrities they admire. Via Twitter and other social media, a fiction is created that celebrities are eager to interact with fans and are interested in their lives. A well-placed "@ reply" on Twitter (either from a celebrity or the PR manager who secretly Tweets for him) can make fans feel like they aren't an imposition on the celebrity's life.
That's a good thing in some respects. But it's ultimately a fake sense of intimacy. The real test is when those celebrities interact with people in the real world by pressing the flesh and glad-handing people. In fact, it is the rare athlete indeed that can maintain a genuine interest in the "unwashed masses" - an occasionally oppressive throng whose purpose sometimes can appear to be the utter obliteration of privacy and personal boundaries.
Let's be frank about this. There is a certain personality type that lends itself well to social engagements and making people feel like they're important, interesting and relevant. And if we're being honest, very few athletes possess that personality type. Most athletes at the top levels of their sport have lived their entire lives with people telling them that they are the best in their profession, having their egos stroked to give them more confidence in their ability to succeed. Their ability to mix and mingle with people is usually limited to glad-handing people who might have a stake in their future - sponsors, corporate types, the media.
When faced with run-of-the-mill fans and everyday people, the sad fact is that many athletes simply can't - or won't - adapt or be troubled to make time for them. These athletes will take public relations classes to be able to deal with the media properly or sell themselves to a corporation, but almost none of them bother with developing their social skills on a more pedestrian level.
Part of this has to do with the idea that fans can be intrusive and a burden. And to be fair, there is an element of fandom that lives up to this image in the worst ways - interrupting family meals at restaurants, shoving boxes and bags full of paraphernalia in their faces to get autographs for later sale on eBay, and even loudly criticizing them for something they didn't like in a game or at a race.
But that element is a very vocal, very irritating minority. The vast majority of fans are usually polite, respectful and even shy - just getting the courage worked up to meet with one of their favorite celebrities is a major undertaking for many of them.
It's easy to forget that for many athletes, particularly when most of the opportunities to interact with fans are sprinkled around or during the sporting event in which they are participating at the time. For race car drivers, fan interactions might happen after a particularly grueling practice where not a lot is going right; a fan might approach while they are deep in conversation with an engineer or team owner; at times, fans might even approach after a visit to the infield care center after a wreck. At those times, the prevalent thought is, "Not now," instead of, "Hello! Nice to meet you," and for understandable reasons.
Still, there are some drivers - more than there probably should be - who bring the "Not now" mentality to the majority of their fan interactions. Whether it is self-pity for having to include this seemingly non-essential aspect of their job in their day, or whether they simply believe it is something they shouldn't have to worry about, there are certain drivers who will be perfunctory at best and completely dismissive - even huffy - with fans at worst. They are race drivers, not politicians - at least, that seems to be the reasoning.
But there are other drivers who are able to make fan interactions seem welcome, even enjoyable. Drivers like Sarah Fisher, Milka Duno, Vitor Meira and Graham Rahal seem to have a smile and a handshake at the ready in almost any situation. They will engage fans in conversation, as if they are actually happy to be recognized and thrilled to be a part of the fans' day. Duno, in particular, can take that to amazing levels - for instance, laughing and joking with fans as if they are her oldest friends, or seeing people she met a day before and making a point to recognize them.
Years ago, there was a story told about Richard Petty about a fan who asked to take a photo with him. The King was surrounded by fans and had just gotten done with a long practice session, but Petty posed with his famous smile for the picture anyway. About an hour later, the fan was looking at the photo and showing it to his son when Petty, seeing them together, ambled over and asked, "So hey, fella, how did that photo come out?" Petty then proceeded to spend another ten minutes talking to the boy to the utter delight of his father.
Petty always says that he treats every fan request like it was a personal honor to fulfill it. If it wasn't for the fans, he reasons, there would be no Richard Petty. That is the reason why that if there was no Richard Petty, there would like not have been many fans of NASCAR.
I remember as a child going to my first Indy 500 practice session. As is usual for most people's childhood memories, many details have faded over time. But one thing that I remember with perfect clarity is walking through a parking lot and almost literally running into a young Tom Sneva. I still remember his giant Goodyear trucker cap - it's so clear I can almost reach out and touch it. I remember him kneeling down to talk to me much better than I remember what he ended up autographing. And from then on, Tom Sneva could do no wrong. I had my favorite driver that I followed religiously - all because of one chance meeting in a parking lot.
A couple of years ago I was on a plane flight back from Indianapolis. I had been there as an interested spectator not just of the 500-Mile Race, but also of Cole Carter and the American Revolution Racing team at the Freedom 100. I had designed the team logo and paint scheme and had helped out with some of their promotional materials, so I had a vested interest in their performance. I was still going over the results in my head when a man tapped me on the shoulder and indicated that he had the center seat next to me. The man turned out to be none other than Tom Sneva, who had been helping Carter out as a driver coach.
By this time I had spent years around the sport in both a media and marketing role, but it was still almost an hour into the flight before I could work up the gumption to chat with Sneva. He was polite and we talked briefly, but he clearly wanted to relax and I didn't press the issue. At the end of the flight, however, he asked to use my cellphone - and considering what he had done for me all those years ago, I figured it was the least I could do.
That story is one I relish telling - not just because it involved my childhood hero, but because it is a great example of how one seemingly unimportant act by a celebrity can affect the life of another person. Sneva doesn't remember meeting me in that parking lot... after all, he has met hundreds, thousands of kids like me in his career. But thirty years later that one chance encounter still had me feeling gobsmacked when I met him again on that plane flight to Phoenix.
That's why I remain adamant that the IZOD IndyCar Series does not need a celebrity like Danica Patrick to be successful in the long term. Patrick is ultra-famous and a media magnet, but in terms of one-on-one fan impact, she's no Sarah Fisher. In fairness, that might be because she very rarely gets to meet fans one-on-one because of the sheer weight of attention on her at any given moment. But then there are also drivers who might see a small group of fans instead of the crushing masses of people that Patrick attracts and "big-league" them the same way.
It is no secret that NASCAR is having issues with maintaining fan interest. I would argue that one of the main reasons why is that today's breed of driver is so focused on satisfying their corporate backers that they have become bland and robotic - and worse, uninteresting. Can you imagine Jimmie Johnson pulling a Petty and asking a fan how a photo came out an hour after it was taken? Most people could only imagine that if he was concerned that it might show up in a press release. Whether that's realistic or not is beside the point - it's the impression regardless. That it is created by a driver's desire for privacy means little to a fan base brought up on a generation of drivers who were supposedly as real as the guy next door.
The message that Randy Bernard should get about how to sell the sport to the public is that IndyCar drivers need to reach out to people. Some pundits think that drivers need to be American to sell the sport, but I disagree. The sport needs drivers regardless of nationality, race or gender who can set aside their reticence and preoccupations long enough to make a positive, genuine impact on run-of-the-mill folks. They may seem trivial at the time, but the longest-lasting loyalties have their genesis in those supposedly random, unimportant interactions.