Brad Keselowski finished 32nd in the Daytona 500, the result of a late-race crash that sunk his chances of winning NASCAR’s signature event for the first time.
The Team Penske driver fared better in the virtual world.
Keselowski used his phone to send Twitter messages during a two-hour delay after Juan Pablo Montoya’s car struck a jet dryer, in-competition tweeting that is banned by most other major sports. Keselowski — who sent out photos of the fire that resulted from the collision and interacted with fans via Twitter — picked up 130,000 followers during a race that lasted into the early hours of Tuesday morning.
“One of the first emails we received after we got back to Detroit was from Miller/Coors,” said Bud Denker, senior vice president for Penske Corp. “They said while we might not have crossed the finish line first, it was a win for the brand across the board. We support Brad and all of his efforts in social media.”
Keselowski told FOXSports.com in an email that his social-media gains were “no consolation at all” and he’s a “professional race car driver, not a professional tweeter.”
That might be true, but he’s also an innovator. Keselowski was the only driver to carry a phone in his stock car in an event delayed a day because of rain.
"First, I want to make sure everyone knows that I didn’t tweet while the car was turned on," Keselowski said. "I don’t Tweet and drive. The reason I had my phone on me was simple. I was involved in a fairly serious wreck at Auto Club Speedway in 2007 and I wasn’t able to talk to my parents."
NASCAR officials praised Keselowski’s efforts in front of a primetime FOX audience.
“NASCAR was 100 percent behind my actions,” Keselowski said. “They know I didn’t put myself, or anyone else, in jeopardy by tweeting while the car was moving. Everyone at NASCAR gets what Twitter and social media mean to the fabric of popular culture these days."
Major League Baseball, the NFL, NBA and NHL have each developed policies regarding the use of social-media sites or devices that allow athletes unfettered access to the outside world. NFL players, for example, cannot use social media within 90 minutes of kickoff through media sessions after the game. MLB doesn’t have a social-media policy for players but does ban the use of cell phones or other electronic devices within 30 minutes of the first pitch through the end of the game.
“NASCAR was exposed to an audience with a slightly different demographic than they’re used to, and Keselowski took full advantage,” said David Carter, executive director of the University of Southern California Sports Business Institute. “NASCAR tends to utilize social media more than other sports. They want fans to interact with their favorite drivers. That gives the drivers and the teams a chance to build a brand.”
Carter said the only other sport that comes close to such utilization of social media is UFC. The MMA sanctioning body not only doesn’t have rules that govern the use of services like Twitter and Facebook but offers bonuses to fighters for the best tweets.
“Traditional leagues are a little more reluctant than NASCAR and UFC,” Carter said. “Both count on personal branding and need their consumers to be directly in touch with their athletes.”
Unfiltered access to the public has gotten a few athletes and even some coaches in trouble. Some of the most notable include:
• Michael Beasley, then a member of the Miami Heat, tweeted a photo of a new tattoo — along with what appeared to be marijuana; he checked himself into rehab shortly after sending the September 2009 tweet.
• Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall was dropped by athletic manufacturer Champion after questioning why people were celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden and how the towers of the World Trade Center collapsed on 9/11 in separate Twitter messages.
• Ozzie Guillen, while manager of the Chicago White Sox, was suspended for two games after he used Twitter to complain about his ejection from a game last April that was still under way.
• British professional soccer player Ravel Morrison was fined $11,000 US for using a gay slur on Twitter earlier this month.
These missteps notwithstanding, for most athletes the positive ramifications of social media outweigh the negative.
“Collectively, I think social media has been a good thing for athletes,” said Edward Kian, a professor of sport leadership and coaching at the University of Central Florida who has studied the use of Twitter by athletes. “It allows them to market themselves, and some are really good at it. Some of these athletes are very personable and it comes naturally to them. Some egregious errors have been made by athletes on Twitter, but on the whole it’s been a positive thing.”
Keselowski is one of those Twitter naturals, even before his prime-time tweets from Daytona. He broke news of the condition of his injured ankle on Twitter after a crash during testing outside of Atlanta last August. Keselowski’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series team also ran a promotion that allowed thousands of his followers to get their Twitter handles on his truck for last Friday’s race in Daytona.
“Social media is here to stay," he said. "It’s almost like the space race back in the ’50s and ’60s. We, meaning NASCAR, want to be the first sport to really embrace it as a way to offer fans the interaction they can’t get normally.”
Keselowski, who had more than 217,000 followers as of Wednesday morning, saw the estimated value of his Twitter account balloon from $105,349 as of Sunday to $307,448 immediately after the Daytona 500, according to Dave Saunders, president/chief idea officer of the advertising and new media firm Madison+Main.
Saunders said the hard part might not be gaining such a massive audience in a short time, it’s keeping it over the long term.
“The way you waste it is . . . over-promotion,” Saunders said. “When you run into a problem in social media is when your entire model is shameless self-promotion. Social media shouldn’t be about incessant self-promotion but about engaging and sharing experiences.”
That’s a hard habit for some in NASCAR to break, since the sport as a whole relies on sponsors. It becomes evident whenever a driver is interviewed and slips in his title sponsor or makes sure the cameras catch whichever soda or sports drink he or she is shilling for that day. Keselowski did ask his fans to visit his website Tuesday, although he spent most of the day interacting with fans.
Saunders said Keselowski is a “broadcaster,” since, as of Wednesday morning, he was following only 85 people — mostly accounts of drivers, reporters and his sponsors. That’s common among celebrities, although there are exceptions like Lady Gaga, who follows nearly 140,000 people.
No matter how he’s classified, Twitter spokesman Robert Weeks told FOXSports.com that Keselowski has been popular on the service of late.
Keselowski’s photo of the on-track fire was retweeted more than 5,000 times. Keselowski’s name has been mentioned more than 100,000 times by users, and his tweets have been retweeted more than 16,000 times in the past week.
Keselowski, however, falls short compared to the most meteoric rise by an athlete on Twitter in recent weeks: New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin. Weeks said that on Feb. 4 — the day Lin led the Knicks past the New Jersey Nets to start a seven-game winning streak — Lin had 30,146 followers. Lin’s account (@JLin7) was up to more than 540,000 followers as of Wednesday morning.
Keselowski might never see the gains in followers over such a short period of time as he did during Monday’s race stoppage. But he was certainly a pioneer and the first of what could become a trend for fellow NASCAR drivers seeking some publicity during the next delay.
“We didn’t know about (the phone),” Denker said. “It was all Brad. He’s a smart kid, an innovator. I had Roger (Penske) call down to him during the delay, and (Keselowski) said he couldn’t talk right now because he was talking to other people on Twitter. It was surreal.”