Last night on national television, America's wonkiest social media platform, Twitter, and its supposedly most backward sport, NASCAR, exploded together into a massive fireball fueled by jet propellant, secret phones, and good/bad timing. Here's the story of how one driver picked up 100,000 followers in two hours and how the sport of good ol' boys may be forever changed. UPDATE!
To the uninformed, NASCAR may seem like the last place where a technology like Twitter — created for and embraced by the kind of hip tech people who know which breakfast taco places have free wifi at SXSW — could possibly thrive. NASCAR, to them, is just cars driving in a circle.
But like baseball, NASCAR gets more interesting the more context you have. NASCAR's like a giant soap opera and therefore, fans thrive on information (Who is pitting? How is a car doing? What's the track condition?). While not always the most web-savvy, they may be the most information hungry sports fans outside of the Fantasy Baseball crowd. Just look at their apps.
Most drivers have Twitter accounts, and savvy fans flock to knowledgeable reporters like SBNation's Jeff Gluck and AP reporter Jenna Fryer, both of whom have more than 20K followers (how many AP reporters can say that?). Fox Sports' NASCAR anchor Mike Joy has over 16,000 followers. There's an unofficial NASCAR weatherman and a page for the unlucky Jet Drier that keeps the track dry. Usually.
Fans use the service, but something special happened last night that probably merged the technology and the sport in ways that are likely permanent. Or as permanent as anything involving technology.
Last night was the Daytona 500. The first race of the year. A big deal. Danica Patrick's debut in NASCAR's top series.
But an untimely rain delay pushed the race to Monday night in primetime and Fox, smartly I think, pre-empted an episode of House no one cared about and an episode of Alcatraz a few people would want to watch and showed the race in primetime.
This brought out a new audience who wouldn't normally watch the race. I'd planned to catch a bit of it but this definitely encouraged me to watch almost the whole thing. It didn't disappoint. There was a crash just two laps into the race involving Patrick.
Ultimately, there would be ten cautions in the race, but nothing to match the literally explosive power of a driver crashing into one of the jet driers that keep the track clear and causing a giant jet fireball.
Unplanned TV is often the best TV. No one was seriously hurt and the resulting video made for great television as anyone who switched over to Fox when they got bored with whatever they were watching saw only fire and confusion. Explosions are inherently sexy and tap into a deep part of our subconscious. Just ask Michael Bay.
Preliminary overnight tv-watching reports show the ratings increased from 7.8 before the accident to 8.8 afterwards, giving Fox its highest rated Monday night since probably The World Series.
So they we all are. Watching men fight a literal river of fire and then something even weirder happened. Popular NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski pulled a phone out of his pocket and took a pic from his now stopped car and posted it to Twitter.
Most people didn't suspect a driver circling the track at 200 mph might have a phone in his pocket. And that's what set off a Twitter firestorm. We suddenly had direct access to the thoughts of a driver during an event the commentators were calling the weirdest thing they'd ever seen in racing. This was beyond just listening to a driver's radio.
It was, as far as I can tell, unprecedented in modern racing. Keselowski was funny, charming, informative, interactive. A perfect spokesman for everything great about Twitter. How else could you explain all those people sitting around watching guys in jumpsuits sweep a track with Tide detergent?
And because it's the "Sprint Cup" there's already a decent push from Fox to get people to follower commentators, reporters, and everyone else on Twitter. Last night they went into overdrive. Suddenly the fire became less important and everyone was talking about Twitter. In the time that Keselowski was tweeting from the track he picked up 100K followers to push him over 200K followers. He now has 211,480.
I've asked Twitter for the full numbers, but I'm suspecting we'll find out it wasn't just NASCAR fans on Twitter who weren't already following Keselowski (he was already one of the most popular drivers on the service). Two groups, I think, padded the numbers.
First, there were NASCAR fans signing up for Twitter to find out what was going on and get in on the service they hadn't understood the importance of until just that moment.
Second, casual racing fans or non-fans watching this strange spectacle suddenly added him just to get in on the excitement. I was one of the latter and I had no idea another 99,999+ people were doing the same.
To make matters even stranger, the stoppage forced all of the drivers out of their cars and onto the track to talk it over. What did they talk about? Twitter.
Dave Blaney, the man thrust into first place because of the bizarre circumstances despite not winning a race in 397 starts, became a trending topic. He was suddenly being asked if he was on Twitter and not, you know, how does it feel to be one Florida thunderstorm away from winning one of the world's biggest races and forever changing your life?
And the memes! Oh so many memes. Our friends over at @SpeedSportLife — who normally tweet the entire 24 Hours of Le Mans but rarely a three-hour NASCAR race — were madly tweeting out images from our own commenters before we even noticed.
If you were watching the race and weren't on Twitter you were suddenly missing the latest information, the best jokes, and the inside views.
Eventually, the race would start again and Brad Keselowski's phone would go back into his pocket. A guy nobody knew would eventually lose to a guy who had already won once.
It doesn't matter. The outcome of this race is more than a victory for one driver or one team. Last night was the biggest merging of something that seems inevitable in retrospect.
NASCAR relies on short, timely bursts of information, which is exactly what Twitter does best. The rest of us just figured it out.
UPDATE: NASCAR PR informed us that the total number of Twitter users that signed up during the race was 30K, or a roughly 7% increase to what is now over 464K followers. NASCAR also added via Twitter that they weren't going to penalize Keselowski for his tweets and that they encourage other drivers to "use social media to express themselves as long as they do so without risking their safety or that of others."
Photo Credit: Getty, AP