Daron Williams, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and Dr. Jim A. Kuypers, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
We employ a Burkean perspective to examine the role of rhetoric in the sport of NASCAR. In particular, we explore the role that driver rhetoric plays in the mainstream success of the sport. We selected six representative television interviews by NASCAR drivers and subjected them to a pentadic analysis. For comparison purposes, we perform the same analysis on two interviews from each of three other major American professional sports – football, basketball, and baseball. Our findings suggest that rhetorical norms in NASCAR do differ from those norms of other major American sports, and that this distinction could possibly play a role in the marketing success of NASCAR.
NASCAR, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, is among the top spectator sports in America. It has $2.8 billion in television contracts, and a $750 million deal with Sprint for the naming rights of the top-level racing series. This is particularly impressive given that the sport evolved from the illegal pastime of running moonshine on the dusty back roads of the Southeastern US, and was only organized into official events beginning in the 1940’s. Even then, NASCAR failed to gain widespread popularity or a regular weekly television audience until the 1980’s.
In the years since, the sport has undergone a dramatic metamorphosis from Southern Saturday nights at the dirt track to multi-million dollar sponsorships and multi-billion dollar television contracts. One in three American adults follows the sport, and in 2006 more Fortune 500 companies—106—participated in NASCAR than in any other sport. Contrary to popular stereotypes, NASCAR’s fan base is more affluent than the general U.S. population: 42% earn $50,000 or more per year, and half of that fan base will purchase products specifically because the brand or company has a sponsorship in NASCAR. Aron Levin, Chris Joiner, and Gary Cameron studied the impact of NASCAR sponsorship on brand recall and attitudes toward brands among fans; they found that car sponsorship is more effective than regular television ads among fans, and the combination of television ads and car sponsorship was even more potent. Studies such as this prompted Larry DeGaris, director of the James Madison University Center for Sports Sponsorship to conclude, “NASCAR sponsorship is the best buy in marketing. The combination of awareness, favorability and effectiveness is unparalleled in the sports world or anywhere else.”
Despite its skyrocketing appeal, the few academic studies that have been done often focus on the business and marketing side of the sport. Little has been postulated academically as to how and why NASCAR is such a successful venture, or how communication plays a role in this success. With this in mind, we explore the rhetorical side of NASCAR’s success drawing upon the heuristic power of Kenneth Burke’s dramatistic perpective. We seek to better understand the Motives operating within and about NASCAR. Specifically we ask: How does the rhetoric of NASCAR contribute to its marketing success? How does the rhetoric of NASCAR differ from that of other major sports? Does the rhetoric of NASCAR indicate that the drivers serve different roles than athletes in the other major American sports? In order to accomplish this, we analyze interviews from professional athletes in other major American sports and compare the results with interviews given by top-level NASCAR drivers.
The dramatistic pentad is among Kenneth Burke’s most enduring theories. It originated as a tool Burke used to systematically dismantle and understand the bases of human conduct and motivation. Burke was initially interested in answering the question, “What is involved, when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it?” In order to answer this question, Burke began by distinguishing between action and motion – any object can potentially exhibit motion, but something, in order to have action, would have to have motive behind it. Motive is distinct from purpose. Purpose is why a person does something; motive is larger, more akin to the worldview of a person. According to Richard E. Crable and John J. Makay, motive “is to Burke a construct that, when combined with other such constructs, describes the totality of the compelling force within an event which explains why the event took place.” Burke’s dramatistic pentad, then, is a tool that he adapted from similar heuristics formulated by the likes of Aristotle to Talcott Parsons to get at the root of motive by deeply analyzing what is being communicated as a result of that motive.
The pentad involves the analysis of rhetorical artifacts by looking for five interrelated parts: act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. The scene equates to the temporal or spatial environment portrayed in the artifact; the act is what takes place within the artifact; the agent is the person who performs the act; the agency is the means, method, or instrument through which the agent performs the act; and the purpose indicates why the agent performs the act. The realization of each of these five interrelated elements can allow the critic to tease out the motives underlying the event.
These five elements must also be understood in a way that highlights and privileges their interconnected nature—any changing of a part changes the whole and possibly the other parts. One element must be understood in its relation to the other elements to determine the terministic screen—the specific filter—through which the communicator views the world. These two-element combinations are called pentadic ratios. For example, in act-scene or agent-scene, the scene functions as a container or a boundary that contains the action or the agent. In agency-purpose, the means (agencies) are adapted to justify the ends (purpose). Determining pentadic ratios helps the critic focus on a particular dominant aspect of the text.
According to Burke, “what we want is not terms that avoid ambiguity, but terms that clearly reveal the strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise.” One’s understanding of a pentadic element will by definition be influenced by the communicator’s perspective or existing philosophy of thought. Once again, Burke attempts to slightly clarify the muddy waters:
A portrait painter may treat the body as a property of the agent (an expression of personality), whereas materialistic medicine would treat it as ‘scenic,’ a purely ‘objective material’; and from another point of view it could be classed as an agency, a means by which one gets reports of the world at large. . . .War may be treated as an Agency, insofar as it is a means to an end; as a collective Act, subdivisible into many individual acts; as a Purpose, in schemes proclaiming a cult of war. For the man inducted into the army, war is a Scene . . . and in mythologies war is an Agent. . . .
David S. Birdsell offers more advice on dealing with the pentad:
Since the terms are convertible, critics are well served by experimenting with various treatments of the terms within the text under study in an effort to determine which formulation will provide the fullest explanation for the relationships between those terms in that text. . . . Non-obvious uses of pentadic terminology are well established.
Burke’s pentad certainly leaves room for interpretation, as does the rhetoric of NASCAR where the ambiguity of the terms and the room for interpretation can prove overwhelming. By using a pentadic analysis for this project, we hope to pull back the wizard’s curtain and reveal what is behind the scenes in NASCAR that allows drivers to speak the way they do, and what helps NASCAR to be the success that it is. Ideally, a “pentadic analysis allows the rhetorical critic to reveal how a discursive text works within the grammar of motives to effectively represent motives for rhetorical purposes,” and that is the crux of this project.
In the pages that follow, we use the pentad to generate insights about sports interviews in our quest for a fuller understanding of the motives that guide them. The unit of analysis for our investigation is the interview. In looking for terms of the pentad, we were careful to “look for ways in which … statements [by those interviewed] direct attention to particular pentadic terms, characterize those terms, and characterize terministic relationships.” Or, as Clarke Rountree suggested, the “rhetorical critic must take care to look not simply for terms that are ‘scenic’ (or ‘purposive’ or ‘agency-related,’ etc.) on their face, but for those that function within a particular grammar of motives as ‘scene’ (or ‘purpose’ or ‘agency,’ etc.).” In this manner, we looked “for the actual grammatical functions of terms for motives, not just their superficial connection to a terministic source.” Interview transcripts from NASCAR personalities are analyzed in order to establish what rhetorical practices are used. To provide a basis for comparison, interview samples from the professional level of each of the other major American sports—basketball, baseball, and American football—are analyzed as well. These sports were chosen because they represent, along with NASCAR, the top four traditionally American professional sports being watched on television today. Specifically, we look for motive in baseball, football, and basketball interviews. Next we look for motive in NASCAR interviews. Finally, we conclude by way of comparing the interviews and the motives we uncovered.
In order to establish the norms in athletic interviews, at least for the purposes of this essay, we first take a look at six interviews with stars from other major American sports. We make no claim that these interviews are exemplars or that they are fully representative of the majority of sports interviews in the sports in question. Interviews were chosen based upon their different situations, different time periods, different rhetors, and availability of complete interviews. To this end, we used our personal experience watching sports interviews to help us determine the suitability of these examples. They do not stand out in any particular way; for us, they represent average and common interviews, given in different situations.
The first case study is a post-game interview with a legendary football player, the late Walter Payton, immediately after his team, the Chicago Bears, triumphed in Super Bowl XX on January 26, 1986. The use of this interview can be likened to the NASCAR Victory Lane interview we will examine later—these types of interviews account for a large portion of the NASCAR interviews featured on television. Payton, asked if he thought the dream of winning the Super Bowl would ever come true, painted a picture of a hungry athlete being motivated by past losses: “It’s tough in the off-season, when you see people playing in the Super Bowl. You wonder and you think to yourself, ‘Are we ever going to get there and see what it feels like?’ It pushes you a little bit harder during that off-season to work and try to get there the following year.”
Payton’s scene is set during the off-season months, when players should be working harder physically than they do during the season—he was known for his amazingly difficult off-season conditioning program. The agent could be seen as the generic football player, being taunted by visions of the current champions. The agent is becoming motivated for an upcoming season—this process of becoming motivated would be the act. The agency, or the instrument that allows him to accomplish the act, can be interpreted as the fact that the player’s season is over – the idea of “loss” may be the best way to sum it up. After all, he wouldn’t be haunted by the torturous image of other people playing in the Super Bowl and hoisting the trophy if he were there himself holding it. Finally, the agent’s purpose in this snippet is for that player to come back and win the trophy next year, which, in this example, came to fruition in real life, causing the rhetor to reflect backwards. For Payton, it is this purpose that makes the off-season worth the extra work.
With his repeated use of the word “you,” Payton is emphasizing and re-emphasizing the importance of the agent in his interview—his “you” is Payton projecting the agent out to the audience, allowing the viewers to put themselves in the place of his agent and feel that void that motivates the agent to work harder and achieve success the following year. For this reason, the agent is the most dominant element in this example. Even later in the interview, when Payton refers to his team, his agent (himself) and co-agents (Chicago Bears teammates) remains dominant when he says, “This team had their minds made up after losing to San Francisco last year that we were going to win the Super Bowl this year.” After agent, we believe purpose is the next dominant element. In both the personal parts of the interview and the team-related parts, it is the purpose of coming back and winning next year, combined with the agency of loss, which is causing the act of motivation to occur within the agent(s). So we end with discovering an agent-purpose ratio.
Brett Favre provides our second NFL interview sample. Favre just completed a stellar 17-year career, 16 of those years spent as quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. During that time, Favre won one Super Bowl and set several career passing and touchdown records, including most wins for a quarterback and most passing touchdowns. This interview sample comes from what would prove to be his penultimate game, an unlikely comeback victory over the Seattle Seahawks on January 12, 2008. About the comeback victory, Favre said:
Well, it is tough to come back for any team, especially for us. We, in the last couple of years, haven’t had good experiences when we got behind, especially that way. I knew we had a lot of time left and if we could hold them in check on defense, which we did, it was a matter of us scoring some points and not turning the ball over and we did that.
Favre’s “we” and “us” indicate that he intends himself and his Packers teammates as the agents. What he describes is a construct of what the team has done and just did—what just occurred on the field—so the agent represents the dominant element here. The team shared the drive and goal of winning, which would serve as a common purpose, but it is the act of playing the game and winning that is more important than the purpose, scene, or agency. Therefore, this section of Favre’s interview represents an agent-act ratio.
Favre continues with the interview, though, and switches gears when asked a different question. Asked whether he’d prefer one team or another to win in the game that would decide who the Packers would play next (thus determining what location the next game would be played), Favre responds: “It would be great to play here again obviously. Haven’t won in Dallas, there’s always a first time, I hope. If Dallas wins this game, you know, we go down and give them another shot. The worst that can happen is we lose, but we’d love to play here and we’ll just see what happens.” In this snippet, the scene makes an appearance as a significant element, as Favre would like for his team to play the next game at the Packers’ home stadium. He then indicates that he does not care so much about the location because his team has reached this advanced level of the playoffs. So while the scene is mentioned here more often than the agent or the act of playing, qualitatively it appears that more emphasis is still being placed upon the agents performing the act (Packers playing football) as the most important part of the interview. This would continue to support this as an example of an agent-act ratio, internally as well as externally.
The next example of an interview from a major American sport comes courtesy of baseball player Roger “The Rocket” Clemens, a possibly hall-of-fame bound pitcher (depending largely on the outcome of the recent steroid allegations against him) for the New York Yankees. Providing the backdrop for this interview is that Clemens had just re-joined the Yankees after a stint in the minor leagues—not because his pitching wasn’t good enough for the majors, but because he sat out the early part of the season. He had just come off the mound after his first outing of the season when he offered this to reporters: “Well, I’ve worked real hard the last couple of days. Obviously it was a long time in between [starts]. . . . It’s a lot of work, but you know I wouldn’t have it any other way. . . . Obviously I want to have better performances when I’m out there. Some will be tougher than others, but I guess that’s just the way it is.”
Clemens leaves little doubt that he is the agent. The agent is working hard (act) in order to obtain the goal of playing well (purpose). Like Walter Payton’s example, Clemens provides the audience with a glimpse into an agent who is striving hard to accomplish a goal, but there is a more direct link between working hard and meeting success in Clemens’s example, while Payton’s agent’s act is not the work, but the gaining of inspiration to then perform the work.
Clemens continues by saying, “There’s things in my delivery I feel I can clean up as we get down the road here and hopefully they will help my delivery and the way I release pitches…it’s real important to what I’m trying to do right now.” Again, little or nothing is said here of the scene and agency—the scene is left assumed, and is basically exactly what was described immediately before the quote. The agency, the instrument or means through which Clemens performs the act, in this case might be the New York Yankees, again unmentioned, but the informed audience likely knows this. It is Clemens’s purpose that moves this text; that drives the agent to perform the act, but the agent’s act of working hard is more important in Clemens’ interview. So we end with discovering an agent-act ratio.
Josh Beckett, a young pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, provides the next example. This interview occurred immediately after Beckett had delivered an heroic game-winning performance for the Red Sox in game 5 of the American League Championship Series on October 18, 2007. The Red Sox season was over if they lost to the Cleveland Indians, so the win in Cleveland’s home park was a major victory; it allowed the Red Sox to eventually win that series and the next to become world champions. Beckett had what appeared to be a tough start to the game when he gave up a run in the first inning, but he recovered to take the win. Asked about what changed between the first inning and the rest of the game, Beckett replied:
I don’t know. I thought I executed my pitches pretty well in the first inning too. Just unfortunate to give up a bloop hit to a guy that’s…good hitters find a way to get hits, and Grady’s one of those guys. You know, you give up a bloop hit and they manufacture a run. That’s part of the deal. It’s tough because we came out and scored a run in the first, obviously you want to go out and shut them down.
Beckett’s dialogue indicates himself as the agent. Beckett refers mostly to himself as the agent, free of co-agents, until the end of this section of the interview, when he refers to the offense of his team, in which he does not participate, as “we.” Beckett speaks about himself “executing pitches, “giving up a bloop hit,” and wanting to “go out and shut them down,” thus indicative of an agent-act ratio. Beckett continues with, “It basically comes down to the same thing no matter where you’re playing. If you’re playing in the back yard with your buddies, it comes down to executing pitches. They hit it at some guys, guys made some great plays, and scored enough runs to win.” Note the similarities to Brett Favre’s interview earlier, in which Favre spoke of not caring where the Packers played, just that they played. Beckett seems to be saying something congruent here. It does not matter at what level a pitcher plays the game of baseball, it matters only that the pitcher properly executes the intended pitches. The bottom line, for Beckett, is that his team scored enough runs, and he kept the other team from scoring enough runs, so the Red Sox won the game: an agent-act ratio.
We provide as our final example two NBA interviews with Carmelo Anthony and Lebron James. In an interview about his team’s chances in the upcoming season, Anthony offers this: “The sky’s the limit. We’re right there with the San Antonio’s, Phoenix’s, you know, Dallas. Nobody ain’t (sic) going to say it, but I’ll be the first one to say it, that we’re right there with them guys when we do that.” Grammar aside, Anthony is communicating that his team, the Denver Nuggets (agent), is near the top of the league. The other teams represent counter-agents, described by Burke as “enemies” of the agent. The Nuggets hope to achieve what the other league-leading teams have achieved (purpose). This interview, as evidenced by his claim that no one else will say it, could also be viewed as a warning to other teams—Look out, top teams: We’re coming to get you! So we end with discovering an agent-purpose ratio.
Also under examination is an interview by Anthony’s counterpart, Lebron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers. After game 5 of the 2007 NBA Finals, in which James’ Cavaliers defeated the Detroit Pistons in double-overtime, James, who hit several big shots, said: “I wanted to try to get that last shot but I kind of seen (sic) there was an opening and I wanted to attack and I was able to get to the lane, avoid a couple defenders and get the ball up on the backboard…this was a great performance by our team, but it wouldn’t be possible if we didn’t come out and play as hard as we did” (reference).
The winded James is clearly holding his agent and co-agents, himself and his team, above other elements here. It is his desire and will to win that allows him to make the big shot he describes. It is also his team’s effort that allowed them to win as a team. It seems, then, that the act of playing hard would play the secondary role here, leading to an agent-act ratio.
Athletes, whether speaking about their long road to a championship or their hard work, are acting for themselves, by themselves, and generally speaking of themselves or their teams as agents—they use their words and their phrases to get across their own messages. That is to say, they are choosing their own responses to the particular questions asked. Let there be no mistake, if an athlete were to say something he or she should not, such as a curse word or a personal tirade against the referees, that athlete’s team or league might penalize him or her monetarily or with a suspension. This happened to Shaquille O’Neal in the NBA in 2003, when he was suspended one game and fined $250,000 for saying two curse words during a live interview. In that they have to remain straight-laced and present a particular image to the public, these athletes are toeing the company line to some extent, but with minimal direct external influence upon what they say in response to reporters’ questions.
We suggest that it is in this area that the largest difference exists between the rhetoric of NASCAR and that of other sports. Drivers are on the same level as other major athletes: they are rich, they are famous, they have tens-, or hundreds-of-thousands, or even millions of fans, and many of the drivers can count on having microphones in their faces around every corner. Some drivers, such as Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, and Dale Earnhardt, have achieved mythic status. When the red light comes on above the camera lens, though, these drivers speak a language entirely different from what is spoken on football fields, baseball diamonds, and basketball courts around the country. To clarify, all of these sports have their terminologies that are specific to one sport alone – “free throw,” “ground-rule double,” and “safety” are examples of sport-specific terms in the other sports, just like “tight” and “restrictor plate” are sport-specific to NASCAR. It is not these sport-specific terms that set NASCAR apart, but rather the fact that every sound bite has the potential to turn into a fully developed sponsor advertisement. In other words, the money (aka the sponsors) often speaks through the drivers.
We move now to looking at six interview excerpts from popular NASCAR drivers. The drivers interviewed—Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Martin Truex, Jr., Reed Sorenson, and Dave Blaney—represent different attitudes, experience levels, and success levels within the sport. Newman is a talented younger driver (age 30 as of this writing) who has won 12 races since joining the circuit full-time in 2002, but has never finished better than 6th in the championship standings. Gordon has driven in every race at NASCAR’s highest level since 1993, he has won four Winston/Nextel/Sprint Cup Championships, and he has won, on almost every track the circuit visits, 81 total races (6th all time, and by-far the most of any active driver). He is generally ranked among the most popular drivers in the series, as well as the single most hated—he has the second-most fans behind Dale Earnhardt Jr., but more fans single him out as the main despised opponent than any other driver. Stewart is a two-time champion who has raced regularly since 1999. He is known as a hot-tempered driver who typically never shies away from confrontation on or off the track. Truex Jr. is a popular newcomer to the sport, joining the highest level in 2006. Truex drives for Dale Earnhardt, Inc., and with the recent departure of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. from his late father’s team, Truex is now carrying the flag for the organization as their best hope for the coveted championship in the near future. Sorenson is another relative newcomer to the top level. He has yet to meet with the success that Truex has found, posting no wins yet, but he has posted several wins in what is now called the Nationwide Series, which would be the “minor leagues” of NASCAR. The final driver, last and some would say least, is Dave Blaney. Blaney drove his first top-level NASCAR race in 1992, and has driven full-time since 2000, but in his mid-40’s has yet to win a race. His role at the track is that he is “there,” but is not typically considered a force with which to be reckoned.
These particular interviews were chosen based upon several factors. Of the hundreds of drivers that have competed at the highest level of NASCAR, past and present, we wanted to begin our investigation with six drivers who are representative of the field of modern drivers. We chose these six drivers based upon their diversity among current drivers – the middle-of-the-pack, not-too-young, not-too-old Ryan Newman, the top-notch and highly marketable Jeff Gordon, the fiery Tony Stewart, the young up-and-comers Martin Truex Jr. and Reed Sorenson, and the long-suffering Dave Blaney – we also looked for drivers who had complete interviews available for viewing. We also looked for interviews given in different situations on and around race day. With a combined 30 odd years of NASCAR viewing experience between us, we are comfortable suggesting that these interviews represent the norms typically expressed in NASCAR interviews. We also took care to ensure that the interviews took place at different times during the 2006 and 2007 seasons, as well as at different tracks.
The first statement under review comes courtesy of Ryan Newman, driver of the #12 Alltel Dodge Charger, after winning the pole position (known as the Bud Pole Award) at New Hampshire Speedway on July 16, 2006. Minutes before he was to step into his car to begin the race, a reporter asked a question about his team’s good momentum for the weekend, and he replied: “This is a fun racetrack. We’ve always run well here. We just need to take the Alltel Dodge, put it in race trim and make it as fast, and I think we can do that. I’d like to thank Matt, all the guys back at the shop. Penske Jasper racing engines got down the straightaway great. We’ve got a whole field of Chevrolets right behind us. We want to keep the Dodges up there, so we’ll just do the best we can.”
Here we have a situation where the driver is speaking in terms of “we.” This could represent Newman and his team (pit crew, crew chief, spotter, etc.) as the agent and co-agents—a single entity striving for one common goal. In this case, that goal, or the purpose, is to do well in the race, with the racetrack on raceday representing the scene. The act is getting the car ready, meaning properly tuned and set up, for success on the track. The agencies, in this view, are the sponsors. Mentioned are Alltel, Dodge (twice), Penske, and Jasper—all companies who contribute huge sums of money or services to Newman’s cause. Alltel is the main sponsor on the car’s hood, Dodge is the maker of the car, Penske Racing owns the car, and Jasper builds special engines for this team – Penske-Jasper engines. Chevrolet is also mentioned, but only to provide contrast – an “us vs. them” dichotomy that paints Dodge as the good guys and Chevrolets as the bad guys.
Viewed from this perspective, Ryan Newman could be seen as the author of his own statements. Like athletes in the other sports, Newman responds to the question how he best sees fit. NASCAR representatives are not standing behind the camera telling him to make sure that he mentions these companies. However, Newman knows that these mentions will satisfy the companies – after all, his statement is being broadcast to over 75 million fans in North America alone. NASCAR has ingrained this system of speech into its drivers so that they make “shameless plugs” fit naturally into conversations and interviews.
Or is this interview something completely different? The previous layout could describe the interview, but does it necessarily? Taking the convertibility of the pentadic terms into account, let us now reconsider Newman’s interview from another angle, that of an external application of the pentad. If sponsors have such an influence on what is being said, then let us consider them the agents, and Newman and his team as the agency. The sponsors are speaking through the “instrument” of Ryan Newman in order to advertise themselves (act). The scene is the same as before, but the purpose is to put money in the sponsors’ pockets.
In the case of Ryan Newman’s interview, we believe this view gives us a more accurate look into the motive underpinning Newman’s utterances. Given the camera time for a positive reaction, he felt compelled to ensure that his sponsors were given airtime. It is this compulsion, rooted in the need to appease sponsors, that allowed him to say what he said, and thus Newman could be viewed as not his own agent. Yes, the message is coming from Ryan Newman, but in order to maintain the good will of sponsors and NASCAR, Newman chose his words differently than he might if he were in a different situation, relegating him to the role of agency.
That goodwill between driver and sponsor is exemplified in Newman’s later comments, when asked about plans for a dinner to celebrate his pole position: “I didn’t buy last time, the guys from Mobil bought dinner, so it might be my turn tonight.” Not only did Mobil garner a sponsor mention after being left out earlier, but these comments indicate a personal relationship between Newman’s team and the good folks at Mobil Oil.
Considering an agency-purpose pentadic ratio here, Newman was adapted by the sponsors to serve the purpose of bringing in money to the sponsors, which makes perfect sense given the text being shown in this light. Thus an internal application of the pentad, focusing on Newman’s comments, produces an agent-purpose ratio, and external application of the pentad, focusing on the situation surrounding Newman, produces an agency-purpose ratio.
To be completely fair, not all NASCAR interviews feature sponsor mentions in such a light, as this next interview demonstrates. Jeff Gordon, the circuit’s active wins leader and one of its most popular (and also disliked) drivers, can often be counted on to speak in a similar sponsor-mentioning fashion. But in his April 21, 2007 interview after winning at Phoenix, Gordon’s six minutes of airtime fail to produce a single sponsor mention. Keep in mind that this victory was his 76th, tying him with NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt for 6th all-time. An excerpt follows: “It was so hard to pass, but to be honest our car was so awesome on that last run and it was pretty awesome on short runs all night long. Tony (Stewart) was a little bit loose through 1 and 2 so I was able to stay close enough to him where he got loose again and I got underneath him. . . .”
Often, this would be a great opportunity for Gordon to extol the virtues of his “Dupont Chevy,” but he did not—for background purposes, Jeff Gordon has long been the “golden boy” of the sport, partially due to his clean-cut, articulate image and high level of marketability outside of the “typical” NASCAR realm. This shows that NASCAR and sponsors do not always pervade the speech of the drivers, even those drivers in the best position to advertise for their sponsors. Gordon represents the agent here, trying to pass another car (act), the battle for position is the scene, and his “awesome car” is the agency. The fusion of Tony Stewart and his car acts as a counter-agent, and the purpose of both agent and counter-agent is to win the battle for position and the race. This would best be described from an agent-agency ratio, as the scene is all-encompassing here, and it is the car that allows Gordon to complete the pass. This interview compares well with those from the other sports, because it features the athlete as agent.
An external analysis of Gordon’s comments yields a similar result. Again, the knowledgeable NASCAR follower will notice Gordon’s lackof sponsorship mentions for a 6-minute interview as an anomaly, perhaps in this case due to his excitement at having tied Dale Earnhardt – noted by many as the greatest driver of all time until his career, and life, were cut short at the Daytona 500 in February, 2001 – for 6th place in all time wins with 76. Gordon had also not previously won a race at Phoenix International Raceway, so this victory represented a “monkey off the back” victory for him as well, yet another factor that may have influenced Gordon’s remarks. However, with all surrounding factors in mind, it is still Gordon and his “awesome car” that comprise the main part of his interview. Gordon’s comments, taken by themselves as well as in consideration of the entire situation surrounding them, seem to be completely congruent with each other. Thus an internal application of the pentad, focusing on Gordon’s comments, produces an agent-agency ratio, and external application of the pentad, focusing on the situation surrounding Gordon, also produces an agent-agency ratio.
Another kind of NASCAR interview is the angry interview, which occurs with relative frequency in this sport. Tony Stewart is a driver who has been known to speak his mind, and has garnered many fines in the past for his lack of self-censorship. In contrast to Newman’s pole position interview and Gordon’s from Victory Lane, Stewart’s interview takes place after a race in which he wrecked early due to a rookie driver, Clint Bowyer: “The problem is they don’t learn give and take in the Busch Series, and they run the Busch Series on Saturday. . . they come here to Pocono today and they’re still racing like they’re in Martinsville in the Busch Series. This is not the Busch Series, it’s the Nextel Cup series.”
Internally, Stewart’s comments reflect his frustration with young, inexperienced drivers congesting the track and making it difficult for experienced drivers like himself to succeed. Stewart’s agencies are the rookie drivers – they comprise his “they,” to which Stewart repeatedly refers. Stewart continues, “If they would all learn a little give and take then none of us would have been in this position. I mean Carl [Edwards] ended up with a bad day because of it, the five car ended up with a bad day…so four cars had a bad day because one guy couldn’t be a little bit patient in the beginning.” The rookies’ (especially Bowyer’s) acts are their poor driving habits. These two facets make up the most important part of Stewart’s comments from an internal perspective, thus leading to an agent-act ratio.
Stewart mentions Busch four times in this excerpt. Busch is a beer company that, until Nationwide took over sponsorship at the end of 2007, provided the title sponsorship for the “minor league” series of NASCAR. Stewart also mentions Nextel, the title sponsor of the top-level racing league at the time of this interview in 2006. Clearly, Stewart’s purpose here is not to promote the sponsors, as we’ve discussed. He is genuinely angry about the rookies who race poorly in his view. This is where NASCAR has done something no other sport has done: having title sponsors that denote entire leagues transforms these sponsors’ names to normal, everyday adjectives. Stewart is not trying to make money for Busch or Nextel, but he is short on options of other adjectives he could use to describe the different series. Therefore, though he is angry and does not necessarily care about sponsor dollars at the moment, Busch and Nextel still get product mentions for their brands nonetheless, something that does not typically happen in other major American sports. The underlying verbiage that NASCAR has put in place—the nomenclature of their top two series—has once again turned the driver into an agency instead of an agent. Even in the heat of anger, Tony Stewart has participated in a live-action commercial that has more viewers than any regular-season NFL, NBA, or Major League Baseball game. Like Ryan Newman’s interview earlier, then, Tony Stewart does not represent his own agent when surrounding events are taken into consideration. Thus an internal application of the pentad, focusing on Stewart’s comments, produces an agent-act ratio, and an external application of the pentad, focusing on the situation surrounding Stewart, produces an agency-purpose ratio.
This NASCAR excerpt provides a glimpse at another style of interview. Martin Truex Jr., a 3rd year Nextel Cup driver, casually talks about his main sponsor, Bass Pro Shops, while sitting at a table speaking to interviewers. Asked about his relationship with Bass Pro Shops, Truex replies: “It’s incredible. They send me hunting if I want to go. John Morris, the owner/founder, is just such a cool guy. . . . A lot of things they do at their stores and their conservation efforts are things I really believe in. It’s just a perfect fit for me, it’s really cool.”
This is an entirely different kind of interview from the ones previously explored. Truex is on national TV, but not during or directly before a race. He is sitting behind a table speaking almost conversationally with the broadcasters and audience. He is also not being asked about his car or his chances of victory for the week—he was just asked a specific question about his sponsor. Truex’s comments seem to indicate Truex himself as the agent, who gets to hunt (act) and other things through the agency of his partnership with Bass Pro Shops. The most important elements would be Truex as agent and Bass Pro Shops as agency, so this would indicate an agent-agency ratio.
To consider all facets surrounding this interview, though, is to reveal a very similar motive to Newman and Stewart before. Not only is this a free “commercial spot” for Bass Pro Shops, but Truex actually makes it sound as if the company is a personal crusade of his own. He speaks in terms of personal friendship with the owner, and talks about the good works of the company—the word “conservation” alone carries a very positive meaning that goes far beyond the racetrack. However, these good feelings would not likely be flowing in such a way if Bass Pro Shops were not Truex’s main sponsor. Therefore, Truex is once again serving as agency—he is the conduit through which the good will message about Bass Pro Shops is traveling, and the purpose once again involves air time and cash flow. We feel this is no coincidence. Thus an internal application of the pentad, focusing on Truex’s comments, produces an agent-agency ratio, and external application of the pentad, focusing on the situation surrounding Stewart, produces an agency-purpose ratio.
This interview represents another phenomenon that is relatively unique to NASCAR coverage. Of the sports under study here, only baseball is as weather-sensitive as NASCAR, and when a baseball game is under a rain delay, coverage often shifts to something else. When a NASCAR race is under a rain delay, the coverage typically stays at the track, at least until the race is postponed until the next day, if that occurs. Otherwise, the broadcasters find themselves with a good deal of airtime to fill, and driver interviews are a common way to accomplish that.
In this case, young driver Reed Sorenson is being interviewed during a delay during the second race of the 2008 season in California. Coming off a remarkable 5th-place finish the week before in the biggest race of NASCAR’s season, the Daytona 500, Sorenson was asked about his momentum and excitement level heading into the upcoming race: “It’s always fun to start out the season good and it gets everybody pumped up. Now everybody’s ready to get this car out on the track and see what we got. We got pink numbers this weekend, we got an Energizer Bunny on the hood so we’re pretty excited – not too excited about this rain right now.”
Internally, Sorenson’s comments are agent-focused. His use of terms such as “everybody” and “we” indicate that he and his co-agents, the members of his team, are excited about having a good car and want to get going. In this case, the second element in focus might be considered the scene. The track is referenced, and the excitement revolves around getting the car out on the track. Thus, an internal application of the pentad leads one to view this as an agent-scene ratio.
Externally, Sorenson manages to slip in a sponsor mention, and none-too-smoothly, in our opinion. The mention of the pink numbers and the Energizer Bunny don’t seem to fit in with the rest of his comments, making the mention appear forced. This would further support the idea of Sorenson as agency instead of agent – Sorenson was somehow compelled to mention a particular sponsor during the interview, whether it flowed with the rest of the interview or not. Thus, control over the language used would fall with an over-arching agent for some given purpose. In this case, the hidden agent would be either NASCAR or the sponsor itself, relegating Sorenson to the position of agency, and rendering an agency-purpose ratio.
Dave Blaney represents a unique interview because, though he is a long-time driver and a regular on the circuit, he has never won a race at the top level, has only garnered three top-five finishes, and is not considered one of the most popular drivers. Basically, this interview occurred because Blaney won a pole position in 2007 for the New Hampshire race, representing only the second pole of his career.”
After posting the fastest time so far, then having to wait until all other drivers had finished qualifying, Blaney was interviewed immediately after seeing he’d won the pole:
It wasn’t that bad. We were just happy with the lap, if it ended up on the pole, great. We’ve just been happy with that car all day. Anything in the top 10 we were gonna be pleased with after practice. You know, it’s just a big credit to the whole Cat team and…such a good race car here today and they’ve been getting better and better cars every week the more testing we do, so…big confidence booster for everybody on our team.
As in several interviews before, Blaney’s use of “we” indicates that, internally, agent and co-agents are the focal point of the interview. His racing team is pleased with the car and the results of the qualifying period. The qualifying period, the lap, the practice, and the “here today” are all encompassed within the scene of the New Hampshire track, so it would stand as a logical conclusion that the scene would make up the secondary element in this interview. Thus, our internal investigation ends up with an agent-scene ratio.
Externally, this interview runs along the same lines as many before. Considering the surrounding circumstances, one cannot separate Blaney’s intentions from the agent-scene ratio, but again, a higher agent influences the interview here. Blaney’s own intention is to hold his team and their satisfaction above all other elements, but when pressed for an adjective to assist in identifying his own co-agents, the team is called the “Cat team.” Blaney’s sponsor is Caterpillar, the construction equipment manufacturer, so like in previous examples, the sponsor becomes an adjective which helps form team identity.
Similarly, later in the interview, Blaney addresses the improvements of his team: “It’s just another step along the way. Hopefully our team will keep improving and all the Toyota teams will keep improving, which I think they have. You know, next year at this time hopefully we’ve got a lot more to talk about.” Toyota provides the nameplate for Blaney’s car, making his and some other teams “Toyota teams.” This provides yet another example of sponsor mentions as descriptive terms. Therefore, viewed externally, Dave Blaney’s interview produces another agency-purpose ratio.
Certainly there are no absolute rules in sports interviews—even the most “agency-oriented” drivers, such as Jeff Gordon, do not serve as agencies all the time. Conversely, we believe that there does exist some of the time, some kind of “in-game” product placement or mention by players of the other sports. One famous example involved former San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens’s infamous 2002 “Sharpie in the sock” incident: after scoring a touchdown, Owens pulled a Sharpie out of his sock, signed the football, and handed it to someone in the stands. This situation, however, did not result from Owens’s affiliation with the Sharpie company—at that time there was no financial relationship between the company and the athlete. We realize also that all of the major American sports leagues are money-based. We do not propose that NASCAR is the only sport with a love of money; we do, however, suggest that NASCAR promotes itself in additional and different fashions. It is, after all, the prototypical American family business, having been privately owned and operated by the same family since its inception, whereas the other sports leagues constitute an amalgam of smaller businesses that fit under one governing body. In the other leagues, some teams can flourish while others suffer, but the league will go on. In NASCAR, it is truly all or nothing.
To follow up on the questions posed at the beginning of the article, we have discussed how NASCAR is a marketing success because of a huge fan base that pays attention to sponsorships and buys products accordingly. We have also shown that the rhetoric of NASCAR does contribute to this phenomenon by outwardly promoting sponsors’ brands through the drivers, as well as cleverly associating entire levels of professional racing with particular sponsor names (Nextel, Sprint, Busch, etc.) so that drivers sometimes push products without even thinking about it. Finally, we have shown that the rhetoric of NASCAR differs from the other major American sports in that drivers often function as agencies rather than agents when they speak.
By analyzing the interviews we “sized up” the situation; in doing so, we discerned how “their structure and outstanding ingredients,” were named, and named “in a way that contains an attitude toward them.” It is with these structures, ingredients, and attitudes that we are concerned. For within them lies the motive underpinning the interviews, and in this motive lies perhaps a better understanding of how the interviews functioned to help secure NASCAR’s marketing success. This motive is not the same as the stated purpose of the athletes and drivers, but instead represents a much larger force. In short, we have teased out of the interviews elements of the pentad, and each of these elements represents a motivational point of view. Each dominant element of the pentad suggests a particular worldview at work behind the scenes, acting upon the interviewees, and helping to shape their interaction with their audience.
Our readings of the non-NASCAR interviews revealed ratios with agent as the dominant term. Additionally, focusing on the actual statements of the NASCAR drivers produced similar results; all drivers exhibited pentadic ratios with agent dominating. The stress on agent indicates a philosophical idealism is active within the discourse. As Richard E. Crable and John J. Makay write, “the featuring of a term implicitly features the motives within that term. Thus, idealism features “agent” because the idealist believes that the agent’s purposive motion is controlled by the agent’s attitudes, values, opinions, and prejudices.” According to Burke, idealism involves “ ‘any theory which maintains the universe to be throughout the work of reason and mind.’ ” In philosophy, it is any “system of thought . . . in which the object of external perception is held to consist, either in itself, or as perceived, of ideas”
The stress on agent does provide an avenue to examine the mindset of the professional athletes examined here, although in moments of speculation we believe that given the representativeness of our samples, we could generalize to professional sports interviews in general. Be that as it may, “the unadulteratedly idealistic philosophy starts and ends in the featuring of properties belonging to the term, agent. Idealistic philosophies think in terms of the ‘ego,’ the ‘self,’ the ‘super-ego,’ ‘consciousness,’ ‘will.’ . . . [V]ariants in esthetic theory stress such terms as ‘sensibility,’ ‘expression,’ ‘self-expression,’ consciousness’” and so on. Burke suggested that idealism, because of its stress on agent, “leads readily into both individual and group psychology.” We do as well, believing that by (un-)knowingly stressing agent, these athletes present themselves, and by extension their peers, as autonomous actors in the world. They alone take responsibility for their actions, their successes. Whether or not their purpose is to market a product or sell themselves, the results are the same: the cult of personality holds sway.
Certainly the drivers featured some pentadic terms over others, and these are readily apparent when examining to the interviews. However, when one looks beyond the immediacy of the interviews, looking instead to what Crable and Makay call the interrelationships existing among all of the factors in a given situation,” we find what Burke called “the strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise.” For when examining the external situation in which the driver rhetoric participated, we discovered a shift in pentadic ratios, one that highlighted agency as the dominant term.
When discourse features agency, a pragmatic philosophy is at hand, one “concerned with practical consequences or values.” Writing of William James, who said that “pragmatism is ‘a method only,’ ” Bernard L. Brock, Robert L Scott, and James W. Chesebro point out that “he goes on to indicate that consequence, function, what it is good for, and the difference it will make to you and me are pragmatic evaluations. However, pure pragmatism goes beyond James to transcend purpose, as in the applied sciences, when the method is built into the instrument itself. At this point agency becomes the focus of the entire means-ends relationship.”
Agency acts in some sense analogous to instrument, and is closely linked with purpose. That is, as Burke pointed out, each time one “announces some view of human ends,” there will be required “a corresponding doctrine of means.” Thus it comes as no surprise to us that of twelve dominant ratios examined for these interviews, six of the ratios end with purpose, and that five of these are linked with agency as the dominant term. Importantly, this linking with ends suggests the “doctrine that an idea can be understood in terms of its practical consequences; hence, the assessment of the truth or validity of a concept or hypothesis according to the rightness or usefulness of its practical consequences.” The NASCAR sales pitch brought into the interview process hints at both a conscious and unconscious means for achieving specific ends.
Offered as support for this point is that the drivers who are the most successful agencies maintain the big-money sponsorships regardless of their “athletic” prowess on the track. In a sport in which obtaining a major sponsor is especially crucial to success (and vice-versa), and in which sponsors often pull out of deals with under-performing drivers, being a successful salesperson at this level can aid drivers in keeping their jobs. A case in point is Michael Waltrip, who hasn’t won a race since 2003 and finished 37th in points in 2006. Waltrip maintains a strong bond with main sponsor NAPA Auto Parts, even taking them with him when he changed team ownership after the 2006 season. Bad finishes continue to plague Waltrip, who only qualified for 14 of 2007’s 36 races, placing in the top 10 only twice. Nevertheless, a recent article has him third in the “Most Popular Driver” list, behind only Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Waltrip’s charisma and notoriety as a humorous and effective pitchman for his sponsors has not only kept him a multi-million dollar sponsor for many years, but has also kept him near the top of the list in popularity among fans.
Certainly, athletes in other sports have multi-million dollar sponsorships. Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Reggie Bush are all in the top 25 of Forbes’s “The World’s Top-Earning Athletes of 2007” list, and a large portion of their earnings come from sponsorships, not salaries. The questions to ask, though, are (1) how many of them would still be starters or even in the league at all if their game performances were considered to be well below average for that level of play, (2) how many times do these athletes push their sponsors during on-field interviews, and (3) how many would still maintain their sponsorships if their level of play slipped to the point that they were rarely starters? The answers, we suspect, are obvious.
To further this point, one can also look to the television commercial to hypothetically illustrate the agent vs. agency differences in the rhetoric of NASCAR and other sports. If Lebron James is hawking a product in a television commercial, he is using his individual agent status to decide what product to support and how to advertise it. You will not see Lebron James hawking a product out of “obligation” or “necessity” – he will always have a say in what he promotes. In contrast, NASCAR is corporatized to the point that drivers may not even have a choice in a similar situation. Reed Sorenson will certainly participate in promotional activities on behalf of his sponsors – it is part of his job. However, Sorenson himself did not choose his sponsor(s) – that is left to those who are in charge of his “team,” meaning those in charge of the organization to which he belongs, which includes other drivers and their individual car teams. In this way, the NASCAR driver is sublimated into the marketing process without active autonomy to truly make his/her own decisions. Sure, if Sorenson is being asked to promote a product he does not wish to promote, he has the freedom as an American to quit his job rather than “lower” himself to the level of an inferior product, but out of respect for his bosses and his own financial interests, most promotional activities, regardless of the product, are of the ilk which he “can’t refuse.” We believe this distinction even further illustrates the discrepancy between the typical agent-centered American sport and agency-focused NASCAR.
Interestingly, this same agency-centered phenomenon analogizes to the concept of the “cyborg,” the meshing of man and machine. Not only are NASCAR drivers physically meshing with machine to make the sum greater than the value of the individual components – neither is capable of doing his/her/its job without the other – but the drivers are also incorporated into the “Machine,” in the sense that they are subsumed into the capitalist system of advertising and Big Media. Burke, like other thinkers including Stephen Hawking, would caution us against accepting this phenomenon, to say the least. Certainly the stars of agent-centered sports could be said to be participating in this same money-driven machine as well, but again, with their status as relatively autonomous agents, they are perhaps more willing and potentially judicious participants than their NASCAR counterparts.
The “athlete as agency” viewpoint is likely not one that will pass without controversy, given that the athletes’ intentions are not always reflected by utilizing it (see Tony Stewart). However, though it may spark questions about our analysis, it is the same Tony Stewart interview that also helps best exemplify the concept’s truth—NASCAR has set itself and its sponsors up in a way that sometimes mentioning them is easier than not mentioning them. The sponsors have, in a way, “idiot-proofed” their entire racing establishment by associating everything with product placement. In this way, even the most irate driver cannot help but further the cause of the NASCAR establishment by inadvertently providing particular products with valuable advertising. Though this phenomenon does not always occur as a product of the driver’s intent, it occurs nonetheless, causing the driver to serve as more of a means of communication than an active, self-serving communicator. Through subtleties such as this, and more outward plugs such as the “rolling billboards” that race each weekend, 36 weeks a year, NASCAR continues to ensure its financial success through the use of rhetoric.
The authors wish to thank to Jeffrey Black, owner of Black Sheep Reputations, LLC for graciously agreeing to an interview. As a media coach with several NASCAR drivers as clients, Black’s information was very helpful in the formation of the article, even though it was not directly referenced. We also thank the editor, Andrew King, for his insightful comments.