FORT WORTH — It only took a few seconds for Brad Keselowski pull out his cell phone, snap the photograph and post it on Twitter.
Keselowski, who was standing next to his car on the backstretch at Daytona International Speedway in February, showed fans his up-close view of the monstrous fire that was produced when Juan Pablo Montoya's car broke and crashed into a truck pulling jet dryer.
And as soon as Keselowski's tweet made it to the television broadcast, he began to add followers by the thousands.
It quickly became the most famous tweet in the NASCAR world and beyond, but its occurrence was nothing out of the ordinary, even at the sport's highest level.
Sprint Cup drivers were already the most accessible people among the country's top professional sports, and social media has only opened the door to their lives a crack more.
“Fans want to be part of the sport and see what we're doing,” said Greg Biffle, who will try to increase his Sprint Cup points lead in Saturday night's Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. “They've got access like no other sport.
“With Twitter or Facebook, fans have the chance to ask us direct questions periodically, and you get to see what fans are thinking, what they feel like, and it's nice to have that opportunity.”
The social media explosion was a natural step for NASCAR, which prides itself on the visibility and public connection the drivers have with their fans.
And as the drivers become even more visible, their true personalities begin to show through a little more.
“Take Matt Kenseth, for instance,” said Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage, who is heavily involved in social media. “He's a quiet, shy guy who doesn't have a huge profile, despite the fact that he's won a Cup championship and two Daytona 500s.
“But Matt is one of the most sarcastic people, and with Twitter, fans are finding out that he's hilarious. And they wouldn't have thought that from the guy they see interviewed on television at the races, because he just doesn't have a lot to say.”
Longtime Sprint Cup driver Michael Waltrip is working with Emerson Fitipaldi and others as part of Motorsport.com, a new social media website targeted directly at auto racing fans of any kind. The site has insider content from experts like Waltrip, but is built around a strong level of interaction with the readers.
“Social media has shown us that there are ways to communicate with our fans that we never thought possible,” said Waltrip, who is working as a team owner, broadcaster and part-time driver this season. “I have 150,000 followers on Twitter, and the thing we all have in common is our love of cars, so it's been fun for me to directly interact with those folks.
“I know that to race these cars, we have to have sponsors and we have sponsors because fans love what we do, too. So I love to give them all the information I can give them.”
Keselowski has been a prime example of utilizing Twitter to grow your public persona, not just with his Daytona 500 tweet. Last year, Keselowski tweeted a photo of his broken leg from the back of an ambulance after a wreck, quickly putting an end to rumors about how bad his injuries were.
The Daytona tweet posed an interesting question for NASCAR. Drivers are not allowed to have unsanctioned communication devices in the car, yet Keselowski was carrying a phone produced by the sport's title sponsor, Sprint. And he was taking fans inside his world, just the way NASCAR public relations people would encourage.
So, what was NASCAR to do? Simply step back and enjoy the positive publicity.
Keselowski and other young drivers drifted into the social media world with ease, but it hasn't been so smooth for the older crowd.
“Sometimes, it's a necessary evil,” said Biffle, 42. “I didn't want to do it originally, because we're so busy traveling and at the race shop and people are pulling us so many different ways. You just run out of time in the day to have any personal time to do anything. So those things that are added on top of your workload, at some point, it's almost like work.
“I enjoy Twitter, though. It drives a lot of marketing and it's good for sponsors and the sport in general.”