If you ever come to a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, make sure you attend one of our "tweetups" on the day of the event.
A tweetup is when people connect through Twitter and then meet up in person; in this case, the tweetups are NASCAR-themed. Since late 2009, one of these gatherings has been organized prior to every Cup race (typically three or four hours before the green flag) and takes place at a location revealed only through Twitter.
It's a chance for some of the NASCAR media and industry insiders (NASCAR officials, spotters, drivers' family members, public relations reps, etc.) to get some face time with race fans. There are typically free giveaways and, on occasion, drivers also show up to these events.
Contrary to what it sounds like, people don't stand around tweeting at these events – they socialize. As Scenedaily.com's Bob Pockrass likes to say, tweetups are similar to a cocktail party (except without the alcohol – though you're welcome to bring your own).
Anyway, with the end of 2011 quickly approaching, I figured this might be a good time to recap my favorite NASCAR tweetups of the year.
10. Greg Biffle in the Chicagoland rain
This tweetup could actually be on the list of one of the worst tweetups ever, but I'm including it because Greg Biffle was really cool that day.
I was struggling to find a special guest for the Chicagoland race, so NASCAR reached out to a bunch of drivers and Biffle agreed to attend. But on the day of the race – as many of you remember – it was pouring rain (it eventually got postponed).
So we're standing there at the tweetup in a total downpour – the weather sucked, for lack of a better word – and there are probably two dozen people who are just toughing it out in the miserable, cold rain for whatever reason. I don't know why they wanted to stay and hang out in those conditions, but they did.
Anyway, I had totally written off Biffle and assumed he wasn't coming. What driver is going to leave his comfy, warm motorhome to show up in that weather?
But lo and behold, about 10 minutes into the tweetup, Biffle suddenly arrived. He wasn't really able to sign autographs (no pen would seem to work in the rain), but he chatted and answered questions until no one had any more.
Personally, I think that's the kind of fan-friendly gesture that stays with people long after the race weekend. Remember – these drivers have no obligation to attend the tweetups; they're just doing it to be nice.
Here's a pic (that's me with the towel on my head):
9. Marcos Ambrose at summer Bristol race
Bristol is one of those tracks that just really "gets it" in terms of social media, and there is always a good tweetup crowd. The track comes through with cool giveaways and has a solid grasp on how to treat fans who attend races there.
The track got Marcos Ambrose to show up for the Bristol night race tweetup, and he was very engaging and friendly. Ambrose actually attended three tweetups this year (Sonoma, Bristol and fall Texas).
Best part of this tweetup? A fan came to Bristol all the way from Australia and had never met Ambrose. As you can imagine, Ambrose treated him like gold.
Anyway, Ambrose's personality made this one a success.
(Here's a picture of Ambrose and the Australian fan, via the Matt Kenseth fan club)
8. David Ragan and Ned Jarrett at the Brickyard
At this year's Brickyard 400, David Ragan ran a tribute paint scheme similar to Ned Jarrett's old car. And somehow, NASCAR got both Ragan and Jarrett to squeeze in a visit to the tweetup during a busy day of sponsor/hospitality/media appearances.
As you can imagine, it was a very neat deal: Two absolute gentlemen of the sport holding court for a question-and-answer session, then signing autographs and posing for pictures in the shade of some trees next to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.
It was cool to have both a current driver and and old-school driver (a Hall of Famer, at that), because it satisfied both the longtime NASCAR fans and newer race fans who showed up.
7. Jeff Burton's speech at Martinsville
One of the new converts to Twitter this year was Virginia native Jeff Burton. So I figured the fall Martinsville race would be a great time to invite Burton to his first tweetup.
He showed up to the designated spot – a parking lot behind Turns 3 and 4 – and the crowd immediately gathered around him.
Ever the pro, Burton then launched into an unprompted speech not only about how he expected the race to unfold, but on the state of the sport in general. When "The Mayor" got to the part about how NASCAR has too many damn cookie-cutter tracks and needed more short tracks like Martinsville, the crowd erupted in applause like it was a political stump speech.
It was awesome, and I stood there thinking, "Yes! The people who attended this tweetup can see for themselves why all the writers think Burton is such a great interview."
(Here's a photo taken by tweep John Wimmer)
6. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. pulls all-nighter at Homestead
I woke up on Championship Sunday prior to the Homestead race and almost panicked when I checked my Twitter feed. Judging by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s tweets, he had been up all night after winning the Nationwide Series championship the day before – and he was supposed to be the surprise special guest for the 10 a.m. tweetup.
First of all, I wondered if he'd even make it to the track. Second, if he did pull himself off Miami Beach, why would he want to attend a tweetup after being up all night? I figured it would be a very easy thing for him to blow off, since he was under no obligation.
Anyway, 10 a.m. rolled around and guess what? Stenhouse showed up after all. No, he hadn't gotten any sleep, he said, but he wasn't about to miss the tweetup.
He told a few stories and then signed autographs and posed for pictures until every single person had one. I thought that was a pretty cool thing to do, because no one would have blamed him if he hadn't showed up at all.
5. Denny Hamlin attends fall Talladega tweetup
Logistically, Talladega Superspeedway is one of the most difficult tracks to find a good tweetup location. The place is so damn big and there aren't a lot of open areas away from the fan zone which are easy to access (each week we try to pick a spot that's not right in the middle of the crowd so random passerby don't just crash the party).
Anyway, we ultimately settled on a spot in the back of the Toyota Pit Pass display in the fan zone. If you've been to a race, the Toyota display is one of those huge manufacturer setups with multiple tractor trailers, etc. Thankfully, Toyota agreed to let us use the area behind one of these trucks so we could hide Hamlin from the non-tweetup crowd.
Well, I didn't realize so many people were going to show up, and our tweetup crowd spilled out into the fan zone. When Hamlin arrived, it was somewhat chaotic and there was no way everyone could get close to him.
The only thing I could think of was to have him stand on the stairs of this hauler and address the crowd like a Roman emperor. It wasn't exactly an intimate conversation, and I was feeling bad about that.
But when it was time for Hamlin to leave, he fixed the problem himself. Hamlin ignored a security guard who had planned an escape route and instead waded straight into the crowd, hopping up on the back of another truck for a group photo.
He then stood among the masses and signed autographs and posed for pictures until pretty much everyone – even those who had spotted our gathering from the nearby port-o-johns – was satisfied.
Hamlin was a real man of the people that day, and it was pretty cool to watch. If I had picked a better tweetup spot, this might have been higher on the list.
(Here's a photo taken by tweep Justin Smith to illustrate the stairs I was talking about)
4. Brad Keselowski shows up at Bud Shootout tweetup
One of the best drivers to follow on Twitter is Brad Keselowski, and he expressed an interest in attending the small tweetup held prior to the Budweiser Shootout in Daytona.
Keselowski wasn't included in the Shootout last year, so he had some extra time on his hands. He showed up and couldn't have been more personable.
Like other drivers who have attended, Keselowski addressed the whole group first and gave away some hats. But what made this one memorable was we were able to break into the small-group "mingling" portion while he was still there.
For whatever reason, everyone was extremely well-behaved and decided to wait on Keselowski to come to them instead of swarming him for autographs and pictures. I don't know if it was his laid-back personality or what, but it worked.
As a result, Keselowski went from small group to small group, breaking into conversations by extending his hand and saying, "Hi. Brad Keselowski." He'd chat with a few people for a couple minutes, then move on to the next group.
To me, that's the ideal way for a tweetup to go – a casual, easy conversation that allows everyone to interact. Keselowski was the perfect guy to pull that off.
(Here's a photo snapped by tweep Justin Ray prior to the small group portion)
3. NASCAR Hall of Famers at Charlotte
The best tweetups are the ones where there's something for everybody – and that was the case in October for the Charlotte Chase race.
Actually, this tweetup was kind of insane and there were so many people that we couldn't get a group photo.
But I'm just going to tell you some of the special guests who were there, and you'll see why it's No. 3 on this list: The entire living 2012 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Yep, that's right – Cale Yarborough at a tweetup! Prolific tweeter Darrell Waltrip knew what a tweetup was, but I'm pretty sure Yarborough, Dale Inman or Leonard Wood had never even heard of Twitter.
It didn't matter to the fans, though. A few tweeps I spoke with ended up getting autographs from all four Hall of Famers. How cool is that?
As a bonus, John Anderson of Wipeout and SportsCenter fame also attended as a guest of Kevin Harvick (he was "embedded" with the No. 29 team for the day).
(Here's a photo taken by tweep Brandilyn Yoder when I was trying to explain Twitter to Dale Inman)
2. Jimmie Johnson in a New Hampshire parking lot
Imagine this: You hike to the far corner of a parking lot at New Hampshire Motor Speedway to meet some media dweeb from Twitter, and five-time NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson shows up to hang out, too.
That actually happened this year. In what other sport can you chill with the defending champ – for free – in a freakin' parking lot on the day of an event?
The best part was Johnson (and T.J. Majors, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s spotter) ended up answering questions for about 20-25 minutes and told some hilarious stories I'd never heard before. And interestingly enough, this was one of the smallest crowds of the year – so everyone could get close to JJ.
When I think of how accessible NASCAR drivers are compared to other sports, this is the prime example that comes to mind.
1. Jeff Gordon stuns fans at Daytona
While we'd had many cool special guests in the nearly two-year existence of the tweetups prior to the July Daytona race, no superstar driver had showed up.
So when Jeff Gordon's public relations rep Jon Edwards approached me in May to say Gordon was interested in attending a tweetup, I was pretty damn excited.
The catch was this: With a driver of Gordon's caliber, we would need to find a track on the schedule with an easy in/out access to the tweetup area. You couldn't just have Gordon walk out from the infield into the fan zone – he'd get mobbed.
Daytona International Speedway was brought into the loop, and they worked with Edwards and Gordon on the entrance/exit. The track even supplied fencing to place around the crowd right before Gordon arrived to make it an exclusive event just for tweeps.
Meanwhile, everyone involved in the planning kept this a total secret. Even when I showed up to the tweetup, I told everyone there was a great special guest coming – but I didn't say who. All I said was to focus their eyes on the door of the Daytona administration building.
You can imagine the reaction when the door opened and Jeff Gordon walked out. It was a really, really cool moment to see all the fans' faces and hear the "Whoaaaa!" sounds.
Anyway, Gordon stayed and answered questions for what had to be 25 minutes. He was typical Gordon – funny, honest and classy. It couldn't have gone any better.
Hopefully, there will be more cool moments like that one in 2012. There won't always be a driver in attendance and sometimes there might not even be a special guest, but you never know who might show up.
Editor's note: I borrowed most of these photos from fans who posted them on my Facebook page. If you have any you want to add, please do so here!