How a teen, team and online group changed the NASCAR All-Star Race fan vote 10 years ago

One of the greatest upsets in All-Star Race history didn’t take place on the track but off it, as officials scurried to decipher an unusual pattern in fan balloting, reset vote totals and later make a rule change.

The combination of an inspired 16-year-old, a driver changing his approach and a super-charged online community upended the fan vote a decade ago in ways no one could have foreseen.

Josh Wise, driving for Phil Parsons Racing, won the fan vote to advance to the 2014 All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Among those Wise beat was Danica Patrick, who won the vote in 2013 and would do so again in 2015.

That Patrick lost in 2014 was shocking because of her large fan base, which had followed her from IndyCar to NASCAR. That she lost to a driver with an underfunded team made it even more jaw-dropping.

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None of this likely would have occurred had it not been for a 40-lap stretch of racing at Bristol earlier that season.

Denis Pavel was struck watching Wise, nearly a lap behind, stay ahead of leader Kyle Busch lap after lap. While Busch drove a red No. 18 car sponsored by Skittles and decorated with images of the candy, Wise steered a black No. 98 car with no sponsor logos.

Pavel had no allegiance to Wise other than being impressed with what the former U.S. Auto Club sprint and midget car champion did to stay ahead of Busch that day. But Pavel wanted to do something for Wise and the team.

He had an idea.

Soon after Wise finished 23rd that day, he received numerous text messages. They were nearly the same: You need to check out what’s happening on Reddit.

One issue, though.

“What is Reddit?” Wise recalled thinking. “How do I do that?”

His questions soon were answered.

“I end up going on and there is this big surge of momentum of people just really excited for myself and Phil and the team and what we were doing,” Wise told NBC Sports.

Pavel knew that Dogecoin cryptocurrency supporters had donated funds for the Jamaican bobsled team ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics and thought a similar Reddit group could do the same for Wise. The goal was to raise enough money to sponsor Wise’s car in the spring Talladega race.

Pavel called team owner Phil Parsons to inquire what it would take to fund the car. Instead of discounting the teen, Parsons listened.

“He just seemed so genuine,” Parsons told NBC Sports about why he didn’t hang up on Pavel.

The supporters quickly raised more than $50,000 — enough to wrap Wise’s car in Dogecoin logos at Talladega.

NASCAR: Aaron's 499

NASCAR: Aaron’s 499

For years, Wise had focused more on his racing than acquiring sponsors. He later recognized that it took more than talent to succeed. Funding mattered. Wise looked to be more engaged in that element of the sport ahead of the 2014 season.

He suggested to Parsons that since they didn’t have a sponsor for the Sprint Open — the race for those who had yet to earn a spot in the All-Star Race — why not put Dogecoin on the car and rally the Reddit supporters to vote him into the All-Star Race.

Little did Wise know what he was about to unleash.

Fans could vote an unlimited number of times in 2014 — a rule that was changed the next year to one vote per day per unique email address. The headline on the NASCAR.com story announcing that the 2014 Sprint Fan Vote had opened stated: “Vote Now, Vote Often.”

Votes cast through the NASCAR Mobile app counted double. Fans also could vote on NASCAR.com and at The Sprint Experience, located in the midway at all Cup races. Voting began March 16, about 2 months ahead of the race.

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NASCAR: Cup Practice & Qualifying

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NBC Sports analysts Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte also look ahead to the second half of the regular season.

Kimberly Meesters, who led Sprint’s sponsorship from 2012-16, said that officials began to see an oddity in the voting days after it began.

Wise received a significant number of votes via NASCAR.com but few via the mobile app and was rarely mentioned by those who voted at the track.

It raised a concern in many ways.

The 2014 season was a key year for Sprint. It had been the series sponsor since 2008, taking over for Nextel after merging with the company. In 2011, Sprint extended its series sponsorship with NASCAR through 2016. That made the 2014 season the first year of the three-year extension.

“It was a big decision point year because the extension, three years, is not very long in a big deal like that,” Meesters told NBC Sports. “So it really was kind of a gap for us to decide are we going to continue to invest in this longer or are we only going to do our three years and be out?

NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race

NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race

“So I know there was also those nerves in the background saying this is our biggest event, the Sprint All-Star Race … we can’t have egg on our face messing up something like that.”

Just as concerning was how the unusual voting pattern could impact future Sprint promotions in the sport.

“What was absolutely critical was the fear of a sponsor interfering with the competition on the track,” Meesters said. “That was always something we had to balance with NASCAR. … I can remember that being the tension.

“That was the thing we worried the most about is, ‘Man, if we don’t figure this out, then will any of our other ideas in the future, will any of the other activation ideas that have competitive components to it even be allowed?’”

So what to do about the prodigious vote totals for Wise?

“When you see an outlier, you start to investigate and figure out what’s going on,” Meesters said. “We used a third-party agency at the time that helped just implementing the vote itself. They started doing some manual data scrubs on it and that’s when they identified (the issue).”

Bots were voting for Wise. While it’s common today to have to click a box on a website to prove one is not a bot, that wasn’t the case then. Without any online guardrails, people could set up ways to repeatedly vote automatically. Wise’s vote total soared.

“We were scrambling,” Meesters said. “It was something new (the issues with the voting). It had never happened before. So, it’s how do you jump in and solve this but solve it in a fair way?

“The goal wasn’t to upset any fans, and it certainly wasn’t to disqualify Josh because he had not done anything wrong. It’s not like Josh was behind all of this.

“It’s kind of brilliant when you think about it. It was clearly a great example of a group of fans being able to figure out an ingenious way to help a driver that they supported.”

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1992 Winston All Star Race

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Sprint reset the vote totals within the first month of voting and prevented bots from further infiltrating the process. That only motivated the Reddit community more, but the question remained if it would be enough to defeat Patrick’s dedicated fan base.

The totals were kept secret throughout the voting. Only a few knew.

Wise didn’t know but he thought he had a chance when he found out that his car would have an in-car camera for the Sprint Open.

“So that was kind of interesting,” Wise, who oversees driver performance for Chevrolet’s NASCAR competitors, told NBC Sports.

The team didn’t have an in-car camera for other races.

Stefan Parsons, son of team owner Phil Parsons, recalls the day of the Sprint Open and if Wise would get the fan vote.

“They legit do not tell you until after the race,” Stefan Parsons told NBC Sports. “I remember like somebody would come up to dad and be like ‘I heard you all got it.’ Then the next person would come up be like ‘Nope, I heard Danica has got it.’”

NASCAR at Charlotte Motor Speedway

NASCAR at Charlotte Motor Speedway

They didn’t know until after the checkered flag waved in the Sprint Open and Wise finished 18th in the 23-car field. Broadcaster Darrell Waltrip got on Wise’s radio channel to inform him and the team they had made it.

“For me, honestly, I was really excited (to advance) to do the pitstop competition because right away I go back to the driving part of it and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh this is going to be really awesome to fly into pit road,” Wise said, alluding to their being no pit road speed limit as part of the All-Star qualifying format that included a pit stop.

Then he thought to what had been accomplished.

“We went head-to-head with the biggest Goliath,” Wise said. “Not to downplay any of the levels drivers are at right now in the sport, but we had to beat Danica Patrick.”

Even now Stefan Parsons doesn’t know how many votes Wise received or how much he won by.

Phil Parsons also didn’t know either.

Same for Wise.

“They said it was big,” Wise said he recalls being told but that is all.

This is how big it was.

In 2013, there were about 1.5 million votes cast by fans for all the eligible drivers.

When Wise won it in 2014, there were about 3 million votes cast for all the eligible drivers.

The difference in those two years?

Those were votes for Wise.


Source

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