Sitting at home in Charlotte, N.C. on Oct. 16, Jenna Fryer of the Associated Press was geared up to watch the IndyCar race from Las Vegas in 2011.
Instead she ended up flashing back to Daytona 2001.
“I’m not going to lie, I was envious,” said Fryer, who becomes the 18th Woman of pressdog®. “It gets a little tiring in NASCAR sometimes with bad-attitude drivers and grumpy drivers and long, long days and you don’t really feel like anybody appreciates the effort you are putting in to covering the sport. So I’m watching IndyCar from afar and it’s fresh and it’s exciting and they’ve got great story lines and they’ve got this Barnhart mess and they’ve got the Princess (Dario Franchitti) and the Double Birds (Will Power). I was so, so jealous. There’s no other way to put it."
Fryer's first in-person IndyCar experience at Kentucky was “everything I thought it would be. Everyone could not have been greater. I had a round-table (interview) with Dixon, Franchitti and Will Power. I’ve known Dixon and Dario for a long time but I'd never met Will before. I'd never met Randy Bernard before so I got to meet him and got a lot of things accomplished.”
After writing her first-ever IndyCar story from that experience (HERE), Fryer had planned to go to Las Vegas for the season finale, but circumstances kept her home in Charlotte. “I really, really got into it. I was very, very excited for Las Vegas. I planned my entire Sunday around that race.”
And then lap 11 happened.
“I knew instantly, because I cover racing, that this was something serious,” said Fryer in a phone interview Friday. “I knew instantly and got very focused. When ABC came back from commercial and the tarp was on the car, I just kicked it in to sort of that same mode I’d gone into in 2001.”
February 18, 2001, to exact, when Fryer and her husband were watching another race, this time NASCAR at Daytona.
“It got to be the last lap and the accident happened,” Fryer said. “And I remember vividly Ken Schrader did a TV interview and I turned to my husband and I said, ‘Dale Earnhardt is dead.’ And he said, ‘What are you talking about?’ and I said ‘Dale Earnhardt is dead; I gotta go.’
I drove to DEI (Dale Earnhardt’s team headquarters) and that’s basically where I lived, on the side of the road outside DEI, for the next three to four days. I literally spent three days on the side of the road outside DEI as this pilgrimage happened.”
Fryer said a decade later, watching ABC’s coverage of the race that ended Dan Wheldon’s life, she had the same “gotta go” feeling. The yellow tarp over the car and images of Danica Patrick crying told Fryer all she needed to know.
“There was nowhere for me to drive to this time, but it was absolutely the same mode as in 2001 where you know what has to be done, you know this is serious, you know this is focus time and that’s sort of how it’s been for me since I’d say 3:55 on Sunday, October 16. It’s been non-stop.”
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“Honestly, the last 12 days is why I do this (journalism),” Fryer said. “I’m almost getting emotional right now talking about it. You just kick it into a different gear and I feel a responsibility to do fair and accurate reporting. I felt a responsibility to be aggressive about it and to make daily phone calls and stay on top of that story. I felt it was really, really, really important for the story to be done correctly and fairly and responsibly.”
That’s not to say kicking it up into that rare high gear is necessarily fun or easy, Fryer said.
“There’s a lot of hard moments,” she said. “It hasn’t been easy. It hasn’t been fun. It’s tough to sit down with Dario who I have known five, six years and ask him those questions. It’s tough to ask Will Power to go through the accident with you, and it’s tough to ask those questions to people who you know are hurting. You don’t feel good and it’s heavy stuff. There’s a point where I had to decompress.
"People may not know this, but I went from 40 minutes with Dario directly into an hour with Randy Bernard and I went into the bathroom and took some deep breaths, because it’s not easy subject material. But you do it, and when you know that you do it right and people tell you did it right, you feel good about your profession again.”
The experience helped reinforce to Fryer the AP's need to keep IndyCar on the radar, after retirements and promotions had left the AP open-wheel beat open for a time.
"I think the lesson we learned -- that I myself learned and AP learned -- is that 'AP auto racing writer' doesn’t mean AP NASCAR writer," she said. "I need to do a better job of having a pulse on both series ... and thank God I went to Kentucky."
Earnhardt/Wheldon “Suffocating Scrutiny”
Having covered the deaths of both Earnhardt and Wheldon, Fryer sees several similarities in how the story played out.
“The parallel is the unbelievable scrutiny and examination from places that never, ever, ever even typed the word ‘autosports’, ‘motorsports’, ‘IndyCar’, ‘NASCAR’, ‘Earnhardt’, ‘Wheldon,” Fryer said. “People who would not have been able to point to Dan Wheldon if he was sitting in the seat next to them on a bus -- would have no idea -- are now just experts. And it was the same way with Earnhardt. It’s this just suffocating scrutiny that comes down over the whole thing and you have this unbelievable pressure on you to get it fast and get first.
"It’s also so hard because people who are uneducated are now involved and are making blanket statements or uneducated statements and assumptions, and your challenge is to stay on pace with them but to be correct.”
The immediate access to information — delivered via the Internet and social media like Facebook and Twitter which weren’t even an idea back in 2001 — have made the scrutiny and cacophony of media voices even more intense, she said.
“The difference is the Internet. The difference is social media today,” Fryer said. “Where you now could get that replay (of the accident) on YouTube within minutes. You could see anything in minutes. And you had bloggers who normally pay no attention to autoracing who within an hour have something up about the accident.
“Your audience is so diff this time around because of the Internet. The reach is so much different and I just firmly believe -- from doing my homework and knowing that they pulled a 3.8 TV rating in the final 30 to 40 minutes of that telecast -- that you have very, very casual observers who had stumbled upon it because of the internet because of things they were seeing on Twitter and things they are seeing on You Tube. It was everywhere and it was everywhere fast.”
Jenna the Jersey Girl on Twitter and Bloggers
Fryer grew up in New Jersey, where she said the New York Yankees were her “daily religion.” She soon aspired to cover national stick and ball sports after graduating from West Virginia University. She joined the AP in 1997 and rose through a series of larger local beats.
Freyer was headed for an expected opening covering Indianapolis for the AP when the slot in Charlotte came open. She decided to take the Charlotte job and moved there in 2000.
At first she covered non-racing sports, but gradually through departures and promotions — and in large part because of her immediate and daily involvement in the Earnhardt accident in 2001 — Fryer became the AP's national NASCAR writer in 2006.
Lately she’s built a 21,000-strong following on Twitter, a medium she finds a bit perplexing.
“Twitter is weird,” Fryer said. “I think I am providing a service (of news nuggets) to the people that choose to follow me. Sometimes it’s hurtful when you get something really nasty back. And you’re like ‘You choose to follow me. If you don’t like me, just don’t follow me.’ And I know that people think that I’m a bitch or I’m snarky. I have a very certain sense of humor. I have a very hardened New Jersey exterior and maybe that rubs people the wrong way. I’m not being malicious. I’m not being bitchy; I’m just look at things with a little bit of a sarcastic view. I had a guy who said he hopes I get cancer because of something I wrote about Dale (Earnhardt) Junior. That, to me, just blows my mind.”
The answer, Fryer said, is to follow the advice she gives to journalism students. “I preach to them, DO NOT ENGAGE. DO NOT engage with the crazies; you will not win. And now that there is Twitter, I find myself breaking my number one rule. I try very hard not to get sucked into that stuff (verbal wars with Twitter flame throwers), but sometimes I just can’t help myself and I do not make the best decision and I engage.”
Fryer also has a reputation of not being afraid to engage even high-profile NASCAR drivers. After the Sept. 10 race at Richmond, Fryer sparred lightly with Kurt Busch who famously advised Fryer to “pull your Twitter” to confirm something and later tore up a transcript Fryer offered as proof of an earlier comment.
“That is every single week with Tony Stewart,” Fryer said. “It just so happened to be me and it just so happened to be me on TV. But that happens every single week with Tony and that’s not an exaggeration. You ask anybody who covers Tony on a weekly basis and it’s always someone.”
The real verbal brawl, Fryer said, came later behind closed doors in Stewart’s hauler. Fryer said she and Stewart have verbally dropped the gloves before during their decade of interaction. At one point Stewart refused to speak to her for more than a year.
As for bloggers, Fryer she respects “the educated blogger who is not only educated but respectful and they are responsible and they are doing their work either through actual work they are doing on-site or over the phone or by paying attention and some sort of access. Then there are the bloggers who sit in the basement and essentially just steal the work of everyone else and put forth their own opinions as fact. I have a bit problem with that. I really do.”
Living Up to Standards
While blogs and other media outlets seem free to report rumors or bits of third-hand information, Fryer says her personal code as a reporter and AP rules constrain her from following suit.
“AP has very, very strict souricng standards,” she said. “I mean the strictest. I knew Jeremy Mayfield tested positive for methamphetamine three days after he was kicked out of that Darlington race, and I could not get it on the AP wire because it did not meet AP sourcing standards, which was I had to know it from someone who had seen the actual test results, someone who had specifically seen that piece of paper. Anything else was second-hand (and unacceptable).
“I don’t write untrue things, period. If I write it, it’s true. Because, number one, I would never sacrifice my credibility. And, number two, it would never get past my editors, ever. They would say ‘how do you know this?’ and I would have to tell them and they would say to me that’s not good enough. You need to know it from X, Y or Z. I will get beat every single time before I’ll be wrong. I will raise my hand and embarrassed and ashamed say I don’t have it. I don’t have the story, before I’ll put forth information I don’t know to be 100% correct.”