Through the Paddock: Chris Knight on life in NASCAR media

Chris Knight

Each week in Through the Paddock, Aaron Bearden takes the time to spotlight a member of the racing community in an effort for both himself and the fans to learn more about them. Interviewees can range from drivers to crew members, media representatives and more.

The audio version of this piece can be found here.

Take a glance inside of one of the many media centers on the NASCAR tour, and you’ll be greeted by a host of different groups, all working in harmony to spread the news of the sport.

Toward the back and around the sides of the center typically sit public relations representatives. Elsewhere rest citizen journalists and local media – the first fighting for relevancy and acceptance while the latter look to make the most of NASCAR’s rare trip to town.

Move past the others and you’ll reach the final group: those that travel with the tour full-time.

The group is smaller than it used to be – diminished over the years by the loss of outlets and journalists of yesteryear – but a dedicated contingent of media still travel full-time with the sport, offering their own unique twists and takes on NASCAR throughout the sport’s nine-month season.

Life on the road isn’t easy.

Travel is expensive. Competition is often fierce, and there’s little time for comfort or relaxation. The members of the full-time media circus all know each other well, a byproduct of spending the majority of their weekends beside each other.

Most members take a handful of weekends off each year. A few dedicated members only miss a couple of weekends.

Chris Knight has only missed one race weekend this entire season.

An early adapter to the internet era, Knight has worked for nearly two decades in NASCAR, elevating and his own personal brand with a mixture of written articles, radio appearances and social media updates.

As a longtime member of NASCAR media, Knight has seen ebbs and flows in the sport, society and his own work over the course of his career. He’s watched the sport’s popularity peak and wane, adapted to the advent of social media and thrived as media transitioned from print to web-based content.

Through it all, he’s carried a smile and willingness to adapt.

Kickin’ the Tires sat down with Knight shortly before the final race of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Round of 12 at Kansas Speedway to discuss his career, optimism and the birth of a once-despised nickname he’s since come to embrace.

I’m joined today by Chris Knight! How are you doing today, Chris? 

Chris Knight: I’m good buddy. How are you? Always good to have you at a race track, Aaron.

Probably depends on who you ask. Nah, but I’m doing great today. It’s little chilly, but I think we’re in for a pretty good day in Kansas today. What about you? 

Yeah, I like Kansas Speedway. I think it’s a fast race track, and obviously with the rain and storms last night, it’s cleared off the race track. I think there’s going to be pretty fast speeds, and we could see some interesting things happen between now and the end of the race.

Definitely. All things aside about this race, this interview’s about you, not Kansas Speedway. Now by the time I came around you were already established in the media center. But how did you end up in NASCAR media? 

It took a lot of work and effort. I was fortunate enough to get myself established with very early in my career as a fan, and we kind of transitioned from a fan site to a national media-type site.

I’ve been with Catchfence since 2001 – so almost 18 years – and we’ve done that very well, where we’ve transitioned ourselves from several fans to key components and individuals who not only pride ourselves on bringing the best information to the fans from the sport, but also doing it in a way that we feel stands out from other people.

So if (Catchfence) started from a fan site, I’m willing to wager you’ve been a fan of NASCAR for quite a long time. Is that true?

I think any reporter, deep in their hearts, is a fan of NASCAR, right? You’ve gotta love what you do, and love the things that you cover. I definitely would not be a football reporter, because I’m not a diehard football fan. I do enjoy watching some games, but it’s not something that I’m passionate about like I am NASCAR.

I think this sport offers so many more key advantages than any other professional sports out there. That’s something that I stand behind, and it’s awesome to be able to come to the race track every week. It’s different than every other sport, because a lot of things are held in town. If you go to an opposing team, you only do it a couple times a year, where as this is a circus if you will, where we’re traveling to 36 different races every year, for a season that lasts almost 10 months every year.

I feel very blessed and very fortunate that I’ve been a part of this sport for very long, and it’s awesome to see people like yourselves come in. Because I know where you’re at, because I was there. Watching to see how people work their way up is awesome.

Being in this for so long and making that transition, how has that progression been for you? You started as more of a fan site when social media wasn’t really around, and now the whole dynamic has changed. How has that progression been? 

The progression has been crazy, especially within the last five years or so since social media has come up through the landscape.

Back when I was starting writing on the internet, we were one of the first websites to get accepted for credentials at Nashville Superspeedway when the track opened in 2001, because they weren’t open to having internet-based (publications). You look today at the sport, it’s mainly internet-based – the websites and outlets that are covering (it).

To see the transition from there to now has been staggering. Back in the day, you were communicating with fans through email. Now you’re able to connect with them almost instantly, and you’re able to hang out with them and do certain things.

It’s been crazy to see the transition of the sport, but there’s been good times and bad times. I think you go through that progression with anything in life. If you believe in something – and I stand behind this – dreams come true if you want them bad enough.

I’ve wanted to live my dream a long time. I continue to believe that, and I’ll continue to live that as long as I feel like that door’s open.

Now you’re pretty firmly established. You’ve been to almost every race this year. In fact, I think it’s been all but one, right? 

Yeah, the only race I’ve missed this year as far as the whole platform – between Trucks, XFINITY and Cup – this year was the July New Hampshire race. I skipped and actually went on a working vacation, where I worked half the weekend covering New Hampshire, and spent the rest of the time on the beach.

I think the biggest thing that you take away is that you have to sometimes – and I’m the biggest problem with this – you have to turn the sport off. Because if you don’t, you’ll get so wrapped up in it that you’ll forget you have a life outside of the sport. I think that’s something that I still do, even though I’ve been a part of the sport for – 1997 was my first year in the sport, and full-time in 2004 – almost two decades.

Chris Knight has missed only one race weekend this season – NASCAR’s July trip to New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (Photo: Rusty Jarrett/NKP)

You have to be willing to take some time, and that’s a problem that I have today. That’s some good advice for you, and you’ve got a girlfriend who makes you take some time away from the sport.

You’ve gotta love the sport, but you’ve gotta enjoy the other things that matter in life to.

Absolutely. Though for the record, I choose to take time off for her. She doesn’t make me. Let me make sure I don’t bury my own grave here…

So, you’re on this grind pretty much all the time. What would you say a typical week is like for you? Is there even such a thing? 

No, there’s no typical week. It’s crazy. There’s things that happen, and this sport is not cheap to cover as you know.

I have some alternate responsibilities that I have to take care of during the week that allows me to be at the race track every weekend, so a lot of my weeks are spent juggling between doing those other responsibilities and doing what I can to keep Catchfence updated. I feel like I do a good job juggling it – it takes a lot of time during the night.

When you get into the grind of the season, you typically fly out on a Wednesday or Thursday, and you don’t get home until Monday, sometimes late Sunday night depending on where you’re coming from. Then you only have Tuesday and Wednesday to get readjusted, and then you’re back on the road. It’s a grind.

How does that travel schedule work? Do you plan things in advance, or play things by ear? How does that all come together?

Things work out for me when I plan in advance, things work out good. Now when I do stuff with my friend Jerry Jordan, who you know very well (he’s the owner of Kickin’ the Tires. Hi boss.), we fly by the seat of our pants sometimes.

Sometimes we don’t know what hotel we’re staying in until a day or so before because he has so many hotels booked that he doesn’t know what do to. Life is always interesting, but we have a lot of fun.

The biggest thing is, this is a family. We have a really good family. You have your core family that you spend time with – you’ve been an awesome person to welcome within that circle. You would know that the circles are very tight-knit and people are very selective on who they let in that circle. But if you get in that circle with a good group of people, then it’s very hard to break that circle, and that circle is just as much of a family as is your natural family.

Going into a race weekend as a journalist, what is your approach? Do you know your storylines going in, or do you take it as it comes? 

For me, I’m a newsy kind of guy. Of course I cover the race, and I feel like I do a great job covering the races on social media during the deal. But I like to find the new stuff that’s going on, because there’s stories out there of all sorts, whether it’s XFINITY, Trucks or Cup.

I usually kind of fly under the radar and see what’s happening. There’ll be some weekends where I’m out in the garage working on stuff for two-or-three weeks down the road, so I’m not necessarily writing everyday, but I’m always working or doing radio or whatever.

As long as you have an approach that you’re happy with, and you feel like you’re making an impact… This weekend I was working on stuff for the offseason because when we get to the offseason, even thought it’s limited, we won’t have access to these guys because they go bye-bye-bye. They’re on vacation from Thanksgiving until Media Week.

I think for me, my different approach has worked out best. And I engage with the fans when I’m at the race track. I think it’s important to engage with the fans because without them we wouldn’t be here.

One thing I think you do better than most in the media center is social media. You’re one of the best for updates on Twitter, and you’re always engaging with fans. How did that come about for you, and how much has it impacted your career?

I’ve been very blessed.

That’s my personality, right? Some people would know that I’m very claustrophobic in big crowds, so I tend to get very nervous and shut down a little bit when I’m in big crowds. But when I’m tweeting the race, I feel like I’m engaging with the fans, I’m right there with the fans and I leave it as an open forum for them to talk.

I feel like if you bring the fans inside of your world, they’ll open up even more, encourage other and say, ‘Hey man, we work with these media guys, and they make us feel like it’s home. They make it feel personal.’

I’ve been able to –  and I have no problems doing this – I have connections inside of the sport where I get fans credentials. If they’ve never been to a race, or they have a family member that’s been in the armed forces that’s coming home, I’ll take a step out and try to help them make things happen. Because I feel like if they have that experience, it’s something that they’ll never forget. And it makes me feel good too, knowing that I’m doing what I can to make sure that the fans’ experience keeps them in the stands.

If you want to know when a crash occurs on Twitter, Chris Knight is one of the first people you should follow. (Photo: Barry Cantrell/NKP)

Of course, and then there’s also..  Let’s not forget about Periscope and karaoke, now. 

Well, you know. I think it all boils down to where you’ve got to be yourself.

You have to be yourself. No disrespect – I’m not talking bad about these guys – but I’m not a Bob Pockrass or… Everybody has their own mojo, and I do things in a way that’s based upon my personality.

I have mad respect for all of the people that cover this sport, and I’m very gracious and appreciative to have those friendships, but I’m going to do things that I feel like work for me and fit within my responsibilities of the site and doing what I can to have pretty good fan engagement.

You’ve been here since 2001. You’re still here and going strong. It seems like you’ve been growing in terms of your fanbase. Looking forward, what kind of goals or ambitions do you have set for yourself? 

That’s a good question. I don’t really look at goals or ambitions. The biggest thing I tell myself is that I’ll be a part of this sport for as long as I’m wanted. When it comes a time that I’m no longer wanted in this sport, or no longer feel like I can make a difference in this sport, then I’ll walk away. And I’ll be happy with that, because I’ve been fortunate enough to do enough in this sport on the business side and the media side where I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot, and feel very blessed to have accomplished a lot.

I think that’s the main thing for anybody that’s coming in. Whether it’s a journalist, fan, team member or anybody that’s looking to get into this sport, you have to be willing to start at the bottom and work your way up – work long nights, work long hours and make concessions in order to get to the top.

Once you get to that top you’ll appreciate everything that you’ve worked so hard to get. I think as long as you continue to feel like you make a difference (sic), then you belong in this sport – you belong in the grandstands or you belong in that garage.

I think that’s the biggest advice I can give to anybody. As long as you believe in yourself, and people believe in you, then you need to be here.

I have to know. Where did the ‘Skippy’ nickname come from? 

That comes from good old Lee Spencer of Lee is like a mother to me at the race track, you know? Her and Reid (Spencer, husband) are like my mother and father. Without them, I don’t feel like I would have ever… I’m kind of getting emotional as I talk to you about it.

Without Lee and Reid Spencer, I don’t feel like I would be as successful as I am today. They have really taken me under their wing, and showed me the rights and the wrongs.

Jim Utter was the one that really took the Skippy name and led it into the next chapter. But I feel like that’s part of that circle – when you get into that circle with Lee, Reid, Jim, Jerry and all of those individuals.

I hated it for so long. I hated being called Skippy. I despised it. I used to scream, ‘I’m not a peanut butter!’ And whatnot.

Finally when drivers started calling me Skippy, I thought, ‘Well, there’s worse things you could be called, right? So I might as well just embrace it.’

I’ve embraced it. The fans call me Skippy too, so you might as well roll with it and have some fun with it. That’s what I’ve done, and I feel like I’ve done a good job building that brand, too.

To wrap up, where can fans follow you on your journey? 

I’m on Twitter at @Knighter01. I’m on Snapchat at @Knighter01. I’m also on Facebook and Instagram, so I’m pretty active on social media channels. I’ve got open direct messages so fans can direct message me anytime if they don’t want to tweet me.

I feel very blessed to be a part of this sport. For those that say they want to get into this sport, but they don’t know how to, you’ve just got to keep trying. Keep trying.

Go volunteer. Go step out of that circle and keep trying. Even though it might not work out the first time, keep trying. Because you know what? It happened to me, and it can happen to you.

Chris, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it, and I hope we get a good race today at Kansas for these fans. 

Yeah man, it’s an elimination race so I think there’s going to be a lot of crazy things going on. Man, I can’t believe there’s only four races left to go, Aaron. Where did the 2017 season go?

I don’t know. I haven’t slept for most of it, so I think I’ve been hallucinating the second half. But it really has gone by fast. 

Yeah, it really has gone by fast. We’ll get to 2018 and it’ll be a whole new shed of light on the sport with so many drivers coming in and out and the paint schemes changing.

But I do want to ask you one more thing before we go. Who’s your champion?

Based on how he’s ran, I feel like you have to pick Martin Truex Jr. until somebody proves him wrong. What about you, who’s your champ? 

I thin you’re right. Martin Truex Jr. has set the bar for what’s to happen. But I will say this, the stage racing that NASCAR’s come up with this year has been phenomenal, and I think it’s brought this racing to a new level. I think it’s just proof that it ain’t over until it’s over.

We’ve snuck championship picks into Through the Paddock. Chris, thank you so much for your time today. 

Thanks Aaron. Take care.

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