NASCAR Week: This interview is part three in a series of five articles this week on jobs in NASCAR.
"Keeping it real" could be the motto Lee Spencer lives by, but if you ask her about her rules to live by, she'll tell you it's just common sense.
As the senior NASCAR writer for FoxSports.com, Lee travels the entire NASCAR circuit each year reporting on the races, breaking news and providing in-depth features and analysis. A true voice of the fans, Lee brings her readers into the garage with her thorough reporting. But Lee, who has covered auto racing for more than 15 years, will tell you that respect in the garage had to be earned — and not just because she was a woman. It took years of trust building and hard work.
Lee also appears frequently on SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network, and when not at the track you can usually find her practicing yoga or taking in a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game. Read on to hear more about her non-stop job, as well as her decision to have a family first, and then focus on her career.
People have to trust you, and if they don't trust you, you're not going to be around for long.
What is your typical day like? How does that vary between races and the off-season?
The most typical thing is trying to get to the gym or the yoga studio before the day begins. If I don’t do it first thing in the morning, it won't get done.
My job is 24/7. When we were in Hawaii on vacation my phone was ringing at 3 a.m. to break news. People were calling me that early. It was crazy to get out of my room so I wouldn’t wake up to my husband and to be out and about. And then to write a story and get it out … before 8 a.m. on the West Coast. It's my job to be talking, texting, d'ming, getting as much information as I can to bring news to Fox first, so readers know they can rely on our website for breaking news, as well as more entertaining and analytical features.
During the season, I work Thursday through Monday every week. Once you get into that routine, you’re in autopilot and you can’t imagine not being on that plane on Thursday. At this point it’s probably a good 18 years that I’ve been traveling (though not every week). I’ve been traveling full time for probably the last eight or nine years.
You have your favorite restaurants and hotels on different stops. It’s really funny when the help recognizes you at different stops, and all the people you meet along the way are amazing. Every day for me is different, and I can’t imagine just having four walls around me five days a week. It just would not suit me. It might be great for someone else, but I like the open road.
With such an intense schedule, how do you achieve work-life balance, or is it nonexistent?
I had my family first and then went back and did my career. That really helped out because I could ease into it. I didn’t go back to work until the kids were in school, and then I was producing radio when the kids were in class in the morning. When directing on air you have finite hours. It wasn’t as time-intensive as what I’m doing now.
I just started picking up writing to ease my way into it as the kids got older. Then the kids became more self-reliant, and the timing was perfect for what I wanted to do. I began working for Sporting News in 2001, and at that point the kids were grown and well into school and extracurriculars. I didn't really go away except on the weekends, and we had a pretty normal family life the rest of the time.
Now our kids are out of high school and out of college, and my husband is on the road with me. We focus on our lives and the kids focus on their lives. With communication these days you’re never really far away. You can enjoy your kids when you’re young and still have a career.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
I get such a thrill out of breaking stories from a professional and personal standpoint. I also enjoy all the people you meet in the sport. There are so many different people. Being on the road the way we are … it’s just one big family and we all travel together and probably all know way too much about one another. It just makes for a really crazy environment.
When you think of all the same people that travel in this sport week in and week out, they become your family. Some people have a beat, and they cover a team and they’re close to that team. I’m covering 45 teams -- and that’s just Sprint Cup. It’s like the biggest traveling family you could imagine. We had a situation during a media event in January when Kevin Harvick (driver of the No. 29 Chevrolet in the Sprint Cup series for Richard Childress Racing) made the announcement that DeLana (his wife) is pregnant. I saw him come into the sport, grow up, and then I saw the elation on his face now that he’s having a kid. Another example is seeing Dale Earnhardt Jr. (driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports) grow up. I used to cover his dad, (the late) Dale Earnhardt. It’s a really bizarre dynamic.
What is the most challenging aspect of your work?
Weather delays when you’re trying to get somewhere. Technology. When your equipment screws up and it’s completely out of your control. There’s no one who’s been doing this as long as we have who hasn’t had a computer just completely zap out or a telephone fall in the toilet -- stupid stuff like that. I laugh because sometimes you’re there and your batteries just go in the middle of an important interview. Someone will lend you batteries … a power cord … people will help you. You have to work smart. When you get it down to a science, you almost look forward to the travel.
What is one lesson you’ve learned as a journalist that sticks with you?
People have to trust you, and if they don’t trust you, you’re not going to be around for long. They have to tust you to keep their confidences and not to take something out of context and throw them under the bus. It’s been really rewarding working on the (NASCAR 2012 Sprint) Media Tour this week, and when I walk into places some of the crew chiefs will walk up and give me hugs. They’re happy to see me. I never want a situation where I walk into a garage and someone turns and runs because they’re afraid of something that happens that’s not in their favor.
I have such a great time around people, and the guys in the garage are awesome. Somebody once said to me, "I know you don’t know a lot about cars, but you can understand that … " And they help me to understand it. It’s not that they’re talking down to me. When they say something like that, they then try to put it in terms that help me understand so I can explain it better to my readers. We’re here to entertain people. This isn’t rocket science. I want someone to read something and leave it thinking, "I didn’t know that."
What do you feel is the biggest challenge for female journalists in the garage? Has your reporting approach changed at all because of this?
The way I see it, you just have to go in there gender neutral. I think that that’s the best way to approach it. You don’t have to forget you’re a girl. You still want to be a girl and dress like a girl, but you also have to be one of the boys. For me it’s never been a big problem, because I was a tomboy anyway. I’ve always liked hanging out with boys. For me, it’s a more refreshing environment to be out in the garage sometimes than being in the media center.
So many reporters are focused on breaking NASCAR news via Twitter. Do you feel this has been good or bad for reporting on the industry? Does it force you to always feel “on” and like you don’t want to miss anything?
It’s changed the job tremendously. As great as Twitter is for some things, my work has been plagiarized more in the past three months than in the past year, because people are in such a rush to get things out on the Internet and out on Twitter. You saw what CBS News did with the Paterno situation. Just because someone breaks a story, it doesn’t mean it’s a story. You need to credit the outlet, not act like you’ve gone out and done the work on it. I don’t mind people retweeting a story and sending traffic to our site, but just rewriting my piece when you haven’t done the legwork to put it together is a huge frustration to people who call themselves a journalist -- when you're the one who interviewed the person, typed up the quotes, rolled it into a story and took the time to create that. The Internet has really changed journalism -- and not all for good.
What advice do you have for other women who want to be sports reporters?
I started doing internships really early. I was 15 when I had my first internship. You have to do the internships and offer your time and actually work at it. You might learn writing in school. But nothing is going to teach you more than just flat out experience.
Also, with everybody, you really have to keep it real. If you don’t keep it real, people will figure out real fast. If you have passion, and people feel your passion, it shows. Everyone in that garage is driven, and they share passion for racing just as much as those of us covering the sport.
-Interview by Brianne Burrowes
Image | Scott A. Miller/Special to FOXSports.com