• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM: First there was the cap. Then drink bottles, sun glasses, The Terrible Towel and other assorted gimmicks. This season Helio Castroneves introduced headphones as part of his personal sponsorship. You have to wonder -- What's next? I'm afraid to guess.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

PAST AND PRESENT

The weekend was one of those where it was impossible not to think about the past. And, in some cases, compare it with the present. One of those things was the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 first moon landing. That was a reminder of when America --and its citizens -- could do great things because it/we had the will to do great things.

Regarding IndyCar at Toronto on Saturday, the non-starter of a weekend doubleheader; yes, safety is paramount, so I don't want to hear any lectures about that. But I vividly remember how CART drivers raced in a steady and heavy rain -- in front of absolutely full grandstands -- at Toronto in 1990. I remember this because, as the storm intensified, race control asked teams to ask their drivers if the race should be ended. I was working with Newman/Haas at the time and quickly calculated that Michael Andretti would only lose a few points to Al Unser Jr. in the PPG Cup standings if it was red/checkered. Team manager Ed Nathman radioed that to Michael and he said, yes, stop. And it was, with Jr. winning and Michael second. The point here is there was a race and the fans filled Exhibition Place. Quite a contrast to Saturday, including the empty seats at a venue now with a reduced spectator capacity.

There probably will be some talk now about more two-races-on-one-day. I was with CART when we did that at Atlanta in 1981, with Rick Mears winning both ends. But if there are going to be twin bills I'm sure IndyCar and promoters will want to stay with the Saturday-Sunday format now in place. Better for publicity -- and ticket sales.

Here's something Formula One has right: The cars roll promptly after a 30-minute pre-race show. IndyCar's producers, apparently overly influenced by the ridiculously long NASCAR pre-race shows, need to follow F1's example. Currently the pre-race has too much wasted time with meaningless track drives and driver features that can be so stupid as to be painful to watch. Come on the air, report any breaking news or controversy, set the grid, interview the pole winner, review the race basics, let the experts talk like experts for a couple of minutes, and then get on with it. A half-hour is enough. Please don't tell me these dumb driver features are helping to make new fans. Where is the evidence of that? And when -- WHEN? -- will production executives insist that pit reporters actually ask meaningful questions? In some cases, any questions, rather than making a statement and then sticking the microphone into someone else's face.  

Speaking of trying to make new fans, the Saturday embarrassment surely did not turn any casual viewers into people who wanted to watch for long. Delays, Briscoe in the tires on the pace lap, Power spinning coming toward a (non) green flag, more delays, talk about if rules allowed teams to work on their cars or not, more delays, well, you get my point. Sunday came with disagreement on how the starting lineup should be set and a lap one caution. Sure as hell not impressive for a series that promotes its drivers' talents on diverse courses. I doubt many/any casual watchers came back to see the actual quality racing that went on later.

(By the way, as to branding and event identification, how much more out-of-touch can golf's Royal & Ancient be in insisting that the British Open be called "The Open Championship"? Where is "The Open Championship"? Can you imagine F1 allowing the British Grand Prix to be called "The Grand Prix"? No. Arrogant and dumb is this.)

Finally, there were memories that came with the sad news of the passings of James Garner and Gary Lee.

I met and interviewed Garner (we even did a little socializing) when he drove the Indy 500 pace car. That was a great promotion with the Hurst Olds orchestrated by the late Hurst PR VP Jack Duffy and, of course, Linda Vaughn was a big part of it. Garner will also always be respected by racers and race fans for his starring role in Grand Prix, the best-ever Hollywood motorsports-theme movie. 

Many fans remember Lee for his pit reporting on the ESPN "Thunder" shows. But I think of his work in the pits at CART, when ESPN began covering those races at Milwaukee in June 1981. I was CART's communications director at the time and had done the deal with ESPN. Bob Jenkins and Larry Nuber were the other members of the on-air team. CART had a series of pit fires then and Gary interviewed me when we had one at Milwaukee.


Regarding news here last week of honors earned in the 2013 International Automotive Media Awards: Due to a misunderstanding on my part, I didn't realize until a few days ago that my CompetitionPlus.com column also won a gold medal for commentary series. Thanks again to the readers and all involved.

[ more next week . . . ]

Sunday, July 13, 2014

RTA ISN'T CART BECAUSE NASCAR ISN'T USAC

NASCAR's real reaction to last week's Race Team Alliance announcement was easy to see to those with experienced eyes. And who really know something about the Business of Racing.

One thing that surely stung in Daytona Beach was this news came just a couple of days after Brian France's upbeat mid-season press conference. Ouch!

The first clue came in NASCAR's statement regarding the new business collaboration of nine multi-car Sprint Cup teams. In my PR career I've seen what happens when people are caught flat-footed and the sanction essentially was in this case. One signal was the brief statement was attributed to the Chief (Non) Communications Officer (and architect of the dehumanizing Integrated Marketing Communications department.) Here's an industry truth: When a statement is attributed to a spokesman (no matter his title), not a principal, that means the bosses want to keep several arm-lengths away from the issue. (Mike Helton talking at New Hampshire Motor Speedway  -- noteably in front of the NASCAR hauler, not the higher-profile and more formal setting of the media center -- doesn't change that. It was just a repeat using a voice instead of a piece of paper/ Internet space. It was a PR/political necessity. Silence, in this case, would not have been golden. It would have shown a tin ear.) And the wording yielded further insights about the sanction's stance which then, tellingly, took a defensive tone. I'll reprint the statement here but please note the bold inclusions are added by me for emphasis:


“We are aware of the alliance concept the team owners have announced, but have very few specifics on its structure or purpose. It is apparently still in development and we’re still learning about the details so it would be inappropriate to comment right now. NASCAR’s mission, as it has always been, is to create a fair playing field where anyone can come and compete. Our job is to support and strengthen all of the teams, large and small, across all of our series and we’ll continue to do that. NASCAR is a unique community with hundreds of stakeholders. They all have a voice and always will.”

You bet. Those sentences are not that much far removed from those issued by USAC in 1979 when team owners under the CART banner started their own series. But the RTA is no CART, despite what you might have read/heard from some media who pretend to understand how racing business and politics work, and I'll explain more here shortly.

The second clue came from NASCAR.com. In case you don't know it, that site's editorial content is now under NASCAR's direction, not Turner's. NASCAR.com provided no story on this breaking news, just a posting of the PR statement. That says a lot, just as, in a different context, did the lack of on-site coverage of Kurt Busch's Indianapolis 500 effort. 

Let me assure you RTA is about -- surprise! -- money. Let me also assure you RTA is not going to be CART because NASCAR isn't USAC.

Politics makes strange bedfellows. We saw that with Bruton Smith, who has had his own issues with the sanction, stating at New Hamp that he's "shoulder-to-shouder" with NASCAR as it pertains to the RTA. Translation: Smith is worried his cut of the TV money will be reduced.

So, as I posted on Twitter ( @SpinDoctor500 ) last week, have no doubt the RTA is about money. As in taking more in and sending less out. As NASCAR's new TV deals with Fox and NBC start next year, reportedly worth more than $8 billion during its span, I guarantee you Hendrick, Childress, Gibbs, Roush, Penske, Petty, Stewart-Haas, Ganassi and Waltrip want a higher percentage of the distribution. I can assure you they know the Formula One team owners pounded on Bernie Ecclestone for more of the worldwide TV income. One way you'll be able to tell if NASCAR honestly is nervous about the RTA is if it reduces its own 10 percent slice of the TV dough pie. I doubt it. And with ISC having committed up to $400 million to "re-image" Daytona International Speedway, with ISC, Smith's Speedway Motorsports and Dover all being public companies that have to answer to analysts and shareholders and which already have taken a significant hit on ticket sales revenue in recent years, you can see why that collective will resist having its percentage reduced. Please note this huge difference: The track companies are public companies; the race teams are private companies.

The RTA has referred to trying to leverage its collective business to get a better group rate on hotel rooms, travel and insurance. Watch for this: If RTA negotiates such contracts, will it give NASCAR a taste of it just for political sake, or in some cases could these be in conflict with NASCAR's own "official" partners or even will NASCAR claim what RTA has done has damaged its ability to negotiate such "official" deals?

A few dollars saved on hotels or whatever, added up over a full season, still would only count as a relatively small reduction in owner costs. But with the value of sponsorship teams have been able to obtain or keep way, Way, WAY down from the pre-2008 Wall St. crash highs, any CEO or COO or CFO will say any saving helps. Believe me, they'll take it.

There are plenty of other issues to concern the Big Time owners. NASCAR continues to fiddle with the cars and bodywork and now is talking about horsepower reductions. All of this, in Brian France's continued push to attain side-by-side racing, has come with a price tag. As I also put on Twitter last week, RTA is guaranteed to re-ignite talk about franchising. It's worth remembering that franchises were once part of the CART business model, which, at least on paper, established some value on team ownership. It was one of the few good biz moves in that era of CART. Franchise owners got more prize money and could sell the asset of the franchise if they so wished. Cup team owners have none of this.

With all of that said, and despite what some "experts" have reported, RTA is no CART because NASCAR sure ain't no USAC. I was around in that era, first as a Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter, and then as CART's first communications director, and then as a sponsor/team representative. USAC in the late 1970s was a weak organization. It didn't have strong leadership, it lacked financial resources (for example, it was only getting around to owning its own headquarters building) for the necessary level of marketing and public relations, it didn't have a vision, and it suffered the terrible loss of key officials in the 1978 airplane crash. It lacked a Big Picture business plan. It's Board of Directors, which included car owners from the sprint, midget and even stock car divisions, made rules and other decisions which directly impacted the Indy Car team owners, and they (understandable to me) didn't like it. Dan Gurney's famous "White Paper" created the spark that eventually led to (the first) CART-USAC split.

NASCAR, obviously, has the France family in firm charge. All of the other things that were negatives for USAC don't apply here. And, NASCAR has that $8 billion-plus backing-it-up going forward. (I would assume, though, that those TV contracts specify a certain number of cars and probably some other items like X number of the top X drivers/teams in points to be in the field. When I did CART's first TV contract with ESPN for the 1981 season, for example, we had to guarantee a minimum of 18 cars. So that does, at least in theory, give the RTA some leverage.) I can also guarantee you Roger Penske has no interest in creating a new sanctioning body and will/would warn others again it. Recall that Penske, as CART's co-founder, eventually left that series for the IRL.

Here's a sort of Bottom Line, at least for now: How Big a Deal the RTA really turns out to be will be up to the RTA's Big 9, not NASCAR. Will they "ask" NASCAR for things, or will they "demand"??? 

But, as Jimmie Johnson (who didn't mention driver contracts when talking about reducing costs) admitted when asked about a driver's organization during his media availability at New Hamp (bold emphasis mine), “That opportunity is definitely there.  I don’t know where others stand and feel with it.  I haven’t put any thought into it myself.  I guess in some ways Pandora’s Box has been opened with this topic and discussion.  We will see where it leads."

Will the RTA ultimately be Pandora's Box or the toy surprise inside a box of deliciously sweet  Cracker Jacks? The answer to that question will tell you if the news value of this story is LeBron returning to Cleveland, or Joe going to Kokomo.



This will be the last "off" weekend of the Sprint Cup season. So I'll use that opportunity to assess the impact of NASCAR's new "win-and-your-in" Chase system in this Sunday's (July 20) Arizona Republic ( www.AzCentral.com ). Part 2 will be Monday (21st). 



Those on Twitter @SpinDoctor500 saw this first: Of summer, baseball and drag racing -- My first CompetitionPlus.com column in more than three months:
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/28643-michael-knight-the-boys-and-girls-of-summer-kinda-sorta


Good news is always welcome. I recently was notified of three honors earned in the 2013 International Automotive Media Awards. All three stories appeared in the Arizona Republic.  My in-depth exclusive on Mark Martin's stepping-away from driving took the gold medal in the newspaper news category. It also won the overall "Best of" in the newspaper category. That's the second time in three years I've got a "Best of," the other being in 2011 in the Internet commentary competition for the much-discussed "Untenable" blog. Also: My Q&A with Danica Patrick got a silver medal in the interview category. My feature on A.J. Foyt got a silver in the personality profile category. Thanks to all, especially you, the readers, who help make such things happen -- and meaningful.

more next Monday . . . ]

Monday, July 07, 2014

THE 8th ANNIVERSARY BLOG

Image and reputation mean everything in life and in business. Properly developed, and earned over time, these will lead to something even more important: Trust.

I've come to realize this during my over four decades of professional experience in PR and journalism. I know a lot of people think PR is just about getting publicity for a driver, team, sponsor, series or track. (Actually, too many of the current generation of so-called "PR" people conduct themselves such that they see their job as to carry the driver's helmet and automatically say "NO" to interview requests -- or not even bother to reply.) But there's much more to it than that. As I've occasionally revealed here, and even in my CompetitionPlus.com column (October 2011), sometimes the best work I've done has been to keep a client's name out of the press. Or otherwise act to protect the client's image and reputation. And help them keep the public's trust. 

(The old saying about "any publicity is good publicity" is uttered by people who don't know anything about real-world PR.)

It's no secret the public's trust in many of our national institutions -- especially government -- has been eroded. To me, it's a clear warning signal of a society trending downward. It's also no secret that social media, including Twitter and Facebook, are powerful tools that gives the average person -- not just the media elites -- a way to communicate their experiences and opinions with the potential of a virtually universal audience. Today, that means image and reputation and trust can be destroyed with a few keystrokes and clicks. Think about that. But it's surprising to me how many Big Business entities are dismissive of social media's power to do that.

(Let's also acknowledge how social media can be abused. Fake "news" is one way. The other day I read a post and, because that anonymous writer didn't like the bad news delivered by a professional journalist  -- confirmed by others -- he/she launched into a personal attack including calling the journalist a "hack." Before that came a post from someone claiming to have written the Arizona Republic's football writer (yes, FOOTBALL writer; man, does that make a lot of sense!) complaining about no racing coverage. I guess this guy hasn't picked up a paper in the last seven years! Pretty soon I'm going to be in favor of deploying drones equipped with HD cameras and using facial-recognition technology to surveil people like this and expose them to the public ridicule they so richly deserve.)

As I've considered the best way to approach this, the eighth anniversary of this blog, I've decided to write about image and reputation and trust. And I'll do so from personal experience, not because I want sympathy or to inflame anyone, but as a continuation of the mutual learning journey I've set forth as this blog's goal from the beginning of what I referred to as "The Great Adventure" back on July 10, 2006. 

Here are three telling case studies. This is the kind of stuff other people won't tell you. But I will.

Toyota's image and reputation for quality ended with me when I was sold a lemon of a Lexus that had multiple factory recalls. Many excuses followed. I no longer trust the product.

I bought that Lexus from a dealership owned by Roger Penske. (And, no, I didn't ask for or get any "deal.") For obvious reasons, I expected the highest standards of customer service. That's the very foundation of the Penske business model -- and empire. It was not the dealership's fault the car needed to be recalled so many times. But all those service visits let me see the soft underside of the operation. One time, they could not find the electronic ignition fob (they asked me if I had it -- that made sense since I was standing there waiting for the car!) and I was left waiting in summer Arizona temperatures for 30 minutes. Another time, the service rep forgot to call me to say my car was ready. Worst yet was when there was a theft of personal property from the car while in the Penske dealership's possession. (Very tellingly, when I told the cracker-jack Penske Racing PR leader this had happened, his response was to basically shrug his shoulders.) This dealership is no longer part of the Penske Automotive Group. Interestingly enough, I've observed the quality of customer service has improved. 

Most importantly for me has been the betrayal of The Mayo Clinic. I now refer to this as The Mayo Myth.

For privacy reasons, I'll skip a lot of specifics, but you'll get the point. Although I was in the Mayo system for about 15 years (and, even though Mayo services weren't covered by my insurance, I paid out-of-pocket for what I thought was the best-possible care), late last year when I called to make a routine appointment I was scheduled not with my primary care physician, but with a nurse practioner. I was given no prior notice of this change. Alarm Bell 1. When I asked about seeing my primary doctor, I was told the next available appointment was five months away. Alarm Bell 2.

The NP failed to order a test I had specifically requested -- which I noticed when I reviewed my tests results via an online portal. Alarm Bell 3.  Upon receiving Mayo's bill for these tests, I discovered they could have been done elsewhere for about 10 times less. There is no evidence Mayo did it better -- certainly not 10 times better. Alarm Bell 4. When I reviewed my medical notes via the portal, I found several factual errors. Alarm Bell 5. One of which was referring to pain as being in my left leg. Actually, it's in my right leg. Alarm Bell 6. I guess I should be thankful Mayo didn't do surgery because they might have cut on the wrong leg!

Another thing I learned was, at least in my case, if you don't act to help Mayo maximize it's own revenues, there is a secondary (and undisclosed) level of care. That's apparently what happened to me. Alarm Bell 7.  Mayo still has not communicated to me the results of a follow-up test done in March. Alarm Bell 8. When I began expressing my concern to Mayo about these various issues, well, I guess it's just coincidence, but I could no longer access my own medical records via the portal. Alarm Bell 9. Mayo claims the problem is not on their end, but with my computer, and suggested I call an IT service. As to the inaccurate medical notes, Mayo said I'd need to fill out a form to possibly get this corrected. (Don't lecture me about federal law.) In other words, Mayo expects me to use my own valuable time to fix its screw-ups. Alarm Bells 10 and 11.

By the time I finally got a call from my actual primary care doctor, it was overdue. Alarm Bell 12. I had already taken action to directly obtain my test results and promptly arrange necessary treatment outside of the Mayo system.

The person assigned to conduct Mayo's internal review conveniently skipped over the fact that that March test result was never communicated to me. This guy, who by the way is one of those who doesn't seem to understand how social media can impact image and reputation and trust, who doesn't seem to do his homework, and who doesn't know a Damn Thing about customer service (and I always tell medical people I'm a customer, not a patient), made the situation worse. Which was the worst thing he could have done. His one written communication to me came from a secretary. For the record, his name is Jon Nordrum, and in my experience he's an absolute example of the sort of arrogance that has diminished many an American institution, such as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Alarm Bells 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17.

Oh, by the way, I continue to receive solicitations for financial contributions from Mayo. Alarm Bell 18.

And also, by the way, I possess documentation to verify all of the above, including printed copies of the inaccurate medical notes.

I know many others have benefitted well from treatment bought -- emphasis on bought and paid for -- from the Mayo system. I am glad for those who have had that experience.

All I can do is share my experience. And that has led me to unmask the The Mayo Myth regarding image, reputation and trust.

Sadly -- terribly -- it's a reflection of our greater society and nation. So my bottom-line message in this eighth anniversary blog is simple:

Buyer Beware.

That's the way it REALLY is. The need to look past image and reputation to determine if trust is justified has never been more real. 

[ more next week . . . ]

Sunday, June 08, 2014

PLEASE THINK ABOUT THIS

Here are 10 facts (as opposed to attacks) that could have been learned from the 20-minute conversation I had in the Pagoda at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway May 23 with CEO Mark Miles. That was posted here last week. Of course, one would have to focus on the message, not the messenger, to actually become a more informed fan. A more knowledgeable fan is a better fan.

 1. The much talked-about $100 million to fix-up IMS will actually net out at $15-20 million less than that.

 2. The Indiana state money isn't to be used for maintenance.

 3. The Master Plan to redevelop IMS will be presented to the IMS Board this month.

 4. The Plan will include upgrading of some grandstand sections and a party deck.

 5. ADA compliance is triggered when there is change to a grandstand.

 6. Key business metrics, such as revenues and TV numbers, are up.

 7. The Board wants IMS used more "aggressively"; thus, more events.

 8. To date, the Board has not said no to any Miles' proposal.

 9. Competition boss Derrick Walker's duties have been expanded to include taking the lead on the possibility of an event at Phoenix International Raceway.

10. The window for season-opening points-paying international races is from the week after the Super Bowl through the first weekend in March.


One might logically think those who portray themselves as highly engaged, passionate, fans would appreciated the information presented from the Miles' conversation.  

But, sadly, as the standards of acceptable behavior continue to decline in our social media society, where gutless anonymous people post lies and personal attacks without fear of consequence or accountability, that's too often not the case. There was a time, and it wasn't that long ago (I lived it), when such conduct would have caused the attacker to be shunned. If not punished by one's parents or tagged over the knuckles with a ruler by a nun.

These days, it's not about what some people read. It's about what they think they read, based on their own biases and the invention of their own set of "facts." Important information is not digested -- in other words, there is no learning -- just because some people disagree with who presents that information. Some even justify these sort of personal attacks as part of the "fun" of the Internet. Or, worse yet, as OK because it's all "entertainment."

Even when facts are presented that prove shoot-from-the-keyboard posters are wrong, well, how many of these people then step-up and apologize? A great recent example: Beaux Barfield ordering a red flag at Indy because he had decided in advance to do that in the event of a crash with 10 or fewer laps remaining, not because of damage to the SAFER barrier. Still waiting, Waiting, WAITING for those "sorry, I was wrong . . ." apologies for the personal attacks (and outright lies) that came after I called Barfield out on Twitter.

Logic might lead one to conclude fans would want to learn more about the Business of Racing, which includes various marketing and PR techniques, which -- yes -- helps gain an enterprise more attention. The Internet and social media can be great tools to accomplish these objectives. And, in responsible hands, they are.

Some of us still believe a productive day is defined as having learned something, not having personally attacked someone.

After the LeBron James' controversy in Game One of the NBA Finals, ABC lead announcer Mike Breem said social media has devolved into "the medium of attack." Very true. It doesn't have to be that way, of course, if the traditional standards of acceptable behavior were still in force. They could and should be.

Some are so ill-informed -- or lazy? -- they don't understand the difference in the personalized way a blog is written, vs. a straight news story, vs. a feature article, vs. an opinion column. The purpose and methodology of each are not the same.

I'd ask some of these people if they have no shame. But the answer is obvious.

Was there solid information from Mark Miles in the blog that helped fans better understand what is happening at IMS and in IndyCar and his plans for the future? Was there knowledge to be gained? The obvious answers: Yes and Yes.

Too bad that's not good enough.

P.S. -- To those who will now post anonymous personal attacks based on this blog, thanks, in advance, for proving my point.

[ PLEASE NOTE: Higher and more urgent personal priorities will again put this blog on hiatus. I'll return July 7 to mark the blog's eighth anniversary. Thank you.]



  

Sunday, June 01, 2014

IN THE PAGODA WITH MARK MILES

When I turned off of 16th St. into the Brickyard Crossing entrance at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the other week, here's the first thing I noticed. Or, I should say, felt. A big pothole, right at the beginning of the driveway, a few feet in front of where the Yellow Shirt guards were standing.

That pothole, of course, is a near-perfect symbol of the troubles IMS and the IndyCar series have faced since Tony George's disaster of a decision to create his own tour in 1996. You know all the metrics: Lower TV ratings, ticket sales, car counts, sponsorship dollars, fan base, etc., etc. etc. And that pothole represents the challenges that confront Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, IMS President Doug Boles, and everyone else now charged with rebuilding the enterprise. This especially includes the appearance and facilities of the Speedway, itself.

Miles was in charge for his second Indy 500. He says progress has been made on the business front and I think the evidence signals that's true. His re-working of the May schedule to include a road-course race, different qualifying format, and added entertainment elements to the race weekend -- happily combined with near-perfect weather -- appeared to have produced bigger crowds and perhaps a bit more overall media and public buzz for The Greatest Spectacle.

Given the declines of the last almost two decades, any positive movement is, well, positive. There's still a long, difficult, sometimes bumpy road ahead, however, and Miles knows it. 

Last May, I had the opportunity to spend almost 45 minutes with Miles in his IMS office. We talked again before last season's 500-mile finale in California. And, this past May 23, the Friday before the 98th running, I was invited up to the seventh floor of the Pagoda for another conversation. Here are highlights of our 20-minute talk. Please note: The order of questions and answers is not in the exact order I asked. I have moved more overall newsworthy quotes to the top. My questions here are generalized from the way I actually asked them but the substance remains true. Miles' answers are direct from my transcript. 

Oh, and for the benefit of all the chatroom critics, Miles admitted I actually gave him a new talking point. I suggested the Speedway could be considered as a lot like Wrigley Field: An iconic American sports venue, that will never be truly "modern" in terms of amenities and spectator comfort, but that's offset by the historic nature of the stadium. Miles embraced that, so if you hear or read him make the comparison, that came from me. I guess the PR/image-builder in me is still there . . . 

ISC is spending upwards of $400 million of its own corporate money to "re-imagine" Daytona International Speedway by the start of 2016. IMS, in an agreement with the state of Indiana, has announced about a $100 million upgrade, done over a much longer time frame. The "master plan" for this has yet to be revealed and it's more than a year in the making. It's fair to say a lot of people think IMS needs a lot more work than Daytona. Are you concerned with this comparison?


"The net proceeds are likely to be between $80 and 85 million. That is not enough money to remake the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Nor do we want to remake the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I don't think you can compare what is being done at Daytona to what we're doing here. But I do think it's enough money to make some substancial improvements that will make it better from a fan experience perspective and have some ability to increase revenues. 

"The plan isn't done. It will be presented to our Board in June and then it has to go to the state. There hasn't been one (master plan) before so to take a year and really look carefully at how to take a lot, but a limited, amount of money -- you could spend a whole lot more than we're going to have -- and be thoughtful about how you're going to do it, I think was appropriate to take a year. Technology will be kind of a first thing everybody will see. And certain improvement of stands -- targeted, selected, meaningful. And then the creation of some additional stands -- there will be some party decks. I think these will be meaningful improvements but I don't think it changes the character of the Speedway."

One issue is making IMS ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant. Won't that use a lot of the available money?


"We have a program over time for ADA compliance. The trigger for changes is if we touch stands. So one of the major threads in planning is we want to do something in a permanent stand and compliance kicks in. We have to be thoughtful about that."

It's been reported at least $5 million was spent to re-do the road course. What about basic items such as cleaning-up the public restrooms?

"The state money isn't for maintenance. If you get around you'll see some changes, not so much in restrooms, that will be next. But in concessions, there's been a fair amount of money put into improving and updating them technology-wise, look and operational."

Do you think of IMS as being like Wrigley Field? An iconic sports venue that will never be the most modern but people love it for its history and tradition?


"I think it's a very good one (comparison) and you've added that to my lexicon. The ones I've used are Wimbledon and the national golf club (Augusta National), where they exude tradition. That doesn't mean they're backwards. I'm not an expert on what Wrigley looks like today. It's been a few years since I've been there. My sense is they probably need more investment. But they've got this special alchemy and special talent of doing it in a way that preserves the sense of legacy and history. That's more our approach."

You've been CEO for about 1 1/2 years now. How much progress do you think you've made?

"I don't know what I would have said in February. But, sitting here today, I feel very good about things we've put into place having an effect. Before the 500, we had five times more television viewers this May than we did last. The total attendance for May will be up at least 30 percent. Concessions, merchandise and the like are up about 50 percent. So the changes we've tried to put into place for May are at the Speedway, but in my mind, about lifting IndyCar. Overall, the television audience to date for IndyCar is up 125 percent. Admittedly starting from a small base. Every race but one was up double digits. Directionally, it's really positive. On top of that, obviously, the Verizon investment (new series sponsor), that partnership is really important. You're just beginning to see the kinds of things they are going to bring to the table."

America became great, in part, thanks to family-owned businesses. The traditions of Indy have been very important to the Hulman George family. There's been a lot of management turnover in recent years. How do you balance tradition vs. business needs? How do you keep the family in agreement with what you believe needs to be done?

"The first step was to have a strategy and to get Board buy-in to the strategy. The next step is case-by-case. So, our Board, starting with the family, is on-board with the notion we need to use the Indianapolis Motor Speedway more aggressively. That gives you a framework. Then we can look at all kinds of different options. The Grand Prix is only one example. The vintage race is another example. So I think we have a clear internal understanding of the strategy that represents a consensus of management and the Board. And when we are breaking new ground, consistent with the strategy, in a meaningful way, that is something the Board would have to agree with and sign-off on. To date, I haven't been told 'no.' I think the mindset of the Board is, 'We need to push the accelerator and move the place forward.' That obviously means you are not simply going to do what you've done in the past. We'll do a lot of what we've done and continue to try to improve on those things and be open to opportunity as well.

"Look, it's a business, and therefore there are risks. I never believed that the Grand Prix was in any way a risk to the 500. I completely believe it builds audience for the 500. That's a good thing for IndyCar. That's just evidence of a tactic in leveraging the value of the series with this place. I think the overall attitude is we should try to do some new things. Some will work and some won't."

You'll apparently start next season with some international, points-paying, races. And there was a news release about New Orleans being a possible venue. What about getting back to major U.S. markets like Phoenix, which would add an oval to the schedule?

"Derrick (Walker) is taking the lead to see if Phoenix is an option at some point. We have not told New Orleans there is a date yet. What we've said is, 'We'd like to be here.' One of the 'ifs' is a date. We don't know yet if there will be a date. We expect to be racing in New Orleans but it's not done.

"It (Phoenix International Raceway) is a place our world thinks very highly of. Some believe if we went back it would take a while but we could rebuild our fan base there. That's attractive. We have more supply than weeks in the summer (so) filling out the (early season schedule) at places that can do it is attractive to us. There's probably one opportunity in March. We'll have to figure out who fits it best. We do have an interest. It's a matter of if there's a date. For now it may be a round peg in a square hole.

"What we're doing is, I think it will be announced fairly soon, is start our season earlier and international. The window is the week after the Super Bowl through the first week in March for international points races. There might be a way to start in North America one week before St. Pete is now. I think we're going to have some very attractive opportunities in that February window."

[ more next week . . . ]


Monday, May 26, 2014

INDY INSIGHTS

It was a last-minute go/no-go decision. But I again took U.S. Airways flight No. 500 from Phoenix to Indianapolis for my 36th Indy 500.

My first lasting memory was the weather forecast was incredibly good right from the start of race week. It usually changes several times and the chance of rain always adds to the stress level for competitors, fans, sponsors, TV -- and management. This time it was fantastic and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway execs could not have asked for a better race weekend forecast and weather.

My first "official" act was a 20-minute talk with IndyCar CEO Mark Miles Friday morning on the seventh floor of the Pagoda. I'll write more extensively about our conversation in the next week or two. But, as I sent out as a Tweet, not likely Phoenix International Raceway will be on the 2015 Verizon series schedule. Points-paying international races will take up early-year dates that might have worked for PIR. I guarantee you 99 percent of sponsors would prefer to be in the important Phoenix market rather than overseas. One result of Miles' move to condense the schedule to end by Labor Day means fewer available race dates, which results in a supply-and-demand business situation. Miles told me competition boss Derrick Walker will take a look at the Phoenix possibilities. I spoke with Derrick and he mostly understands the issues at play here.

Cruising Gasoline Alley on Carb Day is always one of the more interesting experiences of any I500 weekend. For me, it means catching-up with friends and people I've worked with on teams in the past. It's a great way for me to get informed on current developments with the cars -- team managers predicted to me then the draft effect would not be as dramatic this year as the last two -- and, yes, sometimes remember Good Old Days. In some ways I think this remains one of Indy's most important purposes: As a common meeting ground for buddies and business associates. Don't underestimate how valuable that is.

(For example: Wonderful to see Nigel Roebuck visiting Indy for the first time since Mario Andretti was last on the front row. Nigel, now well into his fifth decade covering Formula One, skipped Monaco to again see The Greatest Spectacle.)

Added to the Friday schedule this year: A late-afternoon Robby Gordon off-road truck race. I'm not criticizing it, but it's impossible to think Tony Hulman could ever have imagined such a thing!

Friday night at the IMS Museum was the launch party for the new Jim McGee/Gordon Kirby book, Crew Chief of Champions. It was very impressive and the turnout was huge. McGee and Kirby autographed books all evening (see photo on my Twitter page.) I've known Gordon since 1980 and McGee since the 1970s. He was a good resource for me when I was CART's communications director and then we worked together at Newman/Haas Racing for two years, including Nigel Mansell's historic 1993 PPG Cup championship season. McGee's knowledge and influence were massively important in achieving that title.

It was impressive -- and refreshing -- to see RaceMaker Press publisher Joe Freeman invest in his product with such a classy event. Believe me, this kind of thing was typical in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, but not anymore. That's due to budget restrictions, true, but also because too many have decided it's good enough to build "relationships" on Twitter and Facebook. As I wrote on Twitter, the highest compliment I can give is that Jim Chapman would have approved of, and enjoyed, the evening. First class and well done to all involved.

I will be diving into the book this week and anticipating a great read and some special stories. Check out www.RaceMaker.com or www.GordonKirby.com for more information.

I've been in the Museum countless times. I have to say the special exhibit of turbine-powered cars is one of the most impressive things I've ever seen there. Not only Jack Zink's first-try at a turbine, but also all three of the 1968 STP Lotus "wedges". That color and that design remain one of my top-five favorite cars. But also on display: The evil Carroll Shelby-Ken Wallis creation that was so undriveable the entries were withdrawn before qualifying in '68. And the little-remembered 1971 Lotus Formula One car that Emerson Fittipaldi, and others, tried. The display is capped with a re-creation of the 1967 STP garage and the turbine Parnelli Jones almost won in. It's very well done.

Saturday moring was a quick visit to the Firestone-Honda sponsored AARWBA breakfast. I wanted to see Donald Davidson receive the Bob Russo Founders Award for life-long contributions to motorsports. Incredibly well-deserved and what an incredible asset Donald has been to me, many others, and the sport as a whole. And congratulations to my Arizona Republic colleague Mark Armijo who won two awards in the annual AARWBA journalism contest.

Later that morning I got to do something I've wanted to for months: Shake Dario Franchitti's hand and congratulate him on a great career. Dario was the appropriate choice to drive the Chevrolet Camaro pace car.

Hoosier favorite Jim Nabors, who sang Back Home Again in Indiana for what he says was the last time, got a standing ovation -- including from the drivers -- when introduced at the ceremonial drivers' meeting. Nabors was presented with a special ring normally reserved for the qualified drivers.

I abandoned my usual pre-race routine and stood in front of the podium to get a good view of Nabors' final performance. (And the spectacular Martina McBride's America the Beautiful.) Nabors then was given the honor of sharing the "start your engines" command with Mary Hulman George.

I listened to most of the race on the IMS Radio Network, my friend Paul Page's return to the anchor microphone that made him famous. He sounded good and was in classic Page form directing the work of his team of pit reporters. Paul has always had a great sense of storytelling and again used that well to make sure listeners were as connected as possible to what was happening. The Speedway's economic new reality was reflected in the increased commercialization of the presentation, including a corporate name for the pit reporter crew. I thought that was a bit overdone but I understand why.

The race pace through 150 laps was incredible. As predicted in my Friday Tweet, the draft was not what it was the two previous I500s. It was becoming a track position race until the final stages and the excellent Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves battle. This was one of those Indys that will be remembered for the last few laps, not the overall race. And let's note Hunter-Reay has now twice emerged from late-race red flags (for the series championship a couple of years ago at California Speedway) that might have cost him Big. Ryan said in victory lane that he's a "proud American" and it will be worth observing if a U.S. Indy winner will actually move the popularity meter the rest of this season.

And, for the benefit of the fan "experts," let me say this about that late red flag. Anyone in a position to have HONEST (in other words, not Politically Correct) conversations with the REAL in-the-know movers-and-shakers in Gasoline Alley and the IMS executive offices (or who monitored the scanner or even a bit of the IMS Radio Network broadcast) knows race director Beaux Barfield was hell-bent on stopping the race in the last 10 laps in order to get a green-flag finish. Just as he did, to much criticism, a few years ago at Fontana. That mindset was in place before Nabors' sang. Barfield's decision to stop was made well-before the chatroom know-it-alls saw a quick fix being made to the SAFER barrier. What Barfield had in mind was made clear to me last Friday, from those who know as opposed to those who guess, so I wasn't shocked.

It's a true Sign of the Times that Kurt Busch commanded so much of the Indy media attention. After Friday's final practice, Kurt came to the Chris Economaki media interview room. One national writer blasted past me on the stairs -- open laptop in hand -- to insert a few Kurt quotes in his story and then press "send." My pre-race observation was IMS bosses were secretly hoping Kurt would run competitively and actually finish the 500 miles to keep the NASCAR audience tuned-in. An early DNF would likely mean a lot of lost eyeballs. Kurt fell back early, getting a handle on his car, and using pit stops to make handling adjustments. He came on strong in the closing stages and finished a very honorable sixth.

I think it's fair to say Busch's attempt at "The Double" was the most intriguing -- maybe the biggest pre-race -- story of the downsized Month of May. Not that you'd have known much about it by reading only the NASCAR-centric media outlets. The fact that NASCAR's own spinners essentially ignored Busch's effort -- the wrong move if for nothing else as a way to boost it's own TV ratings of the Coca-Cola 600 -- was shameful and smacked of arrogance. Just where was that NASCAR.com on-site coverage?

Yes, NASCAR is king of the American racing scene. But, get this ladies and gentlemen, there are useful achievements to be had beyond the NASCAR garage area. Kurt Busch proved that Sunday. 

[ more next week . . . ]

Sunday, May 18, 2014

BACK FOR THE BIG DAY

I've emerged from the far side of a dark tunnel in time to (hopefully) enjoy racing's Most Important Weekend.

With the admission that lately I haven't been paying as close attention to what's happening, there are several things that immediately come to mind as racing's Christmas Day arrives.

ABC will televise the Indianapolis 500 for the 50th consecutive year. That seems, to me, like something of a Big Deal but I haven't noticed much push for this. Maybe this week . . . And Allen Bestwick will be under the microscope as he calls The Greatest Spectacle for the first time. Meanwhile, Paul Page returns as anchor of the Indy Radio Network, one of the best decisions made at 16th and Georgetown in recent years. I say good luck to both of them.

Indy represents another Big Test of CEO Mark Miles' overall plan to re-energize the Indy Car sport and the 500 in particular. Will it be a memorable race? How many empty seats will there be in the downsized Speedway grandstands? Any bump in TV numbers with ABC's lead-in coverage the last two weekends of the road course race and qualifying? How much of this will be because of Kurt Busch's run at The Double? All important things that, I guarantee you, sponsors and potential sponsors will be monitoring.

Over at NASCAR -- after another running of the least important and most over-hyped race of the year, the "All-Star" event -- there's the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Charlotte has cleaned Indy's clock in recent times as far as the TV numbers are concerned, but NASCAR's TV audience has been down I think at every race this season. It's an increasingly alarming trend and might make ESPN's decision to opt-out of NASCAR look smart. Will those audience totals go up at Charlotte? 

Formula One, now dominated by Mercedes instead of Red Bull, is showcased on NBC broadcast TV for the second consecutive year with the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix. That's one of the best things to have happened in quite a while. No doubt, that was a big reason NBC's sports cable outlet got the F1 rights. I'm sure the Monaco visuals will be great. I hope the racing is, too.

NHRA -- foolishly in my view -- is back on the Memorial Day weekend calendar after staying away for a number of years. Going up against Indy and Charlotte guarantees that Kansas is nothing more than a regional event for the straight-line racers and their sponsors. Just as Phoenix was on the same day as the Daytona 500. National media coverage? Forget it. Don't think sponsors don't notice ridiculous decisions such as this.

And, of course, there will be countless local short-track events from Sea-to-Shining-Sea. These remain the historical backbone of American motorsports and I particularly wish these promoters success and these racers good -- and safe -- runs.

This weekend's Winners and Losers will be decided in the marketplace as well as the racetracks. Those results will be known next week. This weekend, though, I am going to try to just enjoy it all as much as possible. I hope you can, too.

[ more next week . . . ]