• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A GIFT: THE WISDOM OF A LEGEND

I had the honor-of-a-lifetime to receive the first Jim Chapman Public Relations Award from Mr. Chapman himself at the 1991 CART awards ceremony in Houston. I'll treasure this moment forever. Jim holds a special career achievement award he was given from the CART PR community.



Sorry, my friends, but it's true. The past 12 months have been terrible in motorsports public relations.

The examples flow like newly-discovered water on Mars. Actually, to me, they are more stunning. Far-too-many who claim to be PR people don't know common courtesy, not to mention business 101, demands that they return phone calls and answer E-mails. Drivers are allowed to walk around with their uniforms pulled down, which not only cheats sponsors out of paid-for exposure, but creates a sloppy (read that: unprofessional) appearance. Speaking of cheating corporate patrons out of network TV time, there's the cheap trick of "The Terrible Towels," previously discussed here. Some reps apparently are too preoccupied chewing gum as their client spokesmen do interviews with competing sponsor ID -- or even a Port-a-John -- as backdrop.

The desperately troubled world of open-wheel racing brought the dumbed-down state of motorsports PR into sharp focus. Stunts gained priority over basics. The announcement of Marco Andretti's move into the IRL -- a no-brainer for publicity fireworks -- went off more like a sparkler because it was scheduled just before Christmas. The confirmation that Danica Patrick was switching teams was an equal near-dud. Once respected sponsors, who had a solid program with good value given the available funding, bowed to secondary status with teams possessing failed PR departments simply so they could sniff after the shallow rewards of celebrity-for-celebrity's sake. The very week Americans rose up against the government's proposed Dubai ports deal, Bobby Rahal issued a news release that his son would race for Team Lebanon in A1 GP, with a quote about being very proud of their Lebanese heritage and for Graham to represent "the Arab world." That bit of timing displayed not a tin ear to U.S. public opinion, but more like an iron ear. Nothing, of course, can top Cheever Racing's post-Watkins Glen release, which brought even more attention to the fact that media darling Patrick blamed Eddie for her crash, and a renewal of his feud with the world-famous Andretti family. Quoting from the team's own missive: "Run-ins with two popular drivers ended with Cheever . . . being called an 'idiot' twice on national television . . . " That one will be cited for years in PR classes as an example of what NOT to do.

James P. Chapman would mourn the condition of the business he loved.

I'm biased, because Jim was my best friend, but Mr. Chapman was not only a great man, he was one of history's great practitioners -- and innovators -- of the PR art. Testimony to this is the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association's annual award for excellence in motorsports PR is named in his honor and memory.

In November 1994, I sat down with Jim in a Bloomfield Hills, Mich., country club to record his advice on the PR biz for a trade publication. I'm not certain, but I believe it was his last formal interview, as Jim died in October 1996 at age 80. I reprint the introduction and transcript below exactly the way it was published in March 1995. His wise counsel remains as true today as it was more than a decade ago. In fact, it is wisdom for the ages.

Anyone who has known, or better yet, worked with, James P. Chapman is richer for the experience. After a journalism career and World War II service in the Air Force, Chapman left the New York Times to join Ford as regional PR director. He hired Babe Ruth as consultant to Ford's American Legion Junior Baseball sponsorship and traveled with him for two years and was at Ruth's bedside when he died. Chapman started his own PR firm in 1950 and worked with Bill France Sr. to co-promote the Motor City 250 as part of Detroit's 250th birthday celebration in 1951. He came to Indy Cars in 1967 with client Olsonite's sponsorship of Dan Gurney and pioneered trackside hospitality tents. PPG retained him in 1981 to run its CART series sponsorship and his impact was such that Indy Car Racing magazine named him Most Influential Man of the Decade. He retired after 1992 but was honorary chairman of Mario Andretti's Arrivederci season.

Q. What are the differences in dealing with the media now as opposed to when you started?
A. There is a great deal of difference. In the early days of my PR firm and with Ford, you knew everybody, almost intimately. I knew the automotive editors, the financial editors, the sports editors, the city editors, the managing editors, and usually the publishers. Today, many of the writers and columnists don't even go to their offices. They work at home. In auto racing, however, I think it's better because there are so many publications assigning reporters to cover the events. You see them at the tracks on a regular basis and that makes it easier.

Q. How do you develop those relationships?
A. At PPG, we had a great tool for that in our hospitality tent at all the tracks. We invited the media for continental breakfast and lunch. We attracted virtually all the major media people and I'd see them two, sometimes three times a day. That was a great asset. Many things have changed, but one that hasn't is hospitality and entertainment. I still think it's very important.

Q. Media observers have spoken of a lowering of journalistic standards. Too many stories seem to be based on rumors. How do you feel about this trend?
A. As a former journalist, I decry that method of reporting. I despise stories that use rumors and anonymous sources. The tabloids in London exist on rumors. I know of cases where so-called 'close sources' have been quoted when, in fact, the reporter made it up just as a means of getting his own opinion into the story. It's lousy journalism. I've written personal letters -- not for publication -- to editors complaining about that sort of thing.

Q. How do you deal with that kind of story?
A. You go directly to the reporter. I've always tried never to go over the head of anybody and that would be an absolutely last resort. I can't ever recall doing that. Usually, I've been able to work it out, not always to my complete satisfaction or that of my client.

Q. With the tremendous corporate investment in sports today, there is a lot of pressure on PR people to get the sponsor's name into stories. What's the most effective way to do this?
A. Don't overdo it. In my stories, both financial and in motorsports, I always tried to limit mention of clients to one time. I think that makes it more acceptable to the media. Also, you have to try to directly connect the name to the news you are publicizing.

Q. What's the most important quality in a successful PR person?
A. Always be available to the media and give them complete and accurate information. I emphasize accuracy ahead of speed. The No. 1 asset to have is a reputation among reporters and editors that your information is accurate and fair.

Q. Should a PR person ever lie to a reporter?
A. On the surface, I can't see any reason to do so. I don't remember ever having to do so. The one difficult area would be if you felt you had to protect a client when it comes to some personal matter. In that case, it would be better to try to deflect the question a bit, if you can. I don't believe you can say 'No comment,' because that has come to have a negative connotation and most reporters would take it as a confirmation of a negative rumor. I must say, however, in auto racing for the most part, questions of a personal nature have no business being asked in the first place.I'm glad to see some organizations have been working to wrap 2006 with positive momentum going into 2007. The Grand American Road Racing Association was able to showcase Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Sam Hornish Jr. at last week's two-day test at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Gordon (left) met the media after testing the Daytona Prototype he'll co-drive with Wayne Taylor and Max Angelelli in the January 27-28 Rolex 24 at Daytona. The Fox network will cover the first 90 minutes of the 24 "live" before turning coverage over to SPEED. Fresh corporate and series logos also were unveiled. Not surprisingly, another on-the-move team is Kenny Bernstein's new Funny Car operation, which has primary sponsorship from Monster Energy drink (which wisely will spotlight its relationship with Bernstein to the media by presenting the January AARWBA newsletter). Bernstein has also announced associate sponsorship with AlphaTrade.com for his car as well as son Brandon's Budweiser Top Fueler. AlphaTrade.com is a leader in providing real-time stock market data, global news and high-quality financial information to millions of investors throughout the world.Tony Schumacher, John Force, Frank Kimmel, Jorg Bergmeister, Luis Diaz and J.R. Hildebrand are the latest to confirm their attendance at the 37th AARWBA All-America Team dinner, Saturday, January 13, at the Hyatt in downtown Indianapolis. My thanks to Mike Lewis, Chris Dirato, Dave Densmore, Barry Bronson, Bob Carlson, Adam Saal, Bob Dickinson, Drew Brown, Tom Anderson and Tamy Valkosky for their help. And to Porsche and Lowe's for going the extra mile for AARWBA. Jack Roush will be the featured speaker and Sam Hornish Jr. and Sebastien Bourdais also will be on hand. On the 40th anniversary of his third Indy 500 victory, A.J. Foyt's 1967 winning Sheraton-Thompson Coyote-Ford will be on display in the lobby along with Schumacher's record-setting Army Top Fueler. I'm dinner co-chair with Gil Bouffard. Go to http://aarwba.org for tickets, Hyatt reservations at the special AARWBA rate, and other information.

Max Papis' father, Cesare, died Saturday at age 65 after a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer. Thoughts to my friend Max, popular with media and fans throughout the racing world.

A closing thank you to media outlets that invited me to share my views on the Business of Racing this year: 12 News TV and radio station KXAM in Phoenix, the Arizona Republic op-ed page, WIBC radio in Indianapolis and especially Brahm Resnik, Jamie and Betsy Reynolds of Racing Roundup Arizona, Dave Wilson, plus Dave Argabright for asking me to write some thoughts for the VIP edition of his book with Chris Economaki, Let 'Em All Go!

And, thanks to the readers of this blog, especially those who call and write to share comments and insights, as well as tell others about what we do in this spec of cyberspace. After some recharging and retooling, let's all of us continue The Great Adventure next year.

[ More Tuesday, January 9, 2007 . . . ]

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

CHASING THE PACK

Adam Saal (center), marketing and communications director for the Grand American Road Racing Association, produced all four of his Rolex Series drivers elected to the All-America Team at last year's AARWBA dinner. From left: Luis Diaz Jr., Scott Pruett, Saal, Max Angelelli, Wayne Taylor.


Last week's blog about the pack mentality in journalism resulted in some interesting E-mails. Events of last week also helped prove my point.

The Economist -- influential among The Intellectuals -- published an article, datelined Homestead, Fla., headlined "Time for a tune-up". Essentially, it was a "me-too" pile-on following USA Today's Nov. 15 page oner about the decline in NASCAR ticket sales and TV ratings. The magazine's tone, however, was less-than-polite in describing the scene and certainly the fans. Here are portions from the first three paragraphs (bold emphasis mine):

"NASCAR's fortunes are starting to wane.

"A NASCAR race is a straightforward event. Racers get a stock, or mass-production, car, soup it up beyond recognition, and drive around a track several hundred times. Many people find this boring and pointless . . .

"On November 19th 80,000 enthusiasts gathered in Homestead, Florida. That made the speedway twice as populous as the city itself. Vendors did a brisk trade in beer, burgers and ugly T-shirts. A lonely 'international food' stand sold slices of pizza. A car salesman tried to make a new friend. 'Do you chew?' he asked. (That is, do you stuff a wad of tobacco inside your lip and then dribble quietly into an empty can?)"

Nice. The story did wrap by noting the arrival of ABC/ESPN, Toyota, Juan Montoya and the "Car of Tomorrow" next season. It ended, "Don't count out American sport's most remarkable recent success quite yet."

( http://www.economist.com/world/na/displaystory.cfm?story_id=8326996 )
Noticed from my observation post in Scottsdale, Arizona:

* My faith in the courtesy of "old-time" PR was (somewhat) restored a few days ago when I received a hand-written note from Kristi King of Talladega Superspeedway. I was introduced to Kristi during the recent NASCAR weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, we exchanged cards, and she kindly followed-up. It does my heart good to see there are still a few (very few) people who understand the value of professional relationship building.

* Cotton candy has more substance than provided by SPEED's Nextel Cup awards "arrival" show Friday night. Proving yet again that it will move-the-bar to whatever-it-takes on behalf of sponsors, NASCAR changed this from a red carpet walk-in to what was billed as a "yellow (as in Nextel) carpet" event. Actually, it was a black carpet with yellow lines. Since NASCAR is willing to go this far for its series patron, I hope they'll forbid those stupid towels from being placed over drivers' shoulders for post-race TV interviews, which have covered-up Nextel's uniform logo. Not surprisingly, Matt and Katie Kenseth avoided the ridiculous "Who made your suit/dress?" hyping, winning the hearts of true racers everywhere. As a fan of the musical theater, I was disappointed to hear Matt say he attended his first play while in New York City, but apparently didn't enjoy it. Next time, Matt, take Katie to The Phanton of the Opera. And, was it just me, or did NASCAR have the announcers somewhat play-down the record amounts of prize money distributed -- maybe in reaction to complaints the stock car sport has gotten so big it has left behind its blue-collar fans?

* Promoters of Champ Car's April 6-8 Las Vegas Grand Prix finally issued a news release last week, most noteable for what it didn't say. Not one Champ Car driver was mentioned in its 12 paragraphs, and it is precisely that severe lack of ticket-selling household names that requires each of these events to be promoted as a "festival of speed." Vegas, the release heralded, will have a "Historic Grand Prix race, along with support racing events, boxing matches, concerts, expos and a celebrity poker tournament." Also: "Admission into the event site is free. To access the seating areas with premium views of the race track, to view Jumbotron video boards of live race action and enjoy daytime concerts, patrons will need to be in a ticketed grandstand area." Here in the Valley of the Sun, we're still waiting for the first promotional word touting the downtown Phoenix race, a project of the same promoters and managers offering-up Vegas.

* Meanwhile, over at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where last May the sizeable inventory of unsold Indy 500 tickets was attempted to be peddled by offering free hot dogs and sodas, there's a new gimmick to move Allstate 400 tickets. Those went on sale yesterday for the July 29 NASCAR headliner and, "any fan who buys two tickets before Dec. 25 will have a chance to take a lap around the famed"oval. Oh, that lap, next March 24-25 in a Chevrolet, costs an extra $25. (!) That does include a photo at the "famed Yard of Bricks start-finish line." (!)

* It was good to see some good news out of USAC. Filling the void created when Phoenix Raceway essentially abandoned the Copper World Classic (now sadly relegated to Thursday night of November's NASCAR event), Manzanita Speedway will host a USAC Tripleheader Feb. 9-10. Silver Crown, national and western midgets and USAC/CRA sprint cars will be on the half-mile oval. Manzy's Dennis Wood originated the Copper World concept at PIR in 1978. I will be interested to see if PIR, which hurt its image with segments of the Arizona grassroots motorsports community by some of its anti-Phoenix Champ Car street race tactics, will do anything to support Manzanita's most-welcome new event.

* Journalist (and blog reader) Anne Proffit kindly provided this correction to my Nov. 21 "Customer Service, Part 2" posting. Ford's Steve Van Houten didn't get to go home after Homestead's Ford Championship Weekend. Steve then hauled cross-country for the Turkey Night Grand Prix at California's Irwindale Speedway. Anne says Steve helped serve-up "16 big ol' birds" to guests and "made sure everyone had everything they needed throughout the night."

* Time magazine's Dec. 4 issue has an article exploring the potential effect his Mormon faith could have on Massachusetts' Gov. Mitt Romney's run for the Republican presidential nomination. The story says the church's media relations director, Michael Otterson, visited with political reporters during an October trip to Washington, D.C. According to Time, "Otterson says he has a 'no dumb questions' policy and urges journalists to call his cell phone, day or night." Oh, for the days when racing publicists -- hungry for hard-to-get coverage and willing to work for it -- acted that way.

Indy 500 winner and IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. is confirmed to attend the AARWBA All-America Team dinner, Saturday, January 13, at the Hyatt in downtown Indianapolis. Thanks to Chris Schwartz -- now safely relocated to Penske Racing's Mooresville, N.C. facility -- for helping make this happen. With Sebastien Bourdais also set to be there, that means the rare and interesting dynamic is in place of having both open-wheel series titlists at the same event. NHRA Top Fuel title-holder Tony Schumacher will be another attendee and Jack Roush will be the featured speaker. I'm dinner co-chair with Gil Bouffard. The full All-America Team will be revealed later this week and, as always, I'm waiting to see which PR reps stand-up to help AARWBA and which ones decide they can't be bothered. Go to http://aarwba.org for tickets, Hyatt reservations at the special AARWBA rate, and other information.


[ Please come back next Tuesday, Dec. 12, for the year's last blog. It will feature some very special and important words -- from someone other than me. ]

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

BUILD 'EM UP/TEAR 'EM DOWN

This old saw has more miles on it than the one used by Mr. Fix-It. It also happens to be truer than a laser leveler:

The media builds people/groups up, and then tears them down.

The most recent example? NASCAR.

While I don't have numbers to quantify it, it sure seemed that the closing weeks of the Chase featured more "woe unto NASCAR" stories than there were about champion-to-be Jimmie Johnson. Now, let me be clear: It is FACT that TV ratings were down at all but a handful of races this season vs. 2005. (I consider the 10.4 percent overnight drop at Homestead's championship finale a definite eye-opener, especially since that's -23% since 2004.) Large sections of empty seats were obvious from overhead camera shots at many speedways. (Those at Indianapolis made me, as someone who has gone to IMS for almost four decades, sad but not really surprised.) So, these absolutely were legitimate stories.

I think a bit of context also is legit. And I'll say this up-front: NO sports organization that I know of works harder than NASCAR in publicizing, promoting, marketing and selling its product. Almost 30 years ago, when I asked Bill France Jr. why he was so confident of NASCAR's long-term success, his answer was clear and confident: "We work at it day-after-day, week-after-week, year-after-year." President Mike Helton (right) proved that again last December by attending the AARWBA dinner in Indianapolis, one night after the Nextel Cup awards in New York City.

No company, including Microsoft or Wal-Mart, can sustain the level of growth NASCAR has generated in the last decade. When Microsoft hit the occasional business speed bump, no financial journalist called for Bill Gates to get out. Wal-Mart announced some weak sales figures the other day but I haven't heard a single stock analyst say, "Dump it all!"

In considering the recent media attitude, let's also consider the atmospherics. The NASCAR regulars were tired at the end of the marathon season. They were in ill temper due to the overcrowded/inadequate work facilities at Phoenix and Homestead. Those who used to enjoy an easy drive to Darlington on Labor Day weekend now endure a coach-class cross-country round-trip to California. In short, many were just plain grumpy.

The pack mentality throughout journalism makes the pack racing at Talladega seem like rush hour in Roundup, Montana. Network news directors follow the lead of the New York Times' front page. In sports, many take their direction from ESPN's SportsCenter and USA Today. So, when UST put "NASCAR's growth slows after 15 years in fast lane" on P1 Nov. 15 -- four days before the Nextel Cup concluder -- that was like waving the green flag at certain reporters. They were ready to take a shot -- and did.

Was it fair? I say the true answer to that rests with the experience and credibility of each individual journo. The bottom line, for now, is that while NASCAR had a down year, every sports organization in North America -- save the NFL and Major League Baseball -- would love to have such problems. I don't agree that the arrival of ABC/ESPN alone will reverse the slide, but it sure is premature to push the panic button.

While some of the above made me shake my head, what made me laugh was the idea of a shorter schedule or reduced race distances. Would the FIRST person -- driver, promoter, or, yes, journalist -- willing to reduce his/her income in accordance with the reduced work load please step forward. (!)

I do share one concern: There are major drawbacks to the trend of pushing back race start times so telecasts move near-or-into prime time, where the TV suits say larger audiences await. That puts increased deadline pressure on writers. Much more worrisome to me, that is asking the ticket-buying public to accept getting home even later Sunday night, when work or school obligations await the next morning. Think about this one again, please, NASCAR.
Newsworthy:

* Last Friday's USA Today sports page one had a graphic titled "NASCAR laps other motor sports." It showed the results of an ESPN Sports Poll on the "favorite type of racing" among fans. NASCAR doom-and-gloomers, please read carefully: 1) NASCAR, 57.4 percent; 2) Motorcycles, 12.4; 3) NHRA, 12.2; 4) Formula One, 6.8; 5) IRL, 6.2; 6) Champ Car, 1.3.

* With Champ Car joining the IRL on the ABC/ESPN networks, what I can't wait to see is the level of promotion given to each group. Will it make a difference that IRL gets a rights fee vs. Champ Car's time buy? Just as important will be how such promos are designed to differentiate one series from the other. (!)

* As someone who has long appreciated a pro-active and creative approach to PR and publicity, let me give a call to Wrigley's. At Phoenix International Raceway, the company announced its new sponsorship of Reed Sorenson and David Stremme in the Busch Series, and Juan Montoya in three Nextel Cup races. Wrigley’s Spearmint, Doublemint, Big Red, Juicy Fruit and Winterfresh brands will be featured. Journalists were given a tin, which looked like it might contain mints, but inside was a computer data stick appearing to be a pack of gum. The news release and team bios were in Word document form. A well-done to Brian Wright, at Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., and the others involved. It made me go back and take a look at the "press kit in a can" I did for U.S. Can Co.'s sponsorship of the Andretti family back in 1986. That got blurbed in USA Today, AutoWeek and elsewhere.I'm happy to report that triple Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais (left) will make his first appearance at the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association's All-America Team dinner, Saturday, January 13, at the Hyatt in downtown Indianapolis. Team voting is currently underway among AARWBA members. Bourdais, who has been elected to the last two Teams in the open-wheel category, will be a welcome guest at this 37th annual gathering of the country's oldest and largest organization of motorsports media professionals. Thanks to Champ Car PR Director Steve Shunck for his help. Jack Roush will be the featured speaker. Other highlights of the evening will be presentation of the new Auto Racing Safety and Humanitarian Service Award to HANS Device developers Robert Hubbard of Michigan State University and Jim Downing; Pioneer in Racing Award to Dan Partel, managing director of the European Formula Drivers Association; and Jim Chapman Award for excellence in motorsports public relations. Popular broadcaster Bob Jenkins will serve as dinner Master of Ceremonies for the second consecutive year.

Tickets, for the public as well as media and sponsors, are available by contacting AARWBA President Dusty Brandel at 818/842-7005 or aarwba@compuserve.com. Information also is available at the http://aarwba.org web site, click on the “banquet” link, and discounted Hyatt room reservations can be made there. I'm dinner co-chair along with Gil Bouffard.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

CUSTOMER SERVICE, Part 2

Steve Van Houten manages operations of the Ford Racing motorcoach -- and is one of the automaker's best ambassadors. He's pictured above at Phoenix International Raceway two weeks ago.

I've witnessed tremendous growth in the Valley of the Sun in the 12 years I've called Scottsdale home. Growth has its pluses but the negatives are BAD. Traffic headaches, once a seasonal occurrence when the "Snow Birds" come here from Canada and the Midwest for the winter months, now are a daily challenge.

And, as I got into last week, customer service has become more of a lost art than Andy Warhol's missing portrait of Lenin. The excuse I constantly hear from local managers is they don't have the staff to keep-up with increased demand. It's one thing when I've been told in a Fry's supermarket to come back in an hour for two pounds of ground sirloin (!), but the true wide-eyer came when I went in to my Chase bank branch just after opening, only to find no teller windows were staffed -- a fact the receptionist and back-office managers didn't bother to talk about with those of us in line. (!) In the last year I've endured unacceptable lack-of service at high-end Hamra Jewelers and even at an auto dealership where a top selling point is "unparalleled" attention to the customer. (!) From personal experience, I advise begging the government for help before turning to John Alden or First Choice Health Insurance, where employee training seminars apparently include demonstrations on the proper technique on how to thumb your nose at someone seeking service. (!)

Shame on our society for acquiescing to lesser standards applied by lesser people. (A product, I say, of poor parenting, the dumbed-down public school system, and a rejection of the principle of personal accountability.) After all, millions would have watched O.J. Simpson's (now wisely canceled) If I Did It TV show. The motorsports industry reflects this. Earlier this year, a young PR person asked me for career advice. My answer: Return phone calls, reply to E-mails, and do what you say you'll do. The comparison with far-too-many others will be noticed!

This Thanksgiving week, let me acknowledge five people who understand customer service, and who know those qualities also apply to personal friendship. I'm thankful for them:

+ Steve Van Houten. The Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway wrapped another season on-the-road for Van Houten. He drove the Ford Racing Prevost motorcoach over 60,000 miles this year to 35 events. Steve's been doing this for 15 years and worked as a relief driver for John Madden's bus. In an era where lazy people commonly dismiss errors as "not important," Steve pays attention to the details. His welcoming smile and handshake and positive attitude makes Steve a tremendous ambassador -- and asset -- to Ford, especially valuable during these troubled times for the automaker.

+ Dusty Brandel. Dusty has served as executive director, and then president, of the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association for more than 30 years. (AARWBA is the country's oldest and largest organization of motorsports media professionals.) Let me attest, from first-hand experience, that it can be a tedious and frequently thankless job. (There's nothing glamorous about routine but essential paperwork like processing membership forms.) AARWBA would have ceased to exist long ago without her committed efforts. (The 37th AARWBA All-America Team dinner will be Saturday, January 13, at the Hyatt in downtown Indianapolis.)

+ Kelly Butz. She's the revenue manager at the Indy Hyatt and a key reason why the AARWBA dinner will be staged there for the second consecutive year. As chairman of AARWBA's 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2005, it was my call (along with Dusty Brandel) to move the All-America Team dinner to Indy and the Hyatt. That's one decision I've never regretted. I've been involved in countless such functions over the decades of my career and no one has ever provided the level of customer service and attention to detail Kelly knows is essential to make any project a success. I can think of a lot of people in our business who should come to the AARWBA dinner if for no other reason than to see Kelly's work and learn from her example.

+ Mike Harris. He's been AP's national motorsports writer for more than a quarter-century, and my friend for almost that long. A lot of us consider him the most important media person covering racing, but you wouldn't know it dealing with Mike, whose ego is a fraction of that of many lesser journalistic lights. Mike has served the AP, its members, and the sport with great professionalism. I value his straightforward approach and common-sense advice.

+ Mike Hollander. As I've often admitted, I'm not the best when it comes to computers and the Internet. Mike, on the other hand, is the brightest person I know when it comes to these things. He's been kind -- and patient -- enough to help me through many high-tech crises, even when I knew he knew my questions were really dumb. I also respect Mike as a pioneer motorsports on-line journalist, currently via http://motorsportsforum.com and Racing Information Systems. He's brought these skills to AARWBA, as webmaster, All-America Team ceremony producer, and national VP.Homestead Rear-View Mirror:

* Jeff Gordon proved again he's the savviest driver in the garage area. How? He was the only one to make it a point to thank NBC for its six years of NASCAR coverage. Jeff's post-race comments reminded me of May 1, 1994, when Dale Earnhardt got out of the No. 3 Chevrolet in victory lane at Talladega, and the first thing he did was offer sympathy to the family, friends and fans of Ayrton Senna, killed earlier that day. No other superstar of that time would have thought of it.

* NBC's NASCAR finale was fine, but highlighted (again) two issues that MUST be addressed come the 2007 ABC/ESPN, Fox, TNT and SPEED race telecasts: 1) Pit-road reporters have to sharpen their questions. Dave Burns' contributions to our understanding of what was about to happen amounted to asking Jeff Gordon what role he hoped to play in Sunday's championship event, and how Kasey Kahne thought he'd do. As if Jeff and Kasey were going to say, "Hey, I hope it blows-up on the first lap, so I can leave early!" (Both, of course, said they wanted to win.) With NASCAR and its network partners looking to address the ratings issue, they should realize focused questions which lead to interesting answers helps keep the remote control on the table. (!) There are announcer coaches: It's time for some money to be spent on interview coaches. 2) The (thankfully) last installment of "Wally's World" was nothing but an exercise in egoism. That was time that should have been spent on legitimate news (of which there was no shortage, including driver and team changes, the battle for 35th in owner points, etc.) This kind of segment should be parked -- permanently.

* It was Winston's ace sports marketing department that created the championship celebration ceremony as we know it, although NASCAR has now assumed full control of its staging. The championship jacket has been a traditional element, even though it covers the ID of the driver's team sponsors, and usually is so garish no one would consider wearing it away from the track. So, I found it interesting that the jacket put on Todd Bodine Friday night appeared to be a standard Craftsman Truck Series coat, with a logo so small as to be unreadable by TV viewers. Why did they bother? The Busch Series jacket presented to Kevin Harvick Saturday night was of the full-blown big-and-bold graphics style that corporate marketers have come to love. Strangely, though, Jimmie Johnson didn't receive a Nextel Cup jacket Sunday.

* Jenna Fryer, at Phoenix, and Mike Harris, at Homestead, used the AP blog to bemoan the unsatisfactory size of those track's media centers. It's a fact that NASCAR's "major league" status brings with it the necessity of "major league" media facilities. However, I'm reminded of a long-ago Eastern Motorsports Press Association convention, during which a panel session with local speedway operators decended into complaints about credentials, parking and even the lack of free food. My friend Nick Nagurny, then assistant sports editor at the old Philadelphia Bulletin, ended this by standing up and providing some much-needed perspective. "My readers don't care if I have a seat in the press box, where I park, or if I get lunch. They care about what happens in the race." Amen. Such issues are legitimate but best addressed within the industry and through professional organizations like AARWBA.

[ There's lots more to say about NASCAR and the Chase, plus other topics, and I'll do that next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

CUSTOMER SERVICE

When necessary changes were made to the media credentialing process for the Checker Auto Parts 500k, Phoenix International Raceway's communications manager Tami Nealy (above) did just that -- COMMUNICATE! An E-mail explaining the new process was sent to the media weeks before the race and there were lots of signs to direct journalists to the right place and remind photographers of photo meetings. Well done. Also, PIR announced it will join with Phoenix native J.J. Yeley for a golf tournament March 8, to benefit the Phoenix Children’s Hospital.


Let me let you in on a secret: Even though I've known and liked Richard Childress since the mid-1970s, and have long respected Jeff Burton's common-sense professionalism, I'm not troubled their team won't win the Nextel Cup championship.

Why? The answer can be found in the legendary loyalty of NASCAR fans to companies that support their favorite sport. Actually, in my case, it's the REVERSE of that marketing fact.

Cingular, sponsor of the Childress-Burton No. 31 Chevrolet, is my wireless provider. More accurately, sometimes provider. I used to be with AT&T, whose wireless business was bought by Cingular. Under AT&T, the strength and quality of the cell signal to my residence wasn't great, but it usually worked. Since the buyout, it has been no Cingular Sensation, with many multiples of "Call Failed" messages vs. successful connections. Those that go through result in more cut-outs than created by kindergartners with construction paper. Incoming calls almost never make the phone ring, but rather, go straight into voice mail.

My repeated communications to Cingular's so-called "customer service" department have gone unanswered. Cingular has shown me zip, ZERO consideration . . . but has no problem sending a bill every month.

Customer service has gone to hell in this country, and sad to say, that includes in the motorsports industry. As I've previously written, way too many so-called "PR" people -- and I mean from MAJOR teams, sponsors, tracks and sanctioning groups -- apparently don't comprehend that the media are effectively their "customers" and act accordingly. I continue to find it incredible that so many don't even know common courtesy demands that voice messages and E-mails MUST be answered.

I have the great honor of administering the process of selecting the Jim Chapman Award recipient, for excellence in motorsports public relations. (The 2006 winner will be announced January 13 at the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association's All-America Team dinner at the Hyatt in downtown Indianapolis.) I'm biased because Jim was my best friend, but like Jim's close friend Babe Ruth, Chapman remains a legend. While Jim was THE consummate professional, and a true gentleman, he also called 'em like he saw 'em and that was another reason he was so widely respected.

It is in that spirit that I tell you I've had enough. It's time to go on-the-record about good and bad customer service.

+ NASCAR's "hot" garage passes are limited in number, but transferrable. Some track publicists have discovered local newspapers and TV stations send different photographers or camerapersons on different days, meaning these precious pieces of paper get wasted when taken home by media not returning the next day. To address this issue, Phoenix International Raceway's Tami Nealy put a new system in place for last weekend's Checker Auto Parts 500k, where newspeople would pick up and return "hot" passes in the infield media center. Realizing change from established procedure could be confusing, Nealy E-mailed notice of the new process well in advance, and posted plenty of signs directing journos to the pick-up point. It seemed to me to work without difficulty, mainly because Tami remembered a basic part of her job: She COMMUNICATED!

+ In my capacity as a co-chair of the AARWBA dinner, I recently asked Don Schumacher Racing Senior Vice President Mike Lewis for the three-time Top Fuel champion Army dragster to be displayed at this event. Mike responded immediately, he followed-up with the Hyatt, and all was set within a few days. Proving, again, that a CHAMPIONSHIP organization performs away from, as well as at, the track.

- One might think DIRT Motorsports would be interested in building its relationship with the media, especially for its World of Outlaws series, given the split in sprint car racing. Following that logic, last month, I wrote DIRT PR VP Chris Dolack about AARWBA. I'm still waiting for the courtesy of a reply . . . .

- At the start of every season, I automatically receive in the mail the media guides for NASCAR's Nextel Cup, Busch and Craftsman Truck series; also those of NHRA, Champ Car, ALMS and Grand American Road Racing. The one exception among the "big-time" organizations? IRL. Of course, I've only been working in Indy-type racing since the 1970s, and am member No. 1,000 in the Indianapolis 500 Oldtimers. A small, but telling, example of why things are the way they are in open-wheel . . .

Since this lack of customer service is the hottest of hot-button issues to me, I'll have more to say next week . . .The most disappointing thing I saw at Phoenix was actually something I didn't see -- and you probably overlooked: Somehow, on Veterans' Day weekend, the No. 01 Chevrolet ran without its usual Army ID and colors. A sad bit of sponsorship scheduling. I'm glad Tony Schumacher came through with his third consecutive NHRA Top Fuel championship in the Army dragster at Pomona. Once again, however, NHRA.com suffered from an apparent lack of server capacity. As fans -- lacking "live" TV coverage -- tried to find out who won the Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle championships, the home page continually failed to display.


[ more Blogging the Chase next Tuesday . . . ]

Monday, November 06, 2006

STORIES/$TORIES; INTERVIEWS/INTERVIEW$

Defending Checker Auto Parts 500k winner Kyle Busch visited the Valley of the Sun Oct. 24 to publicize this weekend's NASCAR events at Phoenix International Raceway. Busch was sporting enough to smile for this photo-op on the streets of Tempe. PIR recently received two awards for tourism and economic development from Westmarc, a consortium of civic and business leaders, which promotes a positive image for western Maricopa County. Indy 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. will try to qualify for his first Busch Series race, Saturday's Arizona Travel 200. Juan Montoya is entered, too.


I am friends with quite a few racetrack PR directors. A basic part of the job is to set-up driver interviews with local media in the weeks leading up to their speedway's event. Even at most Nextel Cup ovals -- and even during the Chase -- it's necessary to work hard to fill those empty grandstand seats.

Publicity really is all about selling, you know . . . or didn't you?

Here's something far-too-many don't understand: There are stories and then there are stories that help sell tickets. There are interviews and then there are interviews that interest people in going out and seeing for themselves.

I can't help but roll my eyes listening to many local sports radio talkers when they try to talk racing. It's easy to tell they really don't understand the subject just by their phrasing and the super-superficial questions asked to driver guests. ("Do you enjoy coming out to Phoenix?" As if any driver is going to say "NO!" Yeah, that's the ticket to promote your sponsor and sell T-shirts!) Just last week, I heard a Valley of the Sun host say that Elliott Sadler drives a Ford and is in the Chase. (!)

Sure, this counts as airtime, and it looks good on a PR activity report to management. But it surely does not create event "buzz" or contribute to the box-office bottom line.

Some PRers I know recognize this issue and try to deal with it. Pre-interview, they provide copies of news and feature stories about the guest, and a few even dare to send over suggested questions. Sometimes that helps, but too often, these chats are the biggest duds since Indy Cars ran Atlanta. Sharp drivers I've worked with, like Mario Andretti, Gil de Ferran and Nigel Mansell, actually enjoyed talking with knowledgeable media people. A positive encounter made it much more likely they'd agree to future requests for a few minutes of their time. A flopper, though, was considered a waste of valuable minutes and made my next proposition as dicey as oval racin' in the rain.

My experience has been that many media folks are willing to at least speed-read clips -- might be a good idea or clever line to borrow -- but most resist planted questions. Journalistic integrity, you know. So, how to make the strictly stick-and-ball types sound like they've been reading NASCAR Scene for a decade?

Why not ask them? "What can I do to help you have a good interview?" A simple gesture, to be sure, but let's be honest: 1) Most of these guys (and, for the most part, they are guys) want to look slick and sound smart. (Good for the ego -- and the career.); 2) Such help means less effort on their part.

Anything else? Try to steer them toward friendly in-the-know experts in your area, preferably, those perceived as "independent" and who will tell them the "straight" story and guide them in the "right" direction. A local voice-of-authority is frequently appealing to those cynical after being pitched non-stop with spin and hype.

My great friend, the late PR legend Jim Chapman, was regarded as a gentleman and had such stature that he was frequently quoted as an admired industry expert even when he had a client who was part of the story. Now, that's respect!Texas tales:

* Two victories in the battle against promoters who fail to label races that are not run to a mile distance -- which is what the average customer assumes -- as kilometers. Both the AP and NASCAR.com clearly reported Friday's Chevy Silverado "350" as being 350k. Too bad SPEED didn't do the same. Note: This Sunday's Checker "500" at Phoenix is 500 kilometers.

* A silver lining to Ray Dunlap's recent one-race suspension is Krista Voda has been moved into the host's chair for SPEED's pre-Truck race shows. Voda, who was a solid anchor on the old Totally NASCAR, is better suited to that role than Dunlap, who is a good (and respected) pit reporter.

Popular broadcaster Bob Jenkins, my friend going back to when he anchored ESPN's first CART race telecast at Milwaukee in June 1980, will MC the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association's 37th All-America Team dinner, Saturday, January 13, at the Hyatt in downtown Indianapolis. Since I'm a dinner co-chair, I consider Bob's participation to be great news. Also, the Army NHRA Top Fuel car will be on display in the Hyatt lobby, next to the dinner registration area. My thanks to Mike Lewis, senior VP of Don Schumacher Racing, for this courtesy to the country's oldest and largest organization of motorsports media professionals. Jack Roush will be the featured speaker.For tickets and program ads and Hyatt room reservations at a discounted rate, go to http://aarwba.org or E-mail President Dusty Brandel at aarwba@compuserve.com . Contact me for newsletter and other sponsorship opportunities.
[ Tomorrow is election day. I encourage you to cast an INFORMED vote. I'll be serving as a local election judge. More Blogging the Chase Tuesday (Nov. 14) . . . ]

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

IT CAN BE DONE

On Nov. 1, 1997, Racing Roundup Arizona (1310 KXAM) debuted from the Phoenix International Raceway's media center. Host Jamie Reynolds was joined by broadcaster Jim Tretow and driver guests Scott Hansen, Kevin Cywinski and Rich Bickle, Sears' Bob Vila and baseball Hall of Famer Robin Yount. Since that day, Reynolds has had hundreds of guests, with alumni including Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, A.J. Foyt, Alex Zanardi, John Force, Kenny Bernstein, Arie Luyendyk, Sam Hornish, Kurt Busch and Johnny Benson. RRA has become the state's longest-running motorsports radio show and a local fixture Monday nights from 7-9 p.m. (Also heard on KXAM.com and RacingRoundup.com.) Last night, I had the pleasure of surprising Jamie and producer Betsy Reynolds (above) and co-host Chris Hines with a cake in celebration of the start of their 10th season. As I said on-air in opening the show, I hope Arizona tracks and racing groups -- large and small -- show their appreciation to RRA and the Reynolds during this milestone anniversary year. CONGRATULATIONS, Jamie and Betsy, and THANK YOU for your contribution to the growth of motorsports in Arizona!


My friend, award-winning Michigan broadcaster Larry Henry, took me to task for my Oct. 17 "Bad Newspaper News Is Bad News for NASCAR" posting. My central points were: 1) Financially troubled papers aren't sending their own writers to cover the races, using wire copy instead, which usually gets less space and secondary "play"; 2) Experienced motorsports journalists are retiring or taking buyouts, and their replacements don't have the knowledge to convey the sport in-depth, or with the flavor that helps bring fans to the speedways. My opinion is this contributes to declining TV ratings and unsold tickets. My suggestion was for team/sponsor PR people to be pro-active and get their driver to spend 10 minutes each weekend to call one of these "parked" reporters to generate some extra coverage -- and goodwill -- or sit down one-on-one with a newcomer to make him/her feel welcome.

Let me put it another way: This is common sense . . . and good business. (!)

Larry (see my Sept. 26 blog) raised a few thought-provoking issues in a series of E-mail exchanges. I appreciate and respect his comments. One was, except perhaps for Sunday, people don't have time to read papers these hectic days -- as shown by the growth of "new media" like Websites and iPods. His bottom line was my suggestion "just ain't gonna happen."

Well, maybe it won't happen . . . but that does not mean it can't happen.

Here's the simple message every PR rep can use with any reluctant driver: "It's in YOUR best interests to keep the NASCAR gravy train steaming down the tracks." A few minutes per weekend is a small investment to help maintain Nextel Cup's huge popularity, which equals a fantastic income, one most racers could never have thought possible. Let 'em compare their situation with IRL and Champ Car, where combined, maybe five drivers are decently paid. (Ask triple CC titlist Sebastien Bourdais, who on several occasions, has complained he is not one of those.) Latest example: A.J. Allmendinger.

As for the state of the newspaper industry, I'm biased, because of my educational and professional background. I will say this: Even on-the-run folks want to read about Tiger Woods, Shaq, the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Dodgers or their local NFL team. An interesting racing story published alongside the details of Tiger's latest exploits has a legit chance to draw-in a new fan. That's an opportunity SPEED can't match.
I'm pleased to announce that Ford's NASCAR mega-team owner Jack Roush (left) has accepted my invitation to be the featured speaker at the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association's All-America Team dinner, Saturday, January 13, at the Hyatt in downtown Indianapolis. (I'm dinner co-chairman.) Jack will follow Roger Penske and Mike Helton on AARWBA's high-horsepower list of featured speakers. Other highlights will include naming the Jerry Titus Award winner -- the driver who receives the most All-America Team votes -- and presentation of the Jim Chapman Public Relations Award. For tickets and program ads and Hyatt room reservations at a discounted rate, go to http://aarwba.org or E-mail President Dusty Brandel at aarwba@compuserve.com . Contact me for newsletter and other sponsorship opportunities.Let's update the most recent victims of "The Terrible Towels" (Oct. 3 post): At Martinsville, red Coke towels over the shoulders of Denny Hamlin and Bobby Labonte cost FedEx, Chevrolet, Goodyear and Raybestos (Hamlin) and Nextel and STP (Labonte) their bought-and-paid-for uniform exposure and NBC TV time. Meanwhile, the Old Spice towel over Tony Stewart's shoulder zapped Coca-Cola and Goodyear (again). After Saturday's IROC at Atlanta on SPEED, Stewart's designated cover-up-er zapped Home Depot and Goodyear with that increasingly-infamous OS cloth. Sunday, on NBC, Coke and Goodyear were the losers in Stewart's victory lane appearance.

Speaking of Atlanta: While we all understand the nece$$ity to mention sponsors, must that really extend to the invocation? I think not. That was followed by one of the all-time most embarrassing "Gentlemen, start your engines" commands in racing history. Even Bruton Smith should realize there is a line that should not be crossed.The Valvoline Racing ( Valvoline.com ) website has been recognized with an International Academy of Visual Arts W3 Award. The Valvoline Racing pages were selected a Silver Winner in "Copy or Writing" for "outstanding works and represents a high standard of excellence." The 2006 W3 awards "recognize the power of Web creativity" from more than 2,300 entries received from top agencies and companies worldwide. The Academy is an invitation-only body consisting of top-tier professionals from acclaimed media, advertising and marketing firms.[ Next Tuesday, Nov. 7, is election day. Since I'll be serving as a local election judge, please click-back next MONDAY for more Blogging the Chase . . . ]

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

BROADCAST NEWS

Well, well, well, as Derek Daly would say. NASCAR 2007 will feature new networks, announcers, producers and attitudes. Sounds like a good time to set-forth 20 suggestions and changes that would make the TV experience more enjoyable (and, in some cases, less irritating):

* Mr. Producer, teach your announcers that not every driver is a "great" driver, not every race is a "great" race, and that when a driver spins or wrecks without cause it is not a "tough break." When a mistake is made, say so. Let's call this the Phil Parsons Rule.

* Have them learn the difference between "strategy" and "tactics."

* No asking questions that presuppose the answer. ("You're OK, yes?") Call this the Jeanne Zelasko Rule.

* Ban the following maddenly inane questions: "How's your hot rod?"; "Can you do it today?"; How does it feel?"; "What would a win mean to you?" It's a firing offense for any pit reporter to say to an interview subject: "Talk about . . . " That is NOT a question. These people claim to be broadcast journalists and a basic journalistic skill is to be able to ask meaningful questions.

* Put a restrictor plate on Allen Bestwick's laugh.

* I like Matt Yocum, but Matt as Amahad Rashad to Tony Stewart's Michael Jordan has got to end.

* No cameras or microphone-holders in the vehicles with drivers during pre-race parade laps, which exist so the paying customers can see their favorites, and get a wave in return. That's the fans' time, not TV's.

* Rain can "postpone" a race, not "cancel" it. Again, learn the difference. Starts aren't hurried-up because "weather" is approaching. A sunny sky is "weather," too.

* Send "Wally's World" and its copycats to Pluto. A waste of time that does nothing to add to the viewer's knowledge. It does, however, pump-up some egos like an over-inflated Goodyear.

* Jamie Little would be very, very wise to try a different act in NASCAR than she did in the IRL. Otherwise, a certain constituency will have her run off faster than Dale Earnhardt Jr. sells beer, cars and jeans.

* Eliminate use of "we" and "our" as an attempt to attach the announcer to the sport. As in, "We award bonus points . . ." and "Our points leader . . . " NASCAR officials determine those competition issues, not the TV people.

* Stop making it sound like a driver might not want to succeed. As in, "He has to make that pass if he wants to win." Is there any doubt a driver wants to win? If so, now THERE'S A STORY!

* No more telling us how "exciting" the action is. We'll decide that for ourselves.

* When a driver or crew chief is kind enough to interrupt business during a race to speak to an announcer, they should not have to listen to a long-winded speech before getting the chance to respond. Get to the point and just ask your question!

* End the self-serving praise ("Great job you guys!") for the pit reporters and cameramen. Hey, it's their job to do a great job! And if it really is great, the Emmy voters will know it.

* Never, ever, again talk about a driver getting a "mulligan" during the Chase. That is a do-over. There is no-such-thing in racing.

* Except in the worst-case scenario, it is never acceptable to use the words "dead" and "killed." As in, "He came to a dead-stop." Or, "He killed that car." Think about it.

* No pre-race shows should be longer than what the broadcast networks do before a regular-season NFL game. That means a maximum of one hour from on-air to the green flag.

* Stop turning announcers into MCs. Interviews done for the TV audience shouldn't be blasted through the track's PA system, which only serves to turn the TV type into a cheerleader for the crowd. (Examples: Jerry Punch on ABC's IRL championship ceremony post-Chicagoland and SPEED's Knoxville Nationals production.) Those are two different kinds of interviews which serve two different purposes. Let the speedway's own announcer entertain the ticket buyers.

* Give every last remaining "Boogity, Boogity, Boogity" T-shirt on the planet to the NBC production crew as a parting gift.The news that SPEED suspended Truck series reporter Ray Dunlap for one week and Fox had fired baseball commentator Steve Lyons, both for "inappropriate" comments, came days after Fox-owned SPEED revealed it had signed Kenny Wallace to a new multi-year contract. Wallace will continue with Jimmy Spencer on NASCAR RaceDay and NASCAR Victory Lane. I not only remember -- I will never forget -- when Wallace appeared on ESPN2's old rpm2night a couple of days after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on our country. Some 3,000 were dead and America was at war. NASCAR had properly decided to postpone that weekend's New Hampshire race. Appearing in his role as the show's NASCAR analyst, Wallace's reaction was to tell fans to "chill out." That statement was way beyond "inappropriate." It was forever inexcusable. To the best of my knowledge, Wallace has never apologized.

I will politely repeat my suggestion of the other week: SPEED should follow the example of other media organizations, including ESPN, and hire an independent Ombudsman as a viewer advocate.If you're interested in some TV behind-the-scenes intrigue, I suggest reading Desperate Networks (Doubleday, 2006) by Bill Carter, the New York Times' television industry reporter. Since I've long fretted over the lack of creative and innovative publicity in motorsports, the most interesting part of the book to me was how difficult it is to get "different" kinds of shows, like Survivor, Lost, Desperate Housewives and The Apprentice on the air.Here's the first of what will be several "plugs" for the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association's All-America Team dinner, Saturday, January 13, at the Hyatt in downtown Indianapolis. I'm a co-chair of this event after serving as chairman of AARWBA's 50th Anniversary Celebration last year. Highlights will include announcement of the Jerry Titus Award winner -- the driver who receives the most All-America Team votes -- and, near to my heart, presentation of the Jim Chapman Public Relations Award. For tickets and program ads and Hyatt room reservations at a discounted rate, go to http://aarwba.org or E-mail President Dusty Brandel at aarwba@compuserve.com . Contact me for newsletter and other sponsorship opportunities.

[ more Blogging the Chase next Tuesday, if not before . . . ]


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

BAD NEWSPAPER NEWS IS BAD NEWS for NASCAR

The Chase is on and the ratings are off and I say that's because the newspaper business is down and moving closer to out.

This saddens me; the emotions are similar to how the rapid and perhaps irreversible decline of open-wheel racing makes me feel. I guess that's understandable since I devoted the majority of my adult life to one or the other. I'm a journalism school grad and spent six stimulating years at the Philadelphia Daily News as a sportswriter, assistant to the sports editor, assistant night news editor, and special projects editor. When I left, it was to accept the challenge of serving as CART's first communications director. After publishing CART's first media guide and starting negotiations for the first ESPN contract and being hands-on for the first temporary course races and creating the first version of the organization's fan club, I moved on to be a part of five title teams, with Mario and Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Jimmy Vasser and Alex Zanardi. I've got the championship rings to prove it.

Newspapers should be reporting -- not making -- news, but too-often lately the business pages have carried bold headlines above bleak stories. Most of the country's biggest and most prestigious titles -- including the New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News and Los Angeles Times -- are cutting jobs and costs that would make the uninitiated think they were Ford or GM. My old paper, the Daily News, along with the sister Philadelphia Inquirer, changed hands earlier this year. Disgruntled investors forced the sale of the Knight Ridder chain to McClathey, which then sold the Philly publications to a local group.

Wrote Reuters: "The summer of 2006 has brought a rash of notices of job buyouts and layoffs at U.S. newspapers, and experts say more nips and tucks will come as advertising dollars dry up and more readers cancel their subscriptions." Industry analyst John Morton said, "Any time you reduce the staffing of a journalistic enterprise, it's inevitable that you're going to lower the quantity, and probably the quality, of the journalistic product." The L.A. Times shockingly decided not to send its beat writers on the road with the NHL's Kings and Ducks this season, and the Tribune Co. recently forced out the Times publisher, after he defied demands for more staff cuts.

Be not ye fooled! Less coverage -- and less informed coverage -- hurts NASCAR. Even the Winston-Salem Journal -- serving the hardest of hard-core stock car fans -- parked Mike Mulhern for several weeks, apparently to save a few bucks. As veteran writers take buyouts, they typically are replaced by journos who have less interest in and knowledge of racing, and are required to divide their time among various sports. I'm not saying some don't try hard, but the end result often is stories lacking depth and context. In other words, the kind of stories people actually want to read. Those, by the way, are the kind of stories that help sell tickets and draw readers to the TV. Prior to last Saturday night's Charlotte show, only two races this season produced better ratings vs. a year ago.

The situation calls for some old-school PR. There was a time in this business when team and sponsor publicists were actually pro-active. (!) Some of us actually worked to develop solid relationships with journalists, make newcomers welcome, take them to lunch or dinner WITH our driver (!), and steer a few good story ideas their way. I question just how many current credential holders actually know how to pitch a story.

With the ratings down, and some writers parked by budget restrictions, how about trying this: Pick up the cell phone and call a couple of 'em. "Sorry you're not here this weekend. Would you like to talk to (insert driver name) for a few minutes?" I'm sure many track publicists would welcome the chance to help facilitate such contacts. Please don't tell me the driver doesn't have time -- we're talking about maybe 15 minutes -- and the goodwill generated from such a gesture might well pay dividends for years.

Of course, the easiest thing to do would be nothing. That's not how NASCAR got to be NASCAR.The Week in Review:

* NASCAR driver, team and sponsor publicists didn't come off looking too good in Yahoo! Sports' national columnist Dan Wetzel's controversial piece about the Confederate flag flying in the infield at Talladega. Regarding his requests to PR reps for driver comments, Wetzel wrote: "Email responses were often bitter. Face-to-face encounters often worse. Interview and statement requests were summarily denied. At some drivers' scheduled weekly press conferences, I was told that any question involving the flag would end the session." What everyone apparently didn't grasp was, once Brian France answered this question on CBS' 60 Minutes, it became fair game -- and more likely to be asked given NASCAR's aggressive pursuit of non-traditional media coverage. I wonder how many of these PR people even bothered themselves to watch the high-profile France family segment on TV's most-viewed and acclaimed newsmagazine? I bet even fewer realized that, with the issue out in the open, they should have their driver prepared to answer it. This is a perfect example of why I believe it's essential to think beyond what is happening in the garage area; to learn from politics and business and other sports. By the way, ladies and gentlemen, you and your driver's stock reply could have been as simple as this: "Brian France has already answered this question and I agree with him."

* My faith in the business would have been made stronger if just one -- ONE! -- media outlet had actually looked into Bruton Smith's statement that he planned to assign extra security to Brian Vickers at Lowe's Motor Speedway because of what happened on the last lap at Talladega. Bruton said his ticket office was "inundated" with calls from angry fans. Even ESPN's SportsCenter reported this as "straight news" -- unchallenged. Couldn't someone have taken a look at the track's phone logs or records in an attempt to quantify "inundated"? The speedway's news release was posted on Jayski.com and contained what, in my Constitutionally-protected opinion, was a clue: "Tickets are still available . . . "

* The combination of the various sponsor liquids splashed around victory lane and the confetti now routinely blasted into the air doesn't mix. Actually, it sticks. Saturday night, at Charlotte, some colored papers stuck to winner Kasey Kahne's uniform -- obscuring the Nextel Cup Series logo. (!) Meanwhile, Nextel and STP were this week's victims of "The Terrible Towel" (Oct. 3 blog) via the red rag drapped over Bobby Labonte's shoulder. Not very wise, coming just days after Sprint Nextel announced Tim Donahue -- who authorized the reported $750 million NASCAR series sponsorship -- will step down Dec. 31 as executive chairman. The company has hit a rough patch lately, with weak second-quarter earnings, a credit downgrade, and the ouster of its president.

* John Cardinale of Infineon Raceway released its 2007 schedule the other day. Since I know we all want to be completely accurate, next year's events at Sonoma comprise the track's "Big O Tires Racing Season."
Someone who did mourn the state of the American newspaper business was my friend Harry Blaze. "Blazer," who held various editor's posts at the Trenton Times as well as being a columnist and auto racing writer since 1968, died last week at age 70. Harry and I shared many press boxes and dinner tables while covering races at Pocono, Trenton, Dover and other East Coast tracks when I was at the Philadelphia Daily News. His laugh was as hearty as his appetite. He had retired earlier this year but still wrote a weekly column. Harry had a sharp eye for detail and that made him an excellent editor. One thing I always respected about Harry, who won numerous writing awards, was he possessed a healthy journalist's skepticism -- but fought letting that swerve into cynicism. I wish that were so with many current-day journos. Motorsports in general, and especially dozens of Eastern short track and superspeedway operators, owe Harry a most respectful bow of the head.

[ more Blogging the Chase next Tuesday, if not before . . . ]

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

DISRESPECTING THE FANS . . .

I've said it before -- in this very blogspace last July 25 -- but clearly I need to say it AGAIN.

It's wrong for NASCAR drivers to turn their backs to the fans to do TV interviews while they are being paraded around in pre-race ceremonies. It is disrespectful and unnecessary.

I'm not going to repeat all the reasons I wheeled-out in my "Eye-to-Eye: NASCAR Must Protect Fan-Driver Moments" posting about 10 weeks ago. If you missed it, please click into the July archives. As the Chase rolls on, however, I've been disspirited by what I've seen.

At New Hampshire: Mark Martin had his back to the paying customers throughout a longer-than-usual talk on TNT. That time, when drivers are supposed to be clearly visible from the grandstand as they ride in convertibles or the back of trucks, is the fans' time. I've liked it that Mark has made it a point to thank the public in many of his interviews this year, but this wasn't the way to show his appreciation to those who probably believed they'd be seeing him in a Nextel Cup car one last race. Meanwhile, Jeff Gordon could be seen waving, until Allen Bestwick had him turn toward the almighty camera. Credit to Ryan Newman, who pretty much continued to wave and look at the people, during his chat.

At Dover, it was almost-always polite Jimmie Johnson who was put into the position of turning away from the ticket buyers. Come K.C., it was a N.H. repeat for Martin and Gordon.

I would like for a responsible executive from the Auto Club or any of the other sponsors impacted by this to explain to me just how this is good business. Memo to the TV producers: You have many other opportunities to do interviews.

The sport asks much of its fans. Even with the facilities built-into newer speedways, and improvements made to older ones, most tracks don't have the same level of amenities and creature comforts of most baseball/football stadiums or basketball/hockey arenas. They endure traffic headaches, hotel price ripoffs, high concession costs, restrictions on coolers, and the uncertainties of weather. NASCAR apparently will go to later starting times next year, another bow to the wishes of the television gods, meaning spectators will have even longer days and later arrivals at home before work or school Monday morning. Let's not deny the ticket-holders the simple pleasure of a smile and wave from the drivers they have paid to see.

Any track operator truly committed to customer service should take this up with NASCAR. The only thing that should come between the patrons and their heroes is a safety fence. A TV camera should not.A few things need to be said about Talladega:

* When Mark Martin climbed out of his truck after winning Saturday, he had a towel drapped around his neck. (See last week's "The Terrible Towels.") Early in his SPEED interview, Mark pulled off the white cloth (I couldn't tell what identity was on it) -- magically revealing the logos on his uniform of Scotts (his primary sponsor), Ford (manufacturer), Pennzoil (associate) and, perhaps most politically important of all, the Craftsman Truck Series. (!)

* Saturday's last-lap crash, and subsequent scoring review, frustrated fans trying to track the relatively close championship battle between Todd Bodine and Johnny Benson. While all media reports agreed Bodine finished fourth, depending on whether you read the Associated Press, NASCAR.com or the Charlotte Observer's site, Benson placed ninth, 10th or 11th. Which was it?

* It was one hour and 42 minutes from the time NBC came on Sunday until the green flag waved for the UAW-Ford 500. That is way, way too long a "pre-game" -- more than the broadcast networks do for the NFL. (!) NASCAR fans may well enjoy all the talk -- but average sports fans want to see ACTION. That means RACING. With the ratings down, it's not unreasonable to suggest that channel surfers might quickly tire of all the interviews (most of which don't yield much of interest), and so switch over to football -- and not come back. At major races, it should never be more than an hour from on-air to the green, and 30 minutes is enough elsewhere.Plenty of racers could learn a lesson by watching the videotape of the Detroit Tigers' joy last Saturday after defeating the New York Yankees to claim their American League Divisional Series. After briefly retreating to their clubhouse, to grab bottles of champagne, many players quickly returned to the field to share the moment with the home-town ticket-buyers. Several ran the perimeter of the field to high-five fans and a few even sprayed bubbly into the stands. Great stuff. And, given the image fostered by too-many professional athletes these days, even better PR.No doubt inspired by what's been happening in this spec of cyberspace (yeah, right!), my friend Larry Edsall has added his blog to the IZoom.com automotive site. Larry is the former AutoWeek motorsports editor and sports editor of the Jackson Citizen-Patriot among other adventures. Check it out: http://IZoom.com

[ more Blogging the Chase next Tuesday, if not before . . . ]

Thursday, October 05, 2006

TALK RADIO

Last Monday night I spent almost 40 minutes on Phoenix radio station KXAM, talking about the downtown Champ Car street event -- and other Business of Racing topics -- with Racing Roundup Arizona co-hosts Jamie Reynolds and Chris Hines. I began by explaining to the listeners that I am professionally neutral on this issue. My views are shaped by my own involvement in planning and executing such temporary course events. I attended the two Phoenix City Council public meetings on this matter. In my experience, the proposal has -- by far -- been the most controversial I've ever seen for any race in any city. The race was approved and is scheduled for Nov. 30, Dec. 1-2, 2007. (Please see my July 18, 20, 23 and Sept. 27 postings.)

Here is a partial transcript of this interview, edited for length and clarity, with the questions paraphrased. The clearly stated purpose of our conversation was to provide perspective, context and analysis. My thanks to Jamie and (producer) Betsy Reynolds, who have made a significant contribution to the growth and success of motorsports in Arizona. In fact, RRA will begin it's 10th consecutive on-air season next month, the longest continuous such show in the state.

[ JR = Jamie Reynolds (left). MK = Michael Knight. CH = Chris Hines (right). ]

JR: Are we on firm ground with this event?
MK: Probably, we’ll find that out on Dec. 2, 2007. I’m professionally neutral on the event. I’m not advocating one side or the other. My analysis, the context I am trying to provide, is based on my experience. I was CART’s, what we call Champ Car now, first director of communications so in 1981 when CART decided to emphasize temporary course racing, I was heavily involved in that. I was in the Mayor’s office and City Council chambers in Cleveland in 1981 advocating on behalf of, and planning, for that first temporary course race in 1982. I was also heavily involved in the events in 1983 in Las Vegas, at Caesars Palace, and then in 1984 at the Meadowlands and Long Beach, when it switched from Formula One to CART.

I think what we have to understand is Champ Car has set, as its business model, an emphasis on street and temporary course races. If you look at their 2007 schedule, right now they have 15 races, they could add a couple more in Europe, but they’re all road course races. No oval races at all. They are emphasizing what they call a three-day "Festival of Speed." One of the things that was emphasized to City Council in Phoenix was that it’s not just a race. They are going to have concerts and food festivals and Extreme sports and art festivals. Of course, we already have all of those things in the Valley, at various places and times. I guess the point here is they are going to bring them all together and that’s what this "Festival of Speed" is all about.

CH: I’d like to see this be successful. Do you think it will be a success?
JR: Do the people who are going to put this on have any expertise? No one has reached out to us.
MK: In my experience this is, by far, the most controversial in any city that either I’ve been involved in or know about. This will show you something: I watched all the media coverage of the City Council meeting last week and virtually every media outlet in town called it an "Indy Car" race. It’s not an Indy Car race . . . these are not the cars and drivers that will be in the Indianapolis 500 next year. They are similar, sure, in the sense that they are open-wheel type cars. Most of the media here does not even understand what this race is going to be. One of the few exceptions I’ve seen is Brahm Resnik at Channel 12 and he’s a news anchor/reporter, not a sports guy. That is symbolic of all the issues.

I’m not advocating one side or the other, but I have a lot of concerns about the way the entire process has unfolded, just on the basis of my own experience. The promoter here, Dale Jensen, is a very well-known and established businessman and one of the owners of the Diamondbacks. One of the selling points to City Council was the promoter is going to pay all the bills. In theory, there’s no city money here, which I think everyone would agree to. The company that they have hired to manage the event is Sutton Motorsports and they are principally known for organizing the Denver Grand Prix. One of the things that concerns me is, in the City Council staff’s recommendations, as far as I can tell, there was no historical review in terms of how these races work around the country. Long Beach is the gold standard. Long Beach is a flat-out success and it’s been tremendous in the revitalization of the downtown area. I’ve seen that. But just to give you an example: To City Council last week, the Denver race was cited as an example of how these races are successful. The reality is, this past August, the Champ Car organization had to give the Denver promoter a financial bailout because the sponsor, Centrix Financial, had financial issues. When that race is cited as a big success, but they had to get a financial bailout, what does that tell you? Here’s a quote from a local paper there, the Rocky Mountain News. The spokeswoman for the race, Jana Watt, I know her, did not announce any attendance figures for the race. She said the reason they didn’t do that was, “A lot of people are not familiar with the event or with racing.” This is a race that has been going on in Denver for five years and, of course, Champ Car lays claim to a heritage of a 97-year history.

One of the things that got my attention, in terms of the political dynamics, is Councilman Michael Johnson emphasized his support for the race by noting it will bring money into the downtown area. That is fine. But he said we have to be aware that the Coyotes moved from downtown to Glendale, that PIR used to have offices downtown and they’ve moved to Avondale, that the Insight Bowl moved from Chase Field to Tempe. So, since these other events moved out, we have to bring new events in. I would say, What does that have to do with the merits, pro-or-con, of a Champ Car race? What I really loved, one thing you can always count on from politicians, is they will always be politicians. On Tuesday, Mayor Gordon and Councilman Johnson voted in favor of the Champ Car race, which PIR had long opposed, then two days later they were at a PIR event to have their picture taken with Jeff Gordon. My position is, I would like the race to be a success not only for Arizona, but for motorsports. It has to be successful for both. Whether it’s going to be that I think is an open question.

CH: What does this town have to do, and you’d be a good guy to help them, to make this a success?
MK: That’s the key question. Now that Council has voted in favor of authorizing their staff and the City Manager to reach a final contract with the promoters, it’s going to happen. As a motorsports fan, I say great, but I want it to be successful for both the city and to make motorsports look good. I think the staff did a good job in their presentation about some of the logistical things, barriers, noise, repaving of streets. I thought that was all legitimate and handled well. I didn’t see any historical knowledge being provided. To answer your question, how will this be successful, let’s start by making sure people understand what it is they are going to be seeing.

JR: All the people who think they are going to be seeing Danica Patrick, because these are "Indy Cars," aren’t going to show.
MK: One of the things I’ve observed, from a business perspective, from both the promoter’s side and the people on the PIR side, those who opposed the event, is they’ve gotten a lot of bad advice. This is my professional opinion: I wrote on my blog back in July, it was entitled "Self-Inflicted Wounds," both sides have had a lot of self-inflicted wounds. Roger Penske told me over 20 years ago that the worst, the most painful wounds, are those that are self-inflicted. There’s a lot of validity in that. I’ve seen it in this case. From the promoter’s side, Jamie as we talked about, there has been no outreach from the promoter, the agency he hired, toward people like you and Racing Roundup Arizona. You have a natural ally, a natural constituency here, and so I don’t think you throw all your time and attention and resources toward lobbyists and the politicians and then all of a sudden just abruptly say, now we want to reach out to the people who should be our friends automatically. The same thing on the PIR side. In making their case as to why this event perhaps wasn’t the best idea, well, there are a lot of race teams that would like to have the money spent on the PR firm, which never got its arms around a lot of the issues. There were a lot of bad decisions made. There were some cheap shots at the Champ Car organization instead of pointing out some of the factual issues. Just to give you an example: I was at the Council meeting in May and Bryan Sperber, the president of PIR, said this is a second-rate event but didn’t really back it up. That very day, there was a cover story in USA Today about Paul Newman, which said the sponsorship situation is so bleak in Champ Car that, for their second car, he has to pay for it out of his own pocket. I think Bryan could have stood up and said, "Please read Page 1 of USA Today."

CH: Every kid has to do his homework. Apparently these people haven’t been doing their homework.
JR: They missed the principles of salesmanship. Don’t tell me about how bad they are. Tell me about how good you are.
MK: I love racing history. It’s frustrating, but it’s also sad, to me when you see people – and I mean this on both sides – making the same mistakes that were made 20 years ago. The only reason those mistakes were made is no one ever bothered to go out and do their homework or learn the history.

Getting back to your question about how to make this a success: I agree with the people who say it’s unfair to compare this Champ Car race to when Formula One was here. So many things have changed in the Valley since then, most importantly, the size of our population base. I’ve lived in Scottsdale for more than 12 years and I’d say something else has changed, too, since I’ve been here. I think it used to be we were just happy to have professional sports teams or major sports events here. We’ve progressed way beyond that. I think, in the Valley, we’ve come to love celebrity. I’d say it probably started with Charles Barkley. Then, over the years, we’ve had Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling and then Wayne Gretzky and Steve Nash and now it’s Matt Leinart. Phoenix fans are into celebrity athletes. When NASCAR comes to PIR, you don't have to be a race fan to know the star names like Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and now the new stars like Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne. I’d say that’s the root of the problem for Champ Car. How many tickets will Sebastien Bourdais, who is going to be a three-time champion, sell here?

JR: I think you’re on to something about the celebrities. That’s a very good point . . . The IRL and Champ Car merger. It doesn't seem like that's going to happen.
MK: A Council member asked what would happen to the Phoenix race if there was a merger. The answer was the race is protected by contract to be part of any combined schedule. That's good for Phoenix, but I wonder, how many other promoters have that same guarantee? That's just another roadblock in the path of a merger because maybe Tony George doesn't want to agree to a lot of road course and street races.
I noted last week how Larry Henry is using some of the new media technology on behalf of Ford. Last Saturday, Adrian Fernandez and Luis Diaz Jr. unveiled at Road Atlanta their new Lowe's-sponsored Acura Lola for the 2007 ALMS season, and my friend Drew Brown (GMR) made video of that ceremony available via Google video. Fernandez and Diaz were joined by Honda's Robert Clarke and Lowe's CEO Robert Niblock. See it here:
http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=
4675344265428159132&pr=goog-sl


In a Sept. 21 PR PS, after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez lashed-out against America in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, I pointed out that Citgo is a subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil company. I added: "Any Citgo-backed racer who expects to enjoy the support of U.S. race fans should immediately disavow Chávez's remarks." So, I applaud last week's announcement by 7-Eleven that it is dropping Citgo as the gasoline supplier at more than 2,100 locations. The convenience store chain will switch to its own brand of fuel. While a 7-Eleven spokeswoman said its 20-year contract with Citgo was coming to an end, and the retailer had been considering a change since early last year, she acknowledged. ". . . we sympathize with many Americans' concern over derogatory comments about our country and its leadership . . ." said Margaret Chabris. I just finished reading Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq by Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor. It was published earlier this year by Pantheon Books. At over 500 pages, it likely will endure as the definitive account of the military campaign. It took a lot of concentration to follow all the action but it was worth every minute. One lesson I took away was, despite all the high-tech gizmos available to them, commanders still struggled at times to understand everything that was happening on the ground and in the air. In fact -- amazing to me -- the decisive attack into the heart of Baghdad on April 7, 2003, was the result of a miscommunication (Chapter 20: The Accidental Victory).


[ more Blogging the Chase next Tuesday . . . ]