• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

EYE-TO-EYE: NASCAR MUST PROTECT FAN-DRIVER MOMENTS


When I was a kid, growing up in Philadelphia, the President of the United States made a speech at Independence Hall on July 4, 1962. My family went to see John F. Kennedy that day. I remember that, somehow, we maneuvered to a great location among the tens of thousands, front row of the second tier of spectators. I remember my line-of-sight was almost head-on, the angle just slightly to the President’s left. I remember JFK wore a suit and tie on a sunny and hot morning. I remember remembering his words extolling patriotism and freedom the following October, when we feared an all-out nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I remember the excitement of the occasion matched the go-go energy of the times; America was on the way to the moon; we thought everything in the world was possible.

I remember, most of all, what happened after his remarks. President Kennedy stepped away from the podium and smiled while showered with applause. I remember a moment when – I swearhe looked at me! At least, that’s the way it seemed then, and that’s the way I remember it today. It was the thrill of a young lifetime – I went home and boasted to all the neighbors -- “the President waved at me!” -- and it remains in focus in the photo album of my memory.

NASCAR fans want and need that kind of eye-to-eye contact – even from a distance -- with their heroes, too. It is supposed to happen during driver introductions, on stage, and again when the racers are paraded around in open vehicles shortly before the green flag. All-too often, however, the paying customers are being denied that thrill – and that just isn’t right.

This has become virtually standard practice: Whatever network is televising the race puts their pit announcers in the convertibles or pickups for a few words from the newsmakers. The scene pains me. While we at home get a couple of sentences that almost always are uninformative – Question: “Can you do it today?” Answer: “I sure hope so.” – the driver faces the camera with his back to the ticket buyers.

Let me phrase that another way: The driver is turning his back to the customers. And, to be fair to our TV friends, sometimes uninterviewed drivers busily chat away and don’t pay attention – that is, show respect and appreciation – to the fans.

That’s wrong. It’s bad PR for the driver, his sponsors, NASCAR and the track. It should stop.

The people who travel long distances and sit in traffic and brave the weather and make these events possible by spending their hard-earned money – and who live and love the NASCAR lifestyle – deserve better. Young or old, they deserve a sincere look, smile, and wave.

NASCAR has long prided itself on being responsive to the fans. It’s fair to say that’s one reason NASCAR is NASCAR in today’s major-league sports landscape. Adding overtime, to try to give the spectators a green-flag finish, is an obvious example of this philosophy. The organization also has gained a deserved reputation in the broadcast industry for its willingness to be cooperative and innovative with its TV partners. That certainly has paid off.

But the television people have many opportunities to interact with the competitors. The majority of the public does not. So, when it comes to protecting its’ fans “JFK moment” with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne or any of the other drivers, NASCAR should stand tall and tell TV “not now.”


[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Sunday, July 23, 2006

UPDATE: 12 News TV interview


I was interviewed "live" in-studio on KPNX TV (Phoenix NBC affiliate) on the Sunday morning news program. Anchor Brahm Resnik questioned me about the proposed 2007 Champ Car street race in downtown Phoenix.




Question: (paraphrase) Why is Phoenix International Raceway opposed to the Champ Car race?

Answer: "The first reason is the date. The second NASCAR Nextel Cup race at PIR would be one week before the proposed Champ Car race in mid-November. Scheduling two races of that nature so close together in the same market would be difficult. A lot of the NASCAR fans who come here stay and go to restaurants in downtown. Obviously, there would be construction going on. But the main thing is, just like any other business, it would increase PIR's advertising and marketing and promotional costs. It could cost them some corporate hospitality business and local sponsorships."

Question: Is there a chance NASCAR might pull that second race if Champ Car went ahead?

Answer: "A lot of people who are involved in this process would tell you NASCAR is so phenomenally successful that would never happen. I would suggest those people don't understand the business of racing. I think the worst-case scenario would be that, if the Champ Car race would become a lot more successful than perhaps people anticipate it would be, that the (extra) cost of putting the second NASCAR race on for the parent company, International Speedway Corp., is they could take that event and move it to one of the other tracks they own, such as Kansas City."

Thursday, July 20, 2006

THE POWER OF NEGATIVE THINKING


On Sunday, July 2, the Arizona Republic (circulation 600,000) published a guest op-ed (not sports) column I wrote on the proposed Champ Car race in downtown Phoenix. (Link below.) My purpose was to use my experience with CART temporary course events – going back to the first few in Cleveland, Las Vegas and the Meadowlands -- to provide perspective and context. I hoped this would contribute to the public debate of this hot issue in the Valley of the Sun (see my July 18 blog).

What I got was a lesson on the “passion” of racing fans.

The column clearly laid-out my history of involvement (sometimes, hands-on, like helping to move concrete barriers at Burke Lakefront Airport in 1982 at 1 a.m. in the company of mosquitos) in these events. I specifically wrote that I am professionally neutral on this plan. I outlined several legitimate issues that I had not seen or heard covered elsewhere, including at a Phoenix City Council subcommittee meeting I attended.

Several friends and colleagues in the industry promptly E-mailed me. Larry Edsall, former AutoWeek racing editor (now an author and freelancer), kindly wrote that his one-time boss, the late legendary motorsports journalist Leon Mandel, often “lectured” about the importance of perspective and putting context into stories. Since I knew and respected Leon, that was (and is) a great compliment.

Faster than A.J. Allmendinger won three races for Gerald Forsythe, though, came some not-so-generous messages. Within hours, a web site that apparently specializes in throwing red meat to the anti-IRL crowd, linked to the column and put this headline on its home page: “Former PR Director for CART Stabs Champ Car in Back.”

The handful of E-mails this caused had an interesting commonality. Not one disputed any fact I presented. Every one dispersed personal attacks. My “favorite” one opined that I’m “full of hyper blow” and concluded with this: “My guess is ISC/NASCAR will be putting an extra shrimp or two in your shrimp cocktail at the next who ha [sic] they host at the 21 Club.” I made it a point to promptly and politely reply to each-and-every writer. I did explain to the sender of the above that, as I am allergic to all seafood, I definitely would not be accepting an extra shrimp!

My view is several of the race opponents haven’t distinguished themselves. The same can be said of some of the proponents. Before my op-ed was published, I was copied on an E-blast encouraging fans to vote “Yes” on a Phoenix Business Journal online poll about the Arizona Grand Prix. A couple of links were included, one prefaced this way: “If you're NOT in favor of this race, this link will lead you to a site with computer viruses galore, an early onset of Alzheimers, and various sexual dysfunction symptoms.”

(I’ll give ‘em the benefit of the doubt and assume this was supposed to be a joke. Anyone who has witnessed the tragedy of Alzheimer’s Disease in their family – which I have in common with the Frances – will tell you it is an unacceptable subject for any attempt at humor.)

I love the passion of true racing fans. It’s essential to making the sport great and successful. But the attack-which-ignores-fact mindset has to go the way of the Honker. It was impossible for me not to notice that chatroomers, who have gushingly posted about Danica Patrick for two years, suddenly did 180s when she (and her father) admitted she’d consider NASCAR if a suitable contract wasn’t forthcoming from an IRL team. It’s almost frightening to consider how these people would react if Danica went to the Champ Car World Series!

I’m a political junkie. I’m saddened our national discourse too-often has devolved into the politics of personal destruction. Motorsports must not travel that road.

http://www.azcentral.com/php-bin/clicktrack/print.php?referer=http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/viewpoints/
articles/0702knight0702.html

[ more Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

SELF-INFLICTED WOUNDS

I was present when promoters of a proposed Champ Car street race tried to begin their presentation to a subcommittee of the Phoenix City Council with a video run off a laptop. Unfortunately, the file froze within seconds, bringing the show to a most abrupt end. That could happen to anyone, but it did symbolize the problems of both sides in this overly contentious local issue, which is a case study for motorsports businesspeople nationwide.

Briefly: Dale Jensen (a powerful figure in the Arizona Diamondbacks ownership) and Bradley Yonover want to stage a race next year as part of their $300 million downtown redevelopment plan that would include an entertainment district. The opposition has been led by Bryan Sperber, president of Phoenix International Raceway. All three were at the May meeting, along with Champ Car owner Kevin Kalkhoven, CC prez Steve Johnson and Jim Freudenberg of Sutton Motorsports Productions, the Denver-based company hired to organize the event. Looking out into the audience of maybe 40-50, though, one Councilman observed the race represented a “full-employment program for lobbyists.”

Maybe that was the problem. For while plenty of hired guns were sitting there, running up billable hours, neither group had anyone present with an immediate historical or institutional knowledge of the situation. Opposition research, as my political friends like to call their digging (full disclosure: I’ve done it myself), has its place but in this instance nobody was prepared enough or nimble enough to think on their feet and respond with some very basic facts. The lobbyists knew their way around City Hall but were lost when it came to the Business of Racing.

Here are some of the key selling points made by the proponents:

1. The event would focus “maximum media attention” on the Valley of the Sun.
2. They expect 3 ½ hours of network television coverage for the main attraction and 20 total TV hours.
3. CC has a history of successful downtown street races.
4. Corporate sponsorship would be a boost for the local economy.
5. A “green” theme would be created with educational exhibits about solar technology.

I’m professionally neutral on the race but these were big eye-openers for me. (I got no indication the Council members or their staff knew any better.) Here are some key counter-points that could have been made, but weren’t:

1. Since the prospective date conflicts with the NASCAR Nextel Cup “Chase” finale, virtually every major motorsports journalist would be at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
2. CC’s typical time-buy is no more than 2 ½ hours and, even if qualifying and support races were placed on a cable network, anything close to 20 hours would be unprecedented. The series is audience challenged, with even the showcase Long Beach Grand Prix achieving a dismal 0.6 Nielsen rating (634,000 households) last April. Further complication: The sports media king NFL season would be underway and interest in the Arizona Cardinals is at an all-time high because of a new stadium and USC superstar/celebrity quarterback Matt Leinert.
3. While Long Beach, Cleveland and Toronto have endured over the long-haul, many more have not. Miami gave it a go in three different locations and Detroit two. Only Long Beach truly helped spark a meaningful downtown redevelopment.
4. Team depth is thin and corporate participation is weak. The very day the Council met, USA Today ran a Page One cover story on Paul Newman’s racing passion, and the article noted Newman has to help fund one of his cars out of his own pocket because there is no sponsor. Even Paul Tracy, probably CC’s most recognizable driver, doesn’t have a sponsor so owner Gerald Forsythe puts the logo of his own business on the sidepods.
5. The series has no “green” tie-in. At least the IRL has an environmentally-friendly connection via Ethanol.

Phoenix’s status if Champ and Indy Car merge also went unaddressed. On the other hand, so did the recent string of IRL disappointments at PIR. Jensen told Council he wasn’t asking for subsidies. Yesterday, the Arizona Republic opinion page reported “Jensen puts the initial cost of organizing the event at $15 million. He would seek to recover part of the cost from sales-tax receipts generated by the event.” (Republic editorials have criticized PIR’s stance: “After weeks of harsh rhetoric and accusations, this is shaping up as an expensive turf war over the auto racing market in Phoenix. And that's not nearly a good enough reason for the Phoenix City Council to put this proposal on hold.”)

One can only wonder why Sperber didn’t take advantage of the gift of a factual hanging curveball in the middle of the plate and smack it outta here! Rather, he focused on the governmental approval process, and after saying his representatives were excluded from a public meeting, implied things were happening in “secret.” That clearly irritated the Council members, who voted to authorize staff to continue due diligence with the promoters.

Afterwards, I spoke with Johnson and Freudenberg, both of whom were bleeped-off – and made more determined – by Sperber’s description of Champ Car as “minor league.” No surprise. There was, however, a final disappointment. I was introduced to a PIR lobbyist, who asked my opinion of what had just happened. When I told him anyone with historical or institutional knowledge about the Business of Racing easily could have run-over either side’s talking points, he laughed.

Twenty-five years ago, Roger Penske told me self-inflected wounds are the worst and most painful. The featured actors in the Phoenix race melodrama have verified the truth of that statement. I’ll have more on this in two days.

[ more Thursday . . . ]

Thursday, July 13, 2006

IMAGE IS EVERYTHING


Dale Earnhardt is widely credited with taking the lead among professional race drivers in legally protecting his name and image. Dale -- and wife Teresa -- understood the value while others still were trying to figure out if selling T-shirts was a good idea. Earnhardt’s edge was so acknowledged, in fact, that none-other than Nigel Mansell welcomed his advice. I enjoyed the great treat of being within earshot of their January 1994 conversation, in Charlotte’s Speedway Club, before the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association’s All-America Team dinner. (Mansell, by the way, returned the favor by giving Dale some insights into his contract perks.)

Many have tried to follow Earnhardt’s example and few have been more controlling of how her image has been presented to the public and press than Danica Patrick. Which makes what is currently displayed on the Milwaukee Mile’s website (and pictured here) more than a touch surprising -- but this week’s “Danica to NASCAR” headlines almost predictable.

The track says the first 10,000 fans through the gates for the July 23 ABC Supply/A.J. Foyt 225 will get their very own Danica “collectible” to have and to hold from that day forward. (This is also referred to as a “figurine.” I take it political correctness ruled out a “bobble-head.” That’s funny, when you consider the race has the name of PC-Be-Damned Foyt in the title!)

Take a close look. If that’s Danica then I guess Paris Hilton has the majesty of Lady Liberty. Whoever had the responsibility to watch out for Danica on this project must have been too busy reviewing her NASCAR options.

While not quite a figurine fiasco, this does symbolize Danica’s story in a season when things haven’t been looking so good. Whether her father T.J.’s “I’m trying to get her here (NASCAR)” quote to writer Ed Hinton last Sunday at Chicagoland was calculated or casual, his timing was great PR-wise, since Patrick’s contract with Rahal Letterman Racing is up after this year. If her wretchedly excessive hype of a year ago had kept cooling-off, by 2007, Rush Limbaugh would have been citing it as proof Global Warming is bunk. As for her new autobiography, let me put it this way: When it comes to selling books, Danica is no Ann Coulter.

While Melanie Troxel and Angelle Sampey have been winning and leading their NHRA classes – with all respect to Shirley Muldowney, a Troxel Top Fuel title would be HUGE if properly capitalized-upon in today’s media environment -- Patrick basically has been mid-pack, no longer enjoying a Honda horsepower advantage. One is left with the impression team owner Bobby Rahal’s focus is on son Graham’s young career. What has all-the-look of a management void has been complicated by GM Scott Roembke’s lengthy absence due to serious illness. One example: the team’s slow reaction switching from Panoz to Dallara chassis.

Floating the NASCAR trial balloon achieved the purpose of getting Danica the most and biggest headlines she’s had all ’06. It also increased her leverage during contract negotiating season. I call that a Sign of the PR Times.

Speaking of image, the IRL’s as a marketing engine suffering from vapor lock was reinforced when owner Ron Hemelgarn made it official the “Car Melo” car linked with basketball star Carmelo Anthony has been parked. Due to lack of sponsorship.

The League did everything but bring in the Purdue University Marching Band to drum-up interest in the news of Carmelo’s involvement. It was hyped that the arrangement for driver P.J. Chesson was a direct result of its new alliance with rocker Gene Simmons’ company. Hemelgarn, quoted in a July 7 ESPN.com article, said “not one cent was generated” despite talk the deal would “attract lots of sponsors” and produce “millions of dollars.” Anthony’s business manager, Bill Sanders, explained the idea was for the Denver Nuggets’ player to create buzz, not put in his own coin.

Given that the series doesn’t have an event in Colorado, and the demographic link between IRL and NBA fans is questionable, the concept was no slam-dunk. It’s getting close to a time when it will be legitimate to ask just what tangible results and benefits the controversial Simmons has brought to the Indy Racing League.

[ more Tuesday . . . ]

Monday, July 10, 2006

'THE GREAT ADVENTURE'


I had the incredible professional experience to be in the middle of auto racing’s original – and only – 24-hour news-cycle story. I was the public relations director for Newman/Haas Racing when Nigel Mansell, the 1992 Formula One world champion, made his unprecedented move to CART’s PPG Indy Car World Series in 1993. When Nigel did his first oval test, in January ’93 at Phoenix International Raceway, 90 journalists from 9 countries showed up to report on his exploits. Throughout that championship season, it became my daily routine to take calls from international reporters late into the p.m., as well as review overnight fax interview requests first thing in the a.m.

Two great memories remain from that test, which for any other driver, typically would have attracted three or four writers or photographers. Carl Haas looked at the media cluster and whispered to me in one of history's classic understatements, "I think this might be bigger than we thought." Co-owner Paul Newman surveyed the scene and said Mansell in America was “The Great Adventure.”

The Great Adventure. That’s what I’m hoping this journey into the blogosphere will be.

I like to think I’ve learned a lot in the 35 years I’ve been involved in journalism and PR and communications management jobs. (Especially what not to do.) These days, I have the opportunity to monitor most aspects of the Business of Racing on a daily basis, and that’s why this outpost in cyberspace now exists. Motorsports can be thrilling and terrifying and there are God-knows how many places to go to get the results. But I have long found the behind-the-scenes deeds and deals and politics to be just as important and interesting. Maybe that’s because I’ve eye-witnessed my share and even been directly involved in the intrigue from time-to-time.

This is not the first I’ve said this and it sure won’t be the last: To be a good and knowledgable fan, or reporter, you MUST know something about the Business of Racing. You’ll understand what happens on-the-track better by understanding what happens off-the-track.

So . . . every Tuesday during the season – at a minimum - I’ll fall back on my own experiences to try and put the current-day happenings into context. Plus, point out a few issues not discussed elsewhere. I'm one of those people who believe it's essential to keep learning and my wish is this blog will be a vehicle to stimulate thought for all of us in, or with an interest in, the industry.

Please come along for the ride.

[ more Thursday . . . ]