• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

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 . . . ]