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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

THE CHASE FOR COVERAGE

Before the Chase, there was the Chase for Coverage.

As part of its intensive and extensive New York City-based pre-New Hampshire media blitz, NASCAR arranged for the 10 drivers to do satellite television interviews in key markets. I attended the session for Valley of the Sun journalists, hosted by Tami Nealy of Phoenix International Raceway, in a downtown sports bar. Local media interest ahead of the Nov. 12 Checker Auto Parts 500k was positive (TV, radio and print reporters attended) as Kasey Kahne (on screen), Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton were made available for 15 minutes each. Here are some things I noticed:

1. Only Burton wore a sponsor-logo shirt. (Team Cingular. Matt Kenseth wasn't in our group but I noted his DeWalt shirt as he settled-in for one of his sessions. I didn't see the others.) This was especially important since I didn't hear any of the drivers mention their sponsors. To repeat the point I made last week: Where were the PR people?

Sorry, folks, no excuses. I have typically kept an extra logo shirt nearby; it's not a difficult thing to do. Here's a true story from media day before the 1997 CART race in Portland: Although I usually took the drivers to such events -- instead of just counting on them to show-up -- travel delays forced reigning series champ Jimmy Vasser to head to the track straight from the airport. Alex Zanardi and I were already there, but some coffee had spilled on Zanardi's shirt when I treated him to Starbucks that morning, so he was wearing the backup pullover. I met Vasser at the entrance to a hospitality tent, just across from the paddock, and he was in a non-logo shirt. I offered three options: We could temporarily swap shirts right there; he'd wait in his car until I ran to the transporter to get him a shirt; or he could go get one out of his locker. I'm not saying Jimmy was overly thrilled, but he agreed to No. 3, and I assured the puzzled local journos he'd be back in a few minutes. Jimmy fulfilled his interview obligations in a professional manner and it paid off with visual sponsor ID on that evening's newscasts and in the next morning's Oregonian. Once again, I'm amazed NASCAR team owners and corporate representatives don't insist on higher standards. Or aren't they paying attention?

2. Earnhardt Jr. (in a multi-colored striped shirt) and Kahne (wearing a plain pullover) looked tired, and Dale in particular seemed to be weary of what obviously was a long process. Asked his emotions on qualifying for the Nextel Cup runoffs after missing out a season ago, Little E said: "Last year was not too bad. It was kind of my year off . . . I just get out there and drive, man . . . I try not to get emotional about how much it (championship) means, not make it a big deal. I do it (racing) for fun, for enjoyment."

3. Johnson was smooth, as usual (albeit in a white-and-blue striped long-sleeve), and said he had done a commercial for ESPN the previous day. A local radio guy seized the chance and requested that Jimmie guest on his show when he comes to Phoenix. "I have no idea what my schedule is. I just wake-up and they tell me what to do," was Jimmie's reply.

4. Burton was the only one to project energy and enthusiasm through the big screen. Asked how he'd approach the Chase, Jeff was typically candid: "I don't want to overthink this thing." In what surely must have been one of the weirdest questions posed to any driver this year, someone wanted Burton to compare "Cole Trickle, Dick Trickle and Ricky Bobby" as drivers. (!)

5. The drivers were in New York's ESPN Zone and it was distracting as people walked behind them. A Chase backdrop would have been useful. It wouldn't be too difficult to fine-tune that suggestion by designing the banner so the local track's event logo could be added, then swapped out for the next one, as each city took its turn.

Upon considering this group's appearances with Letterman and Regis and on the network morning shows and the satellite tour and photo-ops and phoners with radio stations, I couldn't help but wonder which was more mentally exhausting: The Chase . . . or the Chase for Coverage. Jimmie Johnson just might have provided the answer.

"My favorite part (of this) is when it's over so I can start sleeping again. You guys (reporters) have no idea how intense this is . . . It's a very painful 10 weeks."
Wind Tunnel answered the "Whatever happened to . . . ?" question about "The Hat Man" Sunday night, as Dave Despain and guest co-host Ed Hinton chatted with their old buddy, Bill Broderick. (Although, amazingly, neither asked the former Unocal 76 publicist -- who orchestrated NASCAR victory lanes for more than a quarter-century -- what he is doing now.) One problem. The on-screen graphic, and the promo on SpeedTV.com, had Bill's name misspelled. It's "Broderick" -- with an e -- not "Brodrick" as presented to the audience and readers. I dealt with Bill (left, with Ernie Irvan) for years and even was a member of his media Racing Panel during my tenure at the Philadelphia Daily News. So, I'm sure Bill -- who firmly believed in the gospel of "print whatever you want, just make sure you spell my name right" -- cringed when he watched the tape. (!)

SPEED soon found it had a bigger problem. Despain opened his show with a report from Bob Dillner, on-site at New Hampshire, that NASCAR officials had a concern about wheel rims on the cars of Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton. To paraphrase Dillner, the rims were modified to act as a kind of air pressure bleeder valve, a competition advantage. He also said this was in the rulebook's "gray area," so there would be no penalty, but that Richard Childress Racing personnel had been told not to do it again.

On Monday, NASCAR Vice President of Corporate Communications Jim Hunter called the report "sheer fantasy" in a ThatsRacin.com story. According to Hunter, Dillner did not ask anyone with NASCAR about the issue before going with it. "He didn't ask because he didn't want to know the answer. It was an example of sensational journalism at its worst." Owner Childress was quoted as saying, "The reported events and conversations did not happen." The network issued a statement from Chris Long, executive producer for NASCAR programming: "SPEED reporter Bob Dillner has a strong record of solid reporting from the NASCAR garage; so there is no rational reason for us to consider that the events and conversations he related to SPEED viewers are anything other than the truth."

My political friends would call that a "non-denial denial." I wasn't at the track so I have no first-hand knowledge of what happened. I can share these experiences: a) Dillner has been a welcome dinner guest in my home. b) Several months ago, Bob's name came up in a conversation I had with a respected SPEED broadcaster, who expressed concern about his attitude. c) I still can't shake the memory of the inappropriate exchange between Dillner and Speed News co-anchor Connie LeGrande in October 2004, the day 10 people were killed in the crash of a Hendrick Motorsports aircraft. At the conclusion of Dillner's report from Martinsville, LeGrande expressed her sympathy to him, on the basis that Bob's "so close" to everyone in the garage area. Instead of properly directing sympathy to the victim's families, Dillner shook his head in the affirmative, and personally accepted her sentiment. It reminded me of the incident that cost Phyllis George her job as co-host of the CBS Morning News many years earlier. I know Hunter well enough to believe his unusually sharp language was the result of his own, perhaps similar, experiences.


[ Blogging the Chase will continue through the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But please come back this Thursday for more on other topics . . . ]