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Thursday, September 07, 2006

FORCING SOME ISSUES

You gotta love John Force.

The biggest shocker of last Monday's Mac Tools U.S. Nationals came in the opening minutes when 13-time NHRA Funny Car champion Force -- after qualifying No. 1 and winning Sunday's Skoal Shootout in his Castrol Ford Mustang -- red-lighted in round one against Jim Head. That allowed Ron Capps to reclaim the title advantage. According to NHRA.com senior editor Rob Geiger, Force showed up in the media center "with guns blazing and laid this tirade down on a shocked gathering of scribes."

"My PR people say the media wants a statement from me so I thought I'd come up here myself," Force said. "They want to make it nice and protect me but I don't need protecting. I have the best car here and I failed, OK? This is Indy. It's not where you make mistakes. The kids in my pit are saying they love me and that it's OK, but it's not. I hate myself and my sponsors should hate me, too. I'm the best there is and I forgot how to race. If you lose like this at Indy, you deserve to have your ass kicked."

It came to light last week that the A&E network reality series, Driving Force, (photo courtesy of A&E) has consumed more of John's time than he expected. This has caused tension between Force, crew chief Austin Coil, and apparently even with some sponsors despite the exposure plus the television show provides. Force told interviewers he has rededicated himself to his team, but didn't rule-out cooperating with a second season of non-traditional TV, which is a showcase for daughters Ashley, Brittany and Courtney. Son-in-law Robert Hight, meanwhile, won and thus saved drag racing's most important day for Force's team.
A welcome addition to ESPN2's expanded U.S. Nationals coverage was my friend John Kernan, one of the network's former NASCAR pit reporters, and host of the greatly respected-and-missed rpm2night. Kernan's friendly-and-comfortable style remained intact, even if inactivity left his interviewing less-than-crisp. John's on-camera persona, however, would have benefitted from an up-close-and-personal encounter with Gillette.

A puzzling MIA was Paul Page, who this season has subbed in the NHRA telecast host's chair while Marty Reid was away IRLing. With 10 1/2 hours of coverage, ESPN2 could have used Page well on a separate set for extended interviews with the drag racing legends who always turn up at Indy, a role Kernan filled in years past.

In a week of near-historic off-track news, the biggest was six-time champ Kenny Bernstein's unretirement announcement, as he'll return to Funny Car in '07 with Monster Energy drink sponsorship. That also produced the best exchange of sound bites. When Bernstein rival Don Prudhomme was asked on ESPN2 if he ever considered a comeback, The Snake made it all-too-clear his view is "after you do a big farewell tour" and "take people's money," reversing a retirement decision isn't the correct course of action. To his credit, Dave Despain followed-up, and put that question directly to Kenny on Sunday night's Wind Tunnel. Bernstein told the Speed audience he apologizes if anyone is offended. As a PR issue, though, I say it's a non-starter: I'm sure the number of fans who are happy the "King of Speed" is returning far outnumber those bummed after buying a souvenir during the 2002 Budweiser-organized "Forever Red -- A Run to Remember" season. I dealt with a similar situation. I managed Arie Luyendyk's "Arie's Final 500" activities at the 1999 Indianapolis 500. When Luyendyk decided to return in 2001, I recall only one complaint.

What I find more interesting, from a business perspective, is that Coca-Cola didn't protect itself (read that: pay) against competitive energy drinks in its contract with NHRA for the POWERade brand's series sponsorship. There's a reason you don't see any cars backed by Gatorade or Pepsi bucks. Coke's own energy drink, Full Throttle (seems like a perfect fit) is an official NHRA sponsor, but they left the category door wide open and Monster raced right through it with Bernstein. Coca-Cola is NHRA's official soft drink and its Dasani bottled water enjoys the same status in that sector.
Recently, I spoke with someone who was approached last April for an Indy 500 car associate sponsorship. The conversation revealed another nugget of information showing how, in too many cases, what poses as IRL and Champ Car team marketing and PR service is an amateur hour operation.

As described to me, in return for some cash, a small car decal and a few credentials were promised. When the potential sponsor asked what other benefits his business would receive, the team representative said -- and I'm told what follows is the exact quote -- "It would be a nice thing to do."

Now there's a professional presentation . . . and an opportunity sure to provide a proper Return on Investment. Shockingly, the company passed, and the entry was passed -- starting and finishing near the back of the field.
The Rolex Sports Car season has wrapped but, respectfully, merits getting rapped here. Despite some excellent competition and a road-course finish-for-the-ages at Virginia (Mike Rockenfeller passed Scott Pruett and Max Angelelli with three turns to go), the series didn't produce a pebble-in-a-pond ripple of national attention after the opening 24 hours at Daytona. Yes, in this NASCAR Nation, expectations should be modest -- except this is a circuit created by the France family semi-in-the-mold of their stock car masterpiece.

I hope the powers-that-be break out the toolbox during this off-season. Here's my suggested worklist: 1) Increase the PR department's budget; 2) Host a PR workshop, mandatory for team owners, promoters and their publicists, with drivers, sponsors and marketers welcome. (Any team with Playboy as a sponsor should have been an automatic for local pre-race publicity, but pro-active media "pitching" is essentially non-existent. And, just how many journos have been hosted at Ruby Tuesday with potential superstar Patrick Long?); 3) Recast the event "advance" program; 4) Overhaul, except for analyst Dorsey Schroeder, the TV talent and production lineup; 5) Produce ticket-selling commercials that actually make it clear WHERE the upcoming race will happen, unlike those aired this year.


EXCESSIVE HYPE ALERT, ADD TWO: Anyone who underestimated Katie Couric's (photo courtesy of CBS News) absolute commitment to make her historic CBS Evening News solo anchor role work should note this: Liberal Katie personally reached-out to conservative radio talk icon Rush Limbaugh to appear on her show. In a Nixon-goes-to-China move, Limbaugh is scheduled for a 90-second commentary tonight (Thursday), and is sure to bring a lot of his audience with him. Tonight's Nielsen's -- after a boffo 9.1 rating/17 share debut -- will be interesting reading (!)


[ Next Tuesday, Sept. 12, is primary election day in Arizona. Since I'll be serving as a local election official, please click-back two days later than usual for a special THURSDAY (Sept. 14) posting. More then . . . ]