• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Woe are us, TV viewers. Remember when Bob Varsha smartly would say "turn up the volume" at the start of Formula One races so we could enjoy the roar of the high-revving engines? If anyone involved in the production of Formula E had a clue about what this series supposedly is all about (electric power), he/she would have instructed screaching announcer Jack Nicholls to shut up at the start of the series' debut in China, so we could have been shocked by the lack of such sound. Without that contrast, it looks like just another junior formula series (with ugly cars.) And then there was ESPN idiot Jonathan Coachman calling Brad Keselowski "brother" during a post-Chicagoland interview. Of course, Coachman wasn't credible reading his script as a pro wrestling announcer. Looks like a good candidate for White House spokesman.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

SHERIFF JOE vs. CHAMP CAR

It seems all-but-certain that Champ Cars will be racing on the streets of downtown Phoenix in December 2007 but drivers could be forced to navigate the most unusual chicane in racing history -- Sheriff Joe Arpaio's tank and SWAT team. No, I am NOT making this up!

I attended Tuesday's two-hour-plus City Council meeting, where in a voice vote, Mayor Phil Gordon joined the majority in favor of authorizing the city manager to negotiate a contract with race promoters Dale Jensen and Bradley Yonover. By far the most interesting news, however, came when a representative for Arpaio (left) addressed Council members. The Maricopa County sheriff is against the race for "public safety" reasons, including the fact that a 9-1-1 emergency call center borders the two-mile course.

Mary Millard, commander of Arpaio's communications division, testified before the Council. She repeated the reasons for Arpaio's opposition and concluded by reading a statement from the sheriff: "If (the race) disrupts the operations of the 9-1-1 center and causes concern for public safety," Arpaio will "block the street with his tank and SWAT team."

Arpaio is the colorful and flamboyant self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff in America" -- who houses inmates in a tent city, makes them wear pink underwear, feeds them bologna sandwiches and organizes chain gangs -- and became known to racers for busting Kurt Busch during the fall 2005 NASCAR weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. Millard carefully repeated the "tanks and SWAT team" statement to a battery of TV and radio microphones outside Council chambers. Wanting to make sure I had this absolutely correct, I spoke one-on-one with Millard after that, and she said it again directly to me!

The 9-1-1 call center issue was addressed by the Council staff in making a recommendation to the politicos to authorize contract negotiations. An industry expert testified about decibel levels and outlined his plans to dampen engine sounds at the building. He proposed a system of plastic coverings and cargo containers (to deflect) and drapes (to absorb) noise and said the end result would be the center would be slightly quieter than normal.

Although the staff stressed that "not one word is on paper," here are some key points that came out of the meeting:

* Last-hour negotiations resulted in a "memoradium of understanding" between the promoters and opponent-in-chief Bryan Sperber, president of Phoenix International Raceway. The two groups will cooperate on joint promotions. Sperber testified that "whatever issues we've had are in the past" and described the document as a "productive agreement."

* Sperber, who wanted a 30-day gap between the November Chase race at PIR and Champ Car, settled for a bit less. The Champ Car dates for 2007 will be Nov. 30, Dec. 1-2, three weeks after the original date, which was one week after NASCAR's visit to the Valley. In 2008, the schedule is for Nov. 21-23, two weeks after the checkered flag waves at PIR. Beyond that, the date will be mutually agreed to no later than August of the prior year, with either the Council or an arbitrator settling any dispute.

* NBC will televise the race "live" with SPEED providing additional coverage.

* The city will bear none of the costs. All expenses, including police and fire support and road repairs, will be the promoter's responsibility.

* The layout will incorporate entry-and-exit access points that can be used at any time.

* The course runs along the under-construction light rail line but race cars will not cross the tracks. One separate section of unused tracks will be removed and another section that is utilized on a near-daily basis will be repaired.

* Testimony revealed the three-day "Festival of Speed" will include a "green Expo, 'Taste of Phoenix' (food), concerts, art show, Extreme sports and maybe boxing."

* If Champ Car and the IRL merge, Phoenix's place on a combined schedule "is secured by contract."

* Champ Car President Steve Johnson, in responding to a Councilman's question about the financial stability of the organization, said the company is owned by "four people, two of whom are billionaires." This was news to me because all public statements I know of, and the series media guide, say the owners are Kevin Kalkhoven, Gerald Forsythe and Paul Gentilozzi. I wanted to ask Johnson the identity of the mystery fourth partner, but he rushed out moments after the meeting ended. I have sent an E-mail to CC PR director Steve Shunck requesting this identity.

The Council's approval wasn't unanimous and, in fact, a motion to reject the staff's "go" recommendation was made but voted down. No time frame was revealed to complete contract negotiations.

Yonover thanked Council for enduring "a somewhat contentious discussion of our event" and for "keeping an open mind." He said the event will "highlight and showcase the redevelopment of downtown Phoenix."

Unless Sheriff Joe stands firm. In that case, we'd witness the biggest spectacle since Humpy Wheeler threatened to have tow trucks remove network TV production trailers from Charlotte in 2001 when NBC/TNT wouldn't refer to the track as "Lowe's" Motor Speedway. (!)

I'll have more on all of this soon . . .


[ more Blogging the Chase next Tuesday (10/3), if not before . . . ]

SPEED BUMP

The controversy about Bob Dillner's post-New Hampshire report on SPEED that Richard Childress Racing had used doctored wheels rolled on all last week and through the Dover weekend. Childress, RCR drivers Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton, and NASCAR VP Jim Hunter denied the story in unusually harsh terms. Here's an interesting nugget from my friend Bob Margolis, who wrote on Yahoo! Sports that: DeLana Harvick -- who was a racing PR person when she met her future husband -- sent an E-mail to the publicists involved in Kevin's various activities saying that, until further notice, all interview requests from SPEED were to be declined.

Calm and common-sense Burton -- one of the last honest men in the garage area -- carefully explained on the Friday night Trackside Live show how what was said about wheel modifications would be extremely difficult to do and would require a wide-ranging conspiracy. After Saturday's Busch Series race on TNT, third-place Harvick and winner (and RCR teammate) Clint Bowyer took brief verbal knocks at Dillner. Early in Sunday night's Wind Tunnel, Dave Despain addressed the issue in response to a viewer E-mail. His bottom-line was the network stands by the story. On The Speed Report, however, it was never directly discussed. Rather, co-host Drew Johnson in-effect disrespectfully blew-off the Childress, Harvick, Burton and Hunter denials by telling Dillner, "Get some rest and relaxation, buddy, you've earned it."

SPEED likes to boast of its audience growth. In this instance, management owed that same audience a thoughtful explanation, not flippancy. I would suggest SPEED follow the example of many media organizations, including ESPN, and appoint an independent Ombudsman to watch out for the public's interest in controversial situations such as Dillner's disputed report.

Team Ford Racing ( www.FordRacing.com ) members have gotten an upgrade in the form of extended audio reports produced by my friend Larry Henry, a long-time and well-respected Michigan broadcaster. Called This Week in Ford Racing, it features news and interviews with Ford drivers. Especially noteworthy were last week's soundbites from Mark Martin: "One of my big motivators is fear. I've always been afraid of failing." Apparently in his final days as a full-time Nextel Cup competitor, Mark told Larry he'll enjoy the experience and "maybe take one extra picture with a fan or sign one more autograph."

This is a great example of what can be done with the Internet, including distribution to media or the general public via podcasting. Henry's company, Two Floors Down Productions, LLC serves commercial and industrial clients such as the U.S. Olympic Committee and Palace Sports and Entertainment. Larry, by the way, is blessed with a classic broadcaster's voice. Contact: LarryHenry@TwoFloorsDownProductions.com


One element of NASCAR's pre-Chase media chase was taking the 10 drivers to The Late Show so they could do the "Top 10" list for David Letterman. That seemed great to Matt Kenseth, who had long wanted to be on the program. It didn't turn out the way Kenseth expected, as he explained last week to the Associated Press:

"It was fun, and I did always want to be on there, but it wasn’t at all what I expected. We had to be there like three hours before, and they stuck us down in this room in the basement that was full of pipes. It was supposedly their 'green room,' but 'The Rock' was also on the show that night, and he was never in that green room. So basically, we sat down in this room full of pipes for three hours, then got to be on the show for one minute, and I never got to meet Letterman, either. I shook his hand, that was it."

I've had drivers on Letterman six times and the show is done from the old (and legendary) Ed Sullivan Theater. The green room, where guests wait before walking out onto the stage, is just off to the left-hand side (as viewed from home) and surprisingly small. Once, when I was there with Mario Andretti, actor/comedian Kelsey Grammer was the first guest and he arrived with the kind of large entourage that is the Hollywood stereotype. Letterman staffers typically offer to seat these "guests of guests" in the audience, but Grammer insisted they all hang out with him, leaving the area standing-room-only for everyone else. After Andretti's interview, Grammer offered him a patronizing "good job."
Racing headliners on this year's Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans:

45. John Menard -- $5.2 billion
140. Roger Penske -- $2.2 billion
242. Bill France Jr. and Jim France -- $1.5 billion (each)
278. Bruton Smith -- $1.4 billion.

Bill Gates tops the chart with $53 billion. Occasional race-goer Donald Trump (and whatever happened to Trump Superspeedway?) ranks No. 94 with $2.9 billion.

I just thought you'd want to know . . .

Mike Mulhern's lengthy three-part series on the business of NASCAR, which ran last week in the Winston-Salem Journal, is worthwhile reading. (If hyperlink doesn't work, copy and paste it into your browser, then click "Go".)

Part 1: NASCAR Nation: The sport that drives America

http://www.journalnow.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=WSJ/MGArticle/WSJ_BasicArticle&c
=MGArticle&cid=1149190668225


Part 2: The Fuel: Money
http://www.journalnow.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=WSJ/MGArticle/WSJ_BasicArticle&c
=MGArticle&cid=1149190680231


Part 3: New deals, wheels in NASCAR's future
http://www.journalnow.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=WSJ/MGArticle/WSJ_BasicArticle&c
=MGArticle&cid=1149190692462



[ more Blogging the Chase next Tuesday (10/3), if not before . . . ]

Thursday, September 21, 2006

NOTING THE NEWS

Last week's primary election in Arizona provided my latest lesson from the world of politics.

As explained in my August 1 "Why Spin Doctor?" posting, I've developed much of my PR philosophy, plus strategies and tactics from the political pros. Here in the Grand Canyon State, the favorite to win the Republican nomination for governor was Don Goldwater, nephew of the late Barry Goldwater. Barry, who was a racing fan (I met him in the pace car room before the Indy 500 one year), was a senator and presidential candidate and remains Arizona's No. 1 political icon. Don started the campaign with what many -- including me -- thought was the most powerful advantage possible: Almost 100 percent name recognition.

It turned out Goldwater's main challenger, Len Munsil, had something better: CASH! While Goldwater was so slow to fund-raise that he didn't have money for broadcast spots until a few days before the election, social activist Munsil had a healthy database of potential contributors and outspent his rival many times over, buying advertising and building an organization. The result was an upset and an easy Munsil victory. Name ID couldn't overcome cubic dollars. This is a case study I'll remember for a long, long time.
I've said it many times: UNLESS you are a member of the championship team (my honor five times), the end-of-season awards ceremony in any series is a necessary evil. Something more to be endured than enjoyed.

Even so, the IRL's title tribute cries out for comment. It was staged at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on a Monday (!), the day following the exciting Chicagoland finale. I wasn't there, but from what I gathered from news accounts, website pictures and the ESPN recap show, the motif was supposed to minic some tropical paradise. As pure showbiz, however, let's just say it wasn't Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific. The setting was as foreign to Indiana as Indonesia. If that's the casual atmosphere Tony George seeks, I recommend he vacation on the Big Island. (Or wait for November's IRL cruise.)

Some Enchanted Evening it was not. The photograph of Sam Hornish, in a garish Hawaiian-style shirt, standing side-by-side with sportsjacketed Roger Penske was as bizarre as posing Don Ho with Frank Sinatra. I can't fathom what image the League's planners thought they were projecting to the motorsports community-at-large, but one was left with the impression this celebration was thought-out with one objective in mind: Let's get this season done and over with! (And hope for better TV ratings, more teams and sponsors, and a sold-out Indy 500 in '07.)
It's decision time for Danica Patrick. The news that controversial Internet domain registrar GoDaddy.com will be an associate sponsor on her Motorola-funded Andretti Green Honda next year reopens the question if Patrick will be viewed as a serious racer, or someone less serious. GoDaddy is best known for its 2005 Super Bowl TV spot, judged so inappropriate, that Fox yanked it in the middle of the game. In its release, the company trumpeted its "racy commercials" and the CEO was quoted thusly, "You can expect to see Danica starring in a GoDaddy commercial early next year."

Let's remember this from the March 23 South Florida Sun-Sentinel: Asked if she would again pose in a suggestive manner for FHM or a similar magazine, Patrick was quoted as saying, "No, I wouldn't do it now. I'm so fortunate to be able to pick what kind of media I want to do, what direction I want it to go." Given that statement, the sales failure of her autobiography, a second winless season, and in the aftermath of Maria Sharapova's victory in the U.S. Open, I'll say this: How Danica allows herself to be portrayed by her new patron will tell us a lot about Danica herself.
My purpose here is to provide as much useful and legitimate industry info as possible. With that in mind, I'm pleased to share some data about the recently concluded Grand American Rolex Sports Car Series presented by Crown Royal Special Reserve, as provided by Adam Saal, senior director of marketing and communications, Nate Siebens, PR manager, and Lauren McCrystal, series corporate communications. As a reply to my Sept. 7 "Forcing Some Issues" posting, Saal and Co. report a third-consecutive season of growth, with TV numbers and media placements at an all-time high.

Ratings on SPEED finished up four percent to a .27 average. Households and viewership increased eight percent. That translates to almost a quarter-million viewers per race. Of special note: Miami jumped 220 percent, Phoenix 160 percent, and Laguna Seca 127 percent. (Ratings Source: Nielsen Media Research.) Through August, total media placements were up 48.1 percent, to more than 4,750. Total circulation of these outlets was more than 450,000,000. Consumer magazine placements were plus 18.7 percent. (Source: Bacons Information Inc.)
Those who believe Formula One is an arrogant and insular world got fresh ammunition by the way Michael Schumacher's retirement was announced. Journalists were teased that the seven-time world champion would reveal his plans after the checkered flag waved at the Italian Grand Prix. It turned out nicely in that Schumacher won at Monza, Ferrari's home track, and had the forum of the worldwide TV feed's post-race news conference to speak as he wished. If Michael hadn't finished in the top three, however, what loomed was the spectacle of a media scrum back in the paddock. This truly was a story of international sporting importance. The lack of proper planning and organization within a team that spends well above $100 million a year was inexcusable.

“I can’t believe it’s being done in such an amateurish way,” Jackie Stewart told SpeedTV.com. Stewart's own farewell announcement as a three-time titlist was properly staged at a London hotel after the 1973 season. “It’s the biggest sports story in the world at the present time, and for that to not be organized and packaged correctly . . . He shouldn’t be doing a press conference here, it should be in a major media center. This is not just a bunch of motor racing journalists that need to do this, this is the New York Times, this is the L.A. Times, this is the Nashville Chronicle or whatever it’s called . . . This should be a global event for a global man who’s achieved an enormous amount in motor sport, and this thing is being thrown around like it’s a Mickey Mouse party."
Latest example of a "news" release not written as "news": Last week it was revealed that Pittsburgh Steelers' running back Duce Staley plans to own a two-car team in the NHRA's Pro Stock class in '07. After the usual and tiresome quotes about how "excited" Staley is, blah-blah-blah, one had to read until the fourth paragraph to learn the minor detail of who Staley's drivers will be -- Jim Yates and Billy Gibson. Another essential point, the make of car to be raced, was never mentioned.


PR PS -- A BAD CASE OF PR HEARTBURN: That's what team owners and drivers sponsored by Citgo should have right now after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez lashed-out against America yesterday in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly. Chávez called the President of the United States, among other things, "the devil." USA Today published the following last January: "One of the USA's largest refiners, Citgo is a subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil company . . . As such, it ultimately belongs to . . . Chávez, an avowedly anti-American leader who counts Fidel Castro among his closest friends . . ." Any Citgo-backed racer who expects to enjoy the support of U.S. race fans should immediately disavow Chávez's remarks.

[ more Blogging the Chase next Tuesday . . . ]

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 . . . ]

Thursday, September 14, 2006

OWNERS AND SPONSORS GET BLAME FOR BAD PR

Mike Kerchner’s column in the April 12 National Speed Sport News should have sent a chill throughout the motorsports industry. Especially team owners, marketing directors, program managers and anyone else charged with the responsibility to provide corporate sponsors with a worthwhile Return on Investment.

Unfortunately, it appears Mike’s message was overlooked in the heat of that week’s on-track news. That makes me shudder.

The central point of Kerchner’s “Working Together To Provide Quality Entertainment To Fans” was both sides benefit when drivers work cooperatively with journalists. NSSN’s senior editor wrote, however, the trend is in the other direction:

“While much of the time you have to call 10 different PR people to jump through the correct hoops to interview a NASCAR Nextel Cup Series driver, one of the great things about racers in the World of Outlaws, ASA, ARCA and all the way down to the short-track level is that they have always answered their own telephone . . . the majority of the time, they have gone out of the way to help with stories. That has slowly been changing through the years. It gets more and more difficult to track people down.”

Other pertinent excerpts:

Sponsors come (in part) from media attention . . . while we’re used to seeing racers at the top levels of the sport dodge media attention, the disease has spread . . . One voice mail becomes two and before you know it, you are scheduling a substitute story because you were never able to land the original target.

“We don’t understand why . . . the potential reward a racer can get in return for pushing 10 buttons on a cell phone and talking about himself for 15 minutes ought to be worth the sacrifice. There is no promise a story is going to help a racer secure a sponsor, but it can’t hurt. And it may also do a lot to solidify sponsorships already in place . . . The fact is that it is one of those vicious circles people talk about all the time. We, as the media, and the racers are both in the business of entertaining the fans – the same fans – and we need to help each other as much as we can.”

It would be nice to believe drivers know common courtesy means you return calls. It would be good to think even those most-in-demand understand it’s in their own self-interest to generally be available to answer a few questions. (I acknowledge the pressures on their time means it's impossible to please everyone, based on my involvement with Mario and Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Alex Zanardi and others.) Kerchner’s column, comments from other respected reporters, plus personal observations tell me it simply isn’t so.

That begs the question: Where are the PR people?

All too often, they are pretty much MIA . . . not returning phone calls, answering E-mails, or spending any meaningful time in the media center. This is not my opinion. It is a general statement of fact, based on dozens of stories told directly to me by some of the most prominent journalists in the country, as well as my own experience.

Last year, I had the honor of serving as chairman of the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association’s 50th Anniversary Celebration. One would have reasonably thought PR reps would have been anxious to get involved, given that AARWBA is the country’s oldest and largest organization of motorsports media professionals. One would have been wrong. When I asked a person of particular incompetence, who represents a championship-level team, to help AARWBA the actual answer I got was: “Why would we want to do that?”

Some will find this surprising, but it’s true: Several of the worst offenders work for NASCAR teams who qualified for last year’s or this year’s Chase. If the Nextel Cup series is a PR powerhouse, it’s not due to the work ethic of many team reps. The one who walks with a perennial title-contending driver from hauler-to-pits-and-back has such a reputation for uncooperativeness with at least some sportswriters as to be dubbed “Dr. No.” It would be one thing if these people were actually getting paid by the driver, and told their job was to make sure the boss wasn't bothered. They are, however, cashing from the owner -- who supposedly stays in business in-part by producing exposure value for sponsors -- or the corporate patron itself.

How sad this is where we are in the once-proud profession of legends like Jim Chapman and Bill Dredge and Bob Latford. Does the current generation – with little-or-no journalism education or experience, no true knowledge of what actually is “news,” ignorant of how to actually “pitch” a story, zero understanding of the importance of building one-on-one relationships with key media, not a clue as to developing messages or photo-ops – even know the names Chapman, Dredge or Latford? Certainly not the ones who think their role is to sit around the hauler, or who are satisfied if the car gets a few seconds of airtime on the network telecast.

Who is to blame?

I put the responsibility right at the feet of owners and corporate managers. Too many owners invest hours in interviewing prospective crew chiefs – and then pay them quite well – but don’t put even a fraction of that time -- or compensation -- into hiring a PR director. That's only the person who is the front-line soldier to project a professional image and get positive publicity results for the sponsors – and help achieve Return on Investment -- no matter the order of finish. As for the companies who put up with it, well, I think they get what they deserve.

I'd like to hear what these owners and sponsors have to say to Mike Kerchner.


[ more next Tuesday, if not before . . . ]

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 . . . ]

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

SOMETHING YOU HAVEN'T SEEN BEFORE & OTHER EYE-OPENERS

Here's something you probably haven't seen elsewhere:


It's Steve Williams' "hero" card.

Scott Riggs hasn't won a NASCAR race this season and didn't qualify for the Nextel Cup Chase, but some creative thinking has made Valvoline a big winner, thanks to Williams. Oh, and his boss, Tiger Woods.

Tiger's current run of five consecutive wins -- including the British Open and PGA Championship "majors" -- has been an exposure ace for Valvoline, which has an unusual sponsorship with Williams, Woods' caddy. The oil company's logo, on Williams' shirt, has been clearly visible on worldwide TV and in wire service photos. One, in color, made the front page of USA Today when Tiger took the Open. There have been stories about the innovative deal on Bloomberg News and in the New York Daily News. "Steve's a savvy pro at his job, and as a marketer," said Valvoline spokesman Barry Bronson.

Williams, who says he's a NASCAR fan, races a Valvoline-sponsored car in his native New Zealand. Woods even took a few laps during a visit earlier this year. A bit of out-of-the-box brainwork -- a commodity in short supply these days -- that has paid off in publicity value far beyond the undisclosed cash worth of the contract.
Of all the dumb things that have happened since the Indy Racing League split from Champ Car (then CART) in 1996, the dumbest idea yet was the one to come out of the IRL's Sonoma race. That being the two groups might stage some combo weekends including both series. While the political and logistical challenges would be daunting -- How would such an event be promoted without further confusing an already disinterested public? Which one would be the "featured attraction" on Sunday and which would be the Saturday "support" event? Who would get the preferred paddock space for transporters and motorhomes? -- what really got my head shaking was the notion this would demonstrate "goodwill." You betcha!

Trust me, one of the first things you'd see would be the press release (and whispering to friendly media) from whichever group had the quicker cars on the shared circuit. It would be classic "our cars are faster than your cars" in-your-face spinning.

Tony George and Kevin Kalkhoven owe it to all their constituency groups -- drivers, owners, mechanics, promoters, sponsors, media and most of all the FANS -- to once-and-for-all lock themselves away for serious and final negotiations. Either announce a deal to reunify U.S. open-wheel racing or call the whole thing off. But don't waste one more second on this ridiculous "doubleheader" concept!
Last week, I urged NHRA to use the Big Go to get the Big Mo. That is, take the opportunity of the U.S. Nationals to pro-actively work to gain national media momentum for the drag racing series. I have to say they gave it a good go. Including a USA Today special ad section. It might well have been the biggest hard-news week in the organization's history, with Kenny Bernstein's unretirement to drive a Monster Energy drink-sponsored Funny Car topping the list. NHRA revealed its version of a playoff-style "Countdown to the Championship" format. The first eight in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle will advance after the 17th of 23 events. Four drivers in each pro class will remain after four more races, with the titles to be decided in the last two contests, at Las Vegas and Pomona. I guess it's worth a try, but expectations should be modest. The championships are too geographically-limited and two races doesn't strike me as quite fair to choose champs. Of course, I don't think 3-of-5 in the opening round of the baseball post-season is historically legitimate, given the sport's classic seven-game format. I wish NHRA had made the finals at least three nationals long. You could argue this attempt at a playoff is truer to the original stick-and-ball version than NASCAR's, since drivers actually will be eliminated, but that fails to acknowledge NHRA's long-established basic race format already eliminates competitors every round.

I'm glad prize money will increase, but it still comes up short. The new payouts will be $500,000 bonuses for the Top Fuel and Funny Car titlists, $250,000 for Pro Stock, and $75,000 for the best biker. Shifting Topeka out of the shadow cast by Indianapolis and Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend makes sense. As does moving to an upgraded facility in Ohio (closer to Detroit) and bringing the motorcycles to the Texas Motorplex. Now, would NHRA please increase its website's server capacity! The long delay -- and sometimes failure -- to be able to connect is maddening for fans of a sport that isn't on "live" TV. NHRA needs to go to "live" results right on its home page.Rusty Wallace -- who I've known and liked for a quarter-century -- can take off his rookie stripes after Sunday's IRL finale at Chicagoland. Doing the Indy Car shows helped Wallace learn the TV biz before ABC/ESPN takes over the NASCAR rights next year. The League has used 10 percent ethanol this season, and plans on 100 percent next year, so Rusty has seen and commented on that innovation.

The news release came the day after Sonoma that Wallace had joined Earth Biofuels, Inc. (trades on the Nasdaq Bulletin Board under the symbol EBOF) of Dallas, as a spokesman and advisory board member. Quoting from the company's handout: "Mr. Wallace joins fellow advisory board member Julia Roberts and Board of Directors members country music legend Willie Nelson and actor Morgan Freeman in promoting the use of renewable fuels such as Earth Biofuels' biodiesel and ethanol."

More from the release: "Earth Biofuels produces and distributes biodiesel fuel through the company's network of wholesale and retail outlets. The fuel is sold under Willie Nelson's brand name, 'BioWillie.' The Company is focused on capitalizing on the growing demand for alternative and renewable fuels in the domestic market."
One of NASCAR's earliest and best-ever PR decisions was to position its brand of motorsport as being as patriotic as mom, apple pie and, yes, Chevrolet. This gave NASCAR, unlike the open-wheel series, enormous red-white-and-blue credibility with the public post-Sept. 11. Bill France Jr. famously said at the start of the Iraq conflict that NASCAR fans "are the kind of people who go to war, and win wars, for America."

ISC's California Speedway, though, came a bit too close to the line with its TV spot for the Labor Day weekend races. (See it at CaliforniaSpeedway.com). I understand the concept but I wish it had been more vigorously vetted. American race fans, especially at a time of war, "pledge allegiance" only to the flag of the United States -- not the checkered flag.
EXTREME HYPE ALERT: Katie Couric debuts TONIGHT (!) as anchor of the CBS Evening News.

NO, I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP: I expressed surprise the other week that CBS wasn't using a countdown clock to mark the days, hours and minutes until Couric's debut. Well, MSNBC.com is doing exactly that, leading up to Meredith Viera's Sept. 13 bow as co-host of Today (!)

[ more Thursday . . . ]