• 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, October 31, 2006

IT CAN BE DONE

On Nov. 1, 1997, Racing Roundup Arizona (1310 KXAM) debuted from the Phoenix International Raceway's media center. Host Jamie Reynolds was joined by broadcaster Jim Tretow and driver guests Scott Hansen, Kevin Cywinski and Rich Bickle, Sears' Bob Vila and baseball Hall of Famer Robin Yount. Since that day, Reynolds has had hundreds of guests, with alumni including Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, A.J. Foyt, Alex Zanardi, John Force, Kenny Bernstein, Arie Luyendyk, Sam Hornish, Kurt Busch and Johnny Benson. RRA has become the state's longest-running motorsports radio show and a local fixture Monday nights from 7-9 p.m. (Also heard on KXAM.com and RacingRoundup.com.) Last night, I had the pleasure of surprising Jamie and producer Betsy Reynolds (above) and co-host Chris Hines with a cake in celebration of the start of their 10th season. As I said on-air in opening the show, I hope Arizona tracks and racing groups -- large and small -- show their appreciation to RRA and the Reynolds during this milestone anniversary year. CONGRATULATIONS, Jamie and Betsy, and THANK YOU for your contribution to the growth of motorsports in Arizona!


My friend, award-winning Michigan broadcaster Larry Henry, took me to task for my Oct. 17 "Bad Newspaper News Is Bad News for NASCAR" posting. My central points were: 1) Financially troubled papers aren't sending their own writers to cover the races, using wire copy instead, which usually gets less space and secondary "play"; 2) Experienced motorsports journalists are retiring or taking buyouts, and their replacements don't have the knowledge to convey the sport in-depth, or with the flavor that helps bring fans to the speedways. My opinion is this contributes to declining TV ratings and unsold tickets. My suggestion was for team/sponsor PR people to be pro-active and get their driver to spend 10 minutes each weekend to call one of these "parked" reporters to generate some extra coverage -- and goodwill -- or sit down one-on-one with a newcomer to make him/her feel welcome.

Let me put it another way: This is common sense . . . and good business. (!)

Larry (see my Sept. 26 blog) raised a few thought-provoking issues in a series of E-mail exchanges. I appreciate and respect his comments. One was, except perhaps for Sunday, people don't have time to read papers these hectic days -- as shown by the growth of "new media" like Websites and iPods. His bottom line was my suggestion "just ain't gonna happen."

Well, maybe it won't happen . . . but that does not mean it can't happen.

Here's the simple message every PR rep can use with any reluctant driver: "It's in YOUR best interests to keep the NASCAR gravy train steaming down the tracks." A few minutes per weekend is a small investment to help maintain Nextel Cup's huge popularity, which equals a fantastic income, one most racers could never have thought possible. Let 'em compare their situation with IRL and Champ Car, where combined, maybe five drivers are decently paid. (Ask triple CC titlist Sebastien Bourdais, who on several occasions, has complained he is not one of those.) Latest example: A.J. Allmendinger.

As for the state of the newspaper industry, I'm biased, because of my educational and professional background. I will say this: Even on-the-run folks want to read about Tiger Woods, Shaq, the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Dodgers or their local NFL team. An interesting racing story published alongside the details of Tiger's latest exploits has a legit chance to draw-in a new fan. That's an opportunity SPEED can't match.
I'm pleased to announce that Ford's NASCAR mega-team owner Jack Roush (left) has accepted my invitation to be the featured speaker at the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association's All-America Team dinner, Saturday, January 13, at the Hyatt in downtown Indianapolis. (I'm dinner co-chairman.) Jack will follow Roger Penske and Mike Helton on AARWBA's high-horsepower list of featured speakers. Other highlights will include naming the Jerry Titus Award winner -- the driver who receives the most All-America Team votes -- and presentation of the Jim Chapman Public Relations Award. For tickets and program ads and Hyatt room reservations at a discounted rate, go to http://aarwba.org or E-mail President Dusty Brandel at aarwba@compuserve.com . Contact me for newsletter and other sponsorship opportunities.Let's update the most recent victims of "The Terrible Towels" (Oct. 3 post): At Martinsville, red Coke towels over the shoulders of Denny Hamlin and Bobby Labonte cost FedEx, Chevrolet, Goodyear and Raybestos (Hamlin) and Nextel and STP (Labonte) their bought-and-paid-for uniform exposure and NBC TV time. Meanwhile, the Old Spice towel over Tony Stewart's shoulder zapped Coca-Cola and Goodyear (again). After Saturday's IROC at Atlanta on SPEED, Stewart's designated cover-up-er zapped Home Depot and Goodyear with that increasingly-infamous OS cloth. Sunday, on NBC, Coke and Goodyear were the losers in Stewart's victory lane appearance.

Speaking of Atlanta: While we all understand the nece$$ity to mention sponsors, must that really extend to the invocation? I think not. That was followed by one of the all-time most embarrassing "Gentlemen, start your engines" commands in racing history. Even Bruton Smith should realize there is a line that should not be crossed.The Valvoline Racing ( Valvoline.com ) website has been recognized with an International Academy of Visual Arts W3 Award. The Valvoline Racing pages were selected a Silver Winner in "Copy or Writing" for "outstanding works and represents a high standard of excellence." The 2006 W3 awards "recognize the power of Web creativity" from more than 2,300 entries received from top agencies and companies worldwide. The Academy is an invitation-only body consisting of top-tier professionals from acclaimed media, advertising and marketing firms.[ Next Tuesday, Nov. 7, is election day. Since I'll be serving as a local election judge, please click-back next MONDAY for more Blogging the Chase . . . ]

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

BROADCAST NEWS

Well, well, well, as Derek Daly would say. NASCAR 2007 will feature new networks, announcers, producers and attitudes. Sounds like a good time to set-forth 20 suggestions and changes that would make the TV experience more enjoyable (and, in some cases, less irritating):

* Mr. Producer, teach your announcers that not every driver is a "great" driver, not every race is a "great" race, and that when a driver spins or wrecks without cause it is not a "tough break." When a mistake is made, say so. Let's call this the Phil Parsons Rule.

* Have them learn the difference between "strategy" and "tactics."

* No asking questions that presuppose the answer. ("You're OK, yes?") Call this the Jeanne Zelasko Rule.

* Ban the following maddenly inane questions: "How's your hot rod?"; "Can you do it today?"; How does it feel?"; "What would a win mean to you?" It's a firing offense for any pit reporter to say to an interview subject: "Talk about . . . " That is NOT a question. These people claim to be broadcast journalists and a basic journalistic skill is to be able to ask meaningful questions.

* Put a restrictor plate on Allen Bestwick's laugh.

* I like Matt Yocum, but Matt as Amahad Rashad to Tony Stewart's Michael Jordan has got to end.

* No cameras or microphone-holders in the vehicles with drivers during pre-race parade laps, which exist so the paying customers can see their favorites, and get a wave in return. That's the fans' time, not TV's.

* Rain can "postpone" a race, not "cancel" it. Again, learn the difference. Starts aren't hurried-up because "weather" is approaching. A sunny sky is "weather," too.

* Send "Wally's World" and its copycats to Pluto. A waste of time that does nothing to add to the viewer's knowledge. It does, however, pump-up some egos like an over-inflated Goodyear.

* Jamie Little would be very, very wise to try a different act in NASCAR than she did in the IRL. Otherwise, a certain constituency will have her run off faster than Dale Earnhardt Jr. sells beer, cars and jeans.

* Eliminate use of "we" and "our" as an attempt to attach the announcer to the sport. As in, "We award bonus points . . ." and "Our points leader . . . " NASCAR officials determine those competition issues, not the TV people.

* Stop making it sound like a driver might not want to succeed. As in, "He has to make that pass if he wants to win." Is there any doubt a driver wants to win? If so, now THERE'S A STORY!

* No more telling us how "exciting" the action is. We'll decide that for ourselves.

* When a driver or crew chief is kind enough to interrupt business during a race to speak to an announcer, they should not have to listen to a long-winded speech before getting the chance to respond. Get to the point and just ask your question!

* End the self-serving praise ("Great job you guys!") for the pit reporters and cameramen. Hey, it's their job to do a great job! And if it really is great, the Emmy voters will know it.

* Never, ever, again talk about a driver getting a "mulligan" during the Chase. That is a do-over. There is no-such-thing in racing.

* Except in the worst-case scenario, it is never acceptable to use the words "dead" and "killed." As in, "He came to a dead-stop." Or, "He killed that car." Think about it.

* No pre-race shows should be longer than what the broadcast networks do before a regular-season NFL game. That means a maximum of one hour from on-air to the green flag.

* Stop turning announcers into MCs. Interviews done for the TV audience shouldn't be blasted through the track's PA system, which only serves to turn the TV type into a cheerleader for the crowd. (Examples: Jerry Punch on ABC's IRL championship ceremony post-Chicagoland and SPEED's Knoxville Nationals production.) Those are two different kinds of interviews which serve two different purposes. Let the speedway's own announcer entertain the ticket buyers.

* Give every last remaining "Boogity, Boogity, Boogity" T-shirt on the planet to the NBC production crew as a parting gift.The news that SPEED suspended Truck series reporter Ray Dunlap for one week and Fox had fired baseball commentator Steve Lyons, both for "inappropriate" comments, came days after Fox-owned SPEED revealed it had signed Kenny Wallace to a new multi-year contract. Wallace will continue with Jimmy Spencer on NASCAR RaceDay and NASCAR Victory Lane. I not only remember -- I will never forget -- when Wallace appeared on ESPN2's old rpm2night a couple of days after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on our country. Some 3,000 were dead and America was at war. NASCAR had properly decided to postpone that weekend's New Hampshire race. Appearing in his role as the show's NASCAR analyst, Wallace's reaction was to tell fans to "chill out." That statement was way beyond "inappropriate." It was forever inexcusable. To the best of my knowledge, Wallace has never apologized.

I will politely repeat my suggestion of the other week: SPEED should follow the example of other media organizations, including ESPN, and hire an independent Ombudsman as a viewer advocate.If you're interested in some TV behind-the-scenes intrigue, I suggest reading Desperate Networks (Doubleday, 2006) by Bill Carter, the New York Times' television industry reporter. Since I've long fretted over the lack of creative and innovative publicity in motorsports, the most interesting part of the book to me was how difficult it is to get "different" kinds of shows, like Survivor, Lost, Desperate Housewives and The Apprentice on the air.Here's the first of what will be several "plugs" for the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association's All-America Team dinner, Saturday, January 13, at the Hyatt in downtown Indianapolis. I'm a co-chair of this event after serving as chairman of AARWBA's 50th Anniversary Celebration last year. Highlights will include announcement of the Jerry Titus Award winner -- the driver who receives the most All-America Team votes -- and, near to my heart, presentation of the Jim Chapman Public Relations Award. For tickets and program ads and Hyatt room reservations at a discounted rate, go to http://aarwba.org or E-mail President Dusty Brandel at aarwba@compuserve.com . Contact me for newsletter and other sponsorship opportunities.

[ more Blogging the Chase next Tuesday, if not before . . . ]


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

BAD NEWSPAPER NEWS IS BAD NEWS for NASCAR

The Chase is on and the ratings are off and I say that's because the newspaper business is down and moving closer to out.

This saddens me; the emotions are similar to how the rapid and perhaps irreversible decline of open-wheel racing makes me feel. I guess that's understandable since I devoted the majority of my adult life to one or the other. I'm a journalism school grad and spent six stimulating years at the Philadelphia Daily News as a sportswriter, assistant to the sports editor, assistant night news editor, and special projects editor. When I left, it was to accept the challenge of serving as CART's first communications director. After publishing CART's first media guide and starting negotiations for the first ESPN contract and being hands-on for the first temporary course races and creating the first version of the organization's fan club, I moved on to be a part of five title teams, with Mario and Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Jimmy Vasser and Alex Zanardi. I've got the championship rings to prove it.

Newspapers should be reporting -- not making -- news, but too-often lately the business pages have carried bold headlines above bleak stories. Most of the country's biggest and most prestigious titles -- including the New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News and Los Angeles Times -- are cutting jobs and costs that would make the uninitiated think they were Ford or GM. My old paper, the Daily News, along with the sister Philadelphia Inquirer, changed hands earlier this year. Disgruntled investors forced the sale of the Knight Ridder chain to McClathey, which then sold the Philly publications to a local group.

Wrote Reuters: "The summer of 2006 has brought a rash of notices of job buyouts and layoffs at U.S. newspapers, and experts say more nips and tucks will come as advertising dollars dry up and more readers cancel their subscriptions." Industry analyst John Morton said, "Any time you reduce the staffing of a journalistic enterprise, it's inevitable that you're going to lower the quantity, and probably the quality, of the journalistic product." The L.A. Times shockingly decided not to send its beat writers on the road with the NHL's Kings and Ducks this season, and the Tribune Co. recently forced out the Times publisher, after he defied demands for more staff cuts.

Be not ye fooled! Less coverage -- and less informed coverage -- hurts NASCAR. Even the Winston-Salem Journal -- serving the hardest of hard-core stock car fans -- parked Mike Mulhern for several weeks, apparently to save a few bucks. As veteran writers take buyouts, they typically are replaced by journos who have less interest in and knowledge of racing, and are required to divide their time among various sports. I'm not saying some don't try hard, but the end result often is stories lacking depth and context. In other words, the kind of stories people actually want to read. Those, by the way, are the kind of stories that help sell tickets and draw readers to the TV. Prior to last Saturday night's Charlotte show, only two races this season produced better ratings vs. a year ago.

The situation calls for some old-school PR. There was a time in this business when team and sponsor publicists were actually pro-active. (!) Some of us actually worked to develop solid relationships with journalists, make newcomers welcome, take them to lunch or dinner WITH our driver (!), and steer a few good story ideas their way. I question just how many current credential holders actually know how to pitch a story.

With the ratings down, and some writers parked by budget restrictions, how about trying this: Pick up the cell phone and call a couple of 'em. "Sorry you're not here this weekend. Would you like to talk to (insert driver name) for a few minutes?" I'm sure many track publicists would welcome the chance to help facilitate such contacts. Please don't tell me the driver doesn't have time -- we're talking about maybe 15 minutes -- and the goodwill generated from such a gesture might well pay dividends for years.

Of course, the easiest thing to do would be nothing. That's not how NASCAR got to be NASCAR.The Week in Review:

* NASCAR driver, team and sponsor publicists didn't come off looking too good in Yahoo! Sports' national columnist Dan Wetzel's controversial piece about the Confederate flag flying in the infield at Talladega. Regarding his requests to PR reps for driver comments, Wetzel wrote: "Email responses were often bitter. Face-to-face encounters often worse. Interview and statement requests were summarily denied. At some drivers' scheduled weekly press conferences, I was told that any question involving the flag would end the session." What everyone apparently didn't grasp was, once Brian France answered this question on CBS' 60 Minutes, it became fair game -- and more likely to be asked given NASCAR's aggressive pursuit of non-traditional media coverage. I wonder how many of these PR people even bothered themselves to watch the high-profile France family segment on TV's most-viewed and acclaimed newsmagazine? I bet even fewer realized that, with the issue out in the open, they should have their driver prepared to answer it. This is a perfect example of why I believe it's essential to think beyond what is happening in the garage area; to learn from politics and business and other sports. By the way, ladies and gentlemen, you and your driver's stock reply could have been as simple as this: "Brian France has already answered this question and I agree with him."

* My faith in the business would have been made stronger if just one -- ONE! -- media outlet had actually looked into Bruton Smith's statement that he planned to assign extra security to Brian Vickers at Lowe's Motor Speedway because of what happened on the last lap at Talladega. Bruton said his ticket office was "inundated" with calls from angry fans. Even ESPN's SportsCenter reported this as "straight news" -- unchallenged. Couldn't someone have taken a look at the track's phone logs or records in an attempt to quantify "inundated"? The speedway's news release was posted on Jayski.com and contained what, in my Constitutionally-protected opinion, was a clue: "Tickets are still available . . . "

* The combination of the various sponsor liquids splashed around victory lane and the confetti now routinely blasted into the air doesn't mix. Actually, it sticks. Saturday night, at Charlotte, some colored papers stuck to winner Kasey Kahne's uniform -- obscuring the Nextel Cup Series logo. (!) Meanwhile, Nextel and STP were this week's victims of "The Terrible Towel" (Oct. 3 blog) via the red rag drapped over Bobby Labonte's shoulder. Not very wise, coming just days after Sprint Nextel announced Tim Donahue -- who authorized the reported $750 million NASCAR series sponsorship -- will step down Dec. 31 as executive chairman. The company has hit a rough patch lately, with weak second-quarter earnings, a credit downgrade, and the ouster of its president.

* John Cardinale of Infineon Raceway released its 2007 schedule the other day. Since I know we all want to be completely accurate, next year's events at Sonoma comprise the track's "Big O Tires Racing Season."
Someone who did mourn the state of the American newspaper business was my friend Harry Blaze. "Blazer," who held various editor's posts at the Trenton Times as well as being a columnist and auto racing writer since 1968, died last week at age 70. Harry and I shared many press boxes and dinner tables while covering races at Pocono, Trenton, Dover and other East Coast tracks when I was at the Philadelphia Daily News. His laugh was as hearty as his appetite. He had retired earlier this year but still wrote a weekly column. Harry had a sharp eye for detail and that made him an excellent editor. One thing I always respected about Harry, who won numerous writing awards, was he possessed a healthy journalist's skepticism -- but fought letting that swerve into cynicism. I wish that were so with many current-day journos. Motorsports in general, and especially dozens of Eastern short track and superspeedway operators, owe Harry a most respectful bow of the head.

[ more Blogging the Chase next Tuesday, if not before . . . ]

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

DISRESPECTING THE FANS . . .

I've said it before -- in this very blogspace last July 25 -- but clearly I need to say it AGAIN.

It's wrong for NASCAR drivers to turn their backs to the fans to do TV interviews while they are being paraded around in pre-race ceremonies. It is disrespectful and unnecessary.

I'm not going to repeat all the reasons I wheeled-out in my "Eye-to-Eye: NASCAR Must Protect Fan-Driver Moments" posting about 10 weeks ago. If you missed it, please click into the July archives. As the Chase rolls on, however, I've been disspirited by what I've seen.

At New Hampshire: Mark Martin had his back to the paying customers throughout a longer-than-usual talk on TNT. That time, when drivers are supposed to be clearly visible from the grandstand as they ride in convertibles or the back of trucks, is the fans' time. I've liked it that Mark has made it a point to thank the public in many of his interviews this year, but this wasn't the way to show his appreciation to those who probably believed they'd be seeing him in a Nextel Cup car one last race. Meanwhile, Jeff Gordon could be seen waving, until Allen Bestwick had him turn toward the almighty camera. Credit to Ryan Newman, who pretty much continued to wave and look at the people, during his chat.

At Dover, it was almost-always polite Jimmie Johnson who was put into the position of turning away from the ticket buyers. Come K.C., it was a N.H. repeat for Martin and Gordon.

I would like for a responsible executive from the Auto Club or any of the other sponsors impacted by this to explain to me just how this is good business. Memo to the TV producers: You have many other opportunities to do interviews.

The sport asks much of its fans. Even with the facilities built-into newer speedways, and improvements made to older ones, most tracks don't have the same level of amenities and creature comforts of most baseball/football stadiums or basketball/hockey arenas. They endure traffic headaches, hotel price ripoffs, high concession costs, restrictions on coolers, and the uncertainties of weather. NASCAR apparently will go to later starting times next year, another bow to the wishes of the television gods, meaning spectators will have even longer days and later arrivals at home before work or school Monday morning. Let's not deny the ticket-holders the simple pleasure of a smile and wave from the drivers they have paid to see.

Any track operator truly committed to customer service should take this up with NASCAR. The only thing that should come between the patrons and their heroes is a safety fence. A TV camera should not.A few things need to be said about Talladega:

* When Mark Martin climbed out of his truck after winning Saturday, he had a towel drapped around his neck. (See last week's "The Terrible Towels.") Early in his SPEED interview, Mark pulled off the white cloth (I couldn't tell what identity was on it) -- magically revealing the logos on his uniform of Scotts (his primary sponsor), Ford (manufacturer), Pennzoil (associate) and, perhaps most politically important of all, the Craftsman Truck Series. (!)

* Saturday's last-lap crash, and subsequent scoring review, frustrated fans trying to track the relatively close championship battle between Todd Bodine and Johnny Benson. While all media reports agreed Bodine finished fourth, depending on whether you read the Associated Press, NASCAR.com or the Charlotte Observer's site, Benson placed ninth, 10th or 11th. Which was it?

* It was one hour and 42 minutes from the time NBC came on Sunday until the green flag waved for the UAW-Ford 500. That is way, way too long a "pre-game" -- more than the broadcast networks do for the NFL. (!) NASCAR fans may well enjoy all the talk -- but average sports fans want to see ACTION. That means RACING. With the ratings down, it's not unreasonable to suggest that channel surfers might quickly tire of all the interviews (most of which don't yield much of interest), and so switch over to football -- and not come back. At major races, it should never be more than an hour from on-air to the green, and 30 minutes is enough elsewhere.Plenty of racers could learn a lesson by watching the videotape of the Detroit Tigers' joy last Saturday after defeating the New York Yankees to claim their American League Divisional Series. After briefly retreating to their clubhouse, to grab bottles of champagne, many players quickly returned to the field to share the moment with the home-town ticket-buyers. Several ran the perimeter of the field to high-five fans and a few even sprayed bubbly into the stands. Great stuff. And, given the image fostered by too-many professional athletes these days, even better PR.No doubt inspired by what's been happening in this spec of cyberspace (yeah, right!), my friend Larry Edsall has added his blog to the IZoom.com automotive site. Larry is the former AutoWeek motorsports editor and sports editor of the Jackson Citizen-Patriot among other adventures. Check it out: http://IZoom.com

[ more Blogging the Chase next Tuesday, if not before . . . ]

Thursday, October 05, 2006

TALK RADIO

Last Monday night I spent almost 40 minutes on Phoenix radio station KXAM, talking about the downtown Champ Car street event -- and other Business of Racing topics -- with Racing Roundup Arizona co-hosts Jamie Reynolds and Chris Hines. I began by explaining to the listeners that I am professionally neutral on this issue. My views are shaped by my own involvement in planning and executing such temporary course events. I attended the two Phoenix City Council public meetings on this matter. In my experience, the proposal has -- by far -- been the most controversial I've ever seen for any race in any city. The race was approved and is scheduled for Nov. 30, Dec. 1-2, 2007. (Please see my July 18, 20, 23 and Sept. 27 postings.)

Here is a partial transcript of this interview, edited for length and clarity, with the questions paraphrased. The clearly stated purpose of our conversation was to provide perspective, context and analysis. My thanks to Jamie and (producer) Betsy Reynolds, who have made a significant contribution to the growth and success of motorsports in Arizona. In fact, RRA will begin it's 10th consecutive on-air season next month, the longest continuous such show in the state.

[ JR = Jamie Reynolds (left). MK = Michael Knight. CH = Chris Hines (right). ]

JR: Are we on firm ground with this event?
MK: Probably, we’ll find that out on Dec. 2, 2007. I’m professionally neutral on the event. I’m not advocating one side or the other. My analysis, the context I am trying to provide, is based on my experience. I was CART’s, what we call Champ Car now, first director of communications so in 1981 when CART decided to emphasize temporary course racing, I was heavily involved in that. I was in the Mayor’s office and City Council chambers in Cleveland in 1981 advocating on behalf of, and planning, for that first temporary course race in 1982. I was also heavily involved in the events in 1983 in Las Vegas, at Caesars Palace, and then in 1984 at the Meadowlands and Long Beach, when it switched from Formula One to CART.

I think what we have to understand is Champ Car has set, as its business model, an emphasis on street and temporary course races. If you look at their 2007 schedule, right now they have 15 races, they could add a couple more in Europe, but they’re all road course races. No oval races at all. They are emphasizing what they call a three-day "Festival of Speed." One of the things that was emphasized to City Council in Phoenix was that it’s not just a race. They are going to have concerts and food festivals and Extreme sports and art festivals. Of course, we already have all of those things in the Valley, at various places and times. I guess the point here is they are going to bring them all together and that’s what this "Festival of Speed" is all about.

CH: I’d like to see this be successful. Do you think it will be a success?
JR: Do the people who are going to put this on have any expertise? No one has reached out to us.
MK: In my experience this is, by far, the most controversial in any city that either I’ve been involved in or know about. This will show you something: I watched all the media coverage of the City Council meeting last week and virtually every media outlet in town called it an "Indy Car" race. It’s not an Indy Car race . . . these are not the cars and drivers that will be in the Indianapolis 500 next year. They are similar, sure, in the sense that they are open-wheel type cars. Most of the media here does not even understand what this race is going to be. One of the few exceptions I’ve seen is Brahm Resnik at Channel 12 and he’s a news anchor/reporter, not a sports guy. That is symbolic of all the issues.

I’m not advocating one side or the other, but I have a lot of concerns about the way the entire process has unfolded, just on the basis of my own experience. The promoter here, Dale Jensen, is a very well-known and established businessman and one of the owners of the Diamondbacks. One of the selling points to City Council was the promoter is going to pay all the bills. In theory, there’s no city money here, which I think everyone would agree to. The company that they have hired to manage the event is Sutton Motorsports and they are principally known for organizing the Denver Grand Prix. One of the things that concerns me is, in the City Council staff’s recommendations, as far as I can tell, there was no historical review in terms of how these races work around the country. Long Beach is the gold standard. Long Beach is a flat-out success and it’s been tremendous in the revitalization of the downtown area. I’ve seen that. But just to give you an example: To City Council last week, the Denver race was cited as an example of how these races are successful. The reality is, this past August, the Champ Car organization had to give the Denver promoter a financial bailout because the sponsor, Centrix Financial, had financial issues. When that race is cited as a big success, but they had to get a financial bailout, what does that tell you? Here’s a quote from a local paper there, the Rocky Mountain News. The spokeswoman for the race, Jana Watt, I know her, did not announce any attendance figures for the race. She said the reason they didn’t do that was, “A lot of people are not familiar with the event or with racing.” This is a race that has been going on in Denver for five years and, of course, Champ Car lays claim to a heritage of a 97-year history.

One of the things that got my attention, in terms of the political dynamics, is Councilman Michael Johnson emphasized his support for the race by noting it will bring money into the downtown area. That is fine. But he said we have to be aware that the Coyotes moved from downtown to Glendale, that PIR used to have offices downtown and they’ve moved to Avondale, that the Insight Bowl moved from Chase Field to Tempe. So, since these other events moved out, we have to bring new events in. I would say, What does that have to do with the merits, pro-or-con, of a Champ Car race? What I really loved, one thing you can always count on from politicians, is they will always be politicians. On Tuesday, Mayor Gordon and Councilman Johnson voted in favor of the Champ Car race, which PIR had long opposed, then two days later they were at a PIR event to have their picture taken with Jeff Gordon. My position is, I would like the race to be a success not only for Arizona, but for motorsports. It has to be successful for both. Whether it’s going to be that I think is an open question.

CH: What does this town have to do, and you’d be a good guy to help them, to make this a success?
MK: That’s the key question. Now that Council has voted in favor of authorizing their staff and the City Manager to reach a final contract with the promoters, it’s going to happen. As a motorsports fan, I say great, but I want it to be successful for both the city and to make motorsports look good. I think the staff did a good job in their presentation about some of the logistical things, barriers, noise, repaving of streets. I thought that was all legitimate and handled well. I didn’t see any historical knowledge being provided. To answer your question, how will this be successful, let’s start by making sure people understand what it is they are going to be seeing.

JR: All the people who think they are going to be seeing Danica Patrick, because these are "Indy Cars," aren’t going to show.
MK: One of the things I’ve observed, from a business perspective, from both the promoter’s side and the people on the PIR side, those who opposed the event, is they’ve gotten a lot of bad advice. This is my professional opinion: I wrote on my blog back in July, it was entitled "Self-Inflicted Wounds," both sides have had a lot of self-inflicted wounds. Roger Penske told me over 20 years ago that the worst, the most painful wounds, are those that are self-inflicted. There’s a lot of validity in that. I’ve seen it in this case. From the promoter’s side, Jamie as we talked about, there has been no outreach from the promoter, the agency he hired, toward people like you and Racing Roundup Arizona. You have a natural ally, a natural constituency here, and so I don’t think you throw all your time and attention and resources toward lobbyists and the politicians and then all of a sudden just abruptly say, now we want to reach out to the people who should be our friends automatically. The same thing on the PIR side. In making their case as to why this event perhaps wasn’t the best idea, well, there are a lot of race teams that would like to have the money spent on the PR firm, which never got its arms around a lot of the issues. There were a lot of bad decisions made. There were some cheap shots at the Champ Car organization instead of pointing out some of the factual issues. Just to give you an example: I was at the Council meeting in May and Bryan Sperber, the president of PIR, said this is a second-rate event but didn’t really back it up. That very day, there was a cover story in USA Today about Paul Newman, which said the sponsorship situation is so bleak in Champ Car that, for their second car, he has to pay for it out of his own pocket. I think Bryan could have stood up and said, "Please read Page 1 of USA Today."

CH: Every kid has to do his homework. Apparently these people haven’t been doing their homework.
JR: They missed the principles of salesmanship. Don’t tell me about how bad they are. Tell me about how good you are.
MK: I love racing history. It’s frustrating, but it’s also sad, to me when you see people – and I mean this on both sides – making the same mistakes that were made 20 years ago. The only reason those mistakes were made is no one ever bothered to go out and do their homework or learn the history.

Getting back to your question about how to make this a success: I agree with the people who say it’s unfair to compare this Champ Car race to when Formula One was here. So many things have changed in the Valley since then, most importantly, the size of our population base. I’ve lived in Scottsdale for more than 12 years and I’d say something else has changed, too, since I’ve been here. I think it used to be we were just happy to have professional sports teams or major sports events here. We’ve progressed way beyond that. I think, in the Valley, we’ve come to love celebrity. I’d say it probably started with Charles Barkley. Then, over the years, we’ve had Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling and then Wayne Gretzky and Steve Nash and now it’s Matt Leinart. Phoenix fans are into celebrity athletes. When NASCAR comes to PIR, you don't have to be a race fan to know the star names like Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and now the new stars like Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne. I’d say that’s the root of the problem for Champ Car. How many tickets will Sebastien Bourdais, who is going to be a three-time champion, sell here?

JR: I think you’re on to something about the celebrities. That’s a very good point . . . The IRL and Champ Car merger. It doesn't seem like that's going to happen.
MK: A Council member asked what would happen to the Phoenix race if there was a merger. The answer was the race is protected by contract to be part of any combined schedule. That's good for Phoenix, but I wonder, how many other promoters have that same guarantee? That's just another roadblock in the path of a merger because maybe Tony George doesn't want to agree to a lot of road course and street races.
I noted last week how Larry Henry is using some of the new media technology on behalf of Ford. Last Saturday, Adrian Fernandez and Luis Diaz Jr. unveiled at Road Atlanta their new Lowe's-sponsored Acura Lola for the 2007 ALMS season, and my friend Drew Brown (GMR) made video of that ceremony available via Google video. Fernandez and Diaz were joined by Honda's Robert Clarke and Lowe's CEO Robert Niblock. See it here:
http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=
4675344265428159132&pr=goog-sl


In a Sept. 21 PR PS, after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez lashed-out against America in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, I pointed out that Citgo is a subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil company. I added: "Any Citgo-backed racer who expects to enjoy the support of U.S. race fans should immediately disavow Chávez's remarks." So, I applaud last week's announcement by 7-Eleven that it is dropping Citgo as the gasoline supplier at more than 2,100 locations. The convenience store chain will switch to its own brand of fuel. While a 7-Eleven spokeswoman said its 20-year contract with Citgo was coming to an end, and the retailer had been considering a change since early last year, she acknowledged. ". . . we sympathize with many Americans' concern over derogatory comments about our country and its leadership . . ." said Margaret Chabris. I just finished reading Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq by Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor. It was published earlier this year by Pantheon Books. At over 500 pages, it likely will endure as the definitive account of the military campaign. It took a lot of concentration to follow all the action but it was worth every minute. One lesson I took away was, despite all the high-tech gizmos available to them, commanders still struggled at times to understand everything that was happening on the ground and in the air. In fact -- amazing to me -- the decisive attack into the heart of Baghdad on April 7, 2003, was the result of a miscommunication (Chapter 20: The Accidental Victory).


[ more Blogging the Chase next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

THE TERRIBLE TOWELS

One thing you can always count on from politicians: They will always be politicians. Two days after opposing Phoenix International Raceway's true wishes by voting "yes" for a downtown Champ Car race, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon (center) and Councilman Michael Johnson (right) were all-too-happy to show-up at a PIR promotional event for a smiling photo-op with Jeff Gordon. The four-time NASCAR champion visited the city briefly last Thursday to meet the 24 winners of a Georgia-Pacific/Bashas/Pepsi/PIR sweepstakes. Jeff also did a quick round of media interviews to advance the Nov. 12 Checker Auto Parts 500k at PIR.
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Never mind controversial reports about alleged cheating in the garage area. There's a cover-up going on at almost every NASCAR race.

Since all things in the modern media world seem to require a label, let's call it Towelgate.

No need to call Woodward and Bernstein, though, because I know you know what I mean. This trend of somebody draping a sponsor towel over a driver's shoulder is so obvious -- and looks so absolutely ridiculous -- that it's impossible not to notice. If certain people don't get smart in a hurry, this may well cost some team owner money, and it already makes the old-time "Hat Dance" looks like sophisticated sports marketing.

When Kevin Harvick won the first Chase race, at New Hampshire, Richard Childress Racing sponsors Goodwrench, Sylvania and Snap-on lost their TNT TV time because a red-and-white Coca-Cola towel covered-over their logos on Harvick's uniform. Nextel Cup towels were also being passed around. When Tony Stewart was interviewed, Coke and Goodyear lost out on exposure, because the white-and-blue Old Spice towel was put over Stewart's shoulder. After last Saturday's Kansas Busch Series event, TNT viewers didn't see the Chevrolet, Outdoor Channel and Coke logos on Stewart's suit, again because of the OS towel. Sunday, on NBC, was a New Hampshire replay for winner Stewart's backers.

I am asking those involved in this absurb process to show me where it is written in their signed contracts that they have the right to take away another company's ID. That is a paid-for benefit of sponsorship. I understand drivers have personal corporate deals, and series sponsors have certain privileges, but I'll say this: If I were the CEO or marketing VP or racing program manager whose company logo wasn't visible on TV because somebody decided to engage in a different sort of identity theft, I'd politely but carefully explain to the driver and owner that I PAID to have that logo in that space and if they didn't respect my support enough to protect my interests, well, it's been fun but I'll find an owner and driver willing to do so. Period.

One reason the mainstream media didn't take auto racing seriously in the early decades was that silly victory-lane tradition known as "The Hat Dance." As the winner was doing his television interview, sponsor and accessory company reps would pile into the loosely-controlled area, pushing their way toward the driver. One-after-another, they'd yank-off whatever cap he was wearing, and jam-on a lid with a different logo. It wasn't unusual for there to be three-four hat changes in 30-45 seconds. Non-motoring broadcasters and writers would use that as evidence to support their stick-and-ball bias, opining that racers were a bunch of uncouth, advertising-obsessed amateurs.

Speedways and sanctioning organizations eventually became aware of how this spectacle looked on TV and enacted some rules. Flamboyant Bill Broderick, PR director for Union/Unocal 76, gained his own cult following as "The Hat Man" for running the show in NASCAR winner's circles for over 25 years. NASCAR, and other sanctions, later put their own people in charge but it remained a work in progress -- evidenced a few years ago by non-Coke sponsored drivers knocking POWERade bottles (NASCAR's official sports drink) off their car's roof. Mike Helton finally put the brakes on that embarrassment.

I have a bit of experience with this issue. I attended CART's 1985 Winter Meetings where sponsors -- led by STP's respected motorsports VP Ralph Salvino -- voted unanimously in favor of asking CART to ban the use of floral wreaths in victory lane. As Salvino told CART Chairman John Frasco, "I paid for those (uniform) patches. I want them to be seen!" I was disappointed to see the return of wreaths this season at some IRL and Rolex Series events. When POWERade became NHRA's title patron in 2002, some bright light decided to start tossing that towel over each winning driver's shoulder. I was working with Darrell Russell, and quietly counseled the late Top Fuel star that when this happened, he should casually remove it. Darrell did so in such an easy-going way no one was the wiser. I also privately raised the issue with a Coca-Cola official, who agreed the brand's logo towels weren't creating much extra ID, and certainly not enough to justify alienating other sponsors.

I'm sure they are useful on the golf course and to Pittsburgh Steelers' fans, but at the speedways, these things truly are The Terrible Towels.
It was no surprise when the announcement came last week that August Busch IV (below, photo courtesy of PR NewsWire) will become president and CEO of Anheuser-Busch on Dec. 1. Busch, 42, has been on this track virtually his entire professional life. It's important for racers to note this news, however, because A-B is widely respected as one of the world's savviest and most sophisticated sports marketers. We all know of Budweiser's headline sponsorship of Dale Earnhardt Jr., plus the Bud King NHRA Top Fuel team of Kenny and Brandon Bernstein, and that pairing will reach an incredible 30 consecutive years under the current contract. Don't be distracted by recent media reports that the Busch brand might conclude its 25-year support of the NASCAR Busch Series. (I played a small role in the transition from the 1981-82 Budweiser Late Model Sportsman Series to the Busch Series in 1983 while working for A-B's agency.) NASCAR (and ISC) leaders have carefully respected A-B and accommodated its executives over the years and it's truly been a win-win relationship. Too bad the Indianapolis Motor Speedway didn't do the same the last time August IV attended the Indy 500 to watch a car run under primary Bud backing.


[ more Thursday . . . ]

Monday, October 02, 2006

NEWS UPDATE: Pettit Is 4th Champ Car Partner

The answer is Dan Pettit.

The question came up during last week's Phoenix City Council session. I attended the meeting, during which approval was given for final contract negotiations for a downtown Champ Car street race on Dec. 2, 2007. 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 owner, but he quickly left after the meeting, so I E-mailed CC PR director Steve Shunck.

I got the word today. Pettit (right) is the man. Pettit, along with Kalkhoven and Jimmy Vasser, is owner of the PKV team. The 2006 Champ Car media guide describes Pettit as "Kalkhoven's long-time business partner and proven venture capitalist." According to the guide, Pettit worked at Uniphase Corp. (later JDS Uniphase) and served as its chief financial officer until 1998 and later as president of European Operations until his retirement in August 2000. Of course, Kalkhoven was president, CEO and chairman of Uniphase. Pettit has an MBA from Pepperdine University in California and a BA in Business from Winona State University in Minnesota.