• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

BLUE MOOD

I'm sure Champ Car, ALMS and NHRA were doing what they thought they needed to do last week, trying to drum-up interest during pre-season test sessions, but I have to say they all earned the Sam Brownback Award.

Brownback, a Kansas senator, recently announced his bid for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. He did so on the very same day Hillary Clinton confirmed her candidacy on the D side of the aisle. Let's be polite and just say that unfortunate bit of mistiming cost Brownback a lot of coverage. (!) While the three series were shaking-out new cars and driver-team combinations, the overwhelming number of national journalists were assembled in Charlotte for the annual NASCAR Media Tour.

However, while the reporters reported on the new Chase format and Kevin Harvick calling Teresa Earnhardt a "deadbeat owner" and Dale Earnhardt Jr. defending his stepmother and Jack Roush basically telling Toyota to bring-it-on, the news that lingered with me was Ford's withdrawal from Champ Car. Not the sort of headline CC needed less than 75 days before the season opener in Las Vegas. The blue oval automaker disassociated from the series it had participated in since 1992 just prior to the latest grim word on Ford's business: CNNMoney.com said the $12.7 billion loss for 2006 was the largest in company history, and that the fourth-quarter loss was "worse than analysts' expectations and the company warned of worse showings ahead."

That Ford would need to reduce costs/transfer resources to its Toyota-challenged NASCAR teams was no surprise. The shocker, though, was this from Robin Miller on SpeedTV.com: CC opted "to drop the pace car program in favor of Minardi boss Paul Stoddart’s two-seat Formula 1 cars." Miller quoted Ford Racing director Dan Davis thusly: “We were surprised they chose to torpedo the pace car program and even more surprised they decided to go with the F1 two-seaters. And we’re not leaving on bad terms, it’s just that Champ Car doesn’t align with our current business objectives. We’re not bitter, just very disappointed.”

IF, in fact, CC is parking its pace cars in favor of the backmarker-of-all-backmarker F1 -- F1! -- machines, it represents yet another disconnect from the American public this supposedly American series claims to court. (This on a week when Red Bull paid to put Nell Jani of Switzerland, who may be a fine driver but won't interest U.S. fans to buy tickets, into a prime PKV ride.) IF this was the deal CC's Kevin Kalkhoven did to induce Stoddart into the series as a team owner, it wasn't fully considered.

The pace car program has been a centerpiece of CC dating back to when PPG Industries became CART's series sponsor in 1980. During another era when Detroit was struggling against its Japanese counterparts, PPG executive Fred Rhue funded four cars -- brightly painted with PPG's colors but with little more than flashing lights bolted-on to the roof -- to showcase U.S. vehicles. Later, under the guidance of PPG's contracted racing director Jim Chapman, the fleet was expanded and became specialty-built performance (and highly stylized) machines. Chapman innovated the all-female pace car driving team and, over the years, hundreds of sponsor execs and guests, media, assorted VIPs and even fans were treated to exciting tours of the circuit's ovals and road courses. It was a flat-out success story and gave the open-wheel rocket show a connection to the average fan's life . . . a tradition continued by Ford.

IF, now, there is no legitimate pace car program, add it to the long list of Champ Car PR blunders. Not to mention the loss of prestige and print advertising, TV commercials, tickets, hospitality, courtesy cars and in-market promotions Ford would have purchased or provided. I guess already struggling promoters will be expected to accept this as just another CC "business decision."I was out at Firebird Raceway last weekend for NHRA's National Time Trials test session, an advance for the Feb. 23-25 Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals at the Arizona motorsports. The first thing that caught my eye was the SkyTel pagers ID and orange, blue and white paint design on Larry Dixon's Don Prudhomme-owned Top Fueler. Although this sponsorship hasn't yet been officially announced, presumably SkyTel is The Snake's replacement for Miller Lite. Ashley Force seemed comfortable signing autographs and talking with fans, while father John wasted no time in taking execs from new sponsor Mach 1 air services out to the starting line, "so they can feel the earth shake." From my own experience, I agree this definitely is a great sales tool in hooking corporate types to the 7,000-horsepower world of Funny Car and Top Fuel. One of the fun things to do at the start of each season is to scope-out the artwork on cars, uniforms and support vehicles. I was especially taken with the graphics on the tailgate of the Kenny Bernstein-owned, Brandon Bernstein-driven Budweiser King transporter. KB is beginning his record 28th consecutive season of Bud backing -- an AMAZING achievement.

I was pleased with the announcement that Paul Page will anchor all the NHRA telecasts on ESPN2 this season. And Andy Hall, well-known to many of us for his good work at NASCAR, ALMS and elsewhere, joined ESPN a couple of months ago to do publicity for its motorsports properties. Good luck, Paul and Andy.

Also: Anyone charged with promoting drag racing should watch Susan Wade’s interview with Jack Roush at http://1320tv.com. This was taped before Roush's appearance as featured speaker at the Jan. 13 AARWBA All-America Team ceremony in Indianapolis. For those who don't know, NASCAR mega-team owner Roush started in straight-line racing. Here’s one of Roush’s many interesting quotes:

“If the hospitals, with all their medical science, could find a way to put somebody in a tube and blow them out to a drag strip whenever a Top Fuel or Funny Car is getting ready to make a pass, it would have a more rejuvenating effect than the electric shockers they put on your chest when your heart stops. To stand on the starting line and watch as a Top Fuel car makes a burnout or as a Funny Car makes a burnout or even a Pro Stock car, there's a level of excitement, there's a level of percussion. I believe that if there’s life someplace else in the universe and could look down, I think they would find a unique energy source at what goes on at our drag strips.”
* I had a pleasant E-mail exchange last week with a journalist new to the motorsports scene, Gene Laverty, of Bloomberg News. Laverty's story on Ford's departure from Champ Car said CC's season would open in Phoenix (it's Las Vegas). I sent him a note and got this in reply: "Good to hear from you . . . I never take a correction as criticism, always see it as somebody doing me a favor." Now, isn't that refreshing! Gene says he started on the racing beat for Bloomberg January 1. Welcome . . . Mike Harris was another last week to say "thanks" when I spotted something in his Associated Press post-Rolex 24 report.

* The bad local reporting on the Phoenix CC race (regularly referred to in local reports as an "Indy Car" event) continued recently when the Phoenix Business Journal wrote that it "will include the first major race to feature methanol rather than gasoline, eliminating carbon dioxide emissions." Of course, USAC replaced gasoline with methanol in Champ Car competition decades ago. (!)

* It doesn't help when the Phoenix event's official website doesn't even list the right race dates: While the top-of-the-home-page-banner has the correct dates of Nov. 30-Dec. 2, as of yesterday, just a little below that it read: "Race weekend//November 16-18, 2007".

* Sign of the Times: CNN began its report on Al Unser Jr.'s DUI arrest thusly: "NASCAR great Al Unser Jr. . . "

* There were 17,809 jobs lost in the media biz last year, almost double the 2005 total, outplacement consultancy Challenger Gray & Christmas reported last week. With recent announcements of cuts at Time Inc. and the New York Times Co., it appears the downsizing trend will continue.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]