Tuesday, January 23, 2007


Those who wonder why they should attend the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association's All-America Team dinner -- and, yes, amazingly, I've been asked that question -- would have gotten the answer if they had been in the ballroom of the Indianapolis Hyatt Jan. 13 for the 37th Team ceremony.

NHRA -- arguably now No. 2 to NASCAR -- got a huge boost in front of about 250 AARWBA media members and guests when Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher (right, photo courtesy of Ron McQueeney) won the Jerry Titus Memorial Trophy. The Titus is AARWBA's No. 1 honor and goes to the driver who received the most Team votes. Tony was joined by Don Schumacher Racing Senior VP Mike Lewis, PR man Chris Dirato, crew members, representatives of main sponsor the U.S. Army, Valvoline's Barry Bronson, plus his team had a table and his record-setting car was on display in the lobby. Army Staff Sgt. Jacob Lopez, who has served in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq, led the Pledge of Allegiance. John Force was making his record 11th dinner visit, with long-time PR guru Dave Densmore, and sat at a table reserved by Castrol. Jerry Archambeault, NHRA's VP of PR and communications, was at NHRA's table. Anthony Vestal, NHRA media relations director, had provided AARWBA important help in the weeks leading up to the event.

IMS/IRL had a large group, including Tony George, Joie Chitwood and Brian Barnhart, in support of attending champ Sam Hornish, and Fred Nation, Ron Green, John Griffin and Amy Konrath on the PR side (plus Speedway media center boss Bill York, an AARWBA favorite). Honda, with Dan Layton, and Bridgestone/Firestone also had tables. Champ Car's table featured marketing VP Garrett Mudd, acting PR leader Eric Mauk, along with three-time titlist Sebastien Bourdais and Newman/Haas rep Kathi Lauterbach. As explained here a couple of weeks ago, Grand-Am and ALMS hosted a combined road racing champs table for Jorg Bergmeister (who came from Germany just for the dinner), Rinaldo Capello (in from Italy), Luis Diaz (up from Mexico City) and Scott Pruett. Bob Dickinson was there for ALMS, with Nate Siebens and Tom O'Connor (now moving to GolinHarris on the Toyota NASCAR account) there for the Rolex Series as Adam Saal was on assignment in England. Eight-time ARCA king Frank Kimmel sat at the Ford table, captained by Kevin Kennedy, with the evening's featured speaker, NASCAR team owner Jack Roush. Rising star J.R. Hildebrand was the other Team driver in attendance.

Also on hand: USAC Chairman John Capels, Audi North America motorsports head Rod Bymaster, driver Jerry Nadeau, former IMS and Daytona President John Cooper, HANS developers Jim Downing and Dr. Robert Hubbard, Fernandez Racing chief Tom Anderson and orthopedic surgeon miracle-worker Dr. Terry Trammell. Every AARWBA VP, and that list includes the AP's Mike Harris, was there along with Indy radio biggies Vince Welch and Dave Wilson and basically more media people this side of the free buffet line.

The evening was not just a social occasion and a news event, it was an opportunity to network, make new contacts, and lay the groundwork for future stories. It was a chance to learn, as we remembered the great PR legend Jim Chapman. It was a chance to hear Force (who revealed there will be a second season of A&E's Driving Force) explain why he keeps coming back to the dinner, to show his respect for the media, because it's the publicity that keeps him in business with Castrol, Ford, AAA and other sponsors -- and that allows him to win. To hear Diaz say his Team honor from the media provided "motivation" to accomplish even more. To hear Pruett admit, "I still love what I do." To hear Schumacher tell of how news of his come-from-behind championship was rapidly transmitted to Army troops around the world. To hear Roush express his views on NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow, ownership limits, the ups-and-downs of his own teams, and even reveal a glimpse of his private life. To see the enthusiasm of Capello and Diaz in checking-out the Army Top Fueler and A.J. Foyt's 1967 Indy winner (on loan from the IMS Hall of Fame Museum) in the Hyatt lobby. To show respect for members of the country's oldest and largest organization of motorsports media professionals.

Who wasn't there? In a damning indictment of the state of open-wheel racing PR, not one of the Indy-area IRL or Champ Car teams -- with the exception of Fernandez Racing -- was represented. No owners. No drivers. No PR people. Not a ticket or table or program ad bought. Not one phone call or E-mail to me (as dinner co-chairman) or anyone else at AARWBA to say, "Hey, it's great that you're coming to Indy! What can I do to help?"

(Contrast this to MAZDASPEED communications officer Dean Case, who pitched-in to help us set-up the ballroom Saturday afternoon. Thank you, Dean!)

What a disgrace. It tells you everything to you need to know why open-wheel is in such sorry shape. Of course, these are the same people who think it's generous to offer the media a 10-minute group interview with Danica Patrick -- at a test! Shame on the owners and sponsors who accept this PR "service" -- or are so inattentive as to be unaware! And it's no compliment to the sanctioning bodies, apparently incapable of leading their teams to follow their example, and do the right thing.
The Grand-American Road Racing Association's Rolex Series opens this weekend at Daytona. The series will get broadcast network exposure for the first time, with Fox on-air Saturday at 1 p.m. (Eastern) for 90 minutes, including the first hour of the 24-hour classic. SPEED then takes over to combine for 15 hours of coverage. As one who believes the series has definite upside potential, I'll be interested to observe how Fox frames its show. Specifically, if the focus will only be on Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, et al from NASCAR, or if season-long championship contenders Scott Pruett, Patrick Long, Jorg Bergmeister, Wayne Taylor, Max Angelelli, etc. also get the attention that can help Grand-Am going forward.

For the record: Both Bergmeister and Capello sent me "thank you" E-mails after the AARWBA dinner. Jorg and Rinaldo, my thanks to you!
Many have forgotten that it was Benny Parsons who agreed to carry the first modern-day in-car TV camera, for CBS, at the 1979 Daytona 500. It was heavy and bulky in his M.C. Anderson Oldsmobile and clouds didn't allow the Goodyear blimp to climb high enough to get the signal all the way around the track.

Parsons told me later: "The thing that I heard most was, 'Why didn't you clean the windshield?' I said, 'Man, that's the cleanest it's ever been.' We made it a point to clean it for the camera."

Years later I had the pleasure of being a guest in Benny's home, near Charlotte Motor Speedway, for an evening BBQ out by his pool before an IROC race. That was Benny -- taking care so the TV audience could see from his car, or taking care of his dinner guests -- always a gentleman.

If you missed it, I posted twice last week, including a special remembrance of BP. See below.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]