• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

LIFE's MOMENTS

I want to begin by sending my sympathy -- and respect -- to Eric Medlen's family, friends, fans and everyone at John Force Racing and in the larger NHRA community. Those of us who have been through similar situations with client/friend drivers understand what they are enduring.

On a professional level, we all can learn from how the Force group handled this case of crisis communications. There were daily news releases on Medlen's condition, brief and to-the-point, mostly in easy-to-understand form. I applaud their admonition against disgusting-and-disrespectful speculation that spilled across the Internet. (We have to be honest and admit media coverage was constrained by lack of available video of the accident.)

Of note, the releases were quickly posted on Force's website, so fans could stay informed. This was exactly how it should be done. It amazes me how many sponsors and teams, when dealing with this kind of emergency, don't utilize their sites as a first-line communications tool. The all-time worst example of this came in the aftermath of Alex Zanardi's terrible accident in 2001. That happened in Germany, and with most media outlets overwhelmed with coverage of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, information was at a premium. Yet it took Mo Nunn Racing 70 hours before the first word on Zanardi's condition was posted on their site. Later, I spoke with Mo about this, and he admitted the team had no crisis communication plan. "We were all in shock. We didn't know what to do," is what Nunn said to me. Which, of course, is exactly the point why such a plan has to be in place -- beforehand. Over the years, I've been retained by several companies/teams to design and write their crisis communication plan. It's not a pleasant thing to think about -- but it MUST be done.

My thoughts especially are with John Force, one of racing's all-time greatest champions and personalities, who now is watching daughter Ashley drive an 8,000-horsepower Funny Car. And with Force's longtime PR guru, Dave Densmore, who dealt with this crisis while recovering from recent quintuple heart bypass surgery. Funeral services for Medlen will be tomorrow in Brownsburg, Ind. Fans can leave messages at goodbyeeric@castrol.com. These will go into a scrapbook that will be presented to the Medlen family.

(The second season of Driving Force is scheduled to begin tonight on A&E Network at 10 p.m. Eastern. Promos for the premiere episode, however, make it clear that show would be inappropriate to air under the current difficult circumstances. I'm told another episode will go in its place.)
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ESPN's SportsCenter aired an exclusive interview with Paul Dana's widow, Tonya Bergeson-Dana, Saturday morning in anticipation of that evening's IndyCar Series opener, one year after Dana's fatal crash. Here are quotes taken from a transcript provided by ESPN:

(On the cause of the accident): "The IRL has been able to tell us, through examining some data, that Paul was going at speeds that were on par with the speeds that the other drivers were going through at that point. They were also able to tell us that he hit a piece of debris just before hitting Ed Carpenter’s car . . . If you hit a piece of debris, there’s nothing you can do, whether you’re a rookie or whether you’re the most experienced driver in the world."

(On why she did the interview): "Now that it’s been a year, it’s still obviously emotionally raw, but I want people to remember what a great guy he was, what a visionary he was, and that he was way ahead of the curve (bringing ethanol into the series). Being able to tell everybody that, ‘This is something that happened, it’s a racing accident, it’s nobody’s fault,’ is something that’s really important to us, for people to understand."
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When this blog debuted last July 10, I wrote: "I'm one of those people who believe it's essential to keep learning . . ." Last week's posting provided such an opportunity.

In my first version, I called for SPEED Formula One analyst Steve Matchett to stop referring to lap times that end in "zero" as "dead." That quickly brought an E-mail from my friend Joe Benson, the popular California radio personality and PA announcer, who wrote: "I believe he's saying 'zed' -- a common Australian/Canadian (and probably other Brit colonies) term for 'z' or 'zero'. . . I first became aware of the term when Billy Gibbons told me how taken aback he and the boys were at being called Zed Zed Top . . ."

I've made about 50 trips (combined) to Australia, Canada and England, but have never heard "zed." But, since I wasn't able to immediately investigate, I took down my comment. Although I don't have a first-hand explanation from Matchett, research did show that in some countries "zed" can stand for "z" and that translates into "zero."

So, I learned something, and now I hope you have as well. My thanks to Joe and others who provided this education. It does, however, take me back to my central point that it's essential for broadcasters to "know their audience" and in this case that means Steve should speak to his U.S. viewers in a way they understand. Sorry, but I doubt many Americans know the equation is "zed=z=zero." (!)
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* Staying on the "know your audience" theme, I noted at Sebring that ALMS has adopted international flagging rules. As such, no white flag was waved, to signal the last lap. With 11 of 12 ALMS races this season taking place in the U.S. (one in Canada), seems to me this is a mistake. It's a basic marketing error to confuse your customers. American fans understand the significance of the white flag; why change? Also, I was disappointed that (again) the official results sheet didn't provide the winner's average speed. Historical reference points are at the core of our understanding of what happened. Was a record set? How does it compare with last year's event? Race results that don't provide basic details such as margin of victory, average speed and total distance (in miles, not kilometers!) are as useful as a baseball boxscore that doesn't show hits and strikeouts. (!)

* ESPN2 found another way to confuse fans with Saturday night's IndyCar opener. The bought-and-paid-for official name of the event was the "XM Satellite Radio Indy 300" but, apparently since XM didn't buy enough commercial spots on the telecast, the network bannered the race as the "Ethanol IndyCar 300." The alternative fuel's trade group did purchase plenty of ad time. Two different names for the same race . . . as if the IRL doesn't have enough problems connecting with the public. (!)

*
If ever a race cried out for a NASCAResque "debris" yellow, it was last Saturday night's IndyCar blowout at Homestead. Why wasn't there one? My theory: A rain delay had already pushed the telecast beyond its scheduled conclusion on ESPN2. Remember, as recently as last weekend, Tony George has admitted in published interviews that his TV "partner" is "driving" (Tony's word) certain League decisions.

* I tell you what, I don't get what ESPN is trying to do with its Busch Series telecasts. Much of the commentary at (and publicity for) Bristol was about the Car of Tomorrow . . . which, of course, had absolutely NOTHING to do with Busch cars. (!) Meanwhile, it's obvious the network has decided to give Juan Pablo Montoya the "Danica treatment" and that Jamie Little has been chosen to play Matt Yocum to Montoya's Tony Stewart, which was a copy of Amahad Rashad and Michael Jordan. Finally, trying-too-hard Rusty Wallace bruised his own credibility by hyping up the finish and wondering if Matt Kenseth would put the bumper to Carl Edwards. Rusty -- and everyone else who knows anything about NASCAR -- knew that was not going to happen, because Matt (usually) isn't that kind of driver (Sunday's incident with Dale Jarrett aside), plus he and Carl are Roush Fenway Ford teammates. (!)

* No comment is needed for this one . . . Brent Musburger opened Saturday's Busch Series telecast thusly: "You are looking live at famed Bristol Motor Speedway -- NASCAR’s Roman Coliseum where the strong survive and the weak are fed to the lions."

* Almost every driver I heard interviewed, including Bristol winner Kyle Busch in his less-than-gentlemanly victory lane remarks, said the Car of Tomorrow doesn't drive as well as the conventional Cup car. Yet, after touring around Bristol in a Roush CoT for Fox's pre-race show, Darrell Waltrip praised NASCAR for how good the CoT handled. Might be that difference of opinion was due to what my tennis friends call "pace." Unless the networks inform the viewers how the lap times from DW, Wally Dallenbach Jr., etc., compare with the fastest, slowest or even field average, we should regard such segments as nothing more than another showbiz stunt -- and consider the information offered in that context.

* All the yap about the CoT was amusing, but someone should have mentioned that those in the know know no legitimate evaluation of the winged machine can be made based on Bristol or Martinsville. The CoT's first true test will be April 21 in the Subway 500k at Phoenix, where aero will come into play.

* Valvoline communications director Barry Bronson has been invited to be a guest speaker at next month's Campus '07 Sports Business conference in London. Title: "Activating sponsorship to achieve strategic business objectives at national and global levels."

* Eric Mauk is leaving Champ Car's PR department for Rahal Letterman Racing.

* Danica Patrick qualified 14th (started 13th after penalty to Scott Sharp) and finished 14th in a 20-car field in her debut for Andretti Green last Saturday night at Homestead. She was penalized for hitting another team's tire on pit road then crashed herself-out while entering pit road. Showing AGR's high-horsepower PR staff has no more control over her than Rahal Letterman's did, Danica did a semi-repeat of last season's hissy fit at Michigan, storming off to the transporter with her helmet on and refusing interviews with ESPN2 and the IndyCar Radio Network.

(Friendly suggestion for Terry Angstadt, announced as president of the IRL's new commercial division: Tell Brian Barnhart, still in charge of competition, to mandate by rule that all drivers cooperate with interview requests from your broadcast "partners." Oh, and just so everyone knows, Angstadt was quoted as saying: "I think we are really positioned for explosive growth.")

That wasn't the worst part of Danica's week. New primary sponsor Motorola Inc. reported that profit and sales will be "substantially'' below its forecast this year because of plunging mobile-phone prices, signaling a turnaround may take longer than investors anticipated, according to a Bloomberg News story. The company announced a new president and an acting CFO was named. The CEO was quoted as saying Motorola will "overhaul its marketing." A Prudential Equity Group analyst said, "The company has confirmed the worst fears, and the numbers are even weaker than anyone expected.'' I heard another analyst say on CNBC the Motorola news was a "train wreck."

Never mind Marco Andretti's last-place finish: Andretti Green management must have gotten real heartburn when two other sponsors found trouble. Vonage lost a patent infringement case that one analyst on CNBC said, in a worst-case scenario, could put it out of business. A federal judge ordered a permanent injunction against Vonage for its use of rival Verizon Communication's patents. The injunction won't be entered for two weeks as the judge considers Vonage's request for an extended stay. A jury awarded Verizon $58 million plus 5.5 percent of Vonage's revenue garnered from continued infringement of the patents, but the judge ruled that the permanent injunction was warranted. According to the Associated Press, Vonage has spent $425 million in advertising. Also, Bloomberg reported ACC Capital Holdings, parent company of sub-prime and non-prime lenders Argent Mortgage and Ameriquest Mortgage, fired an unspecified number of workers "to save money in a contracting market for home loans to people with bad or incomplete credit." AGR displays Argent ID while Ameriquest requested Roush Fenway to sell off the final two years of its contract and will be out of NASCAR after this season.

* There's another passing to note in what has been a very difficult time for the motorsports and automotive communities. Robert E. Petersen, founder of Hot Rod Magazine and Motor Trend as he created America's largest special-interest publishing company, died at age 80 Friday in Santa Monica, Calif. The Petersen Automotive Museum, in Los Angeles, opened in 1994 because of his $30 million endowment and continues to host thousands of visitors a year.
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Last week I wrote about Jack Duffy, the longtime PR VP of Hurst Performance, who died recently at age 82. Jack was a friend and a great professional and it's useful for me to share a few more thoughts.

Jack was what today's version of "PR" people would probably deride as "old school." He believed in developing one-on-one relationships. When I was hired at the Philadelphia Daily News, Jack was quick to invite me to a celebratory lunch. Ditto when I was promoted to assistant sports editor. He often hosted receptions for Hurst customers and guests during Pocono Raceway event weekends. Not only would he personally invite me and other journalists by asking us to "please" stop by, Jack would greet you upon arrival with a handshake and "thank you for coming." Hurst used to have a room across from the old Indianapolis Motor Speedway media center and Jack said we should consider it "home" -- and he meant it. Jack knew it was an essential part of his job to carefully monitor news reports -- actually, he enjoyed doing it -- and every so often I'd get a handwritten note in the mail (remember, this was the 1970s) from Jack saying, "Great column on A.J.!" or "Enjoyed your story on Richard Petty's win at Dover!" I remember the first time I wrote about NHRA, on a driver who had no particular association with Hurst, Jack called me and said, "Thanks for giving drag racing some publicity. We appreciate it!"

If that is "old school," may those lessons be taught forever.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

WHAT a WEEKEND!

There was some GREAT racing last weekend -- especially the ALMS GT2 class finish at Sebring and Karen Stoffer winning the NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle opener at Gainesville from the No. 16 spot with three holeshot victories -- but some other happenings were, well, read on . . .


- America's sense of political correctness bit SPEED last Saturday. During the Sebring 12 hours, as Adrian Fernandez sat in his Lowe's Acura while the nose section was replaced after contact with an Audi, pit reporter Andrew Marriott described Fernandez's mood as "pretty calm for a Mexican." No doubt at the instruction of network management or his producer, anchor Leigh Diffey offered an apology shortly thereafter. Marriott -- I first met him in the late 1970s when he was doing Formula One PR -- later interviewed Fernandez but his earlier comment wasn't mentioned. To be honest, I was a little surprised Andrew was allowed to continue on the telecast.

- Whoever filed that unbylined Sebring race report for the Associated Press made a huge error and no editor caught it. AP's story said, and I quote, "Dario Franchitti joining his brother, Marino, and Bryan Herta in the Andretti Green Acura . . ." Uh, Marino NEVER got in the car! Tony Kanaan co-drove with Dario and Bryan to the LMP2 class victory (second overall). Now, I would have thought one of the crackerjack PR people associated with this program would have cared enough to check out the coverage, and so would have noticed this mistake . . . turns out it was this industry observer who spotted the problem and notified AP. Mike Harris (in Atlanta for the NASCAR weekend) said he was asking the New York desk to move a correction.

- The issue of The Terrible Towel -- written about frequently in this space -- returned after last Saturday's Busch Series race at Atlanta. Jeff Burton -- a pro who usually knows better -- had a Coca-Cola towel wrapped around his neck in victory lane, denying Richard Childress team sponsors Holiday Inn, Chevrolet, Snap-on and NASCAR's series patron Busch, among others, their bought-and-paid-for uniform ID exposure on ABC network television. (Burton did remove the towel deep into the interview.) While Coke does have an "official" relationship with NASCAR, the ruling organization should NEVER allow the logo of its series sponsor -- even a lame-duck one -- to be covered. Over at ALMS and Sebring, whoever that was who jammed a white cap over the top of the winner's Michelin cap, should never again be allowed within a mile of any victory lane. How amateurish . . . yet racing executives like to talk about the "sophisticated" marketing programs that can be tapped via sponsorship. (!)

- I've heard Paul Newman say several times it's essential for an actor -- or broadcaster -- to "know your audience." I don't understand why producers don't instruct international announcers to speak to their American audience in a way Americans can understand. (!) Steve Matchett provides unmatched technical insight for SPEED's Formula One coverage. However, he constantly uses the metric system, and like-it-or-not the vast majority of Americans don't understand kilos or kilometers or centimeters. That makes Matchett's commentary less enlightening. I wish producer Frank Wilson would please give Matchett a conversion chart and instruct him to use it!

+ ALMS President Scott Atherton, during a SPEED interview Saturday at Sebring, noted that new manufacturers coming into the series are developing technologies that will wind up on road vehicles. He cleverly translated this into a reference that ALMS machines represent the real "Car of Tomorrow."

+ Tuesday, April 3, 3 p.m. (Eastern) will be the debut of In the Winner's Circle with Lyn St. James on VoiceAmerica's sports network. It’s a one-hour Internet radio show. Lyn says she will be interviewing guests and talking about women's sports, racing, business and the auto industry. Check it out at www.VoiceAmerica.com .

+ Even though all Marlboro ID has come off Roger Penske's IndyCar Series Hondas -- still in red-and-white but running simply as "Team Penske" -- Philip Morris USA remains as sponsor. I note the team's 2007 media guide and CD bear copyrights by PM USA.

- Apparently as part of a sponsorship deal, the Michael Waltrip Out Loud show will debut tonight on XM satellite radio, airing from 7-7:30 p.m. (Eastern). To be blunt, I would have thought those responsible for overseeing Waltrip's sponsorship at NAPA, UPS, Domino's Pizza and elsewhere would have put their foot down and insist Michael spend his time making his teams competitive, rather than taking on more ego-gratifying media work.

- When Nextel followed Winston as NASCAR'S Cup series sponsor, it wisely ran a series of commercials paying tribute to the sport's history, assuring ultra-loyal fans it would continue in that tradition. Now, I don't know the exact wording of Nextel's (now Sprint) contract with NASCAR, which apparently keeps out other telecommunications companies except for those "grandfathered" into the deal. But I do know, strictly from a PR standpoint, Sprint Nextel is guaranteed to be the loser if popular Richard Childress and Jeff Burton lose their Cingular backing. AT&T now owns Cingular (which, as I've written about here, has a non-performing "customer service" department) and wants to change logos on the No. 31 Chevrolet, but has not been permitted to do so under terms of the series sponsorship agreement. News came Friday that AT&T is taking NASCAR to court over the issue. NASCAR's image will take a hit, too, considering its fuel deal with Sunoco has forced Childress to reduce Shell logos on Kevin Harvick's Daytona 500 winning Chevy. It's important to remember that Childress stood by NASCAR throughout the investigation into Dale Earnhardt's death -- another reason he has such rock-solid credibility, and goodwill, with the public.
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A huge get-well-soon wish to Dave Densmore, John Force's longtime PR guru, who recently underwent heart surgery. Word is it was a quintuple bypass. See Denzy's friends, assembled at last weekend's Gatornationals, send their greetings to him at 1320tv.com. I know Dave must find it especially difficult to be on the sidelines now given Eric Medlen's serious accident yesterday while testing at Gainesville.
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The PR profession lost one of its all-time greatest practitioners last Friday with the death of Jack Duffy. Jack was exceptionally nice -- and helpful -- to me starting in the early 1970s when I took the first steps in my journalism career in Philadelphia and he was the PR VP for Hurst Performance, headquartered in nearby Warminster, Pa. A lot of people probably best remember Jack as Linda Vaughn's "boss" but I also knew him as someone who, like another PR legend, Jim Chapman, reached out to make new friends everywhere he went. Hurst benefitted tremendously from Jack's "What can I do to help you?" approach, sadly, so lacking among today's "PR" representatives. I'll forever be grateful to Jack for his encouragement and friendship as I moved from a trade paper freelancer to assistant sports editor at the Philadelphia Daily News. Several of us felt he would have been a fantastic PR director for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and, once, I even said that to Tony Hulman.

Jack retired with the rank of Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy, serving in both World War II and in Korea. Among the many honors he earned in motorsports was NHRA's PR Man of the Year. One of the best tributes Jack ever received came from another friend of mine, Bill Simmons, the late Philadelphia Inquirer auto editor. Bill was known to be a bit skeptical of what PR people told him, but told me he always trusted Jack.

Jack was 82 and died in Levittown, Pa. God Bless . . .


[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

HEADACHES

It's good Tylenol is now the "official pain reliever of NASCAR" because all of auto racing has suffered some big headaches so far this year.

* NASCAR's television ratings are down, for Nextel Cup on Fox, and the new Busch Series package on ABC/ESPN2. There are as many theories as to why as self-serving network promos, but here's mine: The public has been de-sensitized to the true excitement of the sport by all the breathless hype. This is my favorite example thus far in 2007: During the MRN pre-Auto Club 500 show, an announcer was telling us how "important" the California race was, "because, after today, there will ONLY be 24 races until the start of the Chase." My second favorite example came last Sunday on Fox, courtesy of Chris Myers, who claimed "everyone across the country" was talking about the dicey Las Vegas track conditions.

The emphasis is mine, but you see my point. NASCAR, its promoters, and media partners have so over-hyped, over-exaggerated the importance and "drama" of everything that it no longer stirs the public's passions. I expect the TV numbers will continue to be challenged the next few weeks due to the NCAA Tournament, so here's a suggestion: Just back off for a while and let the racing story tell -- and sell -- itself.

* I feel such deep pity for the person involved I won't reveal the name. But, yes, this REALLY happened (I heard it myself): A few weeks ago, in admitting ticket sales were slow, a promotions person blamed it on the public being distracted by the death of Anna Nicole Smith. (!)

* Juan Pablo Montoya was in Scottsdale last Thursday to play in the J.J. Yeley Charity Golf Classic, co-hosted by Phoenix International Raceway. (The Phoenix Children’s Hospital Foundation received a $50,000 check.) Noting that he's quickly picked-up the habit of calling his car the "Texaco/Havoline Dodge," I asked him why Grand Prix drivers don't mention their sponsors. "In Formula One, they say they don't need it," he answered. "Here, they say they want it. In Formula One, they don't ask me to do it. It's that simple."

In the aftermath of the Montoya-Scott Pruett controversy in Mexico City, I don't have a problem with the team issuing "cooling-off" statements from those drivers last week. But, to be honest, such days-late releases don't accomplish much. Especially when asked at the golf outing how he would handle the same on-track situation if it came up again, Montoya was quoted by the Arizona Republic as replying, "The same way."

*
I'll say this much for the Las Vegas NASCAR weekend: At least track GM Chris Powell had the good sense not to make "Shut Up and Race" T-shirts. Or issue a press release that he was assigning security guards to Goodyear's tire engineers.

* Robin Miller got dumped from his assignment writing for Champ Car's website because the Powers-That-Be didn't like his tough assessment of the series' problems offered in a SpeedTV.com column. Implications? Here's what I'll be watching for: To see if the firing has any chilling effect on other journalists who provide content for the CC site.

As for last Thursday's series Media Day at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Robin wrote on SpeedTV.com: "But the best news for Champ Car is that nobody noticed, because Media Day didn’t get a lot of national play. No USA Today. No L.A. Times. No Indianapolis Star. No Las Vegas papers. Not even new broadcast and marketing 'partner' ESPN bothered to send anybody. It was just a quaint little group . . . a few Internet sites, one racing weekly and SPEED."

* Proformance Sports Marketing and Entertainment recently announced plans to open the nation's first official Cheerleading Hall of Fame. I can think of several people, who broadcast races in several series, who would be worthy nominees.

In happier news . . .

* Last Friday was Vince Welch's last as sports director at Indy's WIBC radio. Vince told me a new and extensive assignment schedule with ABC/ESPN meant he "just wasn't going to be able to balance both." Good luck, Vince! Meanwhile, Vince is hunting sponsorship for 13-year-old (and straight A student) son Dillon's upcoming season in USAC's Kenyon Midget series. That is about 30 races, mostly on Indiana quarter-mile tracks, in full-size cars with less horsepower. Learn more at www.DillonWelch.com . Dillon did six years in quarter-midgets and won championships in both of his divisions last year.

* David Poole reported in the Charlotte Observer that Bristol Motor Speedway has created a 30-member fan advisory board so track management can get direct feedback from its customers. Poole wrote that Bristol got 1,588 applications from 41 states and Canada, and picked the first 30 members this week. That group has representatives from 18 states plus Canada. They'll serve one year. WHAT A FANTASTIC IDEA!

* Eric Mauk kindly sent me Champ Car's new (and, by the looks of it, comprehensive) "official historical record book." Having spent hundreds of hours researching Champ and Indy history over the years, I'm planning to give it a serious look. I see some stats go back to 1909 . . . I still don't understand how the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Indy Racing League allowed CC to somehow claim all of these records as its own.

* My good wishes to the vastly experienced Sid Priddle, recently named as a consultant to Champ Car's communications operation. Sid, I hope they listen to you . . .


[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

THE WAY IT SHOULD BE

I want to pick up where Paul Page left off with his final response in last week's Q&A: Referring to the atmosphere in NHRA, Paul's new ESPN2 broadcast assignment, he said: "This is now what open-wheel was in its good days."

I agree. It's not just the more-relaxed climate (drivers actually spend significant amounts of time signing autographs and posing for photos with fans). (!) It's not just the drivers are accessible to the media. It's that the PR people actually say "YES!" when asked to arrange an interview. WHAT A CONCEPT!

I wish a lot of the so-called "media relations" people who occupy the NASCAR, IRL and Champ Car garage areas would bother themselves to visit an NHRA Powerade Drag Racing Series national event. (If not, I wish their employers would tell them to do so.) Here's what they'd find, as I did the other weekend at the Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals at Firebird Raceway:

Need to talk with Kenny or Brandon Bernstein? No problem! Just ask Susan Arnold. Want to get a word with Tony Schumacher? Chris Dirato will be glad to oblige. Gary Scelzi is good for some great quotes, right? Judy Stropus will sit you down with him. Everybody wants John and Ashley Force (left), so you think there's no way? Wrong! Dave Densmore -- a walking encyclopedia of NHRA knowledge he'll share even about his non-client drivers (reminds me of the late Bob Latford in NASCAR, a great compliment) -- will help. Dave knew I'd appreciate face-time with John and Ashley at Firebird, so when they were finished with some other obligations, he called my cell and said, "Come on over!"

I think the last time a rep for a superstar driver did that in NASCAR, Richard Petty was still winning. (Except there were no cell phones back then.)

I've long believed the GOOD drag racing PR people out-work their colleagues in other series. The reason is no secret: They have to! Sad, but true, too many journalists still look down on what they view as the blue-collar straight-liners. One visit to an NHRA National would yield 10 times the number of interesting human-interest stories to come out of the typical open-wheel weekend.

The cooperation between NHRA and its participants with AARWBA is a classic example of a mutually beneficial relationship. No group of drivers has more consistently respected the media organization by showing up at the annual All-America Team ceremony to accept awards. John Force, who needs to attend another dinner to accept another award about as much as he needs an oildown penalty, was there last January for a record 11th time. I asked John if dragsters need to work harder than their counterparts.

"We have to. It’s kind of like, if you’re born rich, you expect the silver spoon. If you were lucky enough to get into F1, the world of F1 is the way it is. And I love it. I love Indy Car and CART and NASCAR and Outlaws and all that stuff. But I found that, in the chain of command, if you’re in F1 they believe you are a God. So be it. That’s the way it is. If you’re in NASCAR, you’re up that chain again. When I went to England, to accept an award a year ago, I never heard anybody mention a sponsor. I got up there and I thought, ‘Man, am I doing something wrong here?’ Because I’m going to talk about all my sponsors: BP, Castrol -- stand up! Ford -- stand up! I ain’t here without them people."

It remains true that NHRA and many of its tracks need to upgrade working media facilities. Nitro fumes aside, however, I find the professional environment at an NHRA race to be a breath of fresh air.

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So, I asked John Force: What did you REALLY tell Ashley about how to deal with the media?

"I told her, ‘They got one guy who’s full of bull, and that’s me, and they don’t need somebody else.’ The truth about Ashley is, she’s always spoke the truth. She doesn’t embellish. She tells it from the heart. And I said, ‘Just be you.’ And the real truth is, I don’t have to tell Ashley much, because I’ve seen her work with people, people in wheelchairs, little kids in promotions at schools. She’s the kind of kid who will pick a little bird up and bring it home and want us to fix it. And you know you can’t, and then she’ll cry about it. She was that way when she was little. I knew that she’s got a big heart. And I think that’s what’s going to make her big in this sport, that’s going to make the fans love her, because she cares about people. When she’s with the media, she don’t give ‘em a story like dad gives ‘em. She just tells ‘em from the heart what she knows."

I think it's a big mistake for the media to compare Ashley to Danica Patrick. I talked with Ashley about that and she understood my point. "My situation is different from hers. She was the only gal out there (Indy), but there’s lots of women in drag racing. In my situation, I think it was more about moving up and racing with dad in his category."

Ashley was teary-eyed after her over-the-centerline DQ in the first round of the CSK Nationals, and I don't have a problem with that. Only the most deeply cynical would consider it anything other than honest emotion. As opposed to Danica's hissy fit after last year's Michigan IRL race.
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NHRA media relations director Anthony Vestal was kind enough to give me a "tour" of the organization's redesigned and password-protected media site. It's excellent. There's a great volume of valuable information and the best part -- for Internet-challenged users like me -- it's quite easy to navigate around to find what you need. I'll be using it every week. Congratulations to Anthony, Jerry Archambeault, and all involved.+/- The compelling conclusion to last Saturday's Rolex Sports Car Series race in Mexico City earns a plus, but the lack of image awareness by the 1-2 drivers rates a minus. Co-winner Jon Fogarty allowed himself -- and was allowed by his team -- to be interviewed on SPEED this way: With sunglasses covering the sponsor ID on his cap and with his uniform pulled down (in fact, it was dragging on the ground). (!) Sponsor Gainsco was a first-time race winner but got zero visual exposure from the Fogarty interview because he, and whoever was responsible on his team, weren't paying attention to the details. Meanwhile, runner-up Colin Braun (who drove fantastically well) and most of his Krohn crewmembers were wearing uniforms featuring the OLD Grand-Am Rolex Series logo. Image, and giving sponsors every last available dollar in exposure value, is ESSENTIAL if the series is to progress in a meaningful way.

- With no Nextel Cup on Fox, it was ESPN2's opportunity to take center stage, with the NASCAR Busch Series in Mexico City. One gets the powerful impression almost all involved in this over-amped production are either trying too hard, or simply shouldn't be there. To borrow from at least three of the announcers: "I tell you what," Jamie Little high-fiving Juan Pablo Montoya after a pre-race interview is not the high standard I expect from the "worldwide leader." And, after countless breathless pronouncements, every viewer should now fully understand and appreciate that Montoya is an "international superstar." Point made, guys, please give the hype a rest. (!)

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]