• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

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 . . . ]