• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

+ and - OF A NASCAR WEEKEND

I spent most of last weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, checking out NASCAR. Let's do the math . . .

- NASCAR knows marketing, Part I: The Powers-That-Be in Daytona Beach surely understand that "looks" sell in America. Which makes it strange that they crafted the Car of Tomorrow to be uglier than, well, post-Imus, I won't specify. Let's just say the CoT has ZERO sex appeal. A friend showed me a 1989 NASCAR race program which contained a Pontiac ad. The Pontiac Grand Prix shown bears more than a casual resemblance to . . . yes . . . the CoT. (!)

+ NASCAR knows marketing, Part II: An impressive demonstration came in last week's Fry's supermarket circular distributed in the Phoenix area. It contained no less than NINE NASCAR drivers promoting their sponsor's product. This included Matt Kenseth for Gatorade, Kyle Busch for Kellogg's, Bobby Labonte and Richard Petty for Cheerios, Ken Schrader for Little Debbie cakes, Clint Bowyer for Jack Daniel's and Ricky Rudd for Pedigree. Show me another racing series, anywhere, with this much muscle in the marketplace. (!)

- Forget the PR talking point that the CoT might "level the playing field." The best drivers and teams still win, no matter what car is put on the track. As for another message, that the CoT will "improve competition," I haven't seen any increase in entertainment value. At least, not yet. Except for the late-race lead swaps by Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, Phoenix was made up of sections dominated by Gordon, Stewart and Denny Hamlin. It's early, but it's pretty obvious to me the CoT needs work on the showbiz side.

- I was sorry to see likeable and talented Denny Hamlin get caught-up in "The Terrible Towel" situation. For his after-Phoenix TV chat, he had an Old Spice towel drapped over his right shoulder that was large enough to cover the beach in Atlantic City. Among the "victims" was Nextel, whose series sponsor logo was completely covered-over. (The same ID on Jeff Gordon's uniform was partially obscured by a piece of victory lane confetti that stuck to it.) NASCAR MUST protect its series sponsors . . . and why aren't the corporate managers in charge of these programs INSISTING on just that? Earlier, some fans were denied the chance to get a smile and wave from Most Popular Dale Earnhardt Jr. because Fox was interviewing him during the pre-race parade laps. Let me repeat what I've written before -- that is the FANS' time to see and salute their heroes. The ticket buyers should not be cheated out of that important part of their race-going experience. (!)

- I wrote after the Daytona 500 that Fox's Krista Voda has star potential, but needed to work on her interviewing skills, and especially, sharpen her questions. In the last two races, Texas and Phoenix, Krista's post-race interview questions have been very weak. It's disappointing the network doesn't assign her a producer to improve this part of her "game."

? The Domino's media kit for driver David Reutimann comes in a mini-pizza box. So it was disappointing to open it only to find an unimaginative CD. So much more could have been done with this clever attention-getting idea.

- I'm not really sure what the expensive Red Bull brochure is supposed to be, but I do know this: It's NOT a media guide. Whoever distributes it for that purpose doesn't know a byline from a dateline from a deadline.

-- Double deductions for Tony Stewart and the "PR" people who apparently are scaredy-cat afraid to counsel him to act like a professional athlete. For the second consecutive week, Temperamental Tony flunks his PR responsibilities, this time by bolting from Phoenix Raceway after finishing second and thus skipping his "mandatory" media availabilities. A self-respecting rep would be too embarrassed to walk into the media center at Talladega this weekend. And don't tell me Tony, or Danica Patrick, or any other driver can't be told to "grow up" -- because I've said those exact words to racers greater than they. Shame on the team owners, and those charged with managing sponsorships, for continuing to act as enablers of bad conduct -- and even worse business practices.

Elsewhere . . .

? Champ Car racing returned to ESPN last Sunday for the first time in six years. The Houston Grand Prix coverage, the first episode in a multi-year time-buy by Champ Car, was of special note to me for a personal reason. In December 1980, just over one month into the job as CART's first full-time communications director, I went to ESPN's New York City offices to begin negotiating the series' first cable TV contract. That debut event turned out to be the June 1981 race at Milwaukee, won by Mike Mosley, with Bob Jenkins and Larry Nuber in the booth and Gary Lee on pit road. Terry Lingner was the producer and Mike Wells the director. Larry died several years ago but the others continue their productive careers. I remember when I announced in the drivers' meeting that we'd be "live" on ESPN, a few drivers asked me, "What's ESPN?" The network's own news releases cite Milwaukee as "the first race ever aired live" on ESPN." The Houston race, and telecast, were nothing more than average and when you buy time you pay the price in non-cash ways. The show was just seconds old when host Rick Benjamin was already promoting ESPN's Sunday night Yankees-Red Sox game, followed by an interview with Roger Clemens (who gave the "start your engines" command), followed by another baseball promo. All within the opening five minutes! Then there was the mindless, annoying text-message poll about which driver would best cope with the track and weather conditions -- without providing any valid measuring stick to legitimately answer the question! Oh well . . . it was better than the dreadful Las Vegas and Long Beach presentations on NBC, where a trio of NASCAR announcers absolutely mailed-it-in, marking time until their portion of the Cup season begins.

- No wonder sports cars race in the shadow of American public attention. For the last two weeks, the American Le Mans Series has run on Saturday, and for the last two weeks, no official results or updated point standings have been available on the series' website as late as Sunday evening. And don't ask me what the race distance, or time limit, or winning average speed was at Long Beach or Houston because those basic factual details are no where to be found, either. Frustrating . . .

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

THE STORY WAS IN VEGAS

Those who know me well well know I'm not an overtly emotional person. Yet, while I don't claim to be more than an occasional professional acquaintance to John Force, I feel for him in a way one might expect for a long-term intimate.

Has any motorsports figure, ever, had to make the kind of emotional-yet-calculated decisions NHRA's 14-time Funny Car champion has faced in the last few weeks? I think not.

In a long and gut-wrenching teleconference last week, John announced he'd field his Funny Car team in the SummitRacing.com Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway IF -- and only IF -- testing runs convinced him revised safety features in the cockpit would work. Consider the situation: Force had just lost Eric Medlen, proclaimed by John as the "leader of my next generation of drivers," in a crash while testing at Gainesville. Eric's father, John, was his crew chief. Force's daughter, Ashley, is in her rookie pro season. His son-in-law, and father of his granddaughter, Robert Hight, drives John's other Funny Car. John's daughters, Brittany and Courtney, compete in lower classes. John, in the role of father AND boss, had to make some of the most difficult decisions imaginable. It was clear that conference was stressful and exhausting for John and Ashley. (Tony Stewart should have listened-in before complaining racing is no longer "fun." See item below.)

I was in Vegas last weekend. The moments were special and even more emotional. When John came out to the start line before his first qualifying attempt Friday afternoon, everyone, including other drivers and crews, applauded. In Friday night qualifying, Ashley ran a terrific 4.793, 321.81 mph in her Castrol Ford Mustang, which at the time made her No. 1. Let me explain this moment in terms my media friends, who thought Texas or especially Long Beach were more important, will clearly understand: When Ashley got out of the Mustang after that pass, and came down the return road to a thrilling-chilling roar of the impressive-sized crowd, it was near Junior-esque. As in Dale Earnhardt Jr. Not as in the artificial (and increasingly waning) Danica Mania.

For Saturday afternoon qualifying, John Medlen came out to the line. Popular NHRA PA announcer Bob Frey noted John's presence. Those seated in the grandstands closest to Medlen stood and applauded. They began a sort of "wave," as each following grandstand section, on both sides of the track, got on their feet and slapped together their hands. I will say it again: It was thrilling AND chilling.

Ashley and Robert solidly made the field of 16. For the first time since the World Finals at Pomona on Oct. 31, 1987 (when Ashley was 4), however, John didn't qualify. That was an amazing streak of 395 consecutive events where he advanced to race-day competition. John came to the media center and fielded more tough questions. On Sunday, Ashley advanced to round two, while Robert capped an incredible weekend by taking the Funny Car victory in his Auto Club Mustang. It was the kind of story the glossy magazine writers and big-city newspaper columnists love. Sadly, they weren't there.

The most important -- and compelling -- story in American motorsports last weekend wasn't in Texas and it absolutely WAS NOT in Long Beach. THE STORY was at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Too bad too many journalists missed it.
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One of my favorite things to do at any event is walk through the souvenir area and, at NHRA races, the Manufacturer's Midway. At Vegas, 1320tv.com's Susan Wade tipped me off to a true marketing winner. It's the "FRAM Top Fuel Dragster Experience." There, Ed Cote of Nitrosport Marketing Service has a real TF chassis, modified so fans (including the disabled) can easily sit in the cockpit and have their picture taken by a built-in digital camera. Here's the neat trick: Cote or a member of his staff then gives each person a card, directing him/her to the company's website, where the image will be available in a couple of days. (They also sign a waiver.) Softwear takes the image and puts it into a template, that includes the FRAM, Prestone, Autolite and Bendix logos. The customer prints out the image at home, saving the company labor and printing costs. A new wrinkle, coming soon, will be a flat-screen TV mounted on the side of the transporter where people walking by the display will be able to better see what the "experience" is all about and who's behind the wheel. Congratulations, Ed and FRAM, on a GREAT and well-executed concept. Make time to check it out the next time you're at an NHRA race. (!)
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Well-done to Susan Wade on the continued growth of her 1320tv.com, which provides exclusive video coverage of drag racing. Programming elements include the pro class winners' news conferences from all NHRA national events, in-depth driver and crew chief interviews, and more. (I'm doing a new monthly Business of Racing commentary.) Use the link in the right-hand column to see what it's all about. The site, "up" just over a year, set records in March for total "page views," "visits" and "hits." NitroFish ultimate gear, ID'd on Kenny Koretsky's NHRA Pro Stock car, just committed to be a new advertiser on 1320tv.com.
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Consider NASCAR a collateral damage victim of the Don Imus fiasco. Imus has been a legitimate NASCAR fan since way before stock car racing went "national." He's given that segment of the sport valuable word-of-mouth promotion on a weekly -- sometimes daily -- basis for more than a decade. Numerous drivers have been call-in guests, with Darrell Waltrip a semi-regular, and the show has gone on the road to a few speedways. The popular-but-flawed morning radio host -- declared by none-other than Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential people in America -- unquestionably created new fans for NASCAR among blue-collar listeners, and elites, who otherwise would never have known Jimmie Johnson from Jimmy Johnson. His downfall, at least for now, is a flat-out loss for the series already in an apparent lull. ********************************************************************
Regular readers know I believe Tony Stewart has been ill-served for years by his so-called "PR" people. As I've documented, several of Tony's public problems could and should have been anticipated. And, thus, avoided. In a post-Texas interview, which I saw on SPEED, Tony blamed the media for his issues with the fans and cited that as the reason why he isn't having any "fun." I consider Tony to be a GREAT racer -- maybe the best of this generation -- but . . . Of course, it's wrong that his team and sponsors allow Tony to hire his own PRer via his own "communications" company. In that structure, just who is going to speak truth to power?


[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

details, Details, DETAILS !

Recently, I received an invitation to a corporate function. It included day, date, time and place. Well, sort of.

The listed "place" is a hotel. In a city where, as best I can tell, this chain has at least three other properties. I looked again at the invite . . . no address listed; no directions from any central landmark.

I first learned the lesson never to "assume" way back in 1982, at CART's original temporary-course event, in Cleveland. I was CART's communications director at the time and had been very heavily involved in planning the logistics of this historically important race. The promoters decided to host a reception for drivers, owners, sponsors and officials, to welcome them to Cleveland and thank the participants for their cooperation in making this debut event a great success. They passed out invitations that listed the reception as taking place at "Terminal Tower."

Since I was one of those hands-on types, involved in moving concrete barriers at the Burke Lakefront Airport course that evening, I wasn't able to attend. The next day, the race's PR VP told me how disappointed he was with the poor turnout, which set me off chasing after series VIPs to find out why. Many told me they didn't know where to go! In fact, I found out some people had gone to the tower restaurant in Burke's terminal, figuring that must be the place. I relayed this information to the promoter, and showed him that no address or directions were on the invitation. "It's a local landmark," he replied, astounded. "Everyone in Cleveland knows the Terminal Tower!"

Forgetting, of course, that 99 percent of his invited guests were out-of-towners.

This reminds me -- and I hope you -- how damaging it can be not to pay attention to the details. Or to assume "everyone" knows something!

* Along these lines, another favorite example of mine is the news release issued some years ago by a prominent sponsor promoting one of NASCAR's top drivers. The text was full of the typical tripe about how the racer was "excited" about and "looking forward" to the next race. Just one problem: The driver was never mentioned by name, anywhere, in the release! I remember the good laugh media center occupiers had over that one!

* Something else I recall about that inaugural Cleveland race. Word reached me, I think it was from Roger Penske, that a few members of the Hulman-George family and Indianapolis Motor Speedway executives were coming over to see what temp course road racing was all about. Since Burke was closed to air traffic, they were landing at another local airport. As a courtesy, I left word at the IMS office that I'd drive over to that airport early the next a.m. I left a package of credentials and parking passes -- and a note of welcome from CART -- with the FBO manager, who knew their plane was due in and promised to give them the envelope. Of course, no one ever said, "Thank you."
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Yes, we're a celebrity-driven society. Celebrity can take you only so far, however, as demonstrated by this recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution story. This is an instructive lesson that there's nothing like winning.

"Georgia Pacific . . . began a five-year sponsorship with Petty Enterprises. But after five winless seasons, Georgia Pacific opted for a less prominent associate sponsorship last season with Jeff Gordon.

"Kyle and Richard (Petty) are real class acts," Georgia Pacific senior manager of sports marketing Jack Priblo said. "They did what they could in public and in private to help move the needle.

"The only drawback was that, despite the affection and respect that is out there for the Pettys, they really have not had a contending team for a number of years.
We had the benefits of a legend in Richard Petty, but we wanted to see our logo up at the front of the pack now and then and in victory lane."
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I bet blood-pressure pills were being popped like peanut M&Ms last Friday. In the Vonage soap opera, a U.S. District Court judge barred the Internet-phone service provider from adding new customers. This in the wake of Vonage losing a patent infringement case. Late in the day, Vonage obtained a stay on that order from a federal appeals judge. Now, if the "no new customers" ruling had remained in effect, would that not have meant no advertising? If so, would not the Vonage ID have had to come off the Andretti Green cars and uniforms? This story potentially has important implications for motorsports businesspeople, so I recommend you keep connected, and stay informed how the Vonage saga concludes.

Any fresh corporate involvement in Champ Car, a series with Paris Hilton-thin sponsorship support, qualifies as welcome news. But I can't help but note the incongruity at Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. Graham Rahal has new backing from MEDI ZONE, a leader of medically supervised weight loss, weight maintenance, wellness and performance programs, products, and services. It's affiliated with Dr. Barry Sears, author of the Zone Diet series. Teammate and three-time champion Sebastien Bourdais, of course, carries the colors of McDonald's. I'm sure Carl Haas longs for the healthier days of Super Sized funding from Kmart, Budweiser and Texaco. (!)

Meanwhile, the fact that ESPN is taking Champ Car's money to show most of the series doesn't mean its announcers or editors have to learn about open-wheel racing. Sunday morning, I heard John Stashauer say this on ESPN Radio: "No NASCAR today, but the IRL is racing for the first time in Las Vegas, with Will Power on the pole."

Finally, the Associated Press brought news of the connection between a famous racing family and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Kalittas -- Connie, Scott and Doug of NHRA fame -- have long owned and operated an impressive air charter service. AP reports that Kalitta Charters has the Pentagon contract to bring home America's war dead in their charter jets. According to the story, the six-month Kalitta contract (which began last January) is worth up to $11 million.
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Just a reminder: Please check out my Business of Racing column, "The Bottom Line," in the inaugural (April) issue of Race News magazine. It explains why Ashley Force should not be considered NHRA's Danica Patrick. That's also the theme of my first Biz of Racing video commentary on 1320tv.com, which can be found in the "Featured Videos" section. Links to both the 1320tv.com and Race News magazine sites can be found to the right. I'll be in Las Vegas this weekend for the SummitRacing.com Nationals.


[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

THE NEW MEDIA

Life goes on, as it must, and it's an exciting week for me with the debut of Race News magazine and my monthly "The Bottom Line" Business of Racing column. I explain why it's a mistake for Ashley Force to be promoted as NHRA's Danica Patrick. Also, the first of my new monthly video commentaries on the racing biz is now posted at 1320tv.com. That also deals with why Ashley isn't Danica. (Both the column and the commentary were done before Eric Medlen's accident.) You can find a link for Race News and 1320tv.com in the right-hand column. The magazine link ( RaceNewsMagazine.com ) will take you to a site for more information on the new publication, while the 1320tv.com link will send you right to that site, which features video coverage of drag racing. (To see contrasting emotions, watch the J.R. Todd and Angelle Sampey winners' news conferences from Houston under the "Race Videos" section.) Either click on "Programming" on the toolbar and select "Featured Videos" from the drop-down menu, or just scroll down the home page until you see "Featured Videos." My segment is titled, "Let Ashley Be Ashley." Please check out both the column and the commentary and let me know what you think. The video actually went up last week and my thanks to Arie Luyendyk, Paul Page, Jack Arute, Larry Henry, Robin Miller, Jamie Reynolds, Mark Armijo, Mike Mooney, Mike Hollander (recovering from a recent medical issue) and others who already have watched and shared their (too nice) comments -- and for the "tips" from the professionals!
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On Monday, April 9, I'll guest on Racing Roundup Arizona on KXAM (1310) radio in Phoenix to discuss Business of Racing issues. RRA is marking its 10th anniversary as the state's longest-running weekly source for motorsports information and talk. My thanks to host Jamie Reynolds for the invitation. The show airs from 7-9 p.m. (PDT). It can be heard over the Internet at the RRA site, link in the right-hand column here, or on KXAM.com .
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Congratulations to Jay Adamczyk -- a.k.a. "Jayski" -- as ESPN has acquired Jayski.com, the Drudge Report of NASCAR information sites. Jay will continue to operate the site and the announcement release said it "will remain an independent voice on ESPN.com." Jay (along with partner Mark Garrow) will be contributors for NASCAR coverage across all ESPN media platforms, including on-air, online, radio and podcasting.
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No one else will say this, so I will. I have a problem with a few people in the aftermath of Eric Medlen's death.

By all accounts, the show of respect for the Medlen family and John Force Racing within the NHRA community was impressive. However, in my view, all pro-active publicity/PR activities should have been suspended from Medlen's death on Friday, March 23, through his funeral on Wednesday, March 28. I received a release about a new sponsorship and another about a crew chief change during this period, and I'm pretty sure there were others. At a time when all drag racing competitors, participants and fans were thinking about Eric, his family and team, why was it necessary to assume anyone really cared about anything else? Why couldn't these announcements have waited until Thursday, March 29, the start of the O'Reilly Spring Nationals event weekend?

When Dale Earnhardt was killed during the 2001 Daytona 500, the first recommendation I made to client Valvoline was to suspend all pro-active PR activities until after Earnhardt's memorial service. Valvoline management agreed. Now, I admit, I'm especially sensitive to this. When my friend and client on the Porsche Indy Car project, Porsche Cars North America director and three-time Le Mans winner Al Holbert, was killed in an airplane crash in September 1988, I was deeply involved -- on many levels -- in planning what happened next. I remember being offended, and seeing the reaction of family, friends and team members, when two CART teams made personnel announcements in the days between Al's death and funeral. I expressed that opinion to both teams. One called it a "necessary business decision" while the other admitted, "Yes, we could have waited."

Yes, they could have waited. Others should have done so last week.

For the record, I have no problem with -- and respect -- John Force's decision to keep his team out of last weekend's event at Houston Raceway Park. Force hopes to return for the April 13-15 SummitRacing.com Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. I plan to be there.
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Here's a follow-up to what I wrote last time about Danica Patrick, specifically, the fact that she declined to be interviewed by ESPN2 and the IndyCar Radio Network after crashing out at Homestead.

Dave Argabright, one of the country's most respected (and common sense) open-wheel journalists (he teamed with Chris Economaki for their Let 'Em All Go! book last year), had this to say in his National Speed Sport News column: "But more important than her performance was her demeanor. Over the past two years she has earned a reputation among those who cover the sport as a spoiled princess, and at times she plays the role perfectly. She can also be open and friendly, depending on her mood.

"The sport is usually willing to forgive boorish behavior, but only if on-track performance balances it out. A.J. Foyt, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt, Pancho Carter -- to name just a few -- have all shown moments of being difficult to deal with, but their great skill behind the wheel earned them a great deal of latitude.

"But Danica, frankly, hasn't shown much yet, and I'm not talking photo spreads. Yes, she's had a couple of good runs at Indy. But she has not yet been a good enough racer to blow off interviews after she steps on her pride in front of God and everybody. And the foot-stomping hissy fits will get old very quickly without the wins to back them up. She's got to get good or grow up, sooner rather than later."

Danica sponsors, please take note. Again, check out my Race News magazine column and 1320tv.com video commentary for more on this subject.
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Last week I noted the problems facing Andretti Green sponsor Vonage. Last Wednesday, USA Today published an amazing story on Page 1 of its "Money" section. I'll quote the first two paragraphs:

"In a move once unheard of on Wall Street, Citigroup is saying to sell Vonage stock just nine months after it helped bring the Internet telephone service public.

"It's the latest humiliation for Vonage, which let customers invest in its initial public offering only for the shares to crash and create a public relations nightmare. Even worse, last week Vonage lost a patent lawsuit to Verizon that some analysts say could doom the company."


One more biz note: First Data, announced with much fanfare as sponsor of the Las Vegas and Phoenix Champ Car races only for those deals to suddenly disappear, Monday said it will be bought by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts Co. for $25.6 billion. First Data is the large credit-card payments processor and KKR is perhaps best remembered as the leveraged buyout firm that took over RJR Nabisco. That transaction was chronicled in the book, Barbarians at the Gate, later made into a great TV movie.
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Here's a no-brainer for the benefit of SPEED Channel. Since much is being made of A.J. Foyt's 50th anniversary in Indy-type racing, a flat-out programming winner would be to pair A.J. and Robin Miller for a one-hour special to share their stories about Foyt's half-century in the sport (and about each other!) If a stand-alone show is not doable, then devote a full Wind Tunnel to this. It should be in May, of course.
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I could not help but be amused by the media hubbub last week over Circuit City's decision to drop almost 3,500 higher-wage employees, with the intent of replacing them with inexperienced, lower-cost new hires. This is exactly what has been taking place in racing in recent years, with owners spending more and more on drivers, crew chiefs and engineers and less and less on the PR and marketing professionals who are their front-line representatives to the public and media and keep their sponsors happy. Same applies to some broadcast and PA positions, too. Memo to Circuit City and Racing Execs: You get what you pay for. (!)
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We all could use a laugh. So, whether you are involved in reporting the news, or influencing the news, or just watch the news, go to JibJab.com and click on "What We Call the News." This was shown as last week's Radio and Television Correspondent's Association dinner in Washington, D.C. It's a good use of two minutes.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]