• 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 . . . ]