• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

THE INDY MINDSET

Indianapolis. Friday. 6 a.m.

I click on the TV in my downtown Hyatt room. I start my day by hearing a local anchor say this:

"You are looking live at 16th and Georgetown, the most famous intersection in the world."

I immediately change the channel.

That, my friends, is the strongest impression from my time in Indy last week for the 91st edition of the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" -- the absolute disconnect from reality among the Hoosier media gentry. Up in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway media center, I quizzed about a half-dozen of the locals I know well and, unanimously, their comments were along the lines of "what a great month it's been."

Really? Were they saying so over in the Speedway ticket office? Sponsor sales department? I did a downtown tour the night before the race and seating was immediately available in many of the most popular restaurants. Even with more quality dining options for the choosing, such openings were unthinkable until the IRL Indy 500 era began in 1996.

In fairness, my visual observation was not as many obvious sections of unoccupied grandstands as recent times, so race-day attendance maybe was UP. But with all due respect to the late Tony Hulman, a man I knew and liked and respected and who saved the Speedway from oblivion and built the 500 into the world's largest sporting event, 16th and Georgetown is NOT the "most famous intersection in the world." My list starts with Hollywood and Vine. That's the spot where wannabe “stars” went to be "discovered." Indy once was like that, too. Can anyone HONESTLY say contemporary winners such as Buddy Rice or Eddie Cheever or Dan Wheldon or even Sam Hornish Jr. attained the level of celebrity of Parnelli Jones or Bobby Unser or Johnny Rutherford or even Danny Sullivan?

Or Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart or Dale Earnhardt Jr.?

Friday's Carb Day crowd did evoke some memories of glory years past. A ton of that had to do with Kid Rock's post-practice concert. Let me tell you from personal experience -- and confirmed to me by some of my Indy police friends -- that crowd in the infield concert area was one of the meanest you could ever hope not to encounter. (Naturally, IMS chooses to place media parking only yards away.) Nothing wrong with doing what must be done to get people in the gates, mind you, but I do wonder just how many of them were (or became) race fans? The kind who will come back when the music isn't blaring or will watch the ABC/ESPN telecasts. That's what is needed to build a long-term public foundation of popularity . . . and prosperity.

I also duly noted that some national media biggies took a decidedly "Indy is back" attitude. Well, I would politely ask them to read my "The Bottom Line" column in the May/June issue of Race News magazine. I detail -- based on having lived it -- exactly the mistakes that were made that cause Indy to no longer be Indy. Actually, what was obvious to me was the pro-Indy media movement was a conscious attempt at a bit of NASCAR pushback -- at a time when NASCAR is in a lull and thus a bit vulnerable. Now, it could well be our stock car friends have set themselves up for that sort of media pushback. Even so, it didn’t change my fundamental view: After my 31st Indy 500, I agree it remains a terrific event, but it's no longer what it was. Sorry to say, in my opinion, it never will be. But the problems will NEVER be effectively dealt with until all the constituency groups admit to the realities of 2007. Not by living with a 20th century "cheer for the hometown team" mindset.

Friday may have been a good day. Ditto Sunday. Maybe the month of May. Only, however, by using the downsized yardstick dated “1996-present.”

If you think "the most famous intersection in the world" was bad, let me wrap this section with another example. Sunday morning, an Indy TV lady was talking with a soldier serving in Iraq. When it was mentioned that our soldiers over there would be able to watch the race on "live" television, the local TV lady said how "lucky" they were, because the 500 is on a delayed telecast in Indy. Let me understand: Someone is "lucky" to be in Iraq because that means he/she can watch the Indy 500? How absurd. Indy will never again be Indy until that sort of narrow-minded media mentality is banished to the dumpster of journalism history.

Where have our standards gone?
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Adding Up Indy . . .

- Another place that needs an upgrade in standards is the IMS interview room. The Speedway-assigned moderator acts like a FAN, not a pro. Here's an on-point example, from a bump day press conference with non-qualifying driver Jimmy Kite and car owner Paul Diatlovich.

Moderator: "Darn. Put forth an effort, and I imagine the pain is just immense. Gentlemen, we wish we were talking to you again in happier times, but just talk about the whole experience and what happened near the end and what ultimately was the situation that resulted in you falling just a little bit short . . . Paul, this thing can be just a very fickle mistress, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway."

A visit to a Super Bowl, World Series or Kentucky Derby interview room would reveal to IMS PR management such nonsense would not be tolerated. I've sat in the back of the Speedway interview room with big-time media members, and watched their shaking heads and heard their groans, as this goes on. Standards . . .

- The most predictable thing that happened all week was the USA Today cover story on Danica Patrick. And, in the media center, I detected that gushy Danica reporters have now reset the bar for her performance. The new conventional wisdom among those who think with something other than their brains goes roughly like this: "Danica shouldn't be criticized for not having won a race (not only in IndyCar, but anywhere, for way over a decade). She's doing a good job. She doesn't throw away her opportunities on the track (uh, remember Homestead?). Maybe she will win a race, but even if she doesn't, she's doing a good job." Maybe it's just me, but I always thought the point of racing, baseball, football, golf, tennis, bowling or whatever, was to WIN! Standards . . .

- Memo to the USA Today editors: David Carter does not have to be quoted in EVERY story with a business angle. Just like Darrell Waltrip should not be quoted in EVERY story about NASCAR. Yes, I know those comments are EASY for you to get . . . but there are OTHER legitimate sources and perspectives. It would not be too much work to find ‘em. Your readers would benefit from different points of view.

+ Full credit to ABC for staying with the coverage, despite the almost three-hour rain delay. (Of course, the network had a moral, if not contractual, obligation to do so given the pushed-back start time was a TV-driven decision.) But we know other broadcasters might well have dumped off to cable. So, cheers, ABC. I have heard mixed reviews of the actual telecast, but I won't yet comment, as I have not been able to watch the full tape. Congratulations to George McNeilly and Andy Hall of ESPN's communications department for being professonal enough to spend several days in Indy and for participating with AARWBA. One would think that would be a no-brainer. Others at other TV network PR departments show it is not.

+ Overall, the Indy 500 was a GOOD -- not great -- race.

- The start, however, was one of the worst in history. (That is, one not involving a wreck.) The front row took the green flag single file! Brian Barnhart has dumped Indy's historically correct tight 11-rows-of-three formation until a green flag just before the Yard of Bricks on the basis of safety. But, c'mon Brian, by letting that green wave Sunday, you left the impression you didn't even trust Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti to do it safely.

- Unlike Churchill Downs, where spectators pleasantly sing My Old Kentucky Home before the Derby, IMS' attempt to sub for ailing Jim Nabors by having fans do Back Home Again in Indiana was a flat-out flop. An audiotape of Nabors' famous performance would have been far better.

? Tomas Scheckter, who drives for Tony George, said this after his contact with Sam Hornish. "He’s such a good champion, such a good driver but what an idiot, a real idiot. Straight down the front straight, comes straight in. I hope I damaged his car when he hit my front wing. We are lucky that he had just a flat tire and I’ve got a broken wing. Next time he does that to me, I’m definitely not going to lift and will ram him straight into that front wall.” If a threat like that doesn't draw a penalty, I don't know what will. OK, Brian Barnhart, will you act? Or give Tomas a pass because his car owner is your boss? The answer will be revealing to all of us.

+ I spent an enjoyable several minutes catching up with Al Unser Jr. Susan Wade asked me to do an impromptu interview with Al for 1320tv.com. The two-time Indy winner revealed that, over the years, he’s received invitations to test NHRA Top Fuel and Funny Cars. Including an offer from John Force!

- Rapper Ludacris, whose vile lyrics are as out of place with Midwest values as coconut trees, was a "celebrity" in the 500 Festival Parade and at the race. Here's what he had to say: "The fans love me, and I show the love back. I have a lot of fans here in Indianapolis . . . "

+ Congratulations to Chris Economaki, recipient of the third annual Bob Russo Founder’s Award, presented at Saturday’s annual AARWBA breakfast meeting co-hosted by Firestone and Honda. And to photographer John Mahoney, winner of the Straight Shooters Award, in memory of Art Flores and Ron Hussey. That came with a $500 prize courtesy of Fernandez Racing.

+ Thanks to Indy poleman Helio Castroneves for maintaining a semi-tradition by stopping-by the AARWBA breakfast. And to Davey Hamilton, who came to accept the Angelo Angelopolous Award, for sportsmanship. P.J. Jones came, too, to get the infamous “Jigger” Award, for tough luck. IMS Executive VP Fred Nation passed out $10,000 in prizes to winners in the annual AARWBA journalism contest – including to me, for first place in the online column category.

- Take a look at this photo (link below). I'm not referencing the fact this driver is signing autographs. I have no doubt this plays directly into the image truly desired by the driver pictured. I also have no doubt that, while one of the driver's sponsors loves the "look," it is counter to another corporate backer's "family" positioning in the marketplace. Legitimate questions: Does this show class? Dignity? Professionalism? Respect for the public? For sponsors? For the sport? The NFL recently fined one of its athletes $100,000 for a violation of the League's dress code at Super Bowl media day. It's long past time for motorsports' sanctioning bodies -- in this case, the IRL -- to establish and enforce standards of public behavior -- and appearance -- at the track. What is shown here should be unacceptable to anyone who considers himself or herself a pro. The photo also symbolizes what has gone terribly wrong at the Indianapolis 500 -- a sad lowering of the standards of excellence the great race used to represent . . . and demand. http://www.speedtv.com/_assets/library/img/large/153121_dp.jpg

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Congratulations to my friends, Jamie and Betsy Reynolds, who will mark the 500th Racing Roundup Arizona show next Monday night, June 4. Now in its 10th season, RRA is a weekly two-hour motorsports' information radio program on KXAM (1310 AM; can be heard on http://KXAM.com or http://RacingRoundup.com). Thanks, Jamie and Betsy, for your contributions to the success of motorsports in Arizona. I hope everyone who does racing business in the state says "thank you."


[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

MAY DAZE

I'll be watching to see if Sunday's 91st Indianapolis 500 continues the trend of May comebacks. Or keeps collapsing like Katie Couric's ratings.

The Kentucky Derby, another American classic that has enjoyed more popular and prosperous times, got a bounce with the Queen in the grandstands and Street Sense in the winner's circle. NBC's presentation of "The Run for the Roses" blossomed with a pretty seven percent increase over the 2006 numbers. Last Saturday's Preakness gave us a more thrilling finish than Indy '06.

Friday night boxing, sponsored by Gillette, carried a big punch when I was growing up. These days, there are so many champions in various weight classes in an alphabet soup of sanctioning groups, well, they are as anonymous as open-wheel drivers. But the Oscar De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather Jr. bout a few weeks ago set a record with 2.15 million household buys.

Now, it's Indy's turn. I'm less than optimistic. The Speedway, at its best, was once a historic proving ground for technical innovation, but ABC and IMS Productions have only now gotten around to showing the "Greatest Spectacle" in HD -- putting them about three years behind the curve. Of course, the 500 field is virtually spec -- all Honda, all Firestone, almost all Dallara. As forecast here, both the network and the track are promoting the "first" of two female pit reporters -- Jamie Little and Brienne Pedigo -- their respective news releases brought to my attention by several sharp readers. (It's three, if you count Nicole Manske, on the radio net. That makes sense -- think about it!)

Thank God, some media credential wearer stood up for professionalism with this question to Danica Patrick in the interview room: No, I am NOT making this up!

"How hard is it to get your hair inside the helmet?"

Patrick: "Well, I don't have my hair band on. I just put it back, it goes underneath my suit. It's pretty easy."

I've been disappointed by the Indianapolis Star's coverage. What? No more "Daily Danica"? Not even a "Sarah Second-by-Second" or "Milka Moment-by-Moment" diary? I could tell standards were lowered when a May 8 story led with, "All of a sudden, the Indianapolis 500 is flush with competitors . . . the event could have as many as 37 car-and-driver combinations for qualifications . . ." I know the Star's journalistic yardstick has shrunk when FOUR over the MINIMUM = flush. (!)

Columnist Bob Kravitz did ride to the paper's rescue with his May 14 piece, questioning why the IRL had not tested Al Unser Jr. for drugs and alcohol. I've known, worked with, and liked Al Jr. for years -- but Kravitz was absolutely right. It's the single-best example of opinion journalism I've seen emerge from the IMS media center this decade.

I respect the loyalty and commitment of true fans -- a declining population at the Speedway. Indy's issues, however, will NEVER be corrected until there's an HONEST acknowledgement of the problems by ALL the constituency groups. I was disappointed to read one chatroomer's response to Kravitz' excellent column: "Kravitz is just trying to create a negative story because things are going too well at 16th and Georgetown this year."

You betcha! Man, it hasn't been this tough to get a ticket since "Mansell Mania!"

Please, please, enjoy the event to the max of your desire -- but STOP drinking the Kool-Aid. That includes the Indy TV and radio types -- some part-timers for Hulman family broadcasting interests -- who keep announcing how "great" everything is in the "racing capital of the world." That, my friends, is 20th century thinking.

For the third consecutive year, IMS made questionable use of resources Monday, by hauling all 33 drivers to New York City for a photo-op on Times Square's Military Island. Maybe this was worth trying once, but no longer. With THOUSANDS of seats available, I can't believe Tony George hasn't ordered his troops to spend promo money in a way that might actually SELL TICKETS. That means a race-week publicity offensive in western Indiana and the half-dozen neighboring states . . . NOT New York. (!) But rapper Ludacris, whose vile lyrics represent the polar-opposite of traditional midwest values, will be in the 500 Festival Parade. Yes, the decision-making process continues to make complete sense -- as proven by the "results."

Meanwhile, over at Champ Car, some drivers and series execs went on a multi-country European media tour to pump-up forthcoming races in Belgium and the Netherlands. I don't know if new VP of Strategic Development and Communications David Higdon (formerly of ATP tennis; I read a few of his father Hal's motorsports books) scripted the remarks for CC President Steve Johnson, but I sure would NOT have recommended this: According to the tour blog posted on the series' site, Johnson told the Euro journos, "I think it's fair to say that Champ Car has come home, because this series has a lot of European drivers and in terms of victories over the last few years, it has been dominated by European drivers. So it's good to be here interacting with the most knowledgeable open-wheel media in the world."

I'm sure the few remaining U.S. reporters and fans who care about CC really appreciated those comments.
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When does non-news rate 14 graphs on the AP wire? When it comes from Humpy Wheeler Nextel All-Star Challenge week. That's what AP gave Humpy's annual prediction of who would win the race, described in the story as presented "in his carnival-barker style . . . with an assist from an illusionist." True NEWS, indeed. For the record, he picked Jimmie Johnson, but Kevin Harvick made it to victory lane.

The non-points exhibition has long outlived its purpose -- remember, it was dreamed-up by Winston to give NASCAR extra publicity during May, back when the Indy 500 dominated the media scene. The event has been hyped light years beyond any reasonable standard of decency (which makes the published winning average speed of 89.091 mph that much more laughable) with each new gimmick serving only to further diminish its credibility. Whatever speck of legitimacy this showbiz show had left was shredded when Kenny Wallace was put into the Challenge via a "fan vote" (he finished last among those running at the end) -- a result worthy of attention from all you Florida 2000 election conspiracy theorists. Kenny Wallace is an All-Star! Up next, Paris Hilton on the cover of Time as Person of the Year!
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Did you know there were two "major" sports car races last weekend? Don't worry, not too many did. With sponsors trying to scratch-out any useful publicity via the ALMS or Rolex Series, I'm stunned that the "businessmen" in both series don't do Carl Edwards-backflips to make sure funders at least get what they paid for in their deals. Saturday, in Utah, a garland wreath was bestowed upon Penske Porsche winners Ryan Briscoe and Sascha Maassen. See ya, DHL ID for the CBS cameras! Over at G-A at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, The Terrible Towel (for Performance SomethingOrOther) made its way onto the shoulders of runners-up Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas. Sorry, series sponsor Rolex and presenter Crown Royal, the value of your TV time during that SPEED interview = ZERO. Sanctioning body officials, who supposedly control the victory lane/podium area, should NOT ALLOW the logo of their series sponsor to be covered. Period. And the award for the worst announcing on a weekend of non-All-Star announcing goes to Chris Neville. He opened his Speed Report report from Laguna Seca by calling the Rolex conclusion "another fantastic finish." THE RACE ENDED UNDER YELLOW!
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I'm the MC of Saturday's annual AARWBA breakfast meeting in Indy, co-hosted by Firestone and Honda. Pole winner Helio Castroneves and another two-time winner, Arie Luyendyk, will be among the guests. Several traditional awards will be presented and winners of AARWBA's journalism contest, sponsored by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, will be announced. Havoline, marking 20 years as a NASCAR Cup team sponsor, just signed-on as sponsor of the organization's June newsletter -- the company's first participation with AARWBA. Lowe's Home Improvement and Budweiser are set as upcoming newsletter sponsors.
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Wrapping-Up My Indy 500 memories . . .

+ I'll be attending my 31st Indianapolis 500 this Sunday. I hold membership card No. 1,000 in the Indy 500 Oldtimers Club. I have a chunk of original Speedway bricks embedded in the walkway at my home.

- The way too many in Speedway management and on the staff disrespect those who made contributions to the history -- and success -- of the Indy 500.


[ Blogging the Indy 500, next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

DALE's DAY; MEDIA's MOMENT

As if we didn't already know, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s announcement last Thursday that he will leave DEI -- the team his father founded -- proved he is the most commanding media figure in American motorsports.

The news conference, and the reporting that surrounded it, also verified several things about the contemporary media and PR scene.

* That session in front of dozens of cameras and "live" coverage on two national networks was the most important of Earnhardt Jr.'s life. Too bad those who "advise" Dale didn't bring him to an understanding he needed to dress appropriately for the big occasion. While I compliment Dale on the way he handled himself, and for choosing his words carefully, he certainly didn't present the appearance of someone who understood his decision was major BUSINESS involving hundreds of millions of dollars. Dale Jr. looked tired, scruffy, and wore an unbuttoned shirt over a T-shirt.

* I was in the Las Vegas Motor Speedway media center two weeks after Dale Sr.'s death when Teresa Earnhardt made a dramatic appearance and powerful statement requesting Florida lawmakers keep her husband's autopsy photos private. Teresa has chosen to do but a handful of interviews since. She has that right . . . but her distance from working reporters actively covering the NASCAR scene left her vulnerable to the predictable loss in the battle for public opinion over Dale Jr.'s contract negotiations.

* I've come to the sad but firm conclusion contemporary journalists could not do their work without the word "speculation." Let's be clear: When "speculation" appears in a news story, it might as well say "rumor" or "gossip." AP demonstrated an apparent lowering of standards with a story about "rampant speculation" of what Dale would say. I'll be polite and call that disappointing . . . Far worse was the NASCAR.com story that went like this: ". . . details of the conference were not provided, lending speculation that it may involve his contract negotiations with Dale Earnhardt Inc. Dave Moody reported Wednesday afternoon on Sirius Speedway that speculation is Junior and Martin Truex Jr. will drive Nextel Cup cars under the JR Motorsports banner in 2008 with Hendrick Motorsports providing engines." NASCAR.com not only spread a FALSE rumor, it tried to cover its tracks by sourcing the gossip to a Sirius radio announcer. What a disgrace!

* Then there was the "race" to report an "exclusive." Not get out the RIGHT story, just get out a story FIRST. Thus, Thursday night, after Dale's media meeting, separate Fox affiliates in Boston and High Point, N.C. “confirmed” that Earnhardt Jr. had already signed to drive for Richard Childress Racing next year. Boston had him driving a No. 3 car, while High Point had him in the No. 33. Where is the apology to the audiences these two stations disserved?

* DEI continues to say its future plans include the goal to "diversify" the business. Where is the reporting on what such diversification will be? It's a very legitimate question because there is at least an implication that DEI may move into non-motorsports activities. If so, could that have been a point of contention with Dale Jr., who said he thinks changes are needed to make the Cup team a championship contender?

* Finally, I thought the most under-reported facet of the story was this quote attributed to Teresa in DEI's printed statement: "Dale Earnhardt Inc. will win, and we have other extremely talented drivers and hundreds of employees that are dedicated to the programs we founded. This company has a great legacy and a bright future, built on loyalty, integrity, and commitment.” I don't know how that could be interpreted any other way than as a direct shot at Dale Jr.
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To be honest, I'm not a big Larry McReynolds' fan, but credit where credit is due: Larry got it absolutely right when he commented after Sunday's Dodge Charger 500 on Fox that Darlington fans showed the hooligans at Phoenix and Talladega how those with respect for the sport react when Jeff Gordon -- or any other driver -- wins.

Speed Channel's Wind Tunnel likes to promote itself as the place where the fan's voice is the most important thing. If so, why didn't the producer bump that mindless "Eye Candy" segment near the end of Sunday night's show, and instead allow a caller host Dave Despain said had been holding for a long time to ask his/her question to guest Ed Hinton?

Kenny Bernstein, J.R. Todd and their crew chief shuffles are the subjects of my new Business of Racing commentary on 1320tv.com. The site provides video coverage of drag racing. You can find it in the new "Straight Talk" section. Unfortunately, the audio is of reduced-quality, due to an undetected technical problem at the time of taping.

Tami Nealy has left her job as Phoenix International Raceway's communications manager for a PR position outside of sports. Despite the good efforts of Tami and maybe some others, PIR has long been and remains a "media challenged" facility, so I'm hoping whoever comes next will be of sufficient professional stature to get done what needs to get done -- once and for all. Plus, address some other image issues it does not appear to me management even acknowledges exist.
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More Indy 500 memories . . .

+ Here are some of the most satisfying PR moves I pulled off at the Speedway: 1985, Successfully "pitching" USA Today on a series of Mario Andretti-bylined columns (ghosted by me), one of the first first-person athlete columns in the "nation's newspaper"; 1988, Bringing in my friend, Bob Markus, of the Chicago Tribune, to work as a crew member on the Quaker State Porsche driven by Teo Fabi. Bob wrote behind-the-scenes stories for the Tribune (and its news service) all month; 1989, Becoming friendly with staff members and Secret Service agents for Vice President Dan Quayle's wife, Marilyn, when she visited the track during qualifying. I staged a photo of Mario showing his car to Mrs. Quayle, with clearly visible Kmart and Havoline sponsor ID, which moved on AP's national wire. I gave Mrs. Quayle's staff team jackets for themselves and the Quayle family, and when the VP returned for the race, he wore his jacket during a ceremonial lap of the track and for his "live" ABC TV interview; 1992, Inviting then USA Today motorsports editor Steve Ballard to join Newman/Haas with full access for the race, an unforgettable day when Mario and Jeff Andretti were injured, and Michael dominated until falling out in the closing laps. Steve was in the garage when I told Michael the extent of his father's and brother's injuries; 1994, Convincing ABC News' Nightline to devote its entire show to Mario's last Indy the Friday night before the race, the single-most labor-intensive project I've ever done; 1999, Having poleman Arie Luyendyk autograph a start/finish line brick during a photo session; 2004, Posing Survivor favorite "Rupert" as Robby Gordon's potential relief driver during a rain delay. He held a Meijer/Coca-Cola driving uniform as if getting ready to try it on for size during a "live" ABC segment, resulting in amazing sponsor exposure.

- In 1995, Budweiser kindly hosted a casual BBQ at its hospitality motorcoach as a "thank you" to the Newman/Haas crew. Bud was an official Speedway sponsor and asked permission to bring in ONE Clydesdale, and take it out of its trailer, so the mechanics' children could have their pictures taken with the horse. This was Friday evening before the race, so there was no issue regarding spectator safety. Speedway management said "NO!" . . . and, to this day, wonders why "The King of Beers" -- one of the world's greatest sports marketers -- no longer participates in the 500.


[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

WHAT A PRO CAN DO

Unfortunately, the last couple of weeks, we've had to review here some bad PR. What's raised my antenna are the comments made directly to me by two of America's top-10 motorsports journalists, that certain PR people -- one for NASCAR's most controversial driver, another for one of the IRL's three main teams -- are "afraid" of their driver or owner. They apparently are scared to speak truth to power.

When I attended the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals in Las Vegas a few weeks ago, I sat down with Gary Scelzi. He shared with me a fascinating tale of how a PR representative took him to task -- and taught him. It's a terrific example of what a professional can do. I'm happy to share Gary's words with the rest of you:

"I was trained by the very best. A gentleman of the name of Rob Goodman with R.J. Reynolds. Rob would send out a B-roll tape, weeks before, and a bio. What Rob would do is call and talk to whoever was going to do the interview and say, ‘Did you read the material?’ ‘Yeah, yeah, I read it.’ ‘Well, did you see the part about Gary raises goats?’ And if the guy said, ‘Yeah,’ then he’d say, ‘Well, no you didn’t read it, because he doesn’t raise goats.’ He would force these guys to read it.

"Well, we did this media tour in New Mexico. We went in to see two or three different newspaper guys. I was new at this. The guy asked, ‘How fast does your car go?’ ‘Well, my car goes 300 mph.’ They were stupid questions, in my mind. So, we got in the rental car and were going to the next place and I told Rob,
‘You know, this is BS. Why are we doing this?'

"He pulls over the car, and was really upset at me. He said, ‘Wait a minute. Who’s the moron here? The guy asked you how fast your car went and you said '300 mph' and stopped and rolled your eyes. Why didn’t you say, ‘My car goes 300 mph in a quarter-mile. But did you know that our car goes from zero-to-60 feet in less than a second at over 100 mph with five Gs and the only two people who feel those Gs are a fighter pilot or an astronaut?' Then you take that and roll into anything you want to talk about all the way up to the times you’re going to run in qualifying. You would have answered everything this guy wanted to know and mentioned everything you wanted to, including your sponsors, and he doesn’t even know you did it.’

"That turned the light on for me."

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The newspaper business has produced more bad news than Tony Stewart in recent weeks. The latest Audit Bureau of Circulation study reveals weekday circulation at U.S. dailies fell 2.1 percent in the most recent six-month reporting period. Sunday circ fell 3.1 percent, according to the Newspaper Association of America. The Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune announced plans to cut up to 250 jobs to "offset declining circulation and advertising."

Longtime Baltimore Sun racing writer Sandy McKee informed publicists that the paper has "discontinued its motorsports beat." In a recent staff reorganization, the Arizona Republic essentially did the same, although Jim Gintonio continued to lead the paper's NASCAR coverage at Phoenix International Raceway. I noticed, in only a quick look-around, about a dozen "regulars" missing from the PIR deadline media room. (Racing on Saturday night, making for impossible East Coast deadlines, didn't help.) The word I'm getting is editors think "any general assignment reporter can cover a race."

One item did give me a bit of hope: Those who love to follow the news, especially political news, prefer newspapers over every other medium. That's according to "The State of the News Media 2007," a 700-page report released by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. The study says 66 percent of those who "follow political news closely" get information regularly from newspapers, bettering the broadcast and cable networks, radio or blogs.

Take note, publicists who fall-over-yourselves catering to the network TV types, while failing to develop good relationships with the print press.
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Congratulations to my friend, two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendyk, on the North American introduction of the Indy 500-logo Playseat. Arie is working with Playseats, a company selling an authentic racing seat, fully adjustable for size and every game and steering wheel including PCs, Playstation2, Xbox360 and Logitech. Learn more at Playseats.com . Playseats wisely is highlighting the Indy-logo seat to the media by sponsoring the May AARWBA newsletter. Arie will show the seat to members and guests at the annual AARWBA breakfast, sponsored by Firestone and Honda, May 26 at IMS. I'll be co-MC with Mike Hollander.

The 38th annual AARWBA All-America Team dinner has been scheduled for Saturday, January 12, 2008 at the Indianapolis Hyatt. I'll again serve as dinner chairman. An important change has been made to the format, with a session for news announcements/interviews scheduled prior to the dinner. Our desire is to make the evening as much a NEWS event as a SOCIAL occasion. Also, for the first time in AARWBA history, we've set in motion a long-term strategic plan for the dinner.
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More Indy 500 reflections:

+ In 1995, Paul Tracy and I "drove" laps ABOVE the Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- in the Budweiser blimp. Paul was driving the Kmart/Bud Lola for Newman/Haas that year and I was the team's PR director. I invited several groups of media types to join us for flights over the Speedway on a beautiful race-week morning. The pilot allowed Paul -- and, somehow, even me -- to take the wheel. With favorable winds, we were able to make some reverse-direction laps directly over IMS. A montage photo hangs on my office wall.

- In 1985, as an offshoot of the historic Beatrice sponsorship, Beatrice-owned Eckrich became the "official hot dog" of the Indy 500. A five-state consumer sweepstakes was created around the race. To promote this activity, I scheduled a media hot dog roast at the Beatrice hospitality area at the close of a practice day, a fun event for journos which also would give them some quality time with Mario Andretti and a photo-op of Mario at the grill. As a function of courtesy, I delivered invitations to several IMS execs and staffers. In short order, word came from IMS we were not allowed to cook -- we would have to go to a Speedway food stand and buy all the hot dogs we needed! I immediately canceled the event.



It has to be said: Yet more evidence of how far Indy has fallen -- ESPN isn't even providing its usual half-hour of weekday coverage. For several years the network did a few HOURS of "live" weekday practice. A few years ago that got reduced to a 30-minute recap. This May, zip. Also gone is "live" Carb Day action and the Pro Series race, now wrapped into a 90-minute summary.

With the prospect of three female drivers in the field, however, I'll bet the hypsters try to drum-up a faint echo of TV interest by letting us know, "For the first time, there will be TWO female pit reporters, Jamie Little and Brienne Pedigo." Add in Nicole Manske on the Radio Network, and that makes three! Set the headline in 96-point type.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

END THE ENABLING

To me, the most deeply disturbing part of the latest Tony Stewart imbroglio is just that -- it's the latest public relations mess self-created by talented-but-temperamental Stewart. A Constitutionally-protected opinion can be offered that all of this has been enabled by the management of his race team, sponsors, and even a few too-deferential announcers.

The above is no overstatement. Proven by the plain FACT that it's just the most recent example of a pattern of behavior that has sadly been allowed to play-out over several years and multiple incidents. Many of which, I will add, could and should have been anticipated and thus avoided.

To recap: After blaming the media in a post-Texas interview for getting booed by spectators, Stewart finished second a week later at Phoenix. He skipped NASCAR-required interviews with national broadcasters on pit road and in the media center. Tuesday, on his satellite radio show, Stewart called into question the integrity of the series of which he's twice been champion. That led to a countrywide media firestorm and, then, a 6 a.m. meeting with NASCAR officials in the Talladega garage area. After which, Tony was the star attraction at a news conference in which he apologized and backtracked from his earlier comments, moonwalking like nobody since Michael Jackson.

Let me repeat what I've written and said many times: I consider Stewart to be a great racer -- quite possibly the greatest of his generation. That does not justify his poor conduct.

There are several specific points that need to be made:

1. Stewart said on his radio show that he had no contractual obligation to do post-race interviews. Wrong. The requirement for top-five finishers to accommodate national TV and radio, and top-three drivers plus the highest-placed rookie to go to the media center, is printed on every NASCAR race entry form. It also is announced at the drivers' meeting. While it would be nice to think Stewart should know what he HAD to do, based on my own experience working with high profile, intensely competitive, strong personality drivers, I'm absolutely willing to give Tony the benefit of that doubt. But the issue BEGS the question: Why didn't Stewart's "PR" man know? Isn't a solid knowledge of MANDATORY media appearances a BASIC part of the job? Or, if he did know, why didn't he make certain Tony was instructed to do what he must?

2. I listened in to Stewart's 'Dega press confab. Stewart said he "tried to get out of doing the radio show" Tuesday because of what Tony described as a "100.5 degree fever." However, Stewart did the show in that condition because his "PR" rep "felt like it was very important that I do go on there and at least talk about why we didn't come on Saturday." Which BEGS yet another question: Why would someone charged with the responsibility to look out for Stewart's public image encourage Tony, well-known as a hot head, to go on-air in an ill condition which common sense said would make it even more likely the driver would verbally get himself in trouble? To call that "bad advice" would be akin to describing Chernobyl as a "minor incident." Again, common sense obviously suggested a different course of action -- such as having Stewart stay in bed, away from a microphone! Even Tony admitted what he said on radio "did a lot of damage."

3. Among those damaged by even the broad hint that NASCAR races aren't on the up-and-up are EVERYONE involved in the series. That include's Stewart's own crew members, who earn their paychecks this way, and Stewart's own sponsors. And, yes, journalists who make a living covering NASCAR. In a few minutes, Stewart supplied ammo to every conspiracy theorist and all those big-city columnists who continue to reject Nextel Cup as a big-time sport worthy of their precious time and attention.

All of the above is troubling, but here's the worst part: Several of those involved said they hoped what happened last Friday "would put the matter behind us." That not only is breathtakingly naive thinking, it is dangerous. I honestly don't know how it could be more obvious this is a continuing pattern of behavior and that, ultimately, it is likely to end very, very badly.

Don Imus clearly thought he was bulletproof, able to say and do anything he liked without consequence, protected by the commercial results of his talent and a supportive boss. Imus essentially said just that, numerous times, on his show. That arrogance and ego failed to take a course correction once new, less sympathetic, management arrived at CBS Radio. I've come to the regretable conclusion that Tony Stewart shares the flawed Imus view of the world -- that he can say and do whatever he pleases -- because he wins races and championships. I would respectfully remind Stewart of what happened to Imus, an example reinforced by the fact that Home Depot's Board of Directors showed its CEO the door earlier this year, a man overly forgiving of Stewart's previous misdeeds. Like Imus, Stewart has lost his corporate protector. Does Tony even understand this? Has ANYONE thought of it and tried to explain this new reality to the driver? I know of no evidence to suggest so.

Now, I see where Joe Gibbs Racing President J.D. Gibbs has been quoted as saying Stewart must "conduct himself in the right way" and that "I think, for us, we're going to have a long conversation with him. We've already had some."

Sorry, we've heard that before. Let me remind the Gibbs' family management team that dealing with human relationships is a results-based activity, just like racing and football. Talk, fines and point penalties have not worked. To put it another way Gibbs might understand, Stewart clearly has been surrounded by the wrong "coaches," and at least one is obviously in over-his-head. Stewart's stock-car future now depends on Gibbs (with the full support of the brand or sponsorship managers at Home Depot, Old Spice and Coca-Cola, among others) completely changing Tony's support team. Experienced professionals -- independent of Stewart's personal business ventures -- with the proven ability to "sell" an athlete into the "program" and unafraid to speak truth-to-power must be brought in ASAP.

Otherwise, the inevitable final outcome will be on them. One other point for consideration by father and son Gibbs: What do you think Roger Penske would do?
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I'll bet eight dozen No. 8 caps that most of the thugs who threw cans at Jeff Gordon after his victory at Talladega are the kind who complain NASCAR doesn't receive enough positive media coverage. Their disgraceful actions, of course, only served to reinforce the stereotyped opinion at least half of the national newsies already had about stock car "fans."
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Recently, a young PR director asked me for some counsel, when put into a situation by the boss that could have resulted in being dishonest with the media. My reaction was this person should attempt to "manage" things in such a way as to avoid being untruthful with the media. My words were something like, "ultimately, your most valuable professional quality is your credibility."

So, I found it interesting when former CIA (CYA?) Director George Tenet defended himself last Sunday night on CBS' 60 Minutes thusly (and the validity of the statement doesn't depend on what you think of Tenet): "At the end of the day, the only thing you have . . . is your reputation built on trust and your personal honor and when you don't have that anymore, well, there you go."
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You read it here first:

* One of NASCAR's
most famous sponsors, which enjoyed a long run with one of its most legendary teams, will return in 2008 in at least an associate-level role.

* We know Pirelli will replace Hoosier as the spec tire for the Rolex Sports Car Series next season. What you probably don't know is that, while a final decision is pending, there is about a 50-50 chance that the exclusive tire supplier for another U.S. circuit will withdraw at the end of this year. With no other "major" manufacturer interested, the series may well be forced to turn to a "second tier" company.
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John Menard has long been a powerful yet largely unknown presence in major American motorsports. Milwaukee Magazine lifted the veil in this lengthy profile, which includes many references to Menard's auto racing ventures:

http://http://www.milwaukeemagazine.com/currentIssue/full_feature_story.asp?NewMessageID=13642
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It's May, so let's have some "fun." Over the next four weeks, I'll recount some positive and negative experiences I've had at the Indianapolis 500. I attended my first Indy in 1969:

+
My first formal interview with A.J. Foyt for the Philadelphia Daily News was as part of a small cluster of reporters invited into Foyt's garage a few days before the 1975 Indy 500. When another writer asked Foyt about cheating allegations, A.J. ordered us to "get the hell out." A few minutes later, I told this tale-of-woe to Speedway President Tony Hulman, with whom I had sat at a sponsor dinner before the Daytona 500. Mr. Hulman said to "come along" with him and we walked back to Foyt's garage. I waited outside as Tony went in and interceded with Foyt. I got waved back in and A.J. agreed to answer three questions.

- In 2005, I walked with driver Richie Hearn and his wife, Brenda, from Gasoline Alley out to the grid. As we got to pit road, one of the Speedway's infamous "Yellow Shirt" guards got right in our path and told Brenda she was not allowed out there. No matter that she was in compliance with race-day dress requirements, had a race-day "hot" pit credential, or that as we stopped to engage in this bit of egomania several other drivers walked past us with wife/girlfriend dressed/credentialed in exactly the same manner. Seconds after talking our way past this roadblock, yet another "guard" hassled Brenda in a similar way, without proper explanation. By this point, Richie was getting extremely agitated -- just what he didn't need on his most important day of the year. I wrote down details of this nonsense in my notebook, and vowed that if the worst happened in the race, I'd tell every last reporter I could find what occurred in the minutes before the green flag. Hearn, in fact, did receive a leg injury in a multi-car accident.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]