• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

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 . . . ]