• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

YOU SHOULD BE WATCHING

It is, to me, a sad fact that the media and public only awakened to road racing last weekend when NASCAR got twisty at Sonoma. With all due respect to Jeff Gordon and others who do it well, to consider 3,400-pound stock cars proper road racing machines is as laughable as Rosie O'Donnell guest hosting The O'Reilly Factor.

The previous weekend was Le Mans -- take your pick, either LeM or Monaco is the world's most famous road race -- while the Rolex Sports Car Series was at Mid-Ohio the same time Nextel Cup savored the Napa Valley. Not that you'd know it by reading USA Today or Sports Illustrated or other national media outlets, but the BEST RACING in the country right now isn't found in NASCAR, IRL or Champ Car -- which combine for probably 90 percent of total coverage (NASCAR deserves it, excluding the Indy 500, the others don't) -- it's in the Rolex Daytona Prototype class and the American Le Mans Series' P2 category.

DP has produced five different winners in the first seven events. The positives include some attractive U.S. driver names (if not superstars) like Scott Pruett, Alex Gurney and Patrick Long and strong manufacturer participation from Lexus, Pontiac, Porsche, Ford and BMW. ALMS' P2 currently features a mighty struggle between Porsche (with two factory cars entered by Roger Penske) and a trio of Acura teams (including Andretti Green and Fernandez). Acura, with Dario Franchitti, Bryan Herta and Tony Kanaan driving, finished second overall at Sebring. The Penske Porsches have taken class honors the last four times out, including overall triumphs at Long Beach, Houston and Utah, vs. the P1 class titan Audi diesels.

It is good racing -- the finishing segment at Mid-Ohio had Pruett, David Donohue, Colin Braun and Max Angelelli nose-to-tail for second place -- and entertainment. Too bad not enough of you know it.


I pin some of that -- but certainly not all -- on the Grand-Am and ALMS. The Rolex cars have legitimately been knocked as not very sexy (have you looked at the Car of Tomorow?) -- hopefully, that is going to change. It wasn't the wisest decision to be at unglamorous Mid-Ohio at the same time Champ Car was in Cleveland for the 26th consecutive year. But both G-A and ALMS generally are extremely weak in terms of individual team PR/marketing talent and what sponsors there are certainly don't do much to attract press attention or activate the sponsorship. (I'd credit Lowe's support of Adrian Fernandez in ALMS as a rare exception.) Hey, folks, it's all about PUBLICITY and PROMOTION! (I suspect some of these sponsor managers would be shocked by what could be accomplished with a modest budget used by the right person.) While not helpful, I don't believe the existence of two sports car series is a huge negative factor, such as the IRL-Champ Car split.

The biggest issue remains the obvious one: Pruett, Gurney and Long aside, there are NOT ENOUGH AMERICAN DRIVERS. I would have hoped the respective managements would have, by now, learned this lesson from their open-wheel counterparts. If I were commissioner, it would be a rule that every team must have at least one U.S. driver. (!)

Applause to Gainsco team owner Bob Stallings, one of the few who gets it: Californians Gurney and Jon Fogarty are the only duo to clock multiple Rolex wins this season. (Mid-Ohio made it two in-a-row and three in total.) On the other hand, it defies any known logic for potential superstar Long -- a factory Porsche driver -- not to be assigned by the automaker to one of its Penske entries in what is called the American Le Mans Series. A Troubling Sign-of-the-Times: Young and fast Colin Braun just signed a development deal with Jack Roush and is headed to ARCA in '08.

Sometimes, it's frustrating to be a sports car fan. While the raw horsepower and win-one-weekend/DNQ-the-next nature of the NHRA Top Fuel and Funny Car classes fascinates me, this summer, I'm enjoying Daytona Prototype and ALMS' P2 more than any other racing.
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Aric Almirola deserves criticism, but Joe and J.D. Gibbs get the blame, with an assist to Milwaukee Mile management.

I assume you know the story of Saturday night's Busch Series race at Milwaukee. Gibbs' development driver Almirola qualified the No. 20 Chevrolet on pole as Denny Hamlin was en route from Sonoma. When Hamlin didn't arrive in time for the start, Almirola led, until he was ordered to get out in favor of Denny during a yellow. Hamlin went on to finish first, but a bleeped-off Almirola wasn't in victory lane to share the glory, because he refused interviews and left the track.

Here are the key points:

* Young Almirola let his emotions get the best of him -- always a mistake. Everyone can understand his disappointment, but at this stage in his career, Aric isn't a "star" and certainly not in a position to do anything other than be a good "team" player and do what his employer says. He would have gained goodwill and respect by sitting on the pit stand wearing headphones and cheering Hamlin to the checkered flag. Someone should have been there to make him understand that fact.

* J.D. Gibbs blew it by not giving specific instructions to whoever was in charge of his Busch operation in Milwaukee. In subsequent media interviews, Gibbs said he left the call on whether or not to replace Almirola as a "group decision."
That is not leadership.

* Multiple news reports said Hamlin would have been there for the green, except his helicopter couldn't land at the track, because cars were parked on the helipad.
That represented a security shortfall and potential public safety issue and demands an explanation from Milwaukee Mile management. If the Milwaukee Journal doesn't ask, NASCAR should.


* Joe Gibbs Racing burnished its reputation for not having the ability -- read that PEOPLE -- to properly manage young drivers. From the beginning, Gibbs failed to surround Tony Stewart with strong and experienced professionals, to teach him and guide him away from the predictable PR crises which followed. (Amazing that Gibbs' spokesman for the Milwaukee debacle was the same person who has fallen-down on the job so many times re: Tony.) It also turned out Hamlin missed Saturday's first Cup practice at Sonoma because he misunderstood the schedule -- any properly managed team I've been around has a structure in place to keep its drivers organized and on time. Gibbs not only failed Almirola, he put his star-in-the-making, Hamlin, in a difficult spot in terms of his own image because there are lots of fans who think Denny should just have said "no." (Not an option.)

* Worst of all, Gibbs broke the most important rule in the Business of Racing: NEVER make your sponsor the source of controversy. J.D. Gibbs implied the strong presence at the Mile by local company Rockwell Automation -- and the wish of their guests to see Hamlin in action -- as the central reason for the driver change. Bad, BAD PR mistake. He should have accepted responsibility and said it plain and clear: "It was my decision."

NASCAR might do Almirola a favor, and provide the discipline the Gibbs' group apparently is incapable of, with a point penalty and fine for not following victory lane procedures. After all, according to NASCAR's own rules, Aric was the winner -- and skipped out on the ceremonies. Meanwhile, Almirola's family, friends and advisors should now know Aric's best interests with the media and in the marketplace of public opinion can't be entrusted to those chosen by Gibbs Racing.
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+ Angelle Sampey, Ashley Force and Melanie Troxel for a good segment on ABC's Good Morning America in advance of Englishtown. Done outside the ABC studio in New York City, Sampey's Army Suzuki and Force's Castrol Ford Mustang were on display. Troxel cleanly fielded a misleading question about the recent accident in Tennessee involving a Pro Mod car in a charity parade, stressing the safety standards at NHRA-sanctioned tracks.

- Chris Cuomo, who was poorly prepared for the Angelle-Ashley-Melanie interview. I especially felt bad for Sampey -- ABC's Cuomo didn't even use her last name when introducing the trio. (!) His question to Troxel about the Tennessee incident was badly phrased and made it clear he didn't know (and, apparently, hadn't bothered to learn) the subject matter.

! I hope Paul Newman didn't notice: With IRL on ABC and Champ Car on CBS up-against each other "live" for two hours Sunday -- no doubt a huge ratings sinkhole -- at the exact same time Newman driver Sebastien Bourdais was leading in Cleveland, his sponsor, McDonald's, was the advertiser on IndyCar's "side-by-side" commercial break.

- Brienne Pedigo is the poster girl for the new generation of what I call television "microphone holders." Not only does Pedigo ask terribly weak questions -- "What's going on out there?" "Can you tell us what happened?" -- she does so in an always tentative, sometimes stumbling manner. According to a press release, she's "an actress, singer and dancer (who) grew up in a racing and sports-oriented family and has been performing since the age of two." And was a pit reporter on some USAC sprint and midget races. This is what passes these days as "credentials" to get TV work.

- I've said before that NASCAR and it's media "partners" should try toning-down the excessive hype and over-dramatization for a while. I'm convinced the public has grown tired of every little happening being blown-up into the most important news since America won the Cold War. (Lesson for Texas Motor Speedway, which after a week of breathless Danica-Dan BS, had the "550" IRL race lose 38 percent of its lead-in Busch Series audience on ESPN2.) Nextel Cup's first twisty contest of the season, at Infineon Raceway, historically hasn't been known for its great showbiz so we got a big dose of how "competitive" the race might be because drivers like Terry Labonte and Ricky Rudd and others are "great road racers who could challenge for the win." No disrespect to Labonte or Rudd, but neither has won turning left-right in over five years, back when Cup's talent pool of road racers was much more shallow. And just what evidence was there to make one believe Michael Waltrip or Robert Yates would be able to provide either with a winning Car of Tomorrow for Infineon?

? Count me among the amazed when SPEED cut-away from "live" Nextel Cup qualifying at Sonoma Friday -- before Juan Montoya made his much-anticipated run -- to go to Milwaukee for the Truck pre-race show.

- Mike King, on XM Satellite radio: “Lewis Hamilton will easily shatter all of Michael Schumacher’s Grand Prix records.” A classic example of contemporary media bluster and exaggeration. For the record: Schumacher retired with a record seven world championships and 91 victories. Rookie Hamilton has two wins and is leading in points.

+ Roush Fenway Racing is worth $316 million and ranks as the most valuable operation in NASCAR. So says a Forbes magazine survey. Hendrick Motorsports came in No. 2 at $297 million. Forbes made its estimates based on a variety of factors, including sponsorship contracts, other business deals, and scale of operations. I guess this will lead to another round of debate about franchising.



[ more next Tuesday . . . ]




Tuesday, June 19, 2007

WRONG TURNS IN REPORTING JUNIOR'S STORY

It was a relaxed, businesslike -- and happy -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. who sat in front of a throng of reporters last Wednesday to proclaim he'll be driving for Hendrick Motorsports for the next five years. To me, Junior's appearance was in stark contrast to his May 10 announcement that he'd be leaving DEI, when he looked tired, scruffy, and sad.

Dale Jr. said Rick Hendrick, his new boss sitting next to him, promised America's most popular driver he wouldn't have to change much but maybe "not wear jeans and T-shirts as often."

I don't believe Little E will lose one fan by adopting a little more of a professional approach.

Something we've learned -- again -- from the Junior story is how little journos understand about the Business of Racing. Which means they report it poorly. Here's a general recap of how the "E" saga unfolded across the media universe:

* Conventional media "wisdom" was Dale Jr. would NEVER leave DEI, the team founded by his late father.

* If he did leave DEI, it would be to drive a black No. 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress.

* When Earnhardt Jr. turned NASCAR Nation on its head by announcing he'd depart DEI, the consensus "expert" line was: He'll have his pick of any car in the garage. Meaning, I guess, Hendrick would bump Jeff Gordon out of the No. 24 or Joe Gibbs would knock Tony Stewart from the No. 20.

* Within hours, two TV stations reported Dale Jr. had already signed with Childress, and would drive either the 3 or 33.

* Darren Rovell, a former ESPN business reporter now with CNBC, said Budweiser would automatically go with the sport's most popular driver and added: "We've never seen this before." I guess Mr. Rovell's NASCAR knowledge is so limited he doesn't realize NAPA left DEI to go with Michael Waltrip and UPS followed Dale Jarrett from Robert Yates to Waltrip's Toyota team.

* Terry Blount, on ESPN.com, wrote: "Budweiser is going where Earnhardt goes, unless Bud execs want to give up the best marketing tool in company history." And Blount ruled out Junior-to-Roger Penske on the basis of Penske's long-standing Miller sponsorship. "The Miller folks aren't going to agree to team up with their biggest corporate rival." Wow . . . now there's powerful insight. That kind of biz understanding belongs in the Wall Street Journal.

* Jeff Hammond, on Fox at Dover, had the "exclusive" that Little E was "very, very close" to signing with Gibbs and VISA within 10-14 days.

As I've said for years: You can't understand racing without understanding the Business of Racing. Way too many reporters don't . . . and don't. They either need to learn . . . or ask those who know.
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Speaking of business, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's management spent the weekend trying to do a new U.S. Grand Prix deal with Bernie Ecclestone, using private meetings between Bernie and Tony George and a news statement that seemed to draw a line in the sand. I'll say this: I've NEVER known Ecclestone to come up short on a contract based on someone else's pre-emptive press release.

It began with F1 supremo Ecclestone being quoted in Britain's Daily Express as saying: "It is not vital to Formula One to be in the United States. There are bigger markets for us to be in other parts of the world. We could be in India soon instead of the United States. We don’t have a lot of sponsors from the U.S., no American teams and only one driver." Saturday, IMS blasted out some comments from track president Joie Chitwood, the text starting with a smiley face saying "both parties are working toward an agreement for 2008 and beyond." There was emphasis that "we (IMS) want to continue the event." A few sentences later, however, Chitwood established a negotiating deadline: We expect to make an announcement no later than July 12. “If we are going to have a USGP in 2008, we know that we need to make the announcement and start working on the event by the second week of July.” Ecclestone, who doesn't fancy being painted into any corner, then told Reuters: "They (IMS) haven't done anything to really get behind it (Grand Prix) have they? We arrive in town, what do we get? We get banners saying the Indy 500. Not really the way to promote Formula One. They haven't got behind it, full stop."

Note to Bob Varsha and other wishful thinkers: In Bernie's world, F1 DOES NOT need the U.S. (or any other venue), UNLESS the deal is more favorable to Ecclestone than it is to the promoter. Period. This is a historical fact. I hope the race continues, but a press release, and cheering from the broadcast booth won't make it happen.

Lewis Hamilton, Grand Prix's Man of the Moment, got some well-deserved coverage in Sports Illustrated last week. However, as I explained a couple of blogs ago, the magazine's standards sure have changed in the 35-plus years I've subscribed. Content-wise, the story was nothing more than a space-filler. One can quickly and easily think of appropriate ways the rookie world championship leader could be introduced to readers. SI editors chose a seductive 'Better Than Sex' headline, and the 20-something graph article made sure to include three references to sex. Hamilton, the sport -- and readers -- deserved better.
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From a crisis management standpoint, there was plenty not to appreciate after last weekend's tragic drag car crash during a charity exhibition in Selmer, Tenn., which reportedly resulted in six spectator fatalities with more than a dozen others injured. The "team response" press release cited "road conditions" as the cause. Graph two went like this: "The driver, a veteran of more than 20 years in drag racing, was taken to the emergency room." Now, I acknowledge, there may have been legitimate legal and privacy reasons for not identifying the driver. (USA Today ID'd him Monday as Troy Critchley.) If so, that should have been clearly explained in the release. If not, it creates the impression of purposely working to avoid revealing basic facts -- the "veteran" driver's racing resume should have been detailed. Worse, though, was this posting on the home page of Miami-area radio powerhouse WIOD. To use a photograph of a John Force car on a story of this sad nature, when the Force team (and sponsors!) had no involvement (the accident involved a Pro Mod, not a Funny Car), is completely unacceptable from a journalistic standpoint. It is shameful and should be condemned -- and just was. This is yet another example of the lazy, "do what's easy" approach too often found in today's standards-aren't-what-they-used-to-be media . . . and not just the "new media," either.

I alerted Dave Densmore, long-time Force sponsor PR rep. Dave quickly wrote WIOD's program director, Ken Charles, and properly noted: "Linking John Force Racing and our sponsors to such an incident is worse than regrettable; it could be actionable. As a result, I would ask that if the station has not already done so, that it immediately remove the image of John Force's Castrol GTX race car from the site. The car involved in the Tennessee accident WAS NOT this type of car and, even by association, to suggest that a team of this caliber would consider putting an actual RACE CAR on public roads is incredibly naive and reckless." This drew a fast response from Andy Friedman, VP-news content, Clear Channel Online Music & Radio: "As soon as we were notified about the use of the picture in the news story that showed the John Force car, we removed it. We sincerely regret the error and will make sure it never happens again."

Well done, Dave, and an object lesson for PR people everywhere. It was the right response from a veteran PR operative. And, a page right out of my personal favorite PR book, Good-bye to the Low Profile: The Art of Creative Confrontation by Herb Schmertz with William Novak. It was published by Little, Brown all the way back in 1986. Schmertz was Mobil's VP-Public Affairs and one the most visible and effective corporate PR men ever. I still keep his book handy, on my desk, and have re-read it several times over the years.
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There's nothing quite like an inter-media squabble. We were treated to a good one last week, thanks to a bitter Dan Rather. The former CBS Evening News anchor, forced out after a discredited report about President Bush just before the 2004 election, spoke of successor and ratings-challenged Katie Couric. During an MSNBC interview, Rather called Couric a "nice person," then added: "The mistake was to try to bring the 'Today' show ethos to the 'Evening News,' and to dumb it down, tart it up in hopes of attracting a younger audience." (Emphasis mine.)

CBS Corp. CEO Les Moonves responded by terming Rather's remarks "sexist." Couric's executive producer, Rick Kaplan, also got into the act. He cited Rather's infamous "Memogate" scandal that eventually led to his departure from the network. "We had to build back from when Dan left," Kaplan said, and noted the work of CBS' female reporters Lara Logan and Kimberly Dozier (who was seriously injured in Iraq). Kaplan also said Rather "is someone who should go through his life quietly." Rather, in turn, responded in an ultra-defensive manner that I've found to be typical when criticism is turned on journos -- especially famous ones.
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Outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair
said "it needed to be said -- so I said it."

In a tough assessment of the media, Blair last week called out the Fleet Streeters for acting like "feral beasts," with reduced standards and an emphasis on promoting sales. "In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits, but no one dares miss out." During his decade-long tenure, Blair admitted, his own plans to bypass the traditional outlets via news conferences and websites had been "to no avail." He said the difference between comment and actual news stories is now so blurred that politicians must respond immediately to counter false reports before they are perceived as fact. "News is rarely news unless it generates heat as much as or more than light. Second, attacking motive is far more potent than attacking judgement. It is not enough for someone to make an error. It has to be venal. Conspiratorial . . . Of course the accuracy of a story counts. But it is secondary to impact. It is this necessary devotion to impact that is unravelling standards, driving them down, making the diversity of the media not the strength it should be but an impulsion towards sensation above all else."

Blair, who is leaving office at the end of this month, said the potential damage "saps the country's confidence and self-belief. It undermines its assessment of itself, its institutions and above all, it reduces our capacity to take the right decisions, in the right spirit for our future."

Blair admitted he was describing "something few people in public life will say, but most know is absolutely true: A vast aspect of our jobs today -- outside of the really major decisions, as big as anything else -- is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity. At points, it literally overwhelms." (Emphasis mine.)

For those who need reminding, the PM is a Labour (not Conservative) Party member, often called the "Bill Clinton of Europe."

Agree or disagree, Blair's words are worth a long and considerate think . . . by executives, PR people . . . AND journalists.


[ more next Tuesday . . . ]


Tuesday, June 12, 2007

PARIS and DANICA WEEK

There were two ridiculous media spectacles last week: Paris Hilton and the "Rumble at the Speedway."

When the Nextel Cup race at Dover was rained-out Sunday, June 3, the "everything is great" Indy Car crowd I've referenced the last few weeks seemed to get more excited than viewers of Hilton's infamous Internet sex tape. They couldn't wait to say and post that "now the NASCAR fans will HAVE to watch the IRL."

Actually, NO!

REALITY CHECK: The NASCAR fans, no surprise to me, did NOT watch Milwaukee. That "live" two hours on ABC -- one week after the Indy 500 -- generated an embarrassing 1.0 rating. (That made the Stanley Cup finals on NBC numbers look healthy.) Nextel Cup's wet-weather time-filler got more than DOUBLE that and so it should be obvious the stock car viewers found better things to do than tune-in to a race that immediately strung-out into single-file formation in front of vast expanses of empty aluminum grandstands. The announced attendance of more than 30,000 was an insult to anyone of intelligence. I checked with someone intimately familiar with the Wisconsin fairgrounds oval and the analysis I got back was the people-in-seats total was closer to 10,000 than 30,000.

THE "news," though, was Dan Wheldon-Danica Patrick. Anyone with five minutes of experience knew that was a classic "racing deal" -- and a minor one at that -- but another dose of bad behavior by Danica (the man paid to look out for the best public image for her team and sponsors stood off on the side and just watched) afterwards set-off yet another ripple of shallow story-telling disguised by bold headlines as "journalism." You betcha. May those media outlets which played this triviality as more important than the death of Bill France Jr. be forever shamed.

Down at Texas Motor Speedway, naturally, they got breathless over this unexpected bit of "opportunity." Overnight, the already phonied-up "550" (not clearly labeled as "kilometers") became: Dan "The Battlin' Brit" Wheldon and Danica "The Phoenix Firebird" Patrick who fought to a draw at The Milwaukee Mile on Sunday and a rematch already has been scheduled for the unofficial IndyCar Series featherweight championship belt. The "Rumble at the Speedway" a.k.a. the Bombardier Learjet 550k will take place Saturday evening at Texas Motor Speedway.

Sad, to me, that nonsense has replaced substance. I guess we should be thankful for small favors; in this case, TMS didn't feel compelled to duplicate Charlotte's joke last fall when it announced extra security was assigned to Brian Vickers after he wrecked Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson on the last lap at Talladega. Apparently, Wheldon was in no-such-danger from those passionate Danica fans.

What I really would like to know is this: IF, after having ginned-up Dan-Danica as some sort of serious "fight," they had had a major crash with life-threatening or fatal injuries -- something not unknown at Texas Motor Speedway -- just how would management, and the broadcast and print enablers who beat this hollow drum, have felt? I mean, felt deep down inside. I'd suggest this: Guilty. There are legitimate ways of selling tickets. Those take time, thought, imagination and hard work. (An observation about hard work: At the Indy 500, TMS' PR director turned down an invitation to the AARWBA breakfast -- he should be a member, but isn't -- because he was going to play golf. That golf outing also involved media, but I found it most revealing that several others in positions similar to his made the effort to do BOTH!)

There are legitimate ways, then there are methods that could just as easily have come from the Paris cotton-candy-for-brains crowd.

Here's the most revealing TV tale from June 3: NHRA, same-day delayed tape from Topeka, was on ESPN2 for all of Milwaukee plus an additional hour. The drag racers produced their BEST number of the season for final-round competition, .69 in the cable universe, with a .74 the day before for qualifying (second best this year).

The fact that more people last week were interested what happened to Paris Hilton than what happened to another famous offspring -- the IRL -- should be a source of great embarrassment to everyone who has or who has ever had any role in birthing this wretched mess.
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Brian Barnhart and Marty Reid are moving closer to joining the long list of those who have lost their credibility in the 12-year-old American open-wheel split. Barnhart is the IRL's competition president. At Texas, he AGAIN allowed a bogus start, this time with outside front-row man Sam Hornish clearly ahead of pole winner Scott Sharp at the green flag. (Sharp should have been sent to the back after twice lagging the pace.) Later, after Tomas Scheckter (who drives for Barnhart's boss, Tony George) ran to the track's edge and threw his gloves at Marco Andretti, Barnhart allowed Scheckter to rejoin the race in his repaired car. PENALTY? Meanwhile, Reid opened the ESPN2 telecast (man, was Texas the wrong track for the network to stop its "side-by-side" commercial format!) by describing the Danica-Dan incident as the "topic of conversation at every water cooler across the country." Well then, Marty, I expect the ratings will show more than 100 million people were tuned-in Saturday night! I would remind Marty one anchor already has lost his position after worshiping at the altar of Danica. (Separately, Scott Goodyear said Jon Herb "did such a great job to qualify in the 19th spot." There were ONLY 20 starters! )

TNT began its six-race Nextel Cup schedule at Pocono. Why is it, so often, that reports from Marty Snider turn into something ABOUT Snider? (Often set-up by Bill Weber and Wally Dallenbach Jr.) Is it too much to expect that TV would keep the focus on the athletes, NOT a pit reporter?
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Here's a fair question: What's up with the Indianapolis Star? In years past, when Monza was the Formula One race prior to the U.S. Grand Prix at IMS, the paper went to the expense of sending writer Curt Cavin all the way to Italy. No one went to Montreal last weekend ahead of this weekend's "home game" for the paper. As far as I know, the Star has not staffed a single Champ Car event this season, either. Then, last Friday, the paper went with this headline: "Waltrip's rough season heads in right direction". A few hours later, at Pocono, both Michael Waltrip and teammate Dale Jarrett failed to qualify -- AGAIN!

Over at the AP, Dan Gelston wrote this about Pocono International Raceway's history: "In the mid-1970s, when the CART-USAC fight helped cause financial problems at the track, (owner Joseph) Mattioli wanted to sell until he received a call from (Bill) France Jr." Sorry, not accurate. The CART-USAC split didn't happen until 1979! I was working in Philadelphia back then and personally reported on Pocono's early financial woes, which were triggered by weather-related postponements and construction costs, among other issues. Pro-USAC Mattioli didn't point a finger at CART until its teams no-showed for a 500-miler in '79.

The most interesting part of the AP report, however, came at the end. In response to annual complaints that 500 miles for stock cars at Pocono is too long, Gelston quoted Mattioli thusly: "The day Humpty Wheeler cuts his 600 mile down to a 500, I'll cut mine down to a 400."

Did Gelston do a typo? Or did Doc Mattioli actually call Wheeler "Humpty" ?

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In case you missed them, I posted TWO blogs last week . . .


Some have asked to read my AARWBA Journalism Contest winning column. It's "What Must Happen IF Merger Happens," from May 2006:

http://www.valvoline.com/pages/racing/rn_article_viewer.asp?nid=1898

The May/June issue of Race News magazine has my "The Bottom Line" Biz of Racing column. On the occasion of A.J. Foyt's 50th anniversary in Indy Car racing, I also wrote a feature, with my 14 (yes, 14) personal remembrances of SuperTex.


[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Thursday, June 07, 2007

BILL FRANCE Jr. = LEADERSHIP

Auto racing was the "Sport of the Seventies". It must have been true because I read it on a bumper sticker.

That was racing's wish-upon-a-star promotional slogan three decades ago. The so-called energy shortage, slowing national economy, high-profile speedways on the financial brink, lack of imaginative and aggressive promotion and marketing by everyone except NASCAR, the 1978 USAC officials’ airplane crash, CART splitting from USAC, and a series of headline-making fatalities (Mark Donohue, Ronnie Peterson, Bruce McLaren, Tiny Lund, Bobby Isaac, among others, plus the ‘73 Indy 500 disaster) stalled any chance for PR hope to become business reality.

I was at the Philadelphia Daily News back then. As the decade wound-down, my editor suggested I take a hard look at “What happened?” This was really inspirational on my part, but my first thought was to interview Tony Hulman and Bill France Jr. In April ’77, I asked the Indianapolis Motor Speedway PR department (such as it was) to schedule time with Mr. Hulman when I was there to cover the 500. A written response informed me that Tony’s calendar “was far too-demanding” to accommodate my request for 15 minutes. (I did talk with him for a couple of minutes in Gasoline Alley, but only because Tony knew me.) This was way before IMS began worrying about such details as ticket sales and TV ratings.

The following February – five days before the Daytona 500 – NASCAR’s PR director took me to meet France. The look on Bill's secretary's face told me I was in space not typically occupied by a media sort. My newspaper, though, was in geography the NASCAR president coveted. His office was nice enough but what really got my attention was what Bill said and the way he said it.

Bill Jr. told me, in a calm but confident voice, that his father always believed NASCAR and stock car racing could rank with baseball, football and basketball on a national basis. He said drivers would eventually be as well-known as the best stick-and-ball athletes; that network television coverage would increase; prize money would soar; and they would go to tracks “you wouldn’t think we’d be invited to and some that haven’t even been built in different parts of the country.”

Remember, this was 1978. (!)

My agreed-upon 20 minutes used, I got up to leave. Bill asked me if I had to go do another interview. When I said "no," he said, "Well, then, sit down. I have MORE I want to tell you!" So our talk extended to 35 minutes. I asked Bill WHY he was so confident of NASCAR's success. His answer remains clear in my memory:

"We work at it day-after-day, week-after-week, year-after-year."

The interview complete, we shook hands, and I went off and wrote. A colleague at a rival paper read my story and told me it was a “waste of space,” that NO auto racing series would ever be that BIG.

Bill France Jr. proved him -- and all of 'em -- wrong. To use a football analogy, he took the ball from his father -- NASCAR founder Bill France -- and ran with it. As the stock car sport's chairman, president, CEO, visionary and czar from 1972-2003, he led NASCAR to heights only his family dreamed could become true. Think about it: The day I sat down with Bill, there was no ESPN or Fox. No Brickyard 400. No California or Kansas or Chicagoland or Texas or Las Vegas superspeedways. No Waldorf-Astoria black-tie multi-million dollar awards banquet. No Internet. No significant cash-'n-carry souvenir business. Few major non-automotive sponsors.

Bill led the charge to make all of it happen and he and his brother, Jim, became billionaires -- certified by Forbes. Tributes from Wally Parks and Tony George, following Bill's death Monday at age 74, properly included the key word: Leadership.

Well done, Mr. France.


P.S. -- In January 1980, I received the Frank Blunk Memorial Award for contributions to racing journalism, from the Eastern Motorsports Press Association. It was an honor because I had met Blunk, who pioneered motorsports' coverage at the New York Times. It was special because the person there in Atlantic City, N.J., who made the presentation to me was Bill France Jr.


[ more next Tuesday . . . ]



Tuesday, June 05, 2007

HISTORY's LESSON FOR NHRA's NEW BOSS

Welcome to Big Time Auto Racing, Eddy Hartenstein, and HD Partners.

Now that you are about to own the assets of NHRA's professional racing operations, please do all of us a favor: Study history. Specifically, recent American open-wheel history. You'll learn money isn't everything. It's having the RIGHT people with the RIGHT plan.

Trust me, reviewing this history is absolutely your best chance for success. And to do what you say you want to do -- and the racers have long dreamed would be a reality -- take drag racing to the "next level."

I'll skip most of the details of last Wednesday's thunderous announcement, the most important in NHRA history since 1975, when Winston began its 27-year series sponsorship. In brief, HD Partners Acquisition Corp. -- headed by former DirectTV chairman and president Hartenstein -- has signed a definitive agreement under which HD Partners will acquire all of NHRA’s professional racing assets. This includes, among other things, the POWERade series, a broad set of commercial rights, the four NHRA owned tracks plus the Pomona operational lease. The price? About $121 million, including approximately $100 million in cash and around $11.5 million in debt and liabilities. The new entity will be called NHRA Pro Racing. Hartenstein will be chairman and current NHRA president Tom Compton will be president and CEO. NHRA will remain a separate non-profit corporation, serve as the sanctioning body, and operate the sportsman class series. You can get more details at http://NHRA.com and view the investor roadshow (as I did) at http://www.hdpartnersacquisition.com .

I listened to Thursday's investor conference call. It was said about 100 financial and journalist types were on the line. As you would expect, it all sounded good. At first. You know, though, some ideas just aren't smart -- like telling Debra Messing she'd be more attractive with a short hairdo.

Based on my decades of motorsports business experience, a few comments really got my motor running: I laughed when the new boss described himself as a "fan" and said, "I just like stuff that goes fast . . . we're not just financial hacks."

It all got serious for me, though, when schedule expansion was mentioned as an obvious way to increase revenue. And let's be clear about this: Despite anyone's grandiose happy talk about love-of-sport motives, Priority No. 1 for ownership is to increase the revenue stream. Fair enough. But . . .

It was said two-three national events might be added to the existing 23-race schedule. My first question: Does the existing sponsorship/prize fund structure make it financially viable for owners to run more races? I happen to know what a few companies are paying and so take my word when I say this is a legitimate inquiry.

Then, international expansion was brought up, with "exhibitions" in Canada and Mexico put on the table. Historically set-in-stone fact: Non-championship "exhibitions" are not popular. USAC tried. CART tried. NHRA tried. Only NASCAR's remains. And let us remember the original purpose of The Winston, conjured up by NASCAR and RJR in the mid-1980s, was to generate publicity in May against the Indy 500. That need hasn't existed for a decade. The showbiz show has been recast as an "anything goes" Saturday night All-Star celebration (never mind Kenny Wallace was labeled an "All-Star") and, frankly, could easily disappear without much of a ripple other than the one created by Humpy Wheeler's inevitable dump of "The End Is Near!" press releases.

International racing is the biggest eye-opener, though, and I advise -- in the STRONGEST POSSIBLE WAY -- for HD Partners to immediately survey its team owner and corporate roster for comment. Every sponsor dollar I know of comes from U.S. marketing budgets and that is key . . . as we learn from the mistakes of CART.

When CART went public in 1998 and started piling-on non-U.S. events as if building a huge hero sandwich, the reasoning in the Board room was the major sanctioning fees such adventures could generate. A view of building the series for the long-term was replaced by the need to boost quarterly financial statements. The problem was that important sponsors expressed concern, either because they didn't have international operations, or the funding was coming from budgets allocated to domestic marketing efforts. Some of those I worked with flat-out told management that international races provided no opportunity for in-market promotions and the TV ratings/media coverage back to America were so insignificant as to provide no useful offset. Those events were listed as providing zero ROI. ZERO! The math was simple: If there were 18 races, but five were outside the U.S., the per-race cost to such a sponsor was calculated by dividing the total fee by 13, not the full 18. Thus, the per-race cost rose significantly, and for many, eventually was deemed to be not worth it.

Following the conference call, I reached out for reaction, and this pro-activity on my part resulted in a surprise. ESPN? No comment, at least for now. Budweiser? Ditto. John Force? Ditto. Don Prudhomme? Ditto. Kenny Bernstein? A disappointing (and obvious), "I think it has the potential of being really, really good . . . "

Thankfully, Don Schumacher stood tall. (Thank you Judy Stropus.) The series' Jack Roush-Rick Hendrick spoke to the issues I put on the table.

"It's hard to say what value the sponsors will see with adding two or three more races," said Schumacher. "Of the three races that they're talking about, one is in Epping, N.H., which is a good market in the northern east coast. Second one is up in the Toronto, Canada, area, and the third one is down in Monterrey, Mexico. There's some sponsors that may not have an interest out of the continental United States market. So that's always a concern, and it costs a great deal for the teams to travel to those markets, and to race in those markets. I feel it's the right thing to do to go to those additional markets, but each team and each sponsor has their own preferences."

More:

"Each sponsor has their own individual likes and dislikes about going outside of the United States, whether it be to Canada, Mexico or Europe, and you can't give a blanket answer to any of it. I know Matco Tools, from my previous communication with them in reference to the Mexico market, do not have a presence in Mexico, so they don't have an interest in the Mexican market. But we're racing for a championship here which pretty much necessitates our racing in all of these races to be in the top eight to go on to be in the top four and to win the championship. So it really leaves the teams with little choice but to make those additional forays into the other countries to continue on for the points championship. Even though the format has changed, I think it's still going to necessitate us going to all of the markets, whether your sponsors are totally in support of it or not."

Bottom line:

"I believe the change in ownership is a positive step. I'm definitely in favor of it. Time will tell how beneficial it is to all of the sponsors and all of the teams. We need a change out here and I feel good about the change."

I interviewed one of Schumacher's Funny Car drivers, Gary Scelzi, earlier this season. Scelzi is stepping away from the sport, at least temporarily, at the end of this campaign. He's long been unhappy with NHRA's lack of promotion and told me, "I don’t know if NHRA has the capital to take this to the next level. I don’t know that it’s as important to them to go to the next level. I don’t see, I don’t hear, what it takes to do that."

Now, all of that has changed. At least, we hope so. History's lesson for HD Partners is this: Yes, you've got to invest in your series. But no matter how much money you have, racing -- like any other enterprise -- is a people business. You've got to have the RIGHT people, with the RIGHT plan, and the RIGHT budget. Champ Car and IRL had the cash. Sometimes, it seemed they had the plan. Almost never have they had the right people.

Good luck, Eddy.
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Indy 500 Wrap-Up:

When the Indy 500 isn't a 500, is that news?
Apparently not to a surprising number of journalists. Many outlets, including the Indianapolis Star, Sports Illustrated and USA Today, reported in their race stories that rain ended the event after 166 laps -- but FAILED to say the completed distance was only 415 miles. That represented a BASIC NEWS FACT, one central to a reader's understanding of what happened. (!) I know math isn't easy, but 166 x 2.5 shouldn't be much of a media brain-bender. Or, keep a calculator handy. And, just WHERE were the eagle-eyed editors, paid to "catch" such omissions?

I'm not going to make a big issue out of the ESPN on ABC ratings because of the long rain delay. But, for all those "everything is great" people I referenced last week, I hope they think about the fact that the final Nielsen Media Research numbers were almost 16 percent down from 2006 -- and Indy was edged by NASCAR at Charlotte (down, without weather woes, by almost 12 percent). The Indy 500 was accepted into approximately 4.76 million households. No one should be happy with that -- and it's ridiculous to pretend otherwise. As for the telecast, I'm not going to nitpick it. Praise again to ABC for staying with the show despite the almost three-hour pause. I was, however, VERY disappointed with Marty Reid for saying, "The depth of this field is astounding." I know Marty to be a much better broadcaster than that statement would indicate. There was very little competitive depth in that field of 33 and anyone in the know knew it would have been a surprise for the winner not to have come from the first two rows. It's fair to knock Marty for this because it was not some impromptu comment, but rather, his well thought-out and rehearsed open. Unfortunately, Rusty Wallace jumped on Marty's statement by adding, "This is the most competitive field I've ever seen at Indy." Question: Given his decades of NASCAR commitments, just how MANY Indys has Rusty actually seen?

I've been a Sports Illustrated subscriber continuously since the early 1970s. I remember when the motorsports' coverage not only was substantive, sometimes, it was thrilling. So, I was disappointed -- but certainly not surprised -- to read the "Five lingering thoughts" column posted on the magazine's website. It was over-weighted in favor of Danica Patrick. The writer admitted he camped-out on the grid to watch the eighth-place finisher before she got in her car and "hung out in Patrick's pit" during the rain. The story said, "Aside from race winner Dario Franchitti, the most impressive driver at the Brickyard was Danica Patrick." (Hmmm . . . Helio Castroneves, who went from the front to the back and then near the front? Super aggressive Marco Andretti? Fastest man of the day Tony Kanaan? A pushing hard Tomas Scheckter?) The writer expects she soon will win. Duly noted. (The great race merited only one page of text in the magazine.)

I'm a big fan of creative headline writing. I won the Philadelphia Press Association's "Best Headline" Award in the dark ages of 1978. When Philadelphia 76ers owner F. Eugene ("Fitz") Dixon Jr. fired Coach Gene Shue, my Page One headline for the Daily News was, "Shue No Longer Fitz". Anyway, when Milka Duno wrecked, I predicted this headline to a few writers: "Milka Crashes; Hugo Chavez Blames Bush".

Here's a behind-the-scenes example showing that Indy isn't all the glitz-and-glamour it was in better times. Back in the 1980s, when PPG was the race's single-biggest sponsor, my friend Jim Chapman created the "Starter" award. Jim believed any driver good enough to qualify for the Indy 500 should be honored for that achievement, and so at the public drivers meeting, he would pass out a Jostens-made gold ring to each competitor. It included the driver's name, qualifying speed, and featured a large green stone in the center. It was beautiful -- I know, because I have one. Porsche driver Teo Fabi gave me his for the 1988 race as an expression of his appreciation of my work as the team's PR rep during a month of speed struggles for the legendary German automaker. The "Starter" award still exists but Jostens no longer makes 'em. When the rings were distributed at the rainy May 26 drivers meeting, I'm reliably told some veterans -- who know better -- grumbled, "What gives with the cheesy rings?"
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Sometimes, I can't help but wonder what people are thinking. Case in point: Former NASCAR and driver/team PR man Chip Williams was sentenced to 26 years in prison last Friday for having sex with an underage girl he met over the Internet. According to the Greensboro News & Record, the presiding U.S. District Court judge said, "This, by far, involved far more torture and forms of activity the court has ever seen in a case of this nature." Yet, the paper reported, Williams' attorney read into the record "two letters from Nextel Cup drivers in support of the former publicist. Although (he) did not disclose who wrote the letters, he called them 'household names in North Carolina.' (He) also gave the court letters from 15 other people, including a sportswriter and several racing-team owners." I hope the identity of each one who wrote a letter is revealed.
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Bill France Jr. was one of the most significant figures in motorsports history. I'll remind you of this: As the most important part of AARWBA's 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2005, members voted the France family as "Newsmaker of the Half-Century."

Please come back Thursday. I'll share some personal remembrances of Bill Jr.


[ more Thursday . . . ]