• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

BOGEY, ERROR for NASCAR.com

As one element of its various media deals, NASCAR turned over operation of NASCAR.com to Turner. The perils of such an arrangement were never more evident than last week.

First, Beau Estes tapped into his decades of NASCAR knowledge for a feature on Tiger Woods' caddy, Steve Williams. Included was the revelation that Williams has "ties" with "Penzoil." Not only did Estes get his spelling wrong, he bogeyed his fact, as even one casual look at Williams' shirt would have told him Steve's personal sponsorship is with Valvoline. (The editor was so informed; a correction was made.) I've written before about the lack of editing/fact checking in the contemporary media, and this is yet another example that makes me wonder if anyone actually did any editing, or if Estes' words were just automatically posted.

The next day came another in a recent string of head-scratching columns from David Caraviello. The first line was: "J.J. Yeley never really had a chance." Caraviello's thesis was Yeley, who will be replaced by Kyle Busch in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing car next season, hasn't been competitive because sponsor Interstate Batteries doesn't spend enough $$$ on the team. Using this logic, I guess Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn't won a race this year because Budweiser doesn't write large enough checks, or Ryan Newman hasn't visited victory lane because Roger Penske's corporate partners don't pony-up sufficient cash. As I've stated here many times, there are only a handful of journalists who actually know anything about the Business of Racing, and editors should make their assignments accordingly.

The bigger issue is this: NASCAR.com is the primary news source for a very significant percentage of NASCAR fans. Therefore, those who write for -- and edit -- the site have a special responsibility to the sport to get it right.
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Rarely have I seen an organization have a worse PR week than Champ Car. The announcement of its new -- and worthy -- cause campaign, "Hands on the Wheel," was completely capsized by wave-after-wave of negative media stories. Coming off an improved (attendance-wise) weekend at Road America (doubleheader with ALMS), word filtered out that Robin Miller's "hard card" credential had been revoked. Yes, CC has that right. Whatever the reason for the decision, however, this question MUST be asked: What useful purpose was served? Like him or not, Robin has been directly (or indirectly, via his influence with other reporters) responsible for a significant percentage of total Indy/CC news coverage over the last three decades.

It began with long-time loyalist Gordon Kirby's dark column, a link to which we provided here last week. (Go read it if you haven't yet done so.) Mike Harris, in an AP feature on Sebastien Bourdais' impending departure for Formula One, wrote: "With Bourdais now leaving, the struggling series is in deeper trouble than ever. While series officials try to put on a happy face with talk of upcoming big announcements on the sponsorship front and new and exciting races overseas, there seems little to sell now to the American public."

Autoextremist.com went further: "What hath the owners of Champ Car wrought to road racing in North America? A rolling debacle, there's simply no other way to look at it. Let's review, shall we? A horrendously botched schedule that features huge gaps between races, compounded by overseas events that remove the series from the U.S. motosports scene entirely? Check. A lackluster field of drivers that, except for Graham Rahal and Paul Tracy (now that Bourdais is leaving), no one cares about? Check. No connection to their generic-looking cars with any major manufacturer? Check. This all adds up to a heaping bowl of Not Good . . . what is Champ Car's reason for being again, exactly? Is it to promote American drivers? Hmm, other than Graham Rahal, that's a stretch. Is it to fulfill the promise at the top of a true 'ladder' system in American road racing? Well, that rationale doesn't wash either. How can it be the top of the American open-wheel racing ladder system when it's a destination to nowhere? And before you say, 'Well, it's a destination to Formula 1, isn't it?' How is that helping sustain a series? How is that helping Champ Car as a viable entity unto itself? In the glory days of CART, it was a happening, thriving, big-time major league open-wheel series that even Formula 1 drivers looked at as a viable career alternative. Today's Champ Car is operating in some weird Twilight Zone as a holding pattern for drivers who think they're on the way up but who really aren't, drivers on the way down holding on to their last piece of the dream, or drivers who are 'parked' there hoping to get a shot at something else . . . the debilitated state of Champ Car just cannot be ignored . . . The clock is ticking on Champ Car, and I don't believe the owners -- even with all of their boatloads of cash -- have the first clue as to what to do with it. I have a suggestion for them: Fold it up now before it becomes a complete embarrassment altogether."

As I wrote here weeks ago, this is a series that has gone from Mansell to Minardi. Enough said. Except, well, it is quite stunning to think that from the checkered flag at Elkhart Lake on Sunday, August 12, until practice starts in Phoenix on Friday, Nov. 30, a Champ Car wheel won't turn in America. (!!!) Meanwhile, the new public service effort will encourage safe driving, with particular focus on the problem caused by people who send E-mails or text messages while driving. See http://www.handsonthewheel.org/ for more.
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FAST LINES: When Mattel went into full crisis PR mode last week, recalling over nine million Chinese-made toys sold in the U.S. because of safety concerns, it reminded me -- again -- how unsophisticated auto racing still is on some levels. It has become an automatic in Corporate America to immediately hire outside communications experts to help deal with image emergencies. NASCAR aside, I don't know of anyone in motorsports sharp enough to understand that necessity. Just think of the messes Tony Stewart, Joe Gibbs Racing, Paul Tracy, Robby Gordon, Danica Patrick, Kyle Busch, Tomas Scheckter, Aric Almirola and now Colin Braun, and others, have gotten themselves into that cried-out for professional PR damage control . . . Credit to ESPN for doing all-it-could with Sunday's NASCAR and NHRA rainouts which pushed into Monday. Plugging in NHRA's Monday action while waiting for track drying at Michigan was the right move and deserves recognition. But, a BIG thumbs-down for subjecting us to the sight of Jamie Little autographing some bald guy's head . . . Champ Car is the first to reserve a table and program ad for the 38th AARWBA All-America Team dinner, Saturday, January 12, at the Indianapolis Hyatt. (I'm again the dinner chairman.) This event, by the way, is open to the general public. More information at http://aarwba.org/ . . . Quick: Who drives the No. 25 in the Busch Series? Jerry Punch, Rusty Wallace, Andy Petree and Shannon Spake all told us David Reutimann was hit by the "25" during Saturday's ESPN2 presentation from Michigan and somehow assumed we all knew who the human being was behind the wheel. I didn't. Research revealed it was David Gilliland. Announcers must understand viewers need NAMES as well as numbers . . . Watch this: Kyle Busch has signed with Joe Gibbs' team, an organization which has proven its inability to properly deal with the temperament of another bad boy, Tony Stewart, and completely mishandled the Aric Almirola-Denny Hamlin fiasco at Milwaukee . . . It was a huge PR blunder for DEI not to allow Dale Earnhardt Jr. to use the No. 8 at Hendrick Motorsports. The 8 is important because of Dale Jr., not DEI. It was his grandfather's number and the number Dale Earnhardt wanted his son to run. DEI has done a public image disservice to the poor driver left to wheel the 8 next season. The pseudo Business of Racing "experts" who pontificated on TV last weekend about "licensing" and "branding" failed to account for this simple fact: Dale Jr.-8 is in a different universe that Mark Martin-6 or any other example. The 8 without Junior is worth pennies on the dollar and not worth the cost to Teresa Earnhardt in terms of PR and goodwill . . . Get a copy of the August 9 Rolling Stone and read "The Ethanol Scam" . . . Say whatever you want about NASCAR's Chase, but be honest: It has WORKED. The PGA Tour is one of several sports organizations to follow NASCAR's lead and adopt a playoff-style format, but it blew-up before it starts this weekend, when Tiger Woods announced he won't play in the first of the four FedEx Cup tournaments . . . NASCAR in Primetime debuted to tepid ratings last week and I'm still trying to understand how producers could launch such a show without building the first episode around Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon with a touch of Kasey Kahne. No disrespect, but Johnny Sauter isn't an audience builder. I don't know what else to call this but TV Promotion 101. Here's what New York Times TV columnist Richard Sandomir wrote: "The first episode of the five-part series . . . offers nothing new about NASCAR, which raises questions about ABC News’ motivation in producing a documentary about a sport that its Disney cousins, ESPN and ABC Sports, began carrying last month under a contract worth $560 million a year. This is more than a stock-car racing segment on 20/20; it’s five hours in the heart of prime-time. Still, it’s the summer, stupid, evidently the right time for ABC News to deliver 800-horsepower Chevrolet Monte Carlos and men in fire suits adorned with corporate logos to an audience that loves extreme makeovers and might be teased enough by the admiring tone . . . to watch the 3M Performance 400 Sunday on ESPN."
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Last August I wrote of the PR lessons I've learned from the political pros. One of the best-ever was Michael Deaver, Ronald Reagan's spin doctor. Deaver, 69, vice chairman of Edelman, died Saturday. As I said in that earlier blog, I keep a copy of Deaver's 2001 book, A Different Drummer: My Thirty Years with Ronald Reagan, on my desk and don't mind admitting I've used a few ideas "lifted" from those pages. The so-called "PR" people in racing who allow their driver to be interviewed in front of portable toilets or ID for competing sponsors should study Deaver's example. AP's story on Deaver's death included this: "Deaver was celebrated and scorned as an expert at media manipulation for focusing on how the president looked as much as what the president said. Reagan's chief choreographer for public events, Deaver protected the commander in chief's image and enhanced it with a flair for choosing just the right settings, poses and camera angles."

"I've always said the only thing I did is light him well," Deaver told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. "My job was filling up the space around the head. I didn't make Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan made me."


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