Tuesday, August 28, 2007

DRAG RACING's BIG WEEK (Pay Attention)

"IF IT'S GOT WHEELS, HE KNOWS ABOUT IT": That's the very kind way KPNX (NBC, Phoenix) reporter Nick Calderone introduced me for a story that aired on the station's Monday 6 p.m. newscast. TV 12 reported that the controversial Champ Car race, scheduled for Dec. 2 on the streets of downtown Phoenix, will be canceled this week. Cited as the source was its sister station in Las Vegas, where the same promotional group staged the season's first race. With most CC movers-and-shakers in Europe, I was not able to independently verify the story. I did comment about the PR and business issues a cancellation would mean for the series and the political fallout for Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon and City Council members who voted in favor of the event.

UPDATE: The Phoenix Champ Car race was officially canceled Tuesday at 5 p.m., Arizona time.

It's Mac Tools U.S. Nationals week and that is worthy of your time and attention. Before blowing this off because you think drag racing is strictly "blue collar" and not as important as say, Champ Car, please read on -- and check comparable CC ratings on ESPN2 vs. those "unsophisticated" straight-liners.

On August 29, 2006 -- prior to last year's "Big Go," I wrote about NHRA and it's most important race. I just went back and re-read it and I stand by everything, so I won't repeat it all here. There is plenty for those in other series to learn if they'd just bother themselves to go out to any NHRA Nationals and have a look-see. Start by touring the pit area, where spectator access is unparalled, and observe the amazing level of driver availability to fans and media alike. (Hell, most of the PR people even say an enthusiastic "YES!" when asked to set-up an inteview!)

I admit to a certain fascination with the 7,000-horsepower Top Fuel (such as the Tony Schumacher Army dragster pictured here) and Funny Car machines. How to explain what we've seen numerous times this season? That is, a driver qualifying No. 1 or winning one week, and then not making the field the next?

What's new at this 53d running of the "Big Go" is it starts phase two of NHRA's new NASCAR-style "Countdown" format. For the next four events, the top eight in points in all four classes will try to perform well enough to advance to Las Vegas and Pomona, where everyone will race but only the top four in each division will contest the championship. Will it make a difference in ticket sales, TV ratings or national media attention? I don't know. As I've said before, it's worth a try.

The biggest off-track story this year has been the intended sale of NHRA's professional racing assets to HD Partners. (See June 5 blog.) The larger issue -- and Big Question -- hanging over the U.S. Nationals and the series is: What aggressive, pro-active measures will the new businessmen-owners take to squarely address the crucial areas of overall prize money, new team-and-series sponsorship, and national marketing and media development? There is no question most of us thought -- and were led to believe -- Powerade was prepared to utilize Coca-Cola's considerable corporate sports marketing resources to establish a much larger footprint for NHRA via retail outlets and PR firepower. That simply hasn't happened; one of the most significant Business of Racing letdowns of the last decade.

For now, though, I recommend a first step for many is simply opening your mind to the virtues of drag racing -- the most American of any U.S. motorsport. (Who among us, even if in a moment of youthful misjudgement, haven't put pedal-to-the-metal?) ESPN2's 12 hours of Indy coverage -- including six hours on Monday -- the best produced motorsports on TV with racing's best analyst, Mike Dunn, is a good place to start.
One of the biggest myths perpetuated by those who don't understand the first thing about the Business of Racing is the tired old cliche: "Any publicity is good publicity." WRONG! Anyone open-minded enough to get some education outside the garage area will want to check out the August 31 Entertainment Weekly

( http://ew.com/ ). The cover story is "Summer of Scandal" and offers case studies from industry insiders on how bad news in an actor's private life can translate into bad business from a career standpoint. In an interesting sidebar, "How to Spin a Scandal," two Hollywood PR experts explain how they'd handle fictional crisis situations.

I've been giving drivers this counsel for several years: In our celebrity-obsessed society, where cell phones, camera phones, handheld video cams, Blackberrys, text messaging, Internet chat rooms and blogs are tools which can be used for good or ill, ALWAYS ASSUME someone is watching -- and recording.

Here are some on-topic lines from the EW cover package:

" 'In Los Angeles, we've created 24/7 paparazzi packs,' says Ross Johnson, a crisis consultant. 'They roam the streets like wild dogs. And anyone who's recognizable can be under attack at any moment.' Racks of celebrity tabloids, and an entire nation of camera phones have created a climate of constant surveillance and a culture of insta-infamy. 'In the old days, a scandal could be supressed by a studio lawyer and never reach critical mass,' says one studio exec . . . Now . . . it can become a scandal in a nanosecond.' "

"Scandal may make you famous, but it doesn't make you bankable. Something as benign as, say, jumping on Oprah's couch can have serious business implications. Less than a year after Tom Cruise hopped up on that sofa -- and later took issue with Brooke Shields' treatment for postpartum depression and lectured Matt Lauer about psychiatry -- Mission: Impossible III opened at $10 million below its predecessor. Coincidence or consequence? Didn't matter. Viacom head Sumner Redstone publicly blamed Cruise for the film's subpar performance and severed the star's relationship with Paramount . . . And did A Mighty Heart open at an anemic $3.9 million because of its tragic subject matter, or because people blame star Angelina Jolie for the end of Brad Pitt's marriage? Almost certainly the former, but who's to say for sure? . . . In a rare case of meritocracy, the stars who keep their private lives calm . . . are getting the best roles these days."
Part of knowing "how to play the game" is understanding when to use the stick and when to dole-out sweets. Bernie Ecclestone, well-known for his ability to do the former, looked every-bit a master Sunday with the latter approach. When SPEED's Peter Windsor approached Ecclestone on the grid before the Grand Prix of Turkey, Bernie whispered into his ear (caught by Peter's "live" microphone) that actress Bo Derek was walking alongside. An obviously unaware but delighted Windsor did a gushing interview with Derek, the star of 10. Ecclestone thus cleverly collected yet another IOU . . . The NFL suspended, for an indefinite period, quarterback Michael Vick. Now that Haas CNC Racing owner Gene Haas has agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy tax charges, to the tune of a reported $34.3 million, shouldn't NASCAR follow the NFL's lead? Especially since the IRS says Haas' fake-invoice scheme involved his race team as well as his machine tools business and a land title company . . . Gary Scelzi has been selected to receive AARWBA's Rick Mears "Good Guy" Award for his long-time cooperation with the news media. The honor is presented occasionally, with the last recipient being Rusty Wallace in 2005. The presentation likely will take place at the NHRA season-finale at Pomona, after which Scelzi says he will go on "hiatus" . . . I'm still stunned by the lack of Biz of Racing smarts when Morgan Lucas eliminated teammate Melanie Troxel from a shot at NHRA's playoffs by racing -- and beating her -- heads-up at Maple Grove. Except for the "purity" of sports argument, it defied logic . . . During rain coverage from Michigan, ESPN2 showed Robby Gordon signing autographs. Very nice. One problem. At a NASCAR race where he was driving a Jim Beam-sponsored Ford on Goodyears, Robby was wearing a pullover ID'd with Monster, Hummer and Toyo Tires, his off-road team. That falls under the category of Wrong Time, Wrong Place. Plus, not paying attention to the details . . . One of TV's worst nightmares -- having the screen go blank during an exciting finish -- happened to ESPN2 Friday night during the Busch race from Bristol. The network said it was due to "human error." Jerry Punch quickly apologized once he was back on-air and the last two laps were shown on replay . . . Last week was the 40th anniversary of the Big Mac, but McDonald's didn't use any of its motorsports sponsorships -- including Kasey Kahne at Bristol -- to publicize the corporate and cultural milestone. Puzzling . . . With the LMP2 class Penske Porsches regularly beating the LMP1 class Audis, American Le Mans Series telecasts need frequent graphics showing the OVERALL running order, not just by class. Sunday's presentation from Mosport on SPEED was most unclear and difficult to follow . . . Once again, Sunday's IndyCar event at Infineon Raceway had two names. The promoter's official title was "Motorola Indy 300" (should have been labeled as KILOMETERS) but ESPN sold it as the "Optima Batteries IndyCar Grand Prix of Sonoma." Cash for the network aside, two names for one event is confusing and just plain bad business . . . Blog reader Mike Harbour kindly provided a link to the Rolling Stone article, "The Ethanol Scam," referenced here last week: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/15635751/.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]