• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

MORE ON JUNIOR's BIG WEEK

An incredible season of "Business of Racing" news hit the rev limiter last week. While most of the media continue to not understand the intersection of sponsorship money and corporate objectives, and misreport a "merger" vs. a "partnership" and "branding" vs. "positioning," that didn't stop 'em from portraying opinion-as-fact after the Dale Earnhardt Jr.-to-Mountain Dew/Amp/National Guard/88 and Budweiser-to-Kasey Kahne announcements.

Junior IDing himself with the double eights was the NASCAR week's biggest story, topping Carl Edwards' win in Chase Race 2 at Dover. Gentlemen, start your souvenir sales! There were some journalism wrecks along the way. The day Earnhardt Jr. finally made it all official, NASCAR Now -- the most disappointing element of ESPN's stock car coverage all year -- relied on two reporters who, as I explained here last June 19, got the Dale Jr. sponsorship story wrong right from the start. They bookended an Around the Horn mouthpiece, who, relatively speaking, discovered NASCAR 10 minutes ago. (Another NASCAR Now "highlight": Thursday, while discussing Buddy Lazier's Truck series debut at Las Vegas, viewers were treated to B-roll of Scott Goodyear!) Thankfully, the show salvaged some credibility by letting the audience hear directly from Junior and Rick Hendrick. It was no coincidence the Budweiser/Kahne/
Gillett Evernham deal was revealed the day before Dale Jr. unveiled the green (Mountain Dew/Amp energy drink) and blue (National Guard) colors that would replace his Bud red. The TV analysts apparently didn't remember, but Kahne has occasionally run the Dew identity on his No. 9 Dodge. Someone should have been sharp enough to remind us of that fun fact while producers showed us that video. Let me remind them (above).

With something north of $40 million -- possibly closer to $50 mil -- on the table next season in these team sponsorships, the race to keep -- or capture -- consumer loyalty is ON. (!) Bud marketed Dale Jr. mainly to young males; thanks to the image created by Allstate's TV commercials, Kasey opens the door to females. Non-alcohol backers will allow Earnhardt Jr. to pitch directly to the under-21 demo he was limited in reaching before. Hello, adidas, and the “Dale Jr.’s Big Mo’ ” milk chocolate candy bar (creamy caramel or peanut butter) also introduced last week. It was a $ign-of-the-Time$ that NASCAR's most popular driver traveled to the Candy Expo trade show in Chicago, and then Dallas for the annual meeting of Pepsi bottlers, where he appeared before about 1,500 people prior to the press conference. Anheuser-Busch apparently had no such forum available at the required time, as Kahne rode into his team's shop in Statesville, N.C., atop the brewer's iconic Clydesdales' wagon. I would have been disappointed with any less a grand entrance.

One needed a HANS Device to avoid whiplash because the NASCAR.com Superstore, Hendrick and Earnhardt Jr. websites had new Junior goodies for sale so, well, FAST! T-shirt, $21.99. Cap, $24.99. Sweatshirt, $29.99. Diecast (1:24), $69.99.

Meanwhile, here's something else the "experts" didn't tell you. Rick Hendrick said in Dallas that he never spoke with Teresa Earnhardt about obtaining the No. 8 for Junior. I found that to be incredibly revealing. If a man of Hendrick's stature doesn't feel he can pick up the phone, call Teresa, and ask her how they could resolve the number issue -- just between them, without the strife of family emotions -- well, I say, that gives us true insight into the secluded Mrs. Earnhardt's relationship with her fellow Nextel Cup owners and lack of interaction within the sport. Even with those at the highest level. Congratulations to Robert and Doug Yates for having the good PR sense, in addition to whatever deal they made with Kelley Earnhardt Elledge (Dale's sister and business advisor, credited with getting this done), to release the 88 to Junior. Yates father and son bought themselves a ton of public goodwill.

As I've written before: It's impossible to understand Modern Motorsports without understanding the Business of Racing. All but a microscopic fraction of racin' reporters don't -- and, to be blunt -- don't feel like taking the bother. Yet, editors continue to assign them to these stories, and then too often don't challenge the validity of their conclusions or fact-check for accuracy. I keep hoping the required standard of knowledge will go up, but there's still no sign of that happening.

Finally, Junior won the battle of sound bites.

"We'll be able to work with Amp. They got me up at 5 o'clock this morning, so I've had a chance to really try out the effectiveness of the product. I'm pretty pleased to be sitting here and not yawning in front of you guys."
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I've never met Brad Daugherty, the former NBA player-turned-ESPN NASCAR analyst. But, I'll bet during his basketball days, Daugherty had off-the-record conversations with reporters. And, I'll bet, Daugherty wasn't happy if the broadcaster or writer used his name anyway. Well, before last Saturday's Busch Series race at Dover, it was Daugherty who broke this accepted rule. Brad revealed he'd talked with Robby Gordon, who in Daugherty's own words, said: "Don't say this on TV" but then added, "I'm going to say it anyway," and quoted Gordon as describing racing at Dover as like driving "in a toilet bowl." It's no secret relationships among some NASCAR drivers and ESPN personnel have been strained, and Daugherty just made it worse. Garage area dealings among participants and media are best based, at least in part, on mutual trust -- from my experience, the same as in a stick-and-ball sport locker room. Daugherty, better than most, should understand this protocol. He blew it. An apology to Gordon is in order. As is some "instruction" from producers to their so-called "Voice of the Fans."
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On the other hand, ESPN2's ace NHRA production team did it right, reporting the story of John Force's serious accident at the Texas Motorplex. Paul Page came on the air reminding viewers that while the drag racing shows are tape-delayed, here is what happened to Force, and provided the latest medical news. "Regular" round-by-round coverage then began. When Force and Kenny Bernstein crashed in the second round, ESPN2 had all the replays, and interviewed all the right people, including Bernstein, Force's wife Laurie and daughter Ashley, son-in-law Robert Hight, and crew chiefs John Medlen, Bernie Fedderly and Dean Antonelli. Page, who has been through more of these situations than he'd like, set exactly the correct tone while letting the emotions-of-the-moment come through. Analyst Mike Dunn agreed with the team's decision for Ashley Force to skip the semifinals. Finally, the network let the coverage run an extra 30 minutes, so all the day's stories were told. Well done.
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The media's frenzied year of Anna Nicole, Imus, Paris, Lindsay and Britney rolled on last week with the unexpected "gift" of O.J. Simpson's arrest in Las Vegas on several felony charges. After a few days in jail, Simpson was released on bail, but not before Las Vegas Motor Speedway issued the following under the headline, "Free O.J.":

"Las Vegas Motor Speedway officials announced Monday (Sept. 17) a special reward for race fans who purchase tickets to an event at LVMS. Fans who stop by the speedway on Wednesday (Sept. 19) to purchase their tickets to Saturday night's Smith's Las Vegas 350, the Oct. 25-28 NHRA ACDelco Las Vegas Nationals or the 2008 NASCAR Weekend will receive free orange juice and muffins from Smith's Food & Drug Stores. The LVMS ticket office opens at 8 a.m. The 'Free O.J.' promotion will be available Wednesday only."

Creative? Over the line? You make the call.
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If you missed it last week, please check out my new "Business of Racing" video commentary on 1320tv.com. It's about Wally Parks and Linda Vaughn. You'll find it in the "Straight Talk" section halfway down the home page. Here's the direct link:
http://www.1320tv.com/straight_talk/article7.asp?vid=straight_talk/straight_talk_bor_wally_linda&title=We%20Miss%20You,%20Wally%20And%20Linda&des=Two%20of%20drag%20racing%27s%20%22stars%22%20not%20visible%20enough


[ more Blogging the Chase next Tuesday . . . ]


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

CHASING THE NEWS

NASCAR went to work last Thursday, trying to rev-up interest in the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship. The dozen Chasers were assembled in New York City, before heading to New Hampshire (and Clint Bowyer's first victory), for a day-long publicity tour de force. I participated via a media gathering Phoenix International Raceway's new communications director, Paul Corliss, hosted at the downtown Hard Rock Cafe. Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch were interviewed via satellite about the fourth edition of NASCAR's "playoffs" and the Nov. 11 Checker Auto Parts 500 kilometers at PIR.

I noticed some differences from a similar event I attended last year. The drivers either were tired or "coached" to speak in sound bites, because most questions produced answers of only a few sentences. (Superficial enough for TV and radio but not much meat for the writers.) This made for some awkward gaps. I take it NASCAR put a dress code in place, because this time all four wore suit jackets. Yes, even Stewart (above). Hey, at least Tony didn't have an Old Spice towel hanging over his shoulder! Otherwise, though, it was Tony-Being-Tony: When a reporter on my end asked him about the Chase field being expanded, his reply was: "It's simple math, 10 + 2 = 12. It's not a big deal . . . It doesn't matter to me what the format is." When someone else requested Tony to reflect on his highly-controversial comments about NASCAR's use of yellow flags earlier this season, Stewart answered: "I don't think we've seen as many cautions as before."

The drivers discovered that, well, not all of the questioners they had to endure were serious-minded journalists:

Edwards said, come Chase time, he's "more cautious" and has to "go out and race for points . . . What you do now, you can't take back." On the possibility he could capture both the Nextel Cup and Busch Series championships: "That would be the ultimate goal in NASCAR and American motorsports." On how he judges the quality of his famous backflips: "As long as I land on my feet, I'm happy."

Hamlin offered now that the Chase is on, he has "got to get back to points racing." Who does he think is the favorite? "The 24 group over the 48" because Jeff Gordon's team "has been the most consistent week-in-and-week out." And which handles better, his FedEx Chevrolet, or that golf cart he races in a TV commercial? "Here, lately, it's been the golf cart."

Busch (right), sported a Miller Lite patch on his jacket, and was the only one of the four to mention his sponsor during the interview.

Did the PR surge work? We'll see how the ABC ratings, at-track attendance, and overall media coverage shake-out. I did observe two things: Even Senator Jon Kyl (R, Arizona) took notice. Kyl said on a Phoenix radio station he hoped Jeff Burton would do well in the Chase. And, if you missed the Wall Street Journal story/Q&A with NASCAR Chairman Brian France, here's the link:
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB118963253758725574.html?mod=googlenews_wsj
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If someone decides to write a book, or a long magazine review, about the 2007 Rolex Series season, I'll suggest a title: OPPORTUNITY LOST.

A for-the-ages championship battle, featuring the son of an American racing icon plus one of the country's most popular drivers, ended last Saturday at Utah's Miller Motorsports Park. The Grand-Am organization should have been on an All-Time High, but officiating, PR and TV letdowns left us as deflated as the tires on the Scott Pruett, Jon Fogarty and Max Angelelli cars in the last 25 laps. On June 26 and July 10, I specifically called for all involved to take full advantage of this lightning-in-a-bottle situation. The Bottom Line: The sports car group has never had a better chance to make a meaningful breakthrough with the media and public -- it's very difficult to imagine just when such a great opportunity will return -- and they let it pass.

A brief season recap, for context: Pruett (teamed with Juan Pablo Montoya in a Lexus) topped a terrific international field in the opening Rolex 24 at Daytona. After Iowa, with five races to go, Pruett led Angelelli by 15 points and teammates Fogarty/Alex Gurney by 22. Following Barber, the gaps were down to -11 and -13, respectively. Out of Montreal, the numbers were -2 and -9. Exiting Watkins Glen, Pruett and Angelelli were tied and only +4 on the other two. Post Infineon, Gurney/Fogarty's victory put them one up on Pruett and plus three on Angelelli. At Miller, the three title teams ran 1-2-3 much of the 1,000 kilometers. In a wacko last 25 laps, Fogarty had contact with Pruett (leaving both with flats and Scott lots of bodywork damage), Angelelli cut a tire (apparently on Pruett's debris) and that led to a broken oil line and a big fire, Pruett bumped a seemingly slowing Gurney, and the outcome was decided when officials decided to take the championship into their own hands with a judgment call that the Scott-Alex incident was "avoidable contact" and ordered-up a drive-thru penalty for Pruett.

Anyone who waded-through the story written for G-A's website had to struggle to the 16th paragraph to learn Alex -- son of Dan -- and Fogarty had claimed the crown. What WASN'T in the article was the essential fact that the G/F duo finished two points clear of Pruett, with Angelelli 13 back. Newswriting 101 . . .

One would have thought Dan Gurney's son enjoying a season of records, in terms of wins and poles, would produce some nice -- and badly needed -- national publicity. One would be wrong. The summer came-and-went without a major USA Today or Associated Press feature or sidebar on the Sports Illustrated racing page. (All of which should have been very doable.) Actually, the only significant space in USA Today in the last few weeks was a glowing Aug. 30 piece on the rival ALMS. The responsibility rests with the Bob Stallings team, sponsor Gainsco, engine supplier Pontiac's PR group and the series, because they had the most to gain. Most embarrassing of all was last week's AP "racing at a glance" listing of the upcoming weekend's events: Even Busch East, Whelen Modified Tour, Grand National West, Canadian Tire Series and Whelen Southern Modified Tour were mentioned. Grand-Am's championship race was not. (!) See for yourself:
http://sports.aol.com/story/_a/auto-racing-package-auto-racing-glance/n20070912135209990050?ecid=RSS0001

Meanwhile, Utah perhaps was the worst officiated race since the 1981 Indianapolis 500. And I'm not just referring to the dubious decision to award the championship via a judgment call. For example: Why did Seth Ingram even have a Daytona Prototype license? (Ingram spun, then drove onto the track right into the path of GT driver Nick Ham, who thankfully wasn't seriously injured when his Mazda RX-8 flipped.) Why was there no full-course caution when Pruett's bodywork went flying in multiple directions? Why was Angelelli not ORDERED to STOP, but allowed to drive his inferno onto the pit-road entrance, a potentially dangerous location?

And while SPEED deserves credit for allocating plenty of hours for the finale, it was a badly produced, directed and (except for Dorsey Schroeder) announced production. The Daytona Prototype START was reduced to a split-screen while a TAPED interview with a GT driver aired. The camera placement for pit entry left the audience, due to a high wall, with a meaningless view of each car's roof line. When Angelelli walked away from his fire, the announcer hurried to interview him while Max was still wearing his helmet. What was the rush? I doubt a competitor from ESPN was attempting to get Max first for a "live" SportsCenter report! A one-minute delay would have allowed Angelelli to remove his helmet and catch his breath -- maybe THEN we would have understood what he said. And seen the emotions painted on his face. After the checkered flag, there was no reaction shot of the Stallings team, no interview with Fogarty, and an awkward talk with Gurney as he walked down pit road. No podium ceremony. No championship presentation from Rolex. Given the controversy, viewers deserved an explanation from Grand-Am competition director Mark Raffauf. In fact, this was a MUST! SPEED's crew didn't get us one.

Gurney and Fogarty set tons of records and are worthy champions. However . . . Following a disappointment of such magnitude at such a vital time, one can only hope series management, sponsors, team owners, engine manufacturers, promoters and the TV partner will understand it's an absolute necessity for all of them to have a good, long, hard, difficult and -- most importantly -- HONEST think about the future.
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Wave the checkered flag over Champ Car's business plan to grow via "Festival of Speed"events on the streets of major cities. Last week the San Jose race was canned. This, coming a couple of weeks after Phoenix was canceled, and Denver was KO'd after last season. San Jose, like Phoenix, was a controversial enterprise from the start and promoters got $4 million in taxpaper support according to the Mercury News.

I am happy that date will go back to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. As CART's communications director, I played a role in the creation of that event back in 1983, and it's always been one of my favorites. At its best, the race was so well-attended that we all knew to wait two hours after the finish before even trying to leave (unless using helicopter service). One of Champ Car's greatest moments happened there in 1996, when Alex Zanardi made "The Pass" of Bryan Herta in the Corkscrew on the last lap. In victory lane, Zanardi asked me what I thought of that move. I told him he had done the impossible! Alex gave me the helmet he wore that day and I proudly display it in my office.

Over at the IRL (and it's still the "IRL" because it says so on the championship trophy), League PR VP John Griffin said this to the Associated Press about the expected departures of Sam Hornish and Dario Franchitti to NASCAR: "It's premature to comment on that directly right now. But, from our standpoint, we feel we're in as good a position as we've ever been in the League's history in terms of drivers who have been around, established names." He got the first sentence right and should have stopped there!

AP's respected Mike Harris had, well, a different perspective. "Will the last IndyCar Series star on his way to NASCAR please turn out the lights and close the door."
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FAST LINES: My friend Mark Armijo has decided to leave the Arizona Republic in early November after a 27-year stint with the state's largest newspaper. Most of that time was spent covering motorsports and he's been an AARWBA journalism contest winner. Mark says he's undecided on his future plans . . . The Sept. 11 NASCAR Foundation/American Red Cross event at Phoenix International Raceway attracted 101 people and resulted in 83 units of blood being donated. I was proud to participate . . . Mazda will be a co-host of the pre-dinner reception at the 38th AARWBA All-America Team ceremony, Saturday, Jan. 12, at the Indianapolis Hyatt. I'm the dinner chairman. See link at the right for the AARWBA website where there's further information and a ticket/table/program advertising form.
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What am I doing with an NHRA "Wally" trophy, which is given to the winner of every national event? Find out in my new "Business of Racing" video commentary on Susan Wade's 1320tv.com site. You'll find it in the "Straight Talk" section halfway down the home page. (Thanks to Mike Lewis, senior VP of Don Schumacher Racing, for letting me borrow the "Wally".) Here's the direct link:
http://www.1320tv.com/straight_talk/article7.asp?vid=straight_talk/straight_talk_bor_wally_linda&title=We%20Miss%20You,%20Wally%20And%20Linda&des=Two%20of%20drag%20racing%27s%20%22stars%22%20not%20visible%20enough


[ more Blogging the Chase next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

THE CROSSROADS OF 9/11

September 11 is an appropriate day for me to write about something that's been on my mind for years. That's the intersection of American motorsports and international politics.

A thrill, for me, in the 1960s was European superstars like Jimmy Clark, Jackie Stewart and Graham Hill coming to the Indianapolis 500 to challenge the best in the U.S. That continued in the '80s/'90s with Emerson Fittipaldi, Nigel Mansell and then, at least in CART, when Alex Zanardi emerged as an endearing personality and big winner.

Champ Car and IRL, ALMS and Grand-Am, allowed their fields to tilt into an unhealthy imbalance with an unchecked immigration of funded international drivers. I can tell you, certainly in CART, the great popularity of Emmo, Nigel and Alex fooled management into believing American fans were fine was a high percentage of non-U.S.A.ers. In fact, a string of CART presidents, from Bill Stokkan to Andrew Craig to Chris Pook, were not originally of these shores and so were all-in-favor of turning the series into the United Nations. CC's current internationalist owners continue down this ill-fated course.

With all the money supposedly spent over the years on "market research" -- or maybe that was just talk to fool sponsors -- it's stunning these guys didn't figure out everything changed on 9/11/01. Americans turned inward -- and that included their cheering interests in sports. This is not just my opinion; I've researched it in great detail. It's been proven repeatedly in the TV ratings, Olympics included: If the U.S. athletes aren't winning, people tune out. That's a FACT. (!)

Then came the Iraq war in 2003. Poor Sebastien Bourdais happened along as Champ Car's new superstar at the same time French President Jacques Chirac and Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin (known to me as Dominique de Villain) were actively opposing America in every available international forum. Ditto with Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Canada's Prime Minister Paul Martin.

As I wrote at the time
( http://www.valvoline.com/pages/racing/rn_article_viewer.asp?nid=1455 ), the defining day in American motorsports this decade was Sunday, March 23, 2003. On the first weekend U.S. troops were in Iraq, NASCAR was in Bristol, and presented itself as All-American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. The images were of proud soldiers, patriotic music, waving flags, and taped messages of drivers offering their thanks and prayers for troops in battle. The grandstands were full with the kind of people, in Bill France Jr.'s famous quote, "Who go to war and win wars for America." If NASCAR had wrapped itself -- and us -- any tighter in red and white, we would have turned blue.

The pictures and words that day offered-up by CART and the IRL were much different. On-track in Monterrey Mexico, CART played up its "party," and poleman Bourdais' girlfriend (now wife) was seen running down pit road waving the Tricolor, a magnitude five PR faux pas. Up at Phoenix, the IRL race winner offered comments widely interpreted as anti-war and, thus, anti-U.S. -- a sentiment repeated a few hours later by the Hollywood elites at the Academy Awards.

On this sixth anniversary of 9/11, the international political landscape has dramatically changed, despite the many mistakes and hardships of the Iraq adventure. The new French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, campaigned promising better relations with America. (He even vacationed this summer at one of my favorite spots, New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee). Schroeder was ousted by pro-U.S. Angela Merkel. Our neighbors to the north dumped Martin, of the Liberal Party, with Conservative Stephen Harper.

IF -- and that remains a BIG IF -- the American public actually sees France, Germany and Canada become pro-actively engaged in supporting the worldwide war on terror, I wonder if this will present a chance for some thinking and clever and aggressive motorsports marketer to reposition non-U.S. drivers to make them more "acceptable" to the domestic fan base. Perhaps it's a window of opportunity; perhaps not; but I would judge it worth a good try. After all, no one I know can cite the logic of California's Patrick Long -- a factory Porsche driver -- not being in one of the winning RS Spyders in what is known as the AMERICAN Le Mans Series.

Don't be misled into believing NASCAR is tracking the failed open-wheel path by accepting into its fold Juan Montoya, Jacques Villeneuve and, apparently, Dario Franchitti. Championship-caliber drivers who also happen to fit NASCAR's marketing plan (diversity; Hispanics; Busch Series races in Canada and Mexico) will be welcomed. The standard-issue ride-buyers who are not even household names in their own households -- the majority of a CC grid -- need not apply because NASCAR knows they add nothing to its business.

Champ Car lays claim to a heritage of more than 90 years of history as America's national championship. Yet, there is increasing evidence CC's owners are contemplating a de-emphasis of the American market. International expansion seems to be the name of their game. According to David Phillips, one of only two legit U.S. print journalists who covered the two recent overseas events, management is touting Will Power, Robert Doornbos and Justin Wilson as "potential inheritors" of Bourdais’ "legacy," with "other talents emerging like Simon Pagenaud, Neel Jani and Raphael Matos." With Long Beach the only true U.S. showcase, their drive is toward Asia, more European events, and even a priority on off-shore TV ratings rather than the microscopic domestic numbers.

Sounds to me like CC should be working toward moving its headquarters to Paris or London and a rebranding as an "international racing series with some events in America."
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PROFESSIONAL STANDARDS? Countdown, MSNBC, Monday, August 13.

Thanks to NBC, a refuge has been lost. What was (usually) our society's escape from Page 1 problems has been swept-up into the increasingly "anything goes as long as it gets ratings" mentality of the network sports divisions.

NBC has added, as a co-host of its Sunday Football Night in America program, the Countdown anchor from its ratings-challenged MSNBC cable channel. Indy 500 drivers don't go this far left. His vocabulary to describe the President of the United States includes "liar," "lazy," "fraud" and "evil." His guests five-nights-a-week consist ONLY of those who share his viewpoint. The Democrat presidential candidates refused to debate on the Fox News Channel but happily joined in a forum where he was the moderator. Yes, of course, he first became known as an ESPN SportsCenter anchor. That, however, does not matter now that he has staked-out such toxic turf. And, please, don't tell me about ESPN's experiment using Rush Limbaugh as an NFL pre-game commentator. The difference that trumps all here is NBC regularly uses this biased broadcaster to host what are supposed to be "objective" news reports. If a former president dies or a bridge falls or a mine collapses, this guy will share the "hard news" anchor chair, a role Limbaugh has never had.

Credibility?

It would have been nice to think sports announcer icons like Al Michaels or Bob Costas would have stood-up to management to protect the integrity of their broadcast. Then, again, it would have been comforting if NBC's sole living news legend, Tom Brokaw, had stood tall. Brokaw, who has enjoyed the rewards of wrapping himself in the glory of The Greatest Generation, has the stature where he could have heard the words of the Countdown anchor and looked at tasteless graphics such as shown above (on the occasion of Karl Rove's departure from the White House staff) and put his foot down with the network Powers-That-Be: "NO."

I truly wish NBC had not crossed the line of politics/sports. Now that it has, though, here's another sports assignment I hope will come his way: Next year's Summer Olympic Games in Communist China. He might like that. I suspect that government might not.
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FAST LINES: So Sam Hornish and Dario Franchitti are going to NASCAR? Is it any wonder, when the IRL couldn't even properly organize its championship ceremony at Chicagoland? . . . I'll have more to say on the general NASCAR sponsorship scene in the next few weeks, but the NASCAR-AT&T compromise revealed at Richmond is at least a short-term positive. NASCAR, still trying for a new title backer for its second-tier series once Busch leaves, looked strong in defending its contractual rights. But make no mistake, being perceived as "hurting" fan and media favorite Richard Childress was a PR negative for NASCAR -- and Sprint . . . I nominate Gary Scelzi as the best driver-negotiator of recent seasons. Even though he announced months ago a "hiatus" after this year to spend more time with his family and work on his family business, the NHRA Funny Car racer let it be known in interviews that he still "loves drag racing and, if somebody with a private jet would fly me to the races (from his Fresno, Calif., home), I'd love to come back." Well, owner Don Schumacher arranged transportation on rival owner Ken Black's jet for at least 10 of next season's 24 events, so Scelzi's going to return. Other drivers should hire Scelzi as their agent. (!) AARWBA will present Gary with its Rick Mears "Good Guy" Award, for long-time cooperation with the media, at Pomona . . . Shannon Spake has been a solid reporter for ESPN's NASCAR Now, which made her performance in victory lane at Richmond so disappointing. With time for just two comments from Busch Series winner Kyle Busch, she started with the dreaded "How does it feel?"; followed by the lazy "Talk about . . . " Journalism 101: Reporters are supposed to ask meaningful questions . . . Putting a wrap on the Phoenix Champ Car fiasco, here are three points I made last night on the Racing Roundup Arizona radio show: 1) Since lack of sponsorship was cited as the reason for the cancellation (a problem I pointed out more than a year ago), ALMS would have been a better choice. Porsche, Audi, Honda (for Acura), General Motors (for Corvette), Lowe's (Valley resident Adrian Fernandez' backer) and other companies were certain to buy tickets, hospitality and advertising -- those sales are lacking in the sponsorship-challenged CC series; 2) I would not be surprised if promoter Dale Jensen, race manager Jim Freudenberg and/or CC management are out looking to sell the rights/assets of the Las Vegas event to someone else; 3) Just what is the status of the downtown "entertainment district" Jensen said he wanted to develop around the race location? Did the current capital markets crunch play a part in Jensen pulling the plug?


[ Blogging the Chase starts next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

PHOENIX FALLING

From Day One, I clearly stated my position on the Champ Car race in downtown Phoenix was that it had to be: 1) Good for racing; 2) Good for Arizona. Last week, the Arizona Grand Prix was abruptly canceled by local promoters, citing lack of sponsorship. Here's The Bottom Line: There was an almost complete absence of public and media interest in the event, a situation clearly aided-and-abetted by the near zero publicity, education and community-outreach programs from Grand Prix operational boss Jim Freudenberg and his hand-picked PR director Jana Watt. According to the Arizona Republic, only about 1,000 tickets had been sold. Think about that: Just a thousand customers a little more than 100 days before showtime, when promoters had told Phoenix City Council to expect 150,000 over the three-day "Festival of Speed." (!)

This is not an "I told you so" blog. But in looking back on the Republic guest op-ed I was asked to write in July 2006, and my postings here last year on July 18, 20, 23, Sept. 26 and Oct. 5, well, I'm comfortable I got it right. In a better world, this would be acknowledged by AutoRacing1.com, which attacked me personally on its home page, and Freudenberg, who also let me have it, both after the op-ed was published.

This was a bad idea from the start and there's plenty of blame to go around. I, for one, am not going to let Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon or most of City Council, especially cheerleader-in-chief Councilman Michael Johnson, off the hook. Or Council staff. It was the mayor who strong-armed the leading opponent, Phoenix International Raceway President Bryan Sperber, to go along with a compromise. I shook my head when Johnson, who represents the downtown area, said in a Council meeting that the race should get the green light because the NHL Phoenix Coyotes had moved out of downtown, that PIR had moved its offices, and that his area needed business. He didn't say it needed the "right" kind of events; apparently, anything would do. The very day of Council's first session to consider the Grand Prix, a USA Today cover story about Paul Newman revealed lack of sponsorship required the actor/team owner to help fund Bruno Junqueira's car out of his own pocket. Almost no one on the Council or staff managed to put 2 + 2 together and come up with the obvious question: If Paul Newman can't get sponsors, just how viable is this series in the corporate world?

Gordon is expected to easily win re-election next week. That does not mean the race's KO isn't an embarrassment to him, as well as to Johnson. I know they failed to properly evaluate the Grand Prix proposal. It makes me wonder how well they do making decisions on other issues.

I was interviewed and provided background information and analysis on this fiasco to KPNX TV (NBC, Phoenix), the Republic, KXAM radio (Phoenix), WIBC radio (Indianapolis), SpeedTV.com and AzCentral.com. Reporter Jahna Berry, in her Republic story and "Concrete Jungle" blog on the downtown Phoenix scene
( http://www.azcentral.com/members/Blog/jahnaberry/ ) wrote that the promoters said they might try again next year. I described this notion as a "non-starter." And that's exactly what it is. While it was the local promoter, Dale Jensen (a big player in the Arizona Diamondbacks ownership group, a team contending for the National League West championship, but struggling at the box office) who pulled the plug, the Champ Car organization itself faces the larger credibility issue. For three years, a race in Korea was announced, and twice, an appearance in China. Neither happened. Now Phoenix. Let's call this a "Triple Crown" of disappearing dates. Enough mistakes have been made. CC doesn't need another one. And that means CC better take a hard look at things before putting Jensen's other race, Las Vegas, on the '08 calendar.

Under normal circumstances, anyone announcing "Phoenix 2008" would be laughed out of the Valley. The truth is, there aren't enough people here who would care enough to expend the energy.
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Following my July 10 post marking one year of blogging, several have asked me to keep sharing personal stories of my Adventures in Motorsports PR. OK. Last weekend's 10-year anniversary of Princess Diana's death brought back this vivid memory. I don't believe I've ever revealed what follows.

The CART series was in Vancouver on that fateful August weekend, 1997, and Alex Zanardi had the opportunity to lock-up the PPG Cup championship. On Saturday evening, before heading out to a media dinner I was hosting, I got the news of Diana's car crash. I remember the headline graphics on CNN: "Princess Diana Injured". Then: "Princess Diana Seriously Injured". Finally: "Princess Diana Dead". At the restaurant, a manager, knowing of our interest in the story, came to the table to share the sad news of her death. Journalist Jeremy Shaw was so affected he felt he had to leave early. I stayed up much of that night watching TV. It was fascinating to see the all-night coverage as I flipped among CBC, CNN and other available networks.

I came to realize Sunday would find Canada's people in a state of shock and mourning. Canada is a British Commonwealth. Queen Elizabeth II was (and is) the head of state. Diana had made wildly popular visits to the country. As a racing team, I felt we had the obligation to be respectful to our hosts, that the excitement of a win or a championship be tempered by this stunning and tragic occurrence. I spoke privately with both Alex and Jimmy Vasser as soon as they arrived at the circuit Sunday morning. To their credit, both immediately understood my point. (Chip Ganassi and Target agency VP Bob Bausch didn't get it.) The drivers and I agreed: If Jimmy won, or if Alex won or clinched the title, the celebration would be toned-down. Zanardi promised to skip his famous "donuts" routine. I packed away the championship caps and banner. Jimmy, Alex and I talked through how they would explain their subdued actions to the media, that it was a sign of respect on a very, very sad day around the world. It turned out neither won that day, and the PPG Cup wasn't assured until the following weekend at Laguna Seca. But we were ready. I was really proud of Alex and Jimmy, in their trust and acceptance of my counsel, which was counter to their own understandable competitive enthusiasm. They were going to do the right thing.
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FAST LINES: Phoenix International Raceway WON'T host an Indy Car race in '08, despite what you may have read in National Speed Sport News or elsewhere. The issue is finding a mutually acceptable date. (Ditto for a Rolex Series return.) The IRL person who suggested a Sunday in August needs to go for a long counseling session with Dr. Phil . . . Kyle Busch doesn't even drive for Joe Gibbs Racing yet but the team has already shown it doesn't know how to handle him, PR-wise, witness Kyle's admission to reporters Friday at California Speedway that Gibbs will run Toyotas next season. Meanwhile, Gibbs and Toyota officials refused comment. Brilliant. When will Joe and J.D. Gibbs learn about PR and communications management? . . . The U.S. Nationals was a rare "miss" for the usually top-rated ESPN2 production team. With six hours of Monday coverage, too-often too-long gaps were edited-in between actual races, frequently using pre-taped interviews that were outdated in terms of what was happening at the time shown. Quite simply, this format didn't work . . . Congratulations to Mike Hargrave, who will join Bank of America Sept. 10 as senior VP and motorsports platform executive, based in Charlotte. I worked with Mike when he was in the Anheuser-Busch sports marketing department . . . So (as ABC's IndyCar announcers went overboard telling us Sunday), Helio Castroneves will compete on Dancing with the Stars. Personally, I'd like to see John Force on Survivor . . . Force announced The Eric Medlen Project to develop and build the “Funny Car of the Future.” He plans to debut later this year his own Ford-branded fuel motor . . . Scott Riggs' No. 10 Dodge ran at California Speedway (and will in Atlanta) in Sears Auto Center colors as Valvoline is now the primary brand of motor oil offered at all 850-plus Sears Auto Centers . . . I'm not sure how long this has been in place, but I noticed the name decal on Justin Wilson's car in Zolder ID'd him as "Bad Ass Wilson." Classy. Sponsor CDW is OK with this? . . . Graham Rahal's comment about the TT-Circuit Assen in Holland, as quoted by David Phillips on SpeedTV.com, says it all about the state of showbiz in Champ Car. “It’s probably the best track we’ve been to, but it’s impossible to pass . . . ” . . . Sloppy mistake on Sunday's Speed Report was using week-old Champ Car points instead of updating after Holland. My guess is this happened because the CC website didn't promptly post new standings, but that's not an excuse for the semi-"news" show not to get the facts right . . . Citing costs and saying "content ownership is king," CNN has stopped using the Reuters news service, ending a 27-year relationship . . . Very nice gesture by Don Schumacher Racing to host a pre-U.S. Nationals breakfast in recognition of Shirley Muldowney's silver anniversary "Big Go" victory and the progress of women in motorsports during that quarter-century. This sort of thing happens all-too-infrequently in today's racing environment . . . I recommend John Phillips' terrific feature on good-guy Scott Pruett in the October Car and Driver. It's spread across eight pages. Pruett says there are fewer than 100 good pro rides in all of racing and that his least-favorite track is Utah's Miller Motorsports Park, where he'll try to clinch another Rolex Series championship. Richard Dole supplied some nice accompanying photos of Pruett at home . . . If you missed my pre-U.S. Nationals Business of Racing video commentary on 1320tv.com, please take a look: http://www.1320tv.com/straight_talk/article3.asp?vid=straight_talk/bor_indianapolis&title=The%20Business%20Of%20Racing&des=New%20commentary%20by%20Michael%20Knight


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