• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

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 . . . ]