• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

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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