• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Mark Miles told me the day of the season finale that the 2015 IndyCar schedule might be announced in two weeks. Well . . . every day that goes by without a schedule, the more stress for teams, sponsors and fans.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

TURNING THE PAGE

A big congratulations to Don (The Snake) Prudhomme (left), who I've known for 20 years, who received the Justice Brothers Shav Glick Award last Sunday during pre-race ceremonies at the California Speedway. Showing his great respect for Shav (center), the long-time and now retired Los Angeles Times motorsports writer, Snake left his SkyTel and Skoal NHRA teams at Firebird to fly back to Fontana for the ceremony. The award is presented for distinguished achievement in motorsports by a Californian. (Of extra interest to me since I'm a Golden State native.) Ed Justice Jr. joined in the presentation. I was introduced to Shav in my earliest days as a journalist and I respect him as much as any man I've ever known. (Photo courtesy of Dusty Brandel.)
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

I first met Paul Page at Trenton Speedway in the late 1970s, as we waited for the crossover gate to open at a USAC Championship Trail race. A few years later, when I became CART's first communications director, we started working closely together and developed a friendship.

Paul began at WIBC Radio in Indianapolis in 1968. In 1977, while on assignment, he was almost killed in a helicopter crash near the Speedway. That same year he took over as anchor of the worldwide Indy 500 Radio Network on short notice when the legendary Sid Collins died in May; in fact, he was Sid's hand-picked successor. Paul was the race's "voice" for 15 years and also called the action on NBC's early CART telecasts. He helped pioneer motorsports on ESPN as its first racing producer, of Midwest sprint-car shows. Paul joined ABC in 1987, working the 500, inaugural Brickyard 400, and countless other events. This season, he's brought more than 30 years of experience to ESPN2's coverage of the NHRA Powerade series.

Paul has kindly shown me many courtesies over the years. Last weekend, at the Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals at Firebird Raceway, we sat down inside the Don Schumacher team's hospitality area to talk drag racing:

Q. I remember watching you in the 1980s call NHRA events with the late Steve Evans on Diamond P's American Sports Cavalcade. Was that your first time broadcasting drag racing?

A. It depends on how you define broadcasting. The first time I did any broadcasting of drag racing was 1973, at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. I was working for a local station, WIBC, and on FM, WNAP. I've always been kind of a tech-head and I said, 'You know what? I bet we could do the U.S. Nationals in stereo.' And we did. There weren't any broadcast loops or anything out there at the time, so it was a lot different than it is today. We figured out how to do it and the audience liked it so much. We came on when the pros came out, but the rest of the day, we left the sound-effects microphone open behind all of the music on this rock station. That was the first time, but Diamond P was the first real play-by-play.

Q. What are the challenges of calling drag racing as opposed to oval or road racing?

A. The greatest challenge for me, right now, is the nature of the television. Because it's in tape delay, and we have all this digital technology, you may lay down four sentences and then sit there for a half-hour before you put the next sentence on because of an oildown or whatever. Regarding the sport itself, it's gotten so competitive, and so professional, everything is so close. I guess the best way to say it is when Evans and I -- and Big Daddy (Don Garlits) was part of that, too -- we kind of looked at the 60-foot times but we never referenced them at all. Now, everything's pinned on that. You've got to take your eyes off the monitor long enough to see what they're doing at 60 foot and the eighth-mile, because that's going to tell you where the run's going.

Q. The races are so fast, by that I mean brief, do you think that makes it harder to keep the audience?

A.
No. I think what is very difficult is, if you compare it to any other form of racing, throughout the day you are eliminating your field. We actually saw it in the ratings from Pomona. We were talking a lot about the Force family and it brought us a 10 percent higher rating going into the show. But the minute the Forces were gone, the rating went down. No other form of the sport are you eliminating competitors throughout the day. I think that's the single biggest challenge.

Q. Throughout the history of NHRA, there have been great personalities, and great rivalries. Does this TV format make it more difficult to tell those stories?

A.
It makes it more difficult because you can't predict where the day is going to go in terms of time. You've got a three-hour time block. You're trying to get it down to play a natural, exciting conclusion, but even if you get a small mistiming during the day, suddenly, it all backs up to the end of the show. You can't do the job you want to do at the end of the show. On the other hand, if what you're asking in part, and I think it is, should it not be live, yeah, it should be. But it's a crazy show to try to figure out live.

Q. Has ESPN dusted off it's 'Danica template' to cover Ashley Force? Is it going to be All Ashley All the Time?

A.
No, I don't think so. Times have changed from when announcers had a really big say in what you were going to cover. Now, it's more what the producer is pushing to do. In our case, that's what the producer at the other end of the line, the coordinating producer, is pushing to do. But that guy is Shawn Murphy and he knows racing. I think he knows we probably were going to over-do it the first race but there are other players out there. Yeah, you've got to capitalize on those things that are drawing an audience -- again, a 10-percent boost in ratings, but I don't think we'll always do it that way.

Q. As someone who has won many broadcast journalism awards, you know it's important to tell those other stories, too. Right?

A.
The sport doesn't survive without those other stories. It's enough of a problem on a good day to try to get everybody in and give everybody one good call, mention something positive about them.

Q. Coming into this environment, NHRA, from all your time especially in open-wheel, how's the cooperation been for you from drivers and owners and crew chiefs and PR people?

A.
You, above everybody, will understand this answer. This is now what open-wheel was in its good days. That is, everybody's helping everybody else. Everybody wants everybody else to succeed. I was amazed. I can walk anywhere: People say, 'Come on in. Let me show you what we're doing. Look at the data.' It's pretty cool. And the fans, you know, I had some rough shows. My first shows were really rough. But the fans, they'll pull you aside and say, 'You did this, you did that.' A guy, not 10 minutes ago, he had a couple of comments, but then he said, 'You're getting better. Thanks for doing this.' These are good people, and it reminds me of the old days.
*******************************************************************
I'm pleased to announce that Susan Wade -- America's No. 1 drag racing journalist -- has been named editor of a new motorsports monthly, Race News. Coverage will go beyond the quarter-miles to include NASCAR, Formula One, IRL, Champ Car and sports cars. Look for the premiere issue in about a month. I'll be contributing a Business of Racing column. Susan also has asked me to get involved in another of her projects, 1320tv.com ( http://1320tv.com ), a site devoted exclusively to drag racing video. I taped the first of occasional motorsports biz commentaries last weekend at Firebird. That video will be posted to coincide with the launch of Race News.

[ What advice did John Force give daughter Ashley about dealing with the media? They told me that, and more, at Firebird. Please come back next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

DAYTONA WEEK + & -

Daytona 500 week left my calculator in need of new Energizers . . .

+ Krista Voda. Debuting on Fox as replacement for the over-rated Jeanne Zelasko, Voda showed again she has star potential. But . . . Voda must continue to work hard to sharpen her reporting and interviewing skills, two essentials for a pit reporter. Zelasko was a poor interviewer, proven when she repeatedly presupposed the answer by ending questions with a "yes" or "no." ("You're OK, yes?") I'll never forget when Zelasko attempted to be too-clever-by-half by asking Cingular-sponsored Robby Gordon "how many calls have you gotten on your Nextel phone?" Robby rightly verbally slapped her down on that one. Or, how after Ryan Newman violently flipped in the Daytona 500, Jeanne gently complained that Ryan had kept her waiting in the rain for an interview. (!) I hope Krista learns from her predecessor's miscues. There was an era when networks would hire a producer or broadcast vet to coach-up promising talent. Now's the time for such an investment.

+ WIBC (1070-AM). Indianapolis once again has a weekly "live" locally produced motorsports program. WIBC is Indy's 50,000 watt flagship of the IMS and IRL radio networks. The WIBC Racing Review with Kevin Lee debuted Feb. 12 and will go every Monday night, for one hour, at 10 p.m. (Streamed on http://wibc.com .) Lee is a pit reporter on the IRL broadcasts and host of WIBC's nightly Sportstalk show. Opening night guests included Paul Tracy, Mike Joy and Mike King. Listener calls will be part of the mix.

- Michael Waltrip. Even before NASCAR penalized Waltrip's team for rules violations, Tom Jensen wrote this on SpeedTV.com: "If it turns out that Waltrip’s engine and car are cheated up, Waltrip will be in a world of hurt. His public image as the lovable-but-goofy bumpkin who can’t say his sponsors’ names often enough will be history and he’ll be looked down on as just another cheatin’ sumbitch in the garage, and not a very bright one at that." Waltrip even earned a place on the Drudge Report homepage, with a photo of him and his NAPA car over the headline, "Cheating scandal hits DAYTONA 500; TOYOTA debut . . . "As if the timing wasn't bad enough, Mikey-gate coincided with a Detroit Free-Press story revealing an internal report warned that Toyota faced "possible political and consumer backlash caused by its rapid U.S. growth." Toyota is expected to pass General Motors this year as the world's largest automaker.

+ Brian France. Good move moving the NASCAR chairman's "State of the Sport" address and news conference from December in New York to February in Daytona -- on a day with no on-track action. Brian made no big announcements, but two things got my attention: 1) Specific mention of open-wheel standouts Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish (a limited Busch Series schedule) and A.J. Allmendinger coming into NASCAR -- take that, Bernie Ecclestone, Tony George and Kevin Kalkhoven; 2) Repeating his contention that NASCAR continues to be "under covered" in several major media markets. Brian also called the motorsports press "the hardest working media corps in sports."

- Andretti Green Racing. What happens when you pick the day NASCAR suspends four crew chiefs and 99 percent of the nation's racing media have stock cars on-the-brain to announce Michael Andretti will again drive in the Indianapolis 500? Predictably, a few lines on Page 12c of USA Today. Once again, legitimately calling into question the thought process of PR "pros."

+ NHRA/John Force. Drag racing's most famous driver goes to the media -- at Daytona -- for a Friday news conference, garage tour photo-op, and relationship-building session on behalf of the POWERade series.

- Bill Elliott. Sad to see the one-time "Awesome Bill" even bother to show up at Daytona in an uncompetitive car, one not even fitted with the 2007 Dodge nosepiece.

- Red Bull. The perils of too-much hype, in this case about the Formula One engineering experience the team would bring to its new Toyota Cup effort, bit hard as Brian Vickers and A.J. Allmendinger didn't make the big show.

+ Montoya's Sponsors. Juan Pablo scored a print media "hat trick" of sorts with features in Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine, and a USA Today cover story all published the same week.

? Kevin Harvick. A huge + on Sunday, but why was he wearing his Shell Nextel Cup team uniform when he won Saturday, which co$t Busch Series car sponsor AutoZone major victory lane exposure?

? Hornish Handlers. With his Dodge backed by Mobil 1, why was the Indy 500 winner allowed to be interviewed on ESPN2 post-race Saturday in front of the Havoline hauler? Someone with Sam should have been paying attention and moved the driver a few steps to avoid the conflicting sponsor backdrop.

? TV Time Out. The excellent story-telling video replays were the best part (by far) of Fox's Daytona 500 presentation, but it was disappointing -- and a bit frustrating -- that the network went to commercial and missed the season's first round of pit stops.

- ESPN2. A down debut on Busch Series coverage, with numerous driver/team/car misidentifications and especially shaky performances by Andy Petree, Tim ("I tell you what") Brewer and (no surprise) Jamie Little. The network's stated goal is to expand the series' fan base (especially since it's helping NASCAR sign a new title sponsor!) and that will never happen as long as Petree talks about the "4, 88 and 27" and begins an interview with someone in the pits, "Hey, PK!" Very few viewers knew the people ID'd by numbers or initials. When Juan Pablo Montoya pitted with engine trouble, the "expert insight" we got was: "They're working on it . . . there must be something wrong." And, while new technology gizmos are fun, when the displayed data doesn't match what's happening on the track, it's confusing.

- Bob Dillner. Of all the convoluted yap that came out of Daytona, nothing topped Dillner Feb. 14 on SPEED, somehow making an analogy between Michael Waltrip's mess and a head of lettuce. (!) Maybe he meant the damage E.coli bacteria lettuce did to Taco Bell . . .

Elsewhere . . .

* It hasn't been long since glitzy announcements were made in Las Vegas and Phoenix that processing company First Data Independent Sales Fresno by Cardservice International had tied VISA's name to the Vegas Champ Car event and First Data as title sponsor of the downtown Phoenix run. Suddenly, though, the VISA and First Data ID's have disappeared from logos and content on those race's websites. Yesterday, in response to my E-mail asking about the status of the sponsorship, PR representative Jana Watt replied: "Thank you for your inquiry regarding the Visa/First Data sponsorship for the Las Vegas and Phoenix races. I apologize but at this time I can not provide any updates on the status of our partnership. We are continuing to move forward with our events and are looking forward to two fabulous weekends. As soon as there is additional information available you will see it released via the Vegas Grand Prix and Grand Prix Arizona websites." Last December, Robin Miller quoted V/P race boss Jim Freudenberg thusly: "This is a significant deal. I wish I could tell you exactly how much it is because it's so much better than what Phoenix International Raceway gets for its NASCAR race."

* It's terrible how some who hold media credentials seem not to know they have an obligation to act like professionals. I recently witnessed this: A guy who handed out business cards affiliating him with a radio station was at a track and met the raceway's PR director, who appropriately asked if he needed any help. "Actually, I'm looking for a free lunch," was the response. "You know how we media guys are, always looking for something free. Where can I get lunch?" These quotes are exact because I immediately wrote down the exchange. What an embarrassment . . . if I knew this man's name I'd ID him.

* Sponsor Update: I noticed during the weekend's Nissan Open golf coverage that Phil Mickelson no longer has Ford's blue oval on his shirt.

* For those following the Academy Awards, note this from the Feb. 16 Entertainment Weekly: "On average, studios can spend anywhere from $5 to $25 million mounting Oscar campaigns -- even for films that may not clear that amount at the box office."

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

TURF BATTLE

With hundreds of journalists and PR people (in name only, in too-many cases) assembled at Daytona for NASCAR's most important week of the year, it's a good time to wave the red flag on a trend more worrisome than Toyota is to Jack Roush.

Business managers increasingly are making decisions that should be the province of publicists.

This is nothing new in golf and tennis. Want to request an interview with Tiger or Annika or Roger or Maria? You gotta go through IMG or some other management agency. The fact that this is growing in motorsports hit home with me in the run-up to last month's AARWBA All-America Team dinner. As event co-chairman, I was one of a few people charged with contacting various PRers to arrange for drivers -- elected by the media to the 37th annual Team -- to attend and accept their awards. In two instances, AARWBA's invitation was turned-down NOT by the designated media rep, but by the driver's business manager. (!)

Such agents may understand biz, but they don't know the needs of reporters/editors/producers. Almost ALL of the ones I've encountered over the years look at the media strictly in terms of how to make money for their clients (and, ultimately, themselves). That is a narrow, short-term view, and one that most often does not serve the needs of corporate sponsors car owners must have to pay the bills to put a driver on the track in the first place. (!)

Perhaps THE most egregious example can be found in the unhappy world of open wheel. One prominent racer long ago came under the strong influence of a lawyer-agent, who presumed to include in his portfolio of vast knowledge "how-to" with the media. (The rock-solid fact that said agent has left himself open to some very negative press over the years apparently was lost on this $$-in-his-eyes competitor.) That led, at least indirectly, to the racer employing a profoundly weak communications staff. The agent's own in-house "PR" . . . well . . . that is another story.

This encroachment on professional turf should be resisted by any legitimate publicist.

Meanwhile, let me extend this argument to any organization that places its PR/communications function within the marketing/sales department. Yes, it's true, virtually every management executive I know considers PR/comm to be just another selling tool . . . but what a terrible message that sends to the media community. Serious journos are looking to be informed, not pitched (at least that's the impression a true pro leaves). In this age of photo-ops, talking points and sound bites, a company that doesn't have an accomplished PR pro as vice president in charge of the communications/media relations department simply isn't up to speed.Tallying the week:

- ANYONE who cares about serious journalism was offended by the cable networks' wall-to-wall coverage of Anna Nicole Smith's death. With everything else happening in the world . . . well . . . some of us still remember when there were standards. Anyone who still doubted that CELEBRITY-FOR-CELEBRITY'S-SAKE has overtaken all other considerations (such as, say, accomplishment) in today's media decision-making mindset should now understand that issue is decided.

- Describing a tight pack of cars during Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout, Darrell Waltrip called it a "tornado" -- bad taste in the aftermath of the series of deadly tornados just a few days ago just a few miles from Daytona International Speedway. Of course, given TV's star system, I'll bet not one producer pulled Waltrip aside afterwards to caution him on his choice of words.

- Last week, in explaining why top candidates like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama may skip early presidential debates, Politico.com writer Roger Simon wrote this: "The stakes at debates are extremely high because reporters attend them for the same reason people attend the Indy 500: to see who crashes and burns."

+ The second season of Driving Force, with John Force and family, is scheduled to begin March 27 on the A&E Network. The show will move from Mondays to Tuesdays this year, still at 9 p.m. (Eastern).

? I've often said ESPN2's NHRA shows may well be motorsports' best-produced telecasts, so I won't race to conclusions, but I do hope the Pomona coverage doesn't indicate it will be All-Ashley-All-the-Time. I agree Ashley Force's pro debut was the No. 1 story, but so much time shouldn't have been devoted to John's daughter as to shut-out the Pro Stock class from any mention on Sunday's pre-race show. Especially when the lightweight questions to her included: "Are you ready for race day?" ABC/ESPN came across as desperate to protect its IRL investment in the fawning, falling-all-over-itself coverage of Danica Patrick in 2005, and we don't need a repeat of that embarrassment. Meanwhile, Mike Dunn -- who I've previously said might well be TV's best racing analyst -- still has me perplexed by this: Dunn said Don Garlits, Don Prudhomme, Shirley Muldowney and John Force are the four big figures in NHRA history and so Ashley is the first second-generation driver from that star field. Many of us would say six-time champion and first-to-300-mph Kenny Bernstein is a part of that galaxy and, thus, son Brandon was the first superstar second-generation competitor.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

WHAT REALLY WAS HAPPENING AT DAYTONA

While thousands of "journalists" -- among those credentialed were a hand-puppet, an American Idol reject, Katie Couric's pre-game hairdo and Mo Rocca (so-NOT-funny he's qualified to host the Nextel Cup awards ceremony) -- were embarrassing themselves in Miami last week during America's annual ritual of wretched media excess, the Super Bowl, a considerably smaller group showed up at Daytona for two days of IRL testing.

And missed the real story.

Oh, sure, there was legitimate interest if Daytona's hybrid infield road course/oval could safely host Indy Cars. (The answer, apparently, is "probably.") Have no doubt, however, what went on was at least as much about business and politics as it was competition.

The League, in what seemingly is a never-ending lurch from hope-to-hope it will gain traction with Main St. and Madison Ave., freely admits it wants to add racing's "Big D" to its schedule. (Question: Given the presence of Homestead and St. Pete, just what evidence exists that Florida is ready to $upport THREE IRL events?) I understand Tony George's desire for the added prestige . . . but what would be in it for the France family?

Answer: A Rolex Series race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (!)

Considering George's own investment in the IMS combo course, and that the U.S. Grand Prix hangs from contract-to-contract at the whim of Bernie Ecclestone, it's almost inevitable that facility will eventually be utilized for another motor sport. Speedway President Joie Chitwood has spoken of his investigation of motorcycle racing, and maybe that will happen, but two-wheelers would not benefit George's woefully underperforming IRL invention. Meanwhile, the France family (Jim's in charge of advancing their Grand-Am Road Racing Association), would gain admittance to Indy for what surely would be a headline-making event -- and strike a piercing blow to the rival American Le Mans Series.

So, will that be the trade, IRL at Daytona for Grand-Am at IMS? Could be, but . . .

ALMS, which already has a foot on Speedway grounds via its Formula One support shows, also wants that opportunity. I have zero doubt that Honda Racing shot-caller Robert Clarke would enjoy watching his new Acura LMP2 machines at Indy, and has the powerful card of being able to say to Tony, "Hey, when Chevy and Toyota bailed on the IRL, I saved you with engines for all."

Tony George hit a grand slam with the Brickyard 400, singled with the U.S. Grand Prix (a foul ball in '05), but if he hasn't yet struck out with the IRL, he's facing an 0-2 count in the bottom of the ninth with Mariano Rivera set to throw a wicked cutter. I don't know if TG was tipping his hand when he bought a Daytona Prototype and raced it (after crashing in practice) in the Rolex 24, but in the business/political decision of G-A vs. ALMS at IMS, it will be fascinating to see which way he turns.Calculating the week:
+ Daytona 500: Forbes.com ranked "The Great American Race" fourth on its list of "most valuable sporting event brands" at $91 million. "Despite the lack of a truly international audience, NASCAR's top race garners four times the revenue of rival Formula 1's fabled Monaco Grand Prix," according to the report. The Super Bowl was No. 1 at $379 million, followed by the Summer Olympic Games at $176 million and the FIFA World Cup at $103 million. After Daytona came the Rose Bowl ($88m), NCAA Men's Final Four ($82m), Olympic Winter Games ($82m), Kentucky Derby ($69m), baseball's World Series ($56m) and the NBA Finals ($47m). No surprise to me that the Indianapolis 500 -- drained of ticket buyers, sponsors, TV ratings and national media coverage -- didn't make the top 10.
- Ethanol: Conventional wisdom would be to give "E" a "+" after an apparently successful first use of the 100 percent fuel in IRL's Daytona runs. Until . . . this, according to the Feb. 12 Forbes magazine: "The federal government already supports ethanol with a tax subsidy equivalent to 51 cents per gallon of ethanol. That comes to $3 billion a year."
- Cartoon Network: Only those foolish enough to believe that "any publicity is good publicity" (not true; just ask Martha Stewart) are laughing at Turner Broadcasting's marketing gimmick-turned-PR fiasco in Boston.
- Arizona News Media: No one makes the connection that the "postponed" (that wording from the news release is true "spin" given the event's financial/sponsorship issues) Denver Grand Prix was operated by the same management hired to stage the downtown Phoenix Champ Car race.
+ The American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association: AARWBA has momentum coming off its recent All-America Team ceremony in Indianapolis. (I was dinner co-chairman.) AARWBA's Jerry Titus Memorial Trophy goes on display this weekend at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona in recognition of 2006 winner Tony Schumacher. Watch for video of Schumacher receiving the Titus (AARWBA's Driver of the Year) on early-season ESPN2 drag racing shows. The Grand-Am Road Racing Association signed-up as sponsor of AARWBA's February newsletter, with Tylenol -- NASCAR's new "official pain reliever" -- set for March. Thank you to Adam Saal and Mike Mooney. Paul Page, now calling all the NHRA action on ESPN2, says he's rejoining the country's oldest and largest organization of motorsports media pros. Andy Hall, with NASCAR and ALMS on his resume, is "in" now that he's working ESPN's racing publicity. I'm glad that at least one rep at a network with lots of speed programming understands it's PR 101 to be an AARWBA affiliate member.


[ more next Tuesday . . . ]