• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Monday, December 15, 2008

2008: JOURNALISM's DARK YEAR

Six minutes into the NBC Nightly News on Monday, Dec. 8, anchor and managing editor Brian Williams looked past the economy, war, terrorism, presidential transition and the rest of the real news. What was so important as to merit a before-the-first-commercial-break position?

An "interview" with David Gregory, named the day before as new moderator of Meet the Press.

Yes, you are understanding me. Williams, who I have long felt craftily uses his NASCAR fan status (no matter how sincere) -- and his acquaintanceship with the late Dale Earnhardt -- as an audience-building PR device, presented what essentially was a three-minute infomercial for Gregory and MTP. Not a word of "news" was offered. Something similar happened again Friday night. I was reminded of when Gregory took some press flack for doing pushups and dancing with Katie Couric on the Today show. This serious White House journalist brushed off the criticism by saying, "I think people like to see different aspects of my personality."

You betcha. That's just what we want.

Just a few minutes later, CNN opted out of news coverage on Campbell Brown's careening-toward-the-edge-of-the-cliff show (Paula Zahn was dumped for this?) to explain the network's logo was appearing in green rather than the traditional red in order to promote upcoming environmental programming.

Sunday a week earlier, Tom Brokaw steered MTP to an all-time low by inviting his buddy-buddy, Ted Turner, to sing Home on the Range. Naturally, MSNBC thought this to be sufficiently newsworthy to replay. And replay.

Meanwhile, various hosts across the cable universe were wasting time on trumped-up "issues" and, continuing their favorite ego/ratings ploy, spotlighting criticisms made of them by competitors. They play the victim role for all it's worth.

This is my last scheduled blog of 2008, and what I sadly take away from a turbulent year is the near-death of true, legitimate journalism. I believe this, deep in my soul, as an honors J school grad and reader of newspapers since I could read and watcher of TV news since Dwight Eisenhower was president: This deliberate dumbing-down of time-honored journalistic standards has as much to do with the decline of traditional news media outlets as the Internet and bad economic times.

We've gone from an era when Walter Cronkite was considered the "most trusted man in America" to MSNBC's version of Network and Howard Beale five-nights-a-week at 8 p.m.

In the matter of cable TV, here's what we used to call a "true fact": Rant has replaced reporting. Opinion outweighs objectivity. Shouting is better showbiz than speech. Accusing has taken the place of asking. Pretty pictures are more important than purposeful perspective. Outrageous tops overview. Antics above awakening.

Lunacy lords above logic.

Entertainment above information.

Is it any wonder the quantifiable educational achievement scores of American schoolchildren, in math and science, are far below those in other countries?

Cause and effect? YES!

For the benefit of those who never saw Network: One reviewer best described Paddy Chayefsky's 1970s classic as a "black, prophetic, satirical commentary/criticism of corporate evil (in the tabloid-tainted television industry)." It forecast a time when TV "journalism" would devolve into a format of shouting-lunacy-entertainment rather than responsible-civilized-information.

When the news program anchored by Beale (Peter Finch posthumously won the Academy Award as best actor) is canceled due to bad ratings, Beale announces on-air that he will kill himself on his last show. This causes the ratings to spike, and management puts Beale back on the air. In his most famous rant, Beale famously screams, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more."

Journalism school grads, like me, laughed. It was funny because, to us, it was something that could never happen.

We were wrong.

Journalism 2008 set one low after after:

NBC continued with Lee Cowan as its Main Man with Barack Obama even after he enthused, "When NBC News first assigned me to the Barack Obama campaign, I must confess my knees quaked a bit." Cowan admitted to Williams it was "almost hard to remain objective" when covering the "infectious" energy surrounding the Democrat. Pro-Obama, anti-Hillary, Bush-Cheney despisers Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann were positioned as anchors on primary election news coverage, an arrangement so offensive that management eventually was forced to insert Gregory instead. Matthews infamously talked of the "tingle up my leg" he got from Obama. Now, according to multiple media reports, Matthews has done straight-up interviews with Democrat Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell -- whose support would be key -- even while holding private meetings with party officials about running for the U.S. senate from the Keystone state. Earlier today, CNN's Michael Ware criticized President Bush's news conference in Iraq as a "dog and pony show" and used that to excuse the shoe-thrower: "You can understand why he did that."

The United States would have been better served had the legions of journos who invaded Alaska to investigate whether or not Sarah Palin actually was the mother of her baby had been looking into sub-prime mortgages, Wall Street and the auto industry. Or Chicago politics.

I think opinion shows and commentary segments are great: BUT NOT IN A NEWS REPORT!

Don't think sports wasn't infected. Just as Williams lends his credibility by appearing on the same shows as Olbermann, so does Bob Costas on Sunday Night Football. NBC left the inescapable conclusion that protecting parent company GE's business interests in China was paramount over journalism by downplaying or ignoring stories out of the Summer Olympics like underage athletes, citizens detained for requesting protest permits, and the child singer whose lovely voice was lip-synched by a more physically attractive girl. (The worst China gusher was Matt Lauer, who is in love with glitz and celebrity, not surprising since one of his earliest gigs was Robin Leach's Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.) I don't know what actually happened with ESPN Classic's "live" coverage of the NASCAR Sprint Cup awards, but as far as I know, there's been no denial or explanation. (Maybe "Digger" knows.) As for credibility-destroying embarrassment, one need have seen nothing more than SPEED's Halloween Texas Truck pre-race show . . .


Regular readers, forgive me for repeating this, but Paul Newman's great lesson to me was to "know your audience." As I have personally observed, far too often, journos think their audience is not us out there in the public, but each other. This year, in the media centers at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway and elsewhere, I've witnessed journos promoting their "clever" leads in an attempt to impress colleagues. Too often, the mission seems to be one-uping each other with one liners or increasingly outrageous opinions, not presenting factual news or carefully considered viewpoints to the real audience.

This is not a matter of the political left or right. (For the record: I did not vote for John McCain.) It is an issue of professional news standards. Or, I should say, the lack thereof. As dictated by bottom-line executives, accepted by journalists, showcased by a lengthening line of lightweights everywhere from behind the desk, in the field, and on pit lane.

The message counts far less than how the message is presented.

It's now common practice for journalists to get the news by interviewing other journalists, instead of the actual newsmakers. On August 11, on Around The Horn, Michael Smith said: "I go to (fellow ESPN panelist) Tim Cowlishaw for my NASCAR information." No matter that, relatively speaking, Cowlishaw discovered NASCAR about 15 minutes ago.

Shoe leather -- honest reporting -- has been replaced by an entertainment-driven, murky, co-mingling of opinion and fact. Let me translate for you two words which too often appear in "news" stories: Speculation = guessing. Rumor = gossip.

The very fabric of our society has been undercut because, honestly, we aren't sure who to believe. Too often, that includes the media. That sad reality is bad news whether your own focus is on Washington or New York, Indianapolis or Daytona.

God help us, that must change in 2009. Or the news business will completely come apart, like Goodyears at the Brickyard.
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Here's a link to my December "All Business" column on Drag Racing Online. It's posted on two pages, so be sure to click the "next page" arrow at the bottom of the first page. http://dragracingonline.com/columns/knight/x_12-1.html
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Every day brings dark news from the Business of Racing front. I'll just mention two here: Karen Holschlag, a 26-year veteran of Anheuser-Busch's legendary sports marketing department, left the company Dec. 15 as part of new owner InBev's reorganization. Karen managed the Kenny Bernstein sponsorship (30 consecutive years in 2009) and was a great friend of AARWBA . . . The Winston Salem-Journal has made it official, ending full-time staff coverage of NASCAR. Mike Mulhern, who covered NASCAR for the paper for 34 years, has been laid off. Mike says he'll be back, on the web.
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REMINDER: The 39th AARWBA All-America Team ceremony, presented by A1GP World Cup of Motorsport, will be Saturday, January 10 at the Hilton in Ontario, Calif. See AARWBA link at the right for ticket information. The 2008 recipient of the Jim Chapman Award, for excellence in motorsports public relations, will be announced that evening.

[ more Tuesday, January 6, unless circumstances demand otherwise . . .]


Sunday, December 07, 2008

A PUNCH TO THE GUT

I have been saying for months, in print and broadcast, that Motorsports 2009 will be VERY different than anything we've witnessed in decades. Too many times, I've noticed blank expressions when I've offered that opinion, as if people didn't grasp the gravity of the situation.

Well, with all due respect to last weekend's much hyped Oscar De La Hoya-Manny Pacquiao fight, the racing news of Thursday and Friday should have been received like a punch to the gut.

Petty Enterprises negotiating for a merger to stay in the NASCAR game. (Will the No. 43 even run next season?) Honda pulls out of Formula One. Audi drops out of the ALMS (after trying its new Le Mans prototype at Sebring). Kansas Speedway withdraws bid to build/operate a casino hotel, which brought along with it a second Cup date. Three-time NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle champion, the popular Angelle Sampey, says she doesn't have a ride for '09. The Big 3 CEOs plead their case for taxpayer money in front of Congress.

This week, I am reliably told, we'll get the news of upwards of 2,000 buyouts/layoffs at Anheuser-Busch as the new InBev ownership takes charge.

Before anyone asks, no ESPN Classic here, so I didn't see Friday night's NASCAR Sprint Cup awards ceremony. Based on the near-record number of looks of last week's blog, though, some people apparently were paying attention. If not necessarily acting. While I read with interest several stories out of New York City portraying the Champion's Week events as a reflection of the national (and auto industry) economy -- and, I note, NASCAR didn't headline its Top 10 driver money totals -- there was at least one unfortunate posting on a national racing website.

A cheery someone who was making all the Big Apple rounds clearly was out-of-touch with the audience in praising the wonderful atmosphere in New York during the holiday season, especially the "vibe and energy." What got me most was the "awesome experience for the competitors, the fans and the media in attendance." Readers don't give a damn that the media did (or didn't) have fun. (Notice the Charlotte Observer saved money by not sending David Poole -- a wake-up call if ever there was one.) The single-biggest criticism of having the Cup awards in NYC has been the lack of opportunity for fan involvement -- not counting those huddled outside the Waldorf's main entrance, behind barriers at photo-ops, or who happen to be in the same bar as Jimmie Johnson.

I take it there were fewer and less lavish parties, but the holiday spirits must still have been free to the media. Parts of this column reflected a mindset more out there in left field than Manny Ramirez.

The responsible editor should have dialed-up the writer's cell phone and said, "Think about this a little more before I post it." Or, simply done some old-fashioned editing.

I have to again give it to NASCAR's management in this regard, though. "NASCAR" has become generic for "auto racing" in America. Last Friday, in reporting Honda's withdrawal from Formula One, the NBC network affiliate in Phoenix ended the story thusly -- and I quote:

"No word on what affect this might have on Honda's NASCAR operations."
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Check out these links:

Brian France on the economy and NASCAR:
http://www.reuters.com/article/AerospaceandDefense08/idUSTRE4B16LR20081203

More terrible news about the newspaper business:
http://www.denverpost.com/business/ci_11142071

Miami Herald for sale:
http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20081207/ARTICLE/812070347/2055/NEWS?Title=McClatchy_puts_Miami_Herald_up_for_sale

My friend Larry Henry's new blog:
http://exhaustfumes.wordpress.com/
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Jack Beckman, Cory McClenathan and Dave Connolly will be teaching Drag Racing 101 before media racing at Pomona during the January 10 AARWBA field trip prior to the 39th All-America Team ceremony presented by A1GP World Cup of Motorsport. AARWBA media members will visit John Force Racing earlier that day. Ticket and table information for the awards ceremony that evening at the Ontario (Calif.) Hilton, which is open to the public, at http://aarwba.org/ .

[ more next week . . . ]

Sunday, November 30, 2008

GOOD MANNERS at a BAD TIME

Congratulations to all who will be honored during NASCAR's Champions Week celebrations in New York City, especially Sprint Cup three-peaters Jimmie Johnson, Rick Hendrick and Chad Knaus.

This time, however, things are drastically different -- and I hope everyone involved understands that and acts accordingly.

With all due respect to Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and other Bowtie Biggies, when Chevrolet is recognized as the manufacturers' champ, people better realize General Motors is on the brink of bankruptcy and asking for taxpaper help to continue operations. And, just let loose the world's most famous athlete, Tiger Woods, from his Buick endorsement deal in order to save a reported $7 million per year.

NASCAR has issued its usual listing of media events. I'm trusting the actual happenings will come across to the sport's financially stressed-out fans as less lavish than described. With a "dollar menu" helping to boost McDonald's sales in tough economic times, I don't think we need to hear about the "Champion’s Welcome Dinner in the Waldorf-Astoria Executive Kitchen, a gathering attended by NASCAR and champion team representatives, and overseen by Executive Chef John Doherty."

We can only hope the Dow doesn't drop 500 points Wednesday, when Johnson is scheduled to ring the New York Stock Exchange's opening bell.

Despite the annual criticism of NASCAR's black-tie Cup awards presentation in the Waldorf's Grand Ballroom, there surely is a segment of fans who enjoy seeing Jimmie and Junior and the others in something other than Nomex and Wranglers. And NASCAR has put its week in the Big Apple to a useful purpose from a business standpoint, out of public view, in front of ad agency and media execs.

But, please, this year, someone in authority make it a point to remind Jerry Punch and Allen Bestwick and whatever (usually dopey) comic and everyone else of what is happening in the country. A repeat of the usual "what a great season it was" and the general gushing of how wonderful it is in NASCAR Nation would be inappropriate. It would send the wrong message. It would be wrong.

In order to show the public and the press and the politicians that NASCAR and its competitors understand there is a real world out there, beyond the garage area fence, the tone needs to be toned-down. The luxury needs to be less luxurious. The ceremony needs to be less ceremonious.

NASCAR brass, take note: Even the long-standing and over-the-top Super Bowl and Academy Awards parties are being canceled or scaled way-back. I'm sure the corporate marketers who believe NASCAR drives sales would prefer senators, directors, shareholders and customers not see a spectacle out-of-touch with the times.

To the stock car elite, I offer this polite suggestion:

Celebrate. Enjoy. But, as Paul Newman taught me: Know Your Audience.
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Given the public rumblings from its recent APEX-Brasil ethanol deal (Jeff Wolf, in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, even called for fans to boycott the Indy 500!), the IRL had to issue a statement last week from Terry Angstadt, president of the League's commercial division. Here is part of it:

“The IndyCar Series is proud to be fueled by ethanol, a renewable energy fuel. For the last three years, ethanol has been the official fuel as a result of a sponsorship agreement with the ethanol producers and EPIC, the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council. The ethanol producers recently notified the IndyCar Series that it would not be renewing the agreement for 2009 and beyond and EPIC is ceasing operation. No one from any other part of the American-based ethanol community stepped forward with a substantial proposal. Soon after, the IndyCar Series and APEX-Brasil reached a preliminary agreement."

Check the blog archives and see what I wrote about the EPIC's PR problem on Aug. 7, 2007.


[ more Tuesday, December 9 . . . ]

Monday, November 24, 2008

WHO IS RACING's 'MAN' in D.C.?

The last time things were this bad, with Jimmy Carter as president and hostages in Iran and long gas lines and double-digit interest rates and an economy looking like a "Big One" wreck at Talladega, the American racing powers-that-were got organized and funded a lobbying effort in Washington, D.C. NASCAR led the way but USAC was involved and so were the SCCA, IMSA and NHRA.

Les Richter, the football star who went on to run Riverside International Raceway and chair IROC, was put into place as Motorsports' Man in D.C. He was successful enough, and enjoyed it enough, that Richter later considered running for Congress from California. He passed on that idea but had a long tenure as NASCAR's competition vice president and played a key role in building California Speedway.

The Business of Racing has gotten a lot more sophisticated since then, of course, but I have gotten to wondering who is the face representing the sport's OVERALL interests on Capitol Hill. Is there one? If so, he or she isn't visible to me.

(I'm not talking about ACCUS, the umbrella group that exists to rep the U.S. in international racing politics.)

I question if American racing has gotten so fragmented, so oriented toward the wants and needs of individual series, that such a collective effort is even possible now as it was when Richter was making laps in D.C.

The need could not be more obvious. The collective will and spirit of cooperation isn't so apparent.
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As a public service, SPEED should have provided extensive live coverage of last week's Congressional hearings, as the CEOs of Detroit's Big 3 testified in support of taxpayer assistance to help rescue GM, Ford and Chrysler. This should have been supplemented by panel discussions featuring SPEED's own business-knowledgeable announcers plus well-informed external voices. It would have been the RIGHT thing to do. Count me as VERY DISAPPOINTED the re-runs of Unique Whips and Hot Import Nights played on while industry and governmental leaders spoke out at such a crucial time of such high-interest to the network's core audience.
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From a PR standpoint, the performance of the Big 3 CEOs in Washington was Marty Roth-ish. GM's Rick Wagoner, in particular, exhibited such a PR tin-ear he actually made Chrysler's Bob Nardelli look good in comparison.
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ECONOMY WATCH: A great era in sports marketing will end Dec. 31. Tony Ponturo, Anheuser-Busch VP of global media and sports marketing, will "retire" on that date. Ponturo oversaw Budweiser's vast collection of sports sponsorships, including NASCAR and NHRA, but probably was best known for orchestrating placement of the brewer's popular Super Bowl TV commercials. InBev's buyout of A-B closed last week . . . Buick is the official car of the PGA, but likely won't be able to provide courtesy cars for players and officials at most tournaments next year . . . The 2009 Sprint Cup schedule posted at NASCAR.com shows only three races -- the Budweiser Shootout, Daytona 500 and Sprint All-Star Challenge, with official names. Everything else is shown as "TBA" . . . Here's the new NASCAR Camping World Truck Series logo . . . No surprise, the ethanol business here is down, so the IRL has joined with APEX-Brasil to make the trade promotion agency its official fuel supplier. The announcement said they "will look to partner with a U.S.-based ethanol company to supply the IndyCar Series with corn-based ethanol." IF this is ever going to succeed in America, the ethanol will have to be sourced using sugarcane or cellulosic materials -- not corn, which can drive-up food prices . . . ESPN says ratings for its 23 Nationwide Series races on ESPN2 increased seven percent, to 1.5 from 1.4. The male 25-54 demo averaged 1.3 vs. 1.1 last year. ABC's numbers for the 10 Chase races stayed the same as last year, 3.8 . . . The three USA Today coin boxes most convenient to my home in Scottsdale have been removed. Why?

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Monday, November 17, 2008

SMOKE SIGNALS

The smoke I photographed rising above the top end at Pomona Saturday afternoon, as wildfires raged across Southern California, was symbolic of the warning signs for the Business of Racing caused by the global economic crisis.

During the last two weeks, at Pomona and Phoenix International Raceway, I've talked with and heard from several of the top minds and decision-makers in the NHRA pit and NASCAR garage areas. I've already written about some of what they've said (see Arizona Republic links in the last blog) and will be adding to that here and in other venues in upcoming weeks.

My point, for now, is to repeat what I've been saying for awhile: Motorsports 2009 will be drastically different, as everyone struggles to adjust to the financial downturn. If you haven't already done so, please prepare yourself mentally and emotionally, to function in a vastly changed racing world.

NASCAR's announcement of a testing ban and the DEI-Ganassi merger are the latest pavement-rattling events. The Monster and Rockstar energy drink cars ran for the last time at Pomona. I've asked numerous racers the same question -- What are you doing next year? -- and gotten the same answer -- I don't know.

Rarely have I seen one topic overwhelm the atmosphere at tracks from week-to-week. But that's what's been happening, and it's not a positive for the sport, or the people directly affected.

More to come from me on the many aspects of bad business -- things that are important to think about -- now.
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John Force is, well, John Force -- a compelling personality of immense magnitude. I saw this again Saturday afternoon as I MC'd President Dusty Brandel's presentation of AARWBA's traditional Comeback Award. The ceremony was in the Shav Glick Media Center at Auto Club Raceway. AARWBA began this award, which recognizes drivers who have overcome serious injury to return to victory lane, in the 1970s when it first went to Shirley Muldowney. A.J. Foyt, Scott Pruett, Al Unser and Darrell Waltrip are among those to be so recognized.

Click below to see the presentation (courtesy of Susan Wade's 1320tv.com) and hear John's funny and emotional comments.
http://www.1320tv.com/racevideos/autoclub.asp?vid=9-4-08/force_comeback

It was a pleasure to spend some time up in race control at Pomona talking with long-time NHRA PA announcer Alan Reinhart. Alan owns the voice you hear interviewing drivers at the top end. As I said to Alan, I would be hard-pressed to pick two people who seem to have more fun at the races than Alan and fellow announcer Bob Frey (who I first heard decades ago calling the action at ATCO in New Jersey.) Especially these days, fans need to share in that fun, so for Bob and Alan, may it continue to be so.
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Here's a link to my new "All Business" column in the November Drag Racing Online.com:
http://dragracingonline.com/columns/knight/x_11-1.html
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With the season a wrap, here's a reminder about the 39th AARWBA All-America Team ceremony. It's Saturday, January 10, at the Ontario (Calif.) Hilton. AARWBA members will visit John Force Racing and have a media competition at Pomona that day. The Shav Glick Newsmakers Forum (brief news announcements) will be at 5:30 p.m. The reception, co-hosted by ESPN, MAZDASPEED and Valvoline, will follow. Dinner served at 7 p.m. and awards ceremony, presented by A1GP World Cup of Motorsport, to follow. Legendary announcer/broadcaster Dave McClelland will MC. In addition to Team driver awards, we'll present the Jim Chapman Award for excellence in motorsports PR, Pioneer in Racing, and Dusty Brandel President's Award. The presentation ends with announcement of the Jerry Titus Memorial Trophy winner, which goes to the driver who receives the most All-America Team votes. Susan Wade and I are co-chairing the event. If you need more information, call or E-mail me, or go to http://aarwba.org/ .

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Monday, November 10, 2008

NO SHOW BIZ

I doubt Rick Hendrick is caught off-guard very often, but it happened after Jimmie Johnson all-but clinched his third consecutive Sprint Cup championship with his third consecutive Phoenix International Raceway victory Sunday.

Team owner Hendrick was asked to react to the network decision to pull the yellow-and-red flag-delayed race coverage from ABC to ESPN2, for the closing laps, in the Eastern and Central time zones. Hendrick admitted he did not know that had happened. What did that say about NASCAR and the importance of the Chase? Hendrick said it was "disappointing" and Johnson agreed.

Call this the Desperate Housewives call. Although America's Funniest Home Videos was up next on ABC, the move was all about getting DH on as close as possible to the scheduled time -- to preserve ratings and value of pre-sold commercial spots.

The truth is, from a showbiz standpoint, PIR's Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500k was dreadful. What is NASCAR to do? Brian France made an unannounced visit to the media center Sunday morning to project the impression of leadership. But, as Jeff Burton admitted to me in a Q&A published in Sunday's Arizona Republic (see link below), it's a crucial time for NASCAR's management. The show needs to get better and logic would say that means more testing and rule changes. Those things, however, are costly, and in this environment, that's not doable.

I can report here, as I did in Monday's paper, that NASCAR and Goodyear are discussing a wider tire/wheel for 2010. One would hope getting more contact surface on the track would increase grip and make for better racing.

Meanwhile, on the gloomy PR front, this was quite amazing to me: Even with stacks of free newspapers in the media center, way-too-many so-called publicists couldn't even be bothered to take a minute and inform themselves about that was -- or wasn't -- being covered. I remember a time when we'd be buying up all the local papers in hotel gift shops when they'd open at 6 a.m. Were we being covered? Were the stories fair and accurate? Was there an error that needed to be corrected? Was there a good story you'd want to show off to your team and sponsors? Maybe a reporter who should receive a "thank you"? These people who don't even know to take a look, well, how sad.

And then, there was the Fiesta Bowl news release announcing that Tony Stewart will be grand marshal of the Bowl's Parade. One problem: The actual DATE of the parade wasn't listed until the first sentence of the 16th -- last -- paragraph.
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Porsche back in IndyCar? YES, according to what one source has told me. And another indirectly confirmed. Both point to engines being in the Penske Racing entries, among others.
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Thanks to Claire B. Lang of XM Satellite Radio and Jamie Reynolds of Racing Roundup Arizona for the guest opportunities last week. And thanks to PR reps Andy Hall, Jon Edwards, Amy Walsh, Christine Brownlow, Judy Kouba Dominick, Paul Corliss, Griff Hickman, Denise Maloof and Marc Spiegel for their extra help with my PIR coverage.
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Here are some of my Arizona Republic stories from NASCAR-in-Phoenix last week:

* JJ Yeley, Michael McDowell and the No. 96 team --
http://http//www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2008/11/03/20081103spt-nascar.html

* A Tale of Two Seasons (Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson) --
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2008/11/05/20081105spt-nascar.html

* Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Saturday notebook) --
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2008/11/07/20081107spt-nascarnb.html

* Jeff Gordon (Sunday notebook) --
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2008/11/08/20081108spt-nascarnb.html

* Jeff Burton Q&A --
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2008/11/08/20081108spt-burton.html

* Race items (Monday notebook) --
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2008/11/09/20081109spt-nascarnb.html
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I'll be in Pomona this weekend for the NHRA Powerade season finale and to participate in an AARWBA award presentation to John Force Saturday in the Shav Glick Media Center. As a reminder, the 39th AARWBA All-America Team ceremony, presented by A1GP World Cup of Motorsport, will be Saturday, January 10 at the Ontario (Calif.) Hilton.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Monday, November 03, 2008

THE SELIG DOCTRINE

Should racing's biggest events follow The Selig Doctrine?

Fans and media can say what they will about often-belittled Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig, but he stepped-up and put the full power of his office to work last week. In the midst of terrible rainy weather in Philadelphia, as the Phillies' (I helped cover the Phils' 1980 world championship) played the Tampa Bay Rays, Selig ordered that no World Series game would be called before the regulation nine innings. This historic decision came into effect in Game 5, which had to be stopped in the sixth inning due to unplayable field conditions.

Baseball long ago gave its commissioner broad authority. As a former member of the Baseball Writers Association, I say Selig did the correct thing.

How would the legitimacy of a Phillies' title have withstood public and press opinion -- and history's judgment -- if the World Series had been decided in a game stopped early? No way.

Which leads us to consider . . . should the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500 be contested under The Selig Doctrine? That is, run the full 500-mile distance, no matter what.

Racing's traditional rules are clear: Half of the scheduled distance + one lap = an official event. I'm not one to say any rain-shortened winner is less legit, but I'm pretty sure even those who benefitted would privately admit it was less satisfying. (To be honest, Indy's early end in 1973 was a blessing.) I covered the wet weather Indys of 1975 and 1976, and while the runners-up were frustrated, no one truly believed Bobby Unser and Johnny Rutherford weren't worthy of reaching victory lane. Rutherford actually walked into VL in '76 as the event concluded at exactly the bare-minimum distance.

I do remember this, however, when A.J. Foyt took the Borg-Warner Trophy in 1977: A "railbird" (that's what they used to call the Speedway's veteran observers -- I don't think the word "pundit" had yet been coined) -- noted that, thank God, the first four-time winner didn't claim the historic achievement based on anything less than 500 miles.

Let's be honest: Indy and Daytona have long operated under different rules than other events in those series. At the Brickyard, examples have included qualifying, bumping and pacer lights. At Daytona, there is a complicated formula to set the field, including Q races (that have varied in distance over the years) plus restrictor plates and no passing below the line.

The arguments over TV time, fan convenience, etc. as reasons for calling a rain race official are well known and, thus, not needing of further review here.

But . . .

Indy and Daytona are set apart. I'm not sure it's unreasonable to wonder if they shouldn't follow the example of the country's most famous game and obey The Selig Doctrine.
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Credit Due: Kyle Busch has earned much praise for his 21 NASCAR national series victories this year and earned much criticism for his attitude. That came up again at Atlanta when he said going to New York City for the Sprint Cup awards was "way too much work." But after tying Sam Ard's record of 10 Nationwide Series wins in a season, Saturday at Texas, Busch said he'd send $100,000 to Alzheimer's disease patient Ard. As one who has witnessed Alzheimer's in my family -- it has no place as a joke line -- I say: Thank you, Kyle.
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For all of Formula One's sophistication, it's incredible the FIA had no format to have new champion Lewis Hamilton interviewed post-race on its world TV feed. Inexcusable. And every moody, whiny, temperamental, attitude-challenged NASCAR and IRL driver should be required to watch the tape of Felipe Massa's "I know how to win, I know how to lose" interview after the Brazilian Grand Prix. Class act.


Bad mistake: The "ticker" on ABC during the Texas NASCAR race, and as far as I could tell, on all the ESPN networks, said: "Lewis Hamilton Wins Formula 1 Grand Prix of Brazil."
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I'll be part of the Arizona Republic's coverage team this NASCAR weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. Check out my stories all this week online at AzCentral.com .

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Monday, October 27, 2008

IT's the ECONOMY

I'll be a guest next Monday (Nov. 3) on Racing Roundup Arizona, for the start of NASCAR week here. That will also mark the beginning of RRA's 12th consecutive year on the air. Congratulations to (host) Jamie and (producer) Betsy Reynolds. The show airs 7-9 p.m. (AZ time) on 1310 KXAM radio. You can listen on http://KXAM.com or http://RacingRoundup.com .


NASCAR finally confirmed that Camping World will take over for founding series sponsor Craftsman next year in the Truck series. The announcement pegged it as a seven-year deal. The PR line is the Trucks will deliver "over $100 million worth of exposure."

The key quote was this from Camping World Chairman and CEO Marcus Lemonis. (I've added bold emphasis.)

“With the state of the current economy, Camping World’s main objective is to communicate our brand in the most cost-effective manner and to promote affordable, family fun. Additionally, we feel strongly that this sponsorship will dramatically increase our customer base in experiencing our entire product offering. We expect this relationship to not only benefit the teams and fans, but we will put a special emphasis on supporting the four auto manufacturers in selling more trucks and the Truck series sponsors to yield the same return on investment that we’ve enjoyed. Camping World will work diligently to promote the four manufacturers and team sponsors by positioning them as preferred product providers to the four million RV enthusiasts we currently serve.”

With Dodge already having announced the end of its Truck support, and Ford limited to technical help to Roush Fenway, this is good news -- if it actually happens. And works.

Meanwhile, here are some of NASCAR Chairman Brian France's comments about the economy, during the Camping World announcement Q&A:

"We're off, but only in sort of single digits as it stands now. We tend to fare much better than other industries thankfully. That's because sports are so culturally ingrained to fans. It's one of the last things that they want to not participate in."

"We're fortunate. We are nervous like everybody else. We're taking every precaution we can in terms of getting costs out of our system on behalf of the team owners, on behalf of the track operators. But this is also a time when you can't freeze either. You've got to still be aggressive and still push hard your product."

"I think the number is going to be close to between $80 and $100 million of new money that is predicted to flow into NASCAR from a team sponsorship in '09. Now, that's lower than we've traditionally had as a rate of increase. But nonetheless, with the backdrop of the economy we're living in today, it's fairly good.

"Most of the teams in the Sprint Cup level are well-funded. There are obviously some teams that aren't, but there are always teams that aren't. Some of that is based on performance, not necessarily the economy. So teams that tend to perform consistently well tend to do very well in the sponsorship area as you would think.

"But is it tighter? Are teams looking to be more creative? Sure. Are teams nervous or not hearing from their current sponsors about doing one thing or another thing differently or less? Sure. That's just the nature of it. Every industry is looking around trying to get more value, trying to get more out of something that they're already doing or may do in the future. That's just the nature of dealing with and depending on corporate America to the level that NASCAR does."
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Since I agree with everything Jeff Burton says here, I am just going to reprint his voice-of-reason comments from last weekend at Atlanta:

“Well I think that’s actually in a broader context, if you listen to some financial analysis the mood of the country has more to do with the economy than the economy has to do with the economy. I’m not sure I buy that. I’m not an economist, I don’t know. But it just seems to me that the economy, you can’t ignore it.

“You can’t ignore that people are being laid off, unemployment rates are rising, inflation is rising, stock market its doing what it’s doing, the bail-out and all that stuff. It’s such a big story that I think it would be wrong for us to just act like it’s not happening. More importantly is the people who are buying the tickets, they know what’s happening because they’re the ones that are getting furloughed and their wages are going down. I think that not talking about it isn’t beneficial. I do believe that our sport, as probably most sports, we have a tendency to beat this story into the ground, but on the same token, it is there. It’s not something that we’ve created by any means.

“The only thing that we can do as a sport, in my opinion, is what we have to do, we have to make a compelling reason why people need to come watch a race and why they need to tune into it on television. If we do that, then we’re going to have better days when the economy is good. We’ll have bad days when the economy is bad because I’d venture to say that our sport, if you look at what we race for, what it takes, what it costs us to spend a year to race vs. the purse that we receive, I would be willing to bet that we’re pretty low. The purse is maybe 25 percent, 35 percent at the most of what we have to raise to do what we have to do.

“So we have to have corporate America, if we don’t have it we can’t succeed. So it impacts us, because if the corporations can’t spend the money and the people can’t afford to come watch it, then there’s teams that don’t have it. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away but I do believe we will beat a story in the ground.”
********************************************************************With the help of this Jimmie Johnson quote, from Atlanta, I hope we've rested the "any publicity is good publicity" falsehood forever. His reference is to the severe NASCAR penalties to the No. 83 Toyota Cup team for rules violations:

"The old saying that 'Any press is good press' is wrong in this respect. When you have that negative press on your team, it does put question marks in people's minds, and that is something that takes a long time to overcome. I've lived it firsthand. It's a tough thing to overcome."
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Two "amusing" TV moments from Atlanta: 1) Ryan Newman not knowing the name of the sponsor of his winning Kevin Harvick Inc. Chevrolet after the Truck race. 2) Sunday, when it was reported that Michael Waltrip had an electrical "short in his helmet," ESPN's Andy Petree said something to the effect that "that's been going on for a while. Just kidding, Michael."
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Have you PAID for your media workspace lately? Check this out from the Chicago Sun-Times:
http://blogs.suntimes.com/sweet/2008/10/obama_campaign_selling_chicago.html

[ more Blogging the Chase next Tuesday . . . ]

Monday, October 20, 2008

NET WORTHS

"Win on Sunday. Sell on Monday." That's the most historically significant statement in Business of Racing history.

Corporate $ponsorship and technical $upport budgets, which have a combined value into the billions$, have been approved with this bottom-line argument. It was first used (at least as far as I know) by the Detroit automakers.

But with show rooms becoming ghost towns, I'm sad to say there's going to be more walking-around room in the pit and garage areas.

The auto manufacturers' financial troubles -- and those of their local dealers -- have been a primary focus of media attention. Pretty much uncommented upon, though, is the huge position automotive retailing occupies in the portfolios of some of racing most important players.

For example purposes only, consider Roger Penske, Rick Hendrick and Bruton Smith.

According to the Penske Automotive Group's website, PAG operates 308 retail auto franchises, representing more than 40 different brands, and 27 collision repair centers. Quoting from corporate information: "Penske Automotive, which sells new and previously owned vehicles, finance and insurance products and replacement parts, and offers maintenance and repair services on all brands it represents, has 161 franchises in 19 states and Puerto Rico and 147 franchises located outside the U.S., primarily in the United Kingdom. Penske Automotive is also the exclusive distributor of the smart fortwo through its wholly-owned subsidiary smartUSA Distributor LLC. smartUSA operates 69 smart centers across the U.S. Penske Automotive is a member of the Fortune 200 and Russell 1000 and has approximately 16,000 employees."

I counted more than 60 dealerships listed on Hendrick's site, in at least 10 states. Included are a Jeff Gordon Chevrolet in Wilmington, N.C., Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet in San Diego, Terry Labonte Chevrolet in Greensboro, N.C., and Darrell Waltrip Honda and Volvo in Franklin, Tenn.

PRNewswire materials show Smith's Sonic Automotive with about 166 dealerships in at least 15 states. Under this umbrella are Arnold Palmer Cadillac stores in Charlotte and Pineville, N.C.

Most of the "name" brands are offered by the above, among them Acura, Audi, Jaguar, Lexus, Land Rover, Porsche, Rolls-Royce, Aston Martin, Honda, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari, BMW, Maseratti, VW, Bentley, Hummer, Dodge and Jeep.

It's a different level, but rookie NHRA Funny Car driver Bob Tasca III's family has sold Fords in Rhode Island since the 1960s.

In my current Drag Racing Online.com "All Business"column, I reference that one of the sub-issues affecting the general racing economy is the huge net-worth hit no doubt taken by a bunch of team owners.

And then there are the various investment firms that have bought into NASCAR teams in recent years. The underlying financial health of those concerns surely could spill-over into team operations.

These days, working to maintain existing sponsor relationships is a full-time and highly-stressful job. Let alone trying to secure any fresh deals. No doubt, some owners have their hands full just trying to keep a solid foundation under their own core businesses, a priority over racing.

That's a factor worth watching.
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Considering how the elite New York and Washington D.C. media have back-handed John McCain during this campaign, as they (led by NBC -- would Meet The Press have given Colin Powell its stage for a McCain endorsement? I think not.) fall all-over-themselves for Barack Obama, this posting on The Drudge Report on the eve of the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City serves as a cautionary tale. Here's the way it ran on Drudge:

DRUDGE REPORT XXXXX MON AUG 30, 2004 21:18:05 ET XXXXX

MEDIA ELITE TOAST MCCAIN AT ELITE EAST SIDE BOITE

"Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain hosted a hyper-exclusive birthday party for himself at La Goulue on Mad Avenue on the eve of the convention, leaving no media icon behind.

"WASHINGTON POST reports Tuesday how guests included NBC's Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert, ABC's Peter Jennings, Barbara Walters, Ted Koppel and George Stephanopoulos, CBS's Mike Wallace, Dan Rather and Bob Schieffer, CBS News President Andrew Heyward, ABC News chief David Westin, Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons, CNN's Judy Woodruff and Jeff Greenfield, MSNBC's Chris Matthews, CNBC's Gloria Borger, PBS's Charlie Rose -- pause here to exhale -- and U.S. News & World Report publisher Mort Zuckerman, Washington Post Chairman Don Graham, New York Times columnists William Safire and David Brooks, author Michael Lewis and USA Today columnist Walter Shapiro.

"They and others dined on lobster salad, loin of lamb, assorted wines, creme brulee, lemon souffle and French tarts."

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Monday, October 13, 2008

MESSAGES

Talk about sending the wrong message.

Kyle Busch, at his pre-Charlotte media availability, was asked if the national -- no, make that worldwide -- economic crisis caused him to worry about the overall health of NASCAR.

"I don’t really pay attention to any of it to be honest with you. I don’t have money invested in anything or any of that stuff. To me, it seems like it’s a bad thing because everybody says it is and it’s in the dump. I don’t necessarily notice it much, I mean I’ve got my own race team and stuff, and yeah, the costs are high for fuel and taking the hauler around and all that stuff. It seems to be OK for us."

It's beyond me how anyone could not pay attention. I guess Kyle was too focused on driving to notice all those empty grandstand seats and camping areas at Talladega. I assure you Toyota and all his sponsors noticed and, yes, are paying attention. As are NASCAR fans, who, ultimately, make Kyle's comfortable lifestyle possible. Great for Kyle if he doesn't have any worries -- but NASCAR Nation does.

I mark this as another example where the people who supposedly are there to look out for the best interests of Kyle, his team and sponsors, are MIA.

I've been asking motorsports' powerbrokers about the economy since the summer of '07. Sharp people I've spoken with, including Jeff Gordon, Ray Evernham, Jack Roush, Kenny Bernstein and Don Schumacher have expressed concern.

At Lowe's Motor Speedway, Gordon was asked the question again.

"It’s a scary time right now. We see strong teams struggling to get sponsorship. With the economy the way it is and sponsorship being so significant in our sport, I know that Rick Hendrick and I have had several conversations that were a little nervous. We’re very fortunate that we have our sponsors tied down for several years and that’s extremely important at this time. But even that doesn’t guarantee anything in an economy like this.

"We’ve got to not only try to do our best to perform and keep those sponsors, but we’ve got to do our best to cut costs as well and make sure that we’re not being exuberant in anything that we do. So we challenge everybody at the organization to watch those numbers and also we challenge ourselves as teams and drivers to make sure that we keep the performance up.”


Gordon recently unveiled his new black graphics design for the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet on NBC's Today show, hoping to rocket-launch sales of new souvenirs (just in time for the holiday shopping season). I'm sure Jeff grasps how tough the environment is, even considering the ultra-passionate nature of NASCAR fans.

The point here, however, is Jeff sent the proper signal to those not as economically fortunate. He gets it. He wants the public to understand he knows it's tough out there and appreciates their continued support. Jeff Burton did it, too, after winning Saturday night.

That was the right message.

P.S. -- Given the wretched excesses of Formula One, Peter Windsor would have done well to ask Ron Dennis about the effects of the global economic crisis on racing's richest series during their pre-Japanese Grand Prix interview on SPEED. And sought out other owners and manufacturer movers-and-shakers for comment. Elsewhere, considering the financial challenges faced by many NHRA fans, ESPN2's pre-Virginia Nationals feature on a driver's expensive toys was inappropriate for the times. I've said for a few years that ESPN2's NHRA presentations are racing's best-produced shows, but some cracks are starting to show. Sunday night, the gimmicky "Stat Man" took time away from racing for some numbers that promoted ESPN's Monday Night Football game. Unacceptable.

P.S. II -- Last week I noted drivers who no-showed for scheduled interviews on Phoenix radio stations. Add Clint Bowyer to the list. I'm told he didn't call-in for an arranged segment on the Valley's MRN affiliate Oct. 8. It's time for the managers charged with the responsibility to obtain maximum value for team sponsorships to get with it and pay attention -- especially in this economy! Oh, and when qualifying was rained-out last Thursday, just how many "publicists" used the "down" time as an opportunity for their drivers to do phone interviews with radio or print media? Just wondering . . .
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In recent weeks, I've noted the lack of attention drivers too-often display in pre-race drivers' meetings. There is another side to that story, it seems -- at least in NASCAR -- as evidenced by Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s comments last weekend at Lowe's Motor Speedway:

“I don’t like doing it (asking questions) in front of all the other drivers. It’s really a soapbox that I don’t really like to climb on to, and if I was to give Regan (Smith, penalized for passing below the line at Talladega on the last lap) any advice, I’d tell him to go ask that question of them guys (officials) personally hours prior to the race or before the race. That’s how I’d do it if I had a question that I’m curious about, I go ask it myself. Standing up in front of everybody in the drivers' meeting, a lot of times, you don’t get the real answer. When they have to give you the answer in front of everybody, a lot of times you’re better off to go get it behind closed doors, and hear exactly what you need to hear.”

A reporter asked Junior if that approach didn't defeat the purpose of the meeting. His brief answer said plenty:

“Who are you kidding?”
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NHRA and Coca-Cola unveiled the new logo for the 2009 season, when Full Throttle energy drink takes over the title sponsorship from Powerade. FT has said it will be more aggressive than P in promoting the series -- which is greatly needed. The announcement cited "at-track activation, out-of-home media support, online presence, retail programs and sampling." I'd say the second and fourth items on that list are the most important in trying to grow the sport.

Please note I've added Paul Page's blog to my recommended list in the right-hand column.
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We can see when a driver/car combination is faster. We can see when the gap between positions opens or closes. We can see when a crew performs a faster pit stop.

Which brings me to the ALMS' Green Challenge, which officially debuted the other week at Road Atlanta. As a manufacturer-participation-inducing technical exercise, and olive branch to the environmentalists, I grasp the value. I get that. That's fine. The press release says a Porsche was the P class winner and a Corvette in GT. How would we know if the ALMS didn't tell us? We can't see the factual elements of this competition.

Like the NFL's quarterback rating system, or the one NASCAR promotes in Sprint Cup, the mathematical formula used to make these determinations is so byzantine as to be not understandable by the media or public. Thus, it will be limited to specific interest-group publicity materials, and automaker advertising. It's not a tool to attract the general public.

I have a feeling the series would tell me: No worry. That's not our demo.
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Life on the Campaign Trail: John McCain may be trailing in the polls, but a CBS reporter says the Republican's media relations operation is much more efficient than Barack Obama's -- and even claims the Democrat's campaign plane smells. (!) Read it for yourself:
http://www.cbsnews.com/blogs/2008/10/07/politics/fromtheroad/entry4507703.shtml
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AARWBA will present John Force with its Comeback Award during a ceremony in the Shav Glick Media Center at Pomona on Saturday, Nov. 15. The 14-time NHRA Funny Car champion returned to the winner's circle this season after his serious injuries last fall. Shirley Muldowney, A.J. Foyt, Darrell Waltrip, Al Unser, Neil Bonnett and Scott Pruett are among the previous honorees. I'll be there to participate and talk about the January 10 39th All-America Team ceremony, presented by A1GP World Cup of Motorsport, which will return to California for the first time in four years. Site: The Hilton in Ontario, Calif. Go to http://aarwba.org/ for ticket/table/program ad information.

[ more Blogging the Chase next Tuesday . . . ]



Monday, October 06, 2008

SEEING the LIGHT

OK, Carl Edwards triggered the second "big one" Sunday at Talladega, but I'm happy to say he's seen the light. Or he's getting -- and taking -- some good advice.

I've noticed for a few weeks now that, when Carl is approached for his live ABC/ESPN TV interviews, he either takes off his sunglasses, or pushes them up on his head.

He lets us see him.

As I've written before, drivers have been getting so covered-up with big sunglasses, cap, and now also those damn Terrible Towels, well, they are so concealed, I'm not sure they could be ID'd in a police lineup. (No, that is not an excuse for drivers to be allowed to walk around with their uniforms pulled down, which looks sloppy, unprofessional, and is disrespectful to fans and sponsors who lose value.) The eyes may -- or may not -- be the window to the soul, but they sure help reveal the personality.

Many drivers have sunglasses "deals" -- I don't know if Carl does or not -- but his approach serves both needs. The company gets a little TV time and the folks get to feel closer to the person.

Fans need to see and sense more of a connection with their heroes. Well done, Carl. Keep it up. And, I hope, others will take note.
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Sunday produced a noteworthy contrast in what we -- the viewers -- got out of our racing TV experience.

Talladega fans didn't need an Amp Energy drink to feel revved-up, but I wonder if it would have helped some of the announcers. As I've repeatedly spotlighted in this space, too many pit reporters are poor questioners. Sunday, I got very tired of the trite, "What did you see from your perspective?" "From your perspective" seems to be the new "at this point in time" as needless words microphoner holders junk into their sentences. And, let's just be honest about it, the checkered flag call was embarrassing -- Dr. Jerry Punch didn't know the "out-of-bounds" rule, Andy Petree had one opinion, Dale Jarrett another. When Punch said he was looking into the adjacent NASCAR officials' booth for an answer, well, I felt sorry for him. What a downer.

I wrote here several weeks ago, in the aftermath of Helio Castroneves' blocking penalty at Detroit, about what I've observed too often over the years: Drivers not paying attention at the drivers' meeting. This might have come into play again after 'Dega, when various drivers said they had different understandings of the below-the-yellow-line rule. That's ridiculous and unacceptable. According to what I've been told and read, some drivers sought clarification on what was legal on the last lap in individual conversations with officials, but no one asked questions when the subject was raised in the pre-race meeting. Now, I realize everyone wants to seek an advantage -- in this case, knowing something a competitor doesn't -- and that NASCAR loves to keep things vague to provide ample room for "judgment calls." This, however, was a safety issue and Punch's inability to inform the fans with certainty was unfair to us.

Later, Jeff Gordon did his annual co-host gig on Wind Tunnel. It was a boffo hour -- fun and informative and entertaining. Tommy Kendall's question about how close Jeff actually came to joining the BAR Formula One team was enlightening. Jeff admitted discussions had taken place and said he thought the team wanted an American driver. I can add a little follow-up to this: Jeff's right. When Gordon didn't pursue the deal, BAR tried to sign Jimmy Vasser.
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AMEN!: According to Sports Business News.com, ESPN will make a "concerted effort" to add live sports event coverage "while cutting back on scripted series, reality shows, original movies and other types of more general sports entertainment."

John Skipper, ESPN's vice president of content, was quoted this way: "We have found that what sports fans really care about, and why they come to ESPN properties, is to watch live games."

I could not agree more.
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HEADLINE NEWS (or not): SBN.com also reported last week that an increasing number of daily newspapers have put NHL coverage on ice as a way to reduce costs.

Examples: The Palm Beach Post has ended staffing of the Florida Panthers. The Los Angeles Times is using just one beat reporter to cover both the Kings and the Anaheim Ducks. Road games won't be attended on a regular basis. The Philadelphia Flyers are one of the League's prestige teams, but the Inquirer's beat writer took a buyout when shifted to NFL reporting, and quoted the sports editor as calling hockey "an irrelevant sport." At least early in the season, the Arizona Republic isn't traveling with the Coyotes.

So, motorsports isn't alone battling for space . . . but I continue to believe racing is (or has the strong potential to be) a far bigger generator of revenue, in terms of sales and advertising, than some sports which have been judged as essential to cover. But publishers have to be made to realize that -- and get their sales people to act accordingly.
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Here's my suggestion for those who still believe "any publicity is good publicity."

See last Thursday's AP story (among many others) about Helio Castroneves.

Then ask Roger Penske.
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Recently, it was a bad week for racing coverage in Arizona. Atlantics driver and former Malcolm In the Middle star Frankie Muniz no-showed on a long-scheduled appearance (re-confirmed the day before) on Racing Roundup Arizona. No explanation offered. Two days later, Kyle Busch was promoted as a guest on the morning talk show on the Valley's MRN affiliate. You guessed it: Kyle's call never came. Oh, the lack of professionalism, and common courtesy, in our society.
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Here's a link to my new "All Business" column in the October Drag Racing Online.com. It deals with the effects of the Wall Street crisis on motorsports:
http://dragracingonline.com/columns/knight/x_9-2.html
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As chairman of the AARWBA All-America Team ceremony, I've strived to make the event more valuable and newsworthy for members and guests. Last year, we added the pre-dinner Shav Glick Newsmakers Forum, an opportunity for drivers/teams/sponsors/tracks/sanctions to make brief announcements. That was a success and we'll do it again before the 39th annual ceremony, Saturday, January 10, at the Ontario (Calif.) Hilton.

I'm pleased to share with you that, this time, we'll spend the day on a "field trip." Saturday morning, AARWBAers will board NHRA-provided transportation for a visit to John Force Racing, in Yorba Linda. We'll have breakfast, tour the 14-time Funny Car champion's facilities, hear from John, and have plenty of time for one-on-one and small group interviews with John, daughter Ashley, Robert Hight and others. After that, it's on to Pomona, for an afternoon of media racing. NHRA drivers will teach Drag Racing 101 and then we'll have elimination rounds in Pontiacs, NHRA's official vehicle. NHRA will have awards for the winner and runner-up. Then, back to the Hilton, with plenty of time to get ready for the 5:30 p.m. Forum, pre-dinner reception co-hosted by ESPN and MAZDASPEED, and the 7 p.m. dinner and ceremony presented by A1GP World Cup of Motorsport. Legendary announcer/broadcaster Dave McClelland will MC.

This is a great opportunity both for AARWBA members and NHRA. I thank NHRA and JFR. Now's the time to make your plans to attend: Go to http://aarwba.org/aarwba09.htm to order tickets, reserve tables and advertise in the program book. A special AARWBA room rate is available at the Hilton.

I have accepted AARWBA President Dusty Brandel's appointment to serve as national vice president on an interim basis. This will provide continuity of leadership following Mike Hollander's death. I'll serve until a new national VP is chosen by the membership in regularly scheduled elections later this year and will not be a candidate.

Thanks to the many who have written in reaction to last week's posting, remembering Paul Newman, Mike Hollander and Al Holbert. If you didn't read it, please scroll below.

[ more Blogging the Chase next Tuesday . . . ]

Saturday, September 27, 2008

REMEMBERING FRIENDS

WITH PAUL: In the pits at Long Beach, 1993.

A racer.

That's how I'll remember Paul Newman.

Unlike other celebrities who rocketed in-and-out of the motorsports' scene like Haley's comet, engaged only for endorsement or promotional reasons, Paul was as serious about racing as any champion or winning driver. Which, of course, he was. Newman, however, is best remembered as the original co-owner of Newman/Haas Racing, which dominated the Champ Car era of American open-wheel competition with the likes of Mario and Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell and Sebastien Bourdais.

I'll leave it to others to recount the facts and stats of Paul's incredible life, which cancer brought to an end Friday, at age 83. What I have to offer is personal perspective from my time, 1984-1987; 1989-1995 as Newman/Haas PR director.

* As Mario was closing in on the 1984 PPG Cup, Paul sought a good vantage point to watch the race at Laguna Seca, because you couldn't see much more than a passing flash from pit lane. ESPN operated from the roof of the media center and I arranged for Paul and his acting/racing buddy Michael Brockman to watch from up there. Paul returned the courtesy by going into the booth for a "live" interview with Bob Jenkins. Paul didn't travel with an entourage and was happy enough that I left him with a good view and a six-pack of Budweiser in a small cooler.

* In those days, heavy traffic on limited access roads made it pointless to try to rush out of Laguna after the race. So, a few of us sat in the motorcoach, watching a Ronald Reagan-Walter Mondale presidential campaign debate on TV. Paul and Mario were on opposite ends of the political spectrum and they reacted pro-or-con to what Reagan and Mondale had to say. Afterwards, Paul and Mario agreed it would be best never to discuss politics again, in order to preserve their friendship.

* On Monday, March 30, 1987, Newman won the Academy Award for Best Actor in the movie, The Color of Money. Paul didn't attend, but had asked Mario to go and accept the Oscar for him, if he won. Andretti agreed. The idea was scotched when officials told Newman only Academy members could do so. But, six days later, Paul joined Mario in victory lane at Long Beach.

* The 1992 Indy 500 was a terrible day for Newman/Haas. Mario crashed and had foot injuries. Jeff Andretti, driving for A.J. Foyt, had a hub failure and the accident left him with severe leg injuries. Michael dominated the race but broke in the closing laps. At Methodist Hospital, late that evening, Paul quietly mentioned he was hungry. I offered to get him something. To break the tension in the waiting room, he said: "Where can we go and get an All-American junko burger, you know, the kind with grease running out of it?" Our friend Bill Yeager suggested a dive near the Speedway called the Beverage Inn. The three of us went over and, in as unlikely a place as you could ever imagine to see a Hollywood legend, Paul enjoyed a burger and a Bud.

* It was Paul who coined Mansell's journey from Formula One world champion to CART PPG Cup titlist in 1993 as "The Great Adventure." Paul was at Phoenix International Raceway for Nigel's first test -- witnessed by 90 media from nine countries. At Long Beach, Mansell was a second quicker than anyone, and during qualifying Paul looked at that massive gap on the timing monitor and whispered to me, "That's embarrassing." I replied, "No, that's the way it should be." He smiled and laughed and said, "You're right! That's the way it should be!" Those with a keen eye could notice that, for years later, during Hollywood ceremonies, Paul was wearing his '93 championship ring.

* I was there at Indy in 1995 when Paul and Carl Haas sat down with Tony George in the heated atmospherics of the last pre-IRL/CART split 500. There's no need to recount the specifics now, other than to say Paul's concern was not racing politics, but to make sure the Speedway would allow quality food to be served to his mechanics in the garage area. Tony agreed. While Paul was CART's most vocal and passionate advocate, he became a believer in a reunified IndyCar Series, and, last March, allowed his name to go on a letter to previous Indy 500 ticket buyers, asking them to come back. It's a happy thing that Justin Wilson and Graham Rahal were able to win for Paul's team in the first reunified season. And that Tony George and the Speedway properly acknowledged Paul's passing.

* Paul knew I enjoyed researching racing historical trivia, and on many weekends he'd ask me, "What have you got for me?" I'd share some informational nugget and he'd delight in it . . . then go off and stump Roger Penske or Bobby Rahal or Chip Ganassi.

I once asked Paul for some guidance. He kindly took me into the privacy of the team motorcoach and taught me this: "Know your audience." And that humor was a powerful device to communicate a serious message.

For that, his kindness, and the great opportunity just to be around him, I say thank you to Paul Newman: A racer.
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Michael F. Hollander was my computer guru. He put up with my dumb questions about the Internet, told me what equipment to buy, and how to make it all work. When I hit a technical brick wall, he coached me via telephone on how to fix it. I couldn't have created this blog without his overly generous help.

Hollander, 61, died last Wednesday of cancer. Everyone who has ever written about racing online owes him a moment of respect and a silent prayer, because it was Mike who effectively invented online race news reporting. All the way back in the dark ages of 1979, he began posting real-time race news worldwide via the CompuServe Information Service. In September 1983, that evolved into the Auto Racing SIG and later into The Motor Sports Forum.

I remember, in the early 1980s, occasions when the AP's Mike Harris and I would have to argue with track PR directors to issue Hollander media credentials -- simply because they didn't know there was such a thing as online journalism.

Mike later authored two books and helped racing clients, including the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, while working at agencies. He was the longtime AARWBA western vice president and then national VP. His efforts on behalf of AARWBA members were incredible, including editing the All-America Team program book, and producing all the awards ceremony visuals. Mike was presented the Dusty Brandel President's Award, for service to AARWBA, two years ago. The truth is, he could have gotten that honor every year.

Mike was a Navy veteran, who served in Vietnam, and received numerous decorations.

A member of the Indianapolis 500 Oldtimers, Mike was able to travel from California to the great race last May, and attended the traditional AARWBA members' breakfast. I sat near him in the IMS media center race morning, watching the Monaco Grand Prix on TV, and -- as usual -- he was online, telling me about news from around the world.

Mike Hollander was a pioneer. It's almost impossible to remember a time when online motorsports journalism didn't exist. He made it happen for the rest of us. Thank you, Mike.
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Publicist Ron Meade, an original staff member of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, died last week. Going back to the 1970s, Ron was of assistance to me in a variety of roles, at Daytona and in sports car racing. I always appreciated his help.
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One of my very closest friends, Al Holbert, was killed 20 years ago when the private airplane he was piloting crashed moments after takeoff from Columbus, Ohio. It was Sept. 30, 1988. He was only 42. Over 1,000 people attended his funeral.

I covered Al extensively while at the Philadelphia Daily News, as the three-time Le Mans winner and multiple IMSA champion's Porsche dealership and team were based in nearby Warrington, Pa. Al is mostly remembered for his sports car excellence, but he also finished fourth in his only Indy 500 appearance, and was a respected driver in the NASCAR Winston Cup series.

In '88, I handled the PR for the Porsche CART team, which Al ran as director of Porsche Motorsport North America. I told him several times that he was too nice a person to be involved in racing. One lesson from Al's life is he proved good people can be successful.
One of the greatest gifts I've ever received came from Al: His trust in my ability.

Two days before his death, over lunch, we shook hands on a partnership in a PR/promotions/marketing company. That dream died with Al. Above, we're in one of our very typical candid one-on-one conversations, this at Pocono, that summer. I miss Al to this day. God Bless. (Photo courtesy of Dan R. Boyd.)


[ more Tuesday, Oct. 7 . . . ]

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

TAKING THE HEAT

SETTING THE PACE: USA Today published a special section last week in recognition of the 35th anniversary of Title IX, the act widely regarded as having opened the door for greater participation by women in sports. Janet Guthrie, the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500, was prominently mentioned. Today, Mazda is a leader in providing opportunities for female racers in a variety of road racing classes. This nicely-composed image from Mazda PR rep Dean Case, taken at Road America, shows (left to right), Kristy Kester, Star Mazda; Deborah Loth, MX-5 Cup; Natalia Kowalska, Star Mazda; Laura Olson, MX-5 Cup; Simona De Silvestra, Atlantic; Ashley Frieberg, Skip Barber series.


Sports Illustrated called-out Kyle Busch last week. In a story by Mark Beech, noting that Busch bolted from New Hampshire Motor Speedway "without comment," Beech took up the popular notion that Kyle has matured now that he's with Joe Gibbs Racing. In his story, headlined "Adults Only," Beech wrote: "For all of Busch's claims to personal growth . . . he has yet to completely shed his reputation as a punk on wheels."

Tough stuff.

Engine failure put Kyle into the garage at Dover. While waiting to see if enough repairs could be made so he could make laps, Busch did emerge from the hauler to speak with ABC and gathered reporters.

In his Friday media session, four-time champion Jeff Gordon was asked why he always makes himself available post-race. According to a Chevrolet-provided transcript, Jeff answered:

“I don’t know, it is just the way we have always done it. While there are moments that your frustration level gets the best of you and you may need some time to cool down before you say something that you wish you could take back. With that in mind, we have just always done it that way. I think you have respect for the media; they are a big part of this sport. Whether you have a good day or a bad day, you have got to talk about both sides. You can’t just only come out when you have a smile on your face and everything is going your way. Sometimes you have to answer the tough questions too, whether you like it or not. I think we have always tried to respect the media. They have been good to us and we try to give them that same courtesy back.”

Meanwhile, Busch fell to last in the Chase standings, while Tony Schumacher's record-setting run in Top Fuel came to an end in the final round in Texas. Busch did dominate Saturday's Nationwide race at Dover. While I believe Scott Pruett -- who clinched the Daytona Prototype championship Saturday -- deserves Driver of the Year consideration, along with Scott Dixon, it's more likely that honor will go to either the NASCAR or NHRA driver. In the last two weeks, the momentum has shifted to Schumacher.
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Boy, am I GLAD I wrote last week's blog, "Taken for Granted." It triggered some E-mails from some unexpected corners of the media universe. People told me their own stories of what one high-powered journalist called "neglect" from the president and publicist of the track she frequently works.

I would politely suggest scrolling below for a re-read. It obviously should be a BIG wake-up call for a LOT of people. More than I realized.
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I was out at Manzanita Speedway Saturday night to see Jim McGee's induction into the Arizona Motorsports Hall of Fame. I worked with Jim at Newman/Haas Racing in 1993 and '94 during the days of "Mansell Mania." As one who was behind the closed garage doors, I can tell you, Nigel could not have won the '93 PPG Cup without Jim as team manager. It was Jim who talked Nigel through the elements of oval racing (Mansell won four consecutive ovals) and how to compete within the CART system. Jim has long ties to Arizona, including his time working for Clint Brawner and Bob Fletcher. That's Jim (left) and his Hall of Fame plaque with writer Mark Armijo, a member of the Hall committee.
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Congratulations to Cathie Lyon, who becomes executive director of CARA Charities effective Oct. 1. Cathie takes over for Mary Lou Bogner, who is retiring after serving as exec director since 1993. Cathie (along with Billy Kamphausen and a few others) served greatly and loyally to CART/Champ Car for many years -- and should have had a job in the IRL after reunification.

I'm sure Cathie's positive energy will benefit the good work of CARA. Learn more at http://www.caracharities.org/
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Check back here next week for some important news about an exciting new element we'll add to the January 10 AARWBA All-America Team ceremony, presented by A1GP World Cup of Motorsport. New location is the Hilton in Ontario, Calif.

I will be contributing to the Arizona Republic's advance and NASCAR race-weekend coverage at Phoenix International Raceway in November.


[ more Blogging the Chase next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

TAKEN FOR GRANTED

Even though my home is in the highly-desirable golf destination of Scottsdale, I don't play. That doesn't mean I'm not interested in the sport. One of the great days of my sportswriter life was to follow Jack Nicklaus for 18 holes from inside the ropes. And, I find the golf industry fascinating from a business perspective.

The other week, the LPGA announced that, as a requirement of membership, players would have to speak English. At least adequately enough to interact with media, fans, officials and sponsors. With Annika Sorenstam (I'm a fan) on the way to retirement and the tour increasingly dominated by Asian players, I agreed with this decision. As I have tried to tell assorted sports car sanctioning executives over the years -- with frustration but not success -- journalists need to talk to the athletes to write and broadcast stories. In over 40 years in-and-around racing, I've yet to see a reporter interview a car, no matter how eye-catching the Ferrari or Porsche or Acura or Corvette or Audi may be.

In truth, the LPGA's decision was more about cash than publicity. Corporate types pay for the fun of teeing-it-up in a pro-am with one of the professionals. It's not such a good investment when you can't speak with your playing partner. Considering that South Korean television rights constitute a major revenue stream for the LPGA, one would think the policy was duly considered.

Unfortunately, as has so often been the case under the current commissioner -- the LPGA's equivalent of Andrew Craig -- this backfired like a '49 Ford. The rule wasn't officially announced, but leaked out from offended parties. Quite predictably, the empty suit TV talkers jerked their knees as if struck by a Big Bertha, calling for the ACLU (which is so left it ought to have its headquarters inside turn one at California Speedway) to get involved. Such "informed" commentary, sadly, overlooked the fact that countless legal rulings have upheld the right of organizations to establish reasonable and legitimate membership requirements.

Last week, the LPGA backed off. They handled the matter like a 5 iron in a thunderstorm, but I cheer the attempt to actually set some standards.

Which brings me to the Chase 5.0, which opened with Greg Biffle's victory last Sunday at New Hampshire.

Even with the dark clouds hanging over Detroit, NASCAR is in a stronger position than most sports orgs to weather our national economic storm. (But the announcement that NASCAR Holdings is buying Grand-Am has potential important implications, as I'll explain in upcoming weeks.) That does not mean attracting attention (or selling tickets) for the Chase races is as easy as a one-foot putt.

Filling seats is almost entirely a local job. Let's just say some tracks do it better than others. There are race "organizers" and then there are (a few) "promoters."

And then there are those who take the media and coverage for granted.

That is an astounding reality.

I understand that might seem hard to believe, especially in today's challenging media environment, but I'm here to tell you it's true. For all the level of "sophistication" the racing business supposedly has these days, I know this: In the 1970s, when I was at the Philadelphia Daily News and covered all the big events at Pocono, Dover, Trenton and Watkins Glen, people at those speedways (two didn't even have full-time PR directors!) knew enough to do meaningful relationship-building with key journalists.

Did it take a little work? Yes! Maybe some extra effort? Absolutely! Was it worthwhile? You better believe it!

Think about that, please. There were PR people more than 30 years ago who knew more and did more than some in the contemporary crowd. (!) Some today consider a few lame words transmitted via a lazy E-mail is good enough. I guess they don't have the strength to pick up the telephone even when good manners and good business demands it.

Say what you will about the antics at Charlotte and Texas, but no one thinks the promoters there take media coverage for granted. It's as natural as breathing for them to walk through the media center to say "hello" and "thank you." Some others would need a brain transplant to get that thought.

I'd like to see NASCAR put an addendum on its sanction agreements. Maybe NASCAR can't legislate common sense. But it surely can mandate higher standards. At least the LPGA had the right idea.
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NHRA's playoffs began last Sunday with what, by all indications, was an ultra-successful debut in the Carolinas at Bruton Smith's new drag palace. To repeat what I've said before, I consider drag racing to be an under-covered sport. So I'll be including the Countdown to One in Blogging the Chase. With Kyle Busch's problems at New Hampshire, and Tony Schumacher's record-setting victory (seven in-a-row, 12 this season, 28 straight rounds, 53 in his career) in Concord, the Army Top Fuel driver should have moved ahead in the Driver of the Year competition. In addition to Drag Racing Online.com and the other sites I mentioned in this space the other week, a good way to follow the Countdown is via ESPN2 NHRA anchor Paul Page's blog: http://paulpage.tv/

* I'm continually impressed with the regular updates John Bisci, the PR manager at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, provides NHRA team/sponsor publicists to help them do their job. And help publicize the two Powerade weekends at The Strip. Bisci is one of the VERY FEW current-day track publicists who understands that reaching out and generating goodwill among the teams and sponsors by sharing his local knowledge is smart -- and good business.
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Here's a link to my new "All Business" column in the September Drag Racing Online, headlined: "Crafting a Public Image".
http://dragracingonline.com/columns/knight/x_9-1.html
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I'm not big on surprises, but . . . I've been notified that I won a gold medallion for commentary and a bronze for interviewing in the International Automotive Media Awards. The gold was for my "The Bottom Line" column, on the state of the Indy 500, that was published in the May/June 2007 Race News magazine. The bronze was for my Brian France Q&A in the Nov. 11, 2007 Arizona Republic.

[ more Blogging the Chase next Tuesday . . . ]