• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

CHAMP CAR: DO THE RIGHT THING

Not that I expect this to happen, since beginning with Andrew Craig it seems to have been official policy of CART/Champ Car management to thumb its nose at the workers whose dedication made it possible for the company to exist, but as next month's Long Beach Grand Prix is being touted as the series "grand finale" it would be nice if at least some of those people were invited as honored guests and formally recognized and thanked for their incredible efforts.

The list is long, but here are several names, which I offer based on my own long and personal experience:

Jim Melvin, Wally Dallenbach, Kirk and Barbara Russell, Billy Kamphausen, Bill Luchow, Dick Perry, Dr. Steve Olvey, Dr. Terry Trammell, Cathie Lyon, Lon Bromley, Cheryl Alexander, Greg Passauer, Liz DeLuca, Chuck Greer, Karen O'Brien, Bob and Barbara Funk and a member of the late Nick Fornoro's family.

Is it asking too much for management, at least at the end, to do the right thing?
********************************************************************
I offer this simple reminder to those at SPEED Channel and SpeedTV.com:

Words mean things.

One might not think a media company would need such a mind refresher. Unfortunately, that's not the case.

Last year, the network spent a week hyping a joint Ed Hinton-Robin Miller appearance on Wind Tunnel by promoting it as "televised hate." Hinton disavowed himself of that description right at the start of the show. I told him later he did the right thing and it added to the substance and credibility of his comments.

Recently, a .com column was headlined this way: "Hate ‘Lanta: SpeedTv.com's Tom Jensen says the hate is back in the NASCAR Sprint Cup garage and that's not a bad thing . . ."

The article began: "In case you didn’t notice, the hate is back in the NASCAR Sprint Cup garage. And that is a very good thing indeed."


Just what our world needs: The promotion of hate as a positive. All in the name of entertainment and ratings and readership, of course.

Since they're expanding and hiring at the network, I'll (again) call on the S Channel to follow the lead of ESPN and other media organizations, and hire an Ombudsman to monitor standards and advocate for the public interest. An O might start by explaining why management now allows its "celebrity" announcers to sell corporate ID space on their network-logo clothing.

Somehow, I don't think we'll see sponsor names on the blazers worn by ESPN's Monday Night Football announcers.
********************************************************************
I've been sounding this warning for well over a year. Last week, it was acknowledged in a NASCAR.com column (bold emphasis mine):

"Similarly, NASCAR's early-season ratings increase does not necessarily mean the sport is on a path back to the days of 2001 and '02, when a combination of factors -- Fox's entrance, increased expansion to major markets, the curiosity generated by Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash -- sent television ratings skyrocketing. And it doesn't mean NASCAR is without its media challenges, the biggest of which may not be TV, but the increasing number of daily newspapers that have axed staff-generated coverage of the sport. With profits dropping in that industry, racing with its $200-a-night hotel minimums is an expensive and easy beat to cut. The infield media center at Bristol never seemed as empty as it did last week."
********************************************************************
Here's a link to last Friday's Arizona Republic notebook, featuring Paul Tracy:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/0320racingnb0321.html


If you missed it, please check out my new Business of Racing video commentary (on the future of the NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle class) on 1320tv.com:
http://www.1320tv.com/dialed_in/article3.asp?vid=2-20-08/bor_psm&title=Michael%20Knight%27s%20commentary%20on%20the%20state%20of%20the%20Pro%20Stock%20Motorcycle%20class

This is a "must read" on ESPN. Great reporting by Sports Business Journal:
http://www.sportsbusinessjournal.com/article/58375


[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

TIRE-D

The controversy over Goodyear's NASCAR tires reminded me of a great moment.

Prior to the 1988 CART season, I participated in a planning meeting for the Quaker State Porsche team. QS was the primary sponsor, and their marketing communications representative said that since this was a Porsche factory car backed by an oil company, we should never publicly admit to an engine failure. Just call it a "mechanical problem," he suggested, or maybe "transmission trouble."

I gulped hard -- more than once. Before I could say anything, though, Al Holbert stood up.

Literally.

Holbert, the three-time Le Mans winner, was director of Porsche Motorsports North America and the team operated from Al's Warrington, Pa., facility.

"We're not going to do that," Al said flatly. He called such an approach "counter-productive" and "damaging to our credibility."

Next subject.

I couldn't have been more proud of Al at that moment. Not surprisingly, he got it. He understood.

(For those who don't know, Al was one of my closest friends. I covered him for several years while at the Philadelphia Daily News. He recruited me to do the team's PR as it entered CART competition. Eight months after this meeting, Al was killed when his private plane crashed shortly after takeoff from Columbus, Ohio.)

As the Charlotte Observer's David Poole wrote last week, in all the years he's been covering NASCAR, no one from Goodyear has ever admitted to him that one of its tires had failed. While I have no doubt corporate legal counsel long ago helped craft this as the company's official party line, it's a contributory factor to why the current story is being played as it is. The one-reason-fits-all-occasions "cut tire" explanation lost credibility in media centers decades ago. (If not in the network TV and radio booths.) Along with mysterious "debris" cautions.

Yes, controversy sells in the media, and Tony Stewart quotes are always good for that purpose. It can't be ignored that Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Jarrett, among others, weren't happy either -- although their words weren't as blunt as Stewart's. As Jarrett pointed out, drivers had expressed their concerns to the appropriate parties -- in private -- before going public.

NASCAR will always say safety is its No. 1 priority. A VERY close second, however, is entertainment. And rock-hard tires on the CoT weren't the ticket for a good show at Atlanta.

Stewart said Goodyear has fallen behind in technology. I think that is accurate. Technology development is costly and a quick Google search reveals the financial and labor issues in Akron in recent years. It's apparent that, with the advent of the CoT, Goodyear can't bring the same tire to perform well on Cup and Nationwide cars. Downforce levels and corner speeds are too different for that to work.

Having had the opportunity to observe both Goodyear and Firestone up-close in open-wheel, the pro-active attitude of the red 'stone group contrasted with what came across as a more laid-back approach by those in 'year blue.

Technology, though, isn't the full story here. To me, it's also a question of management philosophy and engineering methodology. I don't think this is new and the 1985 Michigan and 1998 Nazareth CART races are case studies worth reviewing for those sufficiently interested. As is, for contrast, Belle Isle 1996 and the action taken promptly thereafter.

In NASCAR, tire issues arise at too-high a percentage of the races, and it's been that way for years.

This post-Atlanta quote from Dale Jr. shouldn't be overlooked:

"I'd just like to know how that process goes. I went to Texas and tire tested, but they didn't ask me much, what I thought. So I just sit there and, you know, they got these other guys doing the testing. But the times that I've done it, I didn't feel like my input was observed or looked over too well."

That statement should be a FLASHING RED WARNING LIGHT to those who have supervisory authority over how Goodyear chooses its race tires.

Meanwhile, here are two lessons to be learned:

1. FOR PR PEOPLE: Cookie-cutter explanations don't cut it in today's media world.

2. FOR JOURNALISTS: For further proof that "any publicity is good publicity" is ridiculous and repeated only by those who don't know the first thing about business/image PR, consider two other names in the news last week -- Eliot Spitzer and John Daly.
********************************************************************
FOR THE FANS? It's nice that the American Le Mans Series uses that (minus the ?) as a slogan, but, to me, it doesn't seem to apply to fans who watch on TV. I wrote about this problem last year: In a series with four classes, and in which the "lower" P2 category Porsche RS Spyders are regularly beating the P1 Audis, it is essential for viewers to know the OVERALL running order, not just by CLASS. There is no more basic question in sports than: "Who's winning?"

Too often, ALMS' telecasters don't tell us. I brought this issue directly to ALMS President Scott Atherton late last year. He told me the team owners wanted MORE class-by-class coverage. I would suggest this: If you are going to do TV to suit the competitors, it would cost less just to string together a closed-circuit system in the paddock, and forget trying to reach your customers at home.

Saturday's season-opener from Sebring, on SPEED, was only a slight improvement. Mainly because the Audis had so many problems. Meanwhile, there were persistent audio problems. The pit reporters still don't know how to ask meaningful questions: "How does it feel?" and "What does this mean to you?" don't cut it. "Talk about . . . " isn't a question. Apparently, we're all supposed to know who "Nic" and "Marc" and "Terry" are, no last names spoken. And, less than 15 minutes into a 12-hour run, we were told from the booth that a driver HAD to make a pass "right here, right now."

By definition, endurance races are long. That's how it seems the ALMS TV season will be, too.
********************************************************************
Larry Henry is doing "This Week in Ford Racing" podcats every week. Check this out at: http://www.fordracing.com/ . Plus, on Tuesday and Thursday, Henry has an interview with Craftsman Truck Series driver Colin Braun at http://www.con-wayracing.com/.

On March 11, reporters called into NASCAR's weekly media teleconference for a 2 p.m. conversation with hotter-than-hot Kyle Busch. After 25 minutes of music, Dale Jarrett came on the line. Exactly 61 minutes late, we heard from Busch. With engine noise clear in the background, Kyle said his late model team was testing at Hickory Speedway. At the very end of the call, he offered: "Sorry I was late." Unacceptable. If he was going to be so delayed, journalists deserved the COMMON COURTESY of being so informed. I wonder how Kyle would react if someone kept him waiting 61 minutes without warning or an updated communication? Count this as yet another instance of, well, let's be polite and call it the "undisciplined" way Joe Gibbs Racing handles its drivers. History tell us so. Maybe that's why Kyle said he enjoys the JGR organization more than Hendrick Motorsports.

Tamy Valkosky, of Lowe's Fernandez Racing, showed the right way to handle a bit of crisis communications after a technical violation disqualified Adrian Fernandez and Luis Diaz from their second-place finish at Sebring. Tamy issued a few graphs of clear, understandable, no excuses, no fluff quotes from co-owner/managing director Tom Anderson.

What happens when a PR firm has a payment dispute with a client? Well, somehow, that news gets out into the press:
http://auto-racing.speedtv.com/article/a1gp-team-usa-ordered-to-pay-judgment-535136-to-pr-firm/
********************************************************************
What's the state of NHRA's Pro Stock Motorcycle class? Watch my new 1320tv.com Business of Racing video commentary on that subject:
http://www.1320tv.com/dialed_in/article3.asp?vid=2-20-08/bor_psm&title=Michael%20Knight%27s%20commentary%20on%20the%20state%20of%20the%20Pro%20Stock%20Motorcycle%20class

Here's a link to last Friday's Arizona Republic notebook, featuring Patrick Long:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/0313racingnb0314.html


[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

LOCAL NEWS

The economic problems of America's daily newspapers have been discussed here and, more extensively, in the business media. How cutbacks impact local communities reached a new level of attention last week, when a Long Beach councilwoman raised the possibility that the city might remove its advertising from the Press-Telegram.

I think this is so important I'm running the paper's story below, without further comment:

The Long Beach City Council said Tuesday night that it may consider removing city-paid ads from the local daily newspaper, the Long Beach Press-Telegram.

City council member Tonia Reyes Uranga said the city spends $100,000 in advertisements ran through the Press-Telegram, and that she would like to see where that money is going. The council's concerns come after the Denver-based MediaNews Group, owner of the Press-Telegram since 1997, recently consolidated some of the Press-Telegram's facilities and staff with those of the Torrance Daily Breeze, also owned by MediaNews. Press-Telegram staff who were not immediately laid off were told to go to the Daily Breeze office Saturday for interviews for their same positions.

Many Press-Telegram employees and community members were present at the vote, and held colorful signs saying, "Save Our Jobs" and "Don't Take the Local Out Of Local News."

Long Beach, the fifth-largest city in California and one with a population of nearly 500,000, will now have a paper where many of its staff members, including some management, is based out of the city it covers. The council said it fears Long Beach will lose good local coverage with portions of the Press-Telegram based elsewhere. The portions of the paper that have been moved to Torrance include the copy and design desks. Reporters, photographers, city editors, advertising personnel and Executive Editor Rich Archbold will stay working out of Long Beach in the Press-Telegram's downtown offices.

The Daily Breeze and Press-Telegram will be worked on in Torrance by a single copy desk, according to Austin Lewis, a Press-Telegram copy editor and former managing editor of the Daily Forty-Niner. "It's like one staff putting out two papers. It's not like the Press-Telegram is moving its copy desk to Torrance," Lewis said.

"We need you. We need the hometown news," said Vice Mayor Bonnie Lowenthal about the Press-Telegram at the city council meeting. The vice mayor also said she will be working with CSULB President F. King Alexander "to design a forum with our help to explore local journalism. We need to put heads and hearts together to understand changes in journalism."

Council members Dee Andrews and Patrick O'Donnell said they worked for the Press-Telegram as children. Andrews, who worked at the paper at age seven to deliver papers, said he is with the publication 100 percent. O'Donnell also said the Press-Telegram is the first thing he reads in the morning, and that he is happy to see people standing up and making journalism a priority.

Council member Rae Gabelich said she has watched the demise of the Press-Telegram and there are more ads than news. "Our business is suffering. Every day we have declining revenue," Archbold said. He reassured the council that the Press-Telegram was "here to stay," adding that he would be on the phone a lot more because of the changes. Archbold also said that not one reporter was cut and that he would love to hire more and have a bigger budget, but that they were just not feasible.

Many people at the meeting spoke against the recent changes and MediaNews' CEO Dean Singleton. "(The) loss of the managing publisher is the latest slap in the face," said Joe Segura, union steward of the Southern California Media Guild/CWA Local 9400, in reference to the losses of both the Press-Telegram publisher and managing editor. "We need a local managing editor. We need a local publisher to help protect local coverage."
********************************************************************
Links:

My Arizona Republic notebook last Friday, leading with Ryan Newman:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/0306racingnb0307.html

Jeff Gordon story from last week's testing at Phoenix International Raceway:
http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/0308swv-nascar0308.html

My new Business of Racing video commentary on 1320tv.com, on the "new" John Force:
http://www.1320tv.com/dialed_in/article11.asp?vid=dialed_in/bor_force_phoenix&title=Michael%20Knight%27s%20commentary%20on%20John%20Force%27s%20return%20to%20Gainesville,%20new%20mission


[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

OPEN WHEEL's OPENING MOVE

The Tony George-Kevin Kalkhoven news conference at Homestead-Miami Speedway was a useful first step in outreach to heal the wounds of the 12-year American open wheel racing civil war. Not in terms of the few specifics offered, but rather, for the several comments that this glued-together season will be "for the fans."

I could not agree more.

It's going to take a lot more than words to bring back fans left disenfranchised by the battle for power, control and money. But there were a few words that were not, but should have been, sincerely spoken by both George and Kalkhoven -- and this should not be a surprise since I've written this for years:

"I apologize. I'm sorry."

I don't get it, when the high and mighty claim they want to connect with the average folks, but can't bring themselves to say the simple words that everyone understands and appreciates.

"I apologize. I'm sorry."

THAT would have been the way to start that news conference. And when they didn't say it, some reporter should have asked: "Are you sorry? Do you apologize to fans and sponsors?"

Meanwhile, I'll share a bit of intelligence I'm sure has escaped the radar screen of my friends over at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There's already talk of a "pool" over how many May Days it will take before the bitter old arrogance of 1995 and earlier becomes commonplace among IMS staffers and the infamous Yellow Shirts. The theory behind the "pool" is Speedway people will have a "we won" attitude -- and inflict it on what Tony Hulman told me back in 1975 he considered to be his "guests."

I'll repeat what I wrote last week (see below, "The 2 Billion Dollar Blunder"): NO ONE 'WON.' EVERYONE LOST.

(And proof of what I've been saying, that reunification would not automatically solve all the problems, came almost immediately with the end of Forsythe Championship Racing. That put Paul Tracy -- Champ Car's one legitimate star -- on the street.)

If necessary, Tony George had better speak face-to-face with every last person who represents IMS, and make sure they know such an arrogant attitude is unacceptable. A zero-tolerance, one-strike-and-you're-out, policy would be the right move.

As would a clear understanding that the best public/media/corporate image improver that could happen would be for IMS to once again be able to issue an honest news release: "Indy 500 Tickets Sold Out."

That's the No. 1 priority, and wasting resources by again hauling 33 drivers to New York City for a photo-op isn't going to make it happen.
********************************************************************
EXPERT TV COMMENTARY OF THE WEEKEND: This exchange, on ESPN2 Saturday, when Jeff Burton coasted into the pits during the Nationwide Series race --

Andy Petree: "I don't hear the engine running. That's not a good sign."

Dale Jarrett: "No, it isn't."

And then there was Jamie Little's typical tee-hee-hee style interview with Tony Stewart after his crash. Stewart admitted, "I banged my foot up a little bit" -- which DEMANDED a follow-up question on the SPECIFIC extent of Tony's injury. But, instead, Little let out the usual "you're OK" and the viewer was left to wonder.

Please check out my new Business of Racing video commentary, on the "new" John Force, now posted at 1320tv.com:

http://www.1320tv.com/dialed_in/article11.asp?vid=dialed_in/bor_force_phoenix&title=Michael%20Knight%27s%20commentary%20on%20John%20Force%27s%20return%20to%20Gainesville,%20new%20mission
********************************************************************
P.S. -- I want to acknowledge the recent passing of TV and radio executive Tim Sullivan. He was a regular at the Eastern Motorsports Press Association convention in the 1970s and supportive of my early career efforts. Thank you, Tim.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]