• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

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.
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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.
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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/
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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 . . . ]