• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

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 . . . ]

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

ELITE ACTIONS

For the third consecutive year, I'll Blog the Chase, starting next week.

For now, though, I can't go without expressing concern for the outrageous double-standard and elitist treatment too many in the media have directed at Sarah Palin. The governor of Alaska and Republican vice presidential nominee's life story includes family, hockey mom, hunting and snowmobiling -- not the priorities in the media's Georgetown and New York social hubs.

Showing how truly out-of-touch with the American people the media elites are, I have heard several pundits say Palin is not qualified because she's never appeared on Meet The Press or other Sunday talk shows. MSNBC's Chris Matthews -- whose own combination of ego and arrogance is matched in my experience only by Andrew Craig -- literally screamed on-the-air last week that Palin "MUST" appear on such a show (the obvious implication being his). Matthews looked miffed when Pat Buchanan informed him he could not "order" her to appear!

There's a lot to say -- and learn -- from how the media has acted in recent weeks. I'll get into that in detail in the next few weeks.

[next Tuesday, Blogging the Chase . . . ]

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

DECISIONS, DECISIONS, DECISIONS

The decisions of decision-makers led the sports news last week.

1. The LPGA mandated that all of its players must speak English as a condition of membership. I agree with this and will explain why and the good example it sets for others in the near future. However, as has been common under the current LPGA executive team, the news was mishandled PR-wise by the tour office -- creating an unnecessary controversy.

2. Milwaukee Brewers’ pitcher CC Sabathia lost a no-hitter against the Pittsburgh Pirates because the official scorer ruled "hit" instead of "error" on a ball fielded by Sabathia. Having covered a game or two in my career, I definitely would have called "E-1."

3. Over on Belle Isle, IRL competition boss Brian Barnhart got in the spirit of the start of football season, and threw a penalty flag for an illegal block. That forced Helio Castroneves to yield the lead -- and, ultimately, the victory -- to Justin Wilson.

What fascinated me came in the post-race comments from various drivers. Depending on who was doing the talking, normal policy outlined by Barnhart in the drivers' meetings did or did not specify a warning would be issued before a penalty. This reminded me of what happened after the 1981 Indianapolis 500 debacle, when USAC took the win away from Bobby Unser and awarded it to Mario Andretti, because Unser violated the blend line rule exiting the pits. After months of hearings, a panel overturned that call, and Unser was again the winner.

That time, too, different drivers had different versions of what was said in the drivers' meeting. Not only did Unser vs. Andretti hear it differently, so did Johnny Rutherford vs. Gordon Johncock, to cite two of the sport's biggest names of that era. How to explain this?

Having not only been in, but also participated in, dozens of CART and IROC driver meetings over the years, I can tell you this: It's amazing how many drivers don't pay attention, and how often they do it. I've watched and listened as drivers talked about girls, vacations, motorcycles, boats and airplanes -- all while officials were reviewing rules and race procedures.

I don't know what Barnhart did or didn't say in Detroit. Or what individual drivers did or didn't do during the meeting. I do know this: It is every driver's responsibility to know the rules, and that means paying attention. If you aren't sure, ask in front of everyone else -- so you have witnesses -- to reduce the chance of a misunderstanding.
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When Jimmie Johnson spoke at the National Press Club recently, he was asked if NASCAR fans were more likely to support John McCain or Barack Obama. Johnson said he felt the Republican better fit the NASCAR demographic.

Now we learn, at least according to the AP, that vice presidential nominee (and Alaska governor) Sarah Palin's husband Todd is a four-time winner of what it called "the world's longest snowmobile race." The story said the Alaska event is 2,000 miles in distance.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]