• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

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.
********************************************************************
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.
********************************************************************
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.
********************************************************************

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.
********************************************************************
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.
********************************************************************
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.
********************************************************************
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
********************************************************************
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.
********************************************************************
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.
********************************************************************
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.
********************************************************************
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
********************************************************************
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.
********************************************************************
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.
********************************************************************
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."
********************************************************************
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 . . . ]