• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, January 25, 2009

'SOME JOURNALISTS DON'T LIKE PEOPLE'

NHRA Full Throttle Top Fuel and Funny Car teams -- those whose budget allowed -- tested last weekend at Firebird Raceway outside Phoenix. The National Time Trials was a good place for me to interview drag racing personalities.

And, that's exactly the right word -- personalities. In less than four hours on-site, I did one-on-one sit-down interviews (lasting around 15 minutes, at least) with Ashley Force Hood (she's married), Kenny Bernstein, Brandon Bernstein, Larry Dixon, Alan Johnson, Del Worsham and Jack Beckman. Plus, shorter sessions with Tony Schumacher (who I interviewed two weeks ago at AARWBA), Mike Green (his new crew chief), Don Prudhomme and Melanie Troxel. Actually, I went back to Hood, Dixon, Worsham and Beckman for follow-ups. Of course, I had time with John Force and Robert Hight at AARWBA. This was not just quantity in short order. It was quality time.

To repeat what I've often said, I consider NHRA to be an under-covered sport, media-wise. One reason is the colorful, interesting and fascinating (and cooperative!) people in the pit area. It's too bad too many journalists don't wake-up to that fact, although I hope the recent field trip to John Force Racing and media competition at Pomona before the AARWBA ceremony might have awakened some people. NHRA and JFR did the right thing that day -- they went out and made something positive happen.

Before the AARWBA awards, I sat down for an interview with legendary NHRA broadcaster/announcer Dave McClelland (right). Dave still possesses a great announcer's voice. His own contributions to the popularity of drag racing earned him the Pioneer In Racing award -- as MC, he was surprised to learn that -- the first non-competitor to receive the honor. When I asked Dave about drag racing's personalities vs. under-represented press coverage, Dave had a most interesting observation. Some people might find it stunning. I don't want to let another week go by without sharing this:

"I have the feeling that a great number of journalists don't like people. It shows when they are dealing one-on-one with an interview subject. I'm sorry. I'm not trying to diss the journalistic business; I've been in it way-too-long. But I don't think some of them really like people.

"Motorsports hasn't necessarily been the pinnacle of success in the sports world, as far as journalism goes. A lot of people would much rather be covering Major League Baseball, or pro football, golf, or things like that. That's what always amazed me about the late Shav Glick (Los Angeles Times.) He was an avid golfer, loved it, but he also loved motorsports and the people in it. I'm not holding Shav up to ideals that no one else can achieve. I'm just saying, you've got to like people. If you don't, you're going to have a tough time in a lot of fields, not just journalism.

"It's a shame a lot of people (journs) don't do their homework anymore, because it's so easy. You can type a name into a search engine box and come up with 2,312,000 hits in about eight-tenths of a second. But if you're too lazy to do it, or just don't care, then it's a disservice not only to who you're working for, but to the industry, and certainly your interview subject."
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FAST LINES: Good PR and marketing sense came into play as George Gillett agreed to put Richard Petty's legendary name front-and-center for their newly joined-together team. Here's the logo . . . Classy gesture by Hurley Haywood and David Donohue to remember Bob Carlson, the late Porsche PR expert and Jim Chapman Award winner, after their victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona . . . By all accounts -- and not surprisingly -- the level of activity during last week's NASCAR Media Tour was down. Several participating reporters told me so. There was a lot of extra "writing time" built into the official schedule, they said . . . Shakiest Start I've seen this side of a traction-challenged Funny Car: White House press secretary Robert Gibbs . . . Bad Timing Award goes to Phoenix International Raceway, which solicited media to interview a visiting Marcos Ambrose Friday at a wing joint while John and Ashley Force, Tony Schumacher and other NHRA Headliners were testing at Firebird. Plus, Arizona Cardinals' Super Bowl fever . . . The American Drag Racing League has a new logo, too, to reflect its National Guard sponsorship. Bob Margolis now heads-up ADRL's communications effort . . . Distribution is one of the key problems affecting the newspaper industry. So, let me share this head-scratching first-hand experience: On my way to the gym one recent morning, I waited for a man to load that day's editions of USA Today and the Arizona Republic into honor boxes. It took him 10 minutes to service just two machines. When he was finished, I put four quarters into the USAT box -- and discovered he had placed only TWO copies of the paper into the box. Why bother?
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Here are links to my two NHRA testing stories in last week's Arizona Republic:

Season preview --
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2009/01/22/20090122spt-nhra.html



Test report --
http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/sports/articles/2009/01/24/20090124spt-nhranb.html
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Please don't anyone ever insult my intelligence again by telling me journalistic standards haven't declined or there isn't media bias. I consider myself qualified to make these observations, and criticisms, even though I've never worked for the New York Times or Washington Post.

Any reasonable review of last week's Presidential Inauguration TV coverage proves my point. I'm not even referring to the gushy, platitudinous so-called "reporting."

Not too many things surprise me anymore, but for news anchors, as well as pundits, to talk over the top of the formal ceremonies and podium speakers just proves how out-of-control these people are . . . or, I should say, their egos.

And, as far as I can determine, Fox News was the only network to carry live the remarks of former President Bush (43) upon his return to Texas. Talking heads on the other nets blathered on while this was happening. They, and their producers, think their words are more important than those of the actual NEWSMAKERS! I dare anyone to compare the extensive time devoted to President Clinton's public activities, upon his departure from the Capitol eight years ago, to what Bush 43 got. Go ahead. Make my day.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Monday, January 19, 2009

MEMO to NASCAR's PR SUMMITEERS

NASCAR's annual PR Summit for those involved in its national series is this week. I wasn't invited. That doesn't mean, given my almost four decades of experience in the industry, that I don't have suggestions.

Here's a little Straight Talk for the Summiteers, or more importantly, those who employ them: "PR," as pretended upon by the big majority of NASCAR team, sponsor and track representatives, is abysmal.

It's worse than our national economy. Which makes me wonder how team owners, sponsor managers and track presidents justify the salaries -- especially now. My theory remains those in charge aren't paying attention. Shame, since these people are your front-line representatives to the public and the media. Translation: To your CUSTOMERS.

It's no surprise to me, as selection committee chairman, that THREE of the last FOUR Jim Chapman Award winners, for excellence in motorsports PR, have been NHRA team publicists. (It would be worthwhile for everyone at this meeting to take the time to learn about Chapman, a legend in the PR business, not just motorsports. Among many other things, Jim was Babe Ruth's PR man. His life story and example are priceless professional learning tools.)

Yes, there are a few pros, like Jon Edwards and Judy Kouba Dominick and Nancy Wager and Drew Brown and Bill Janitz and a pathetically tiny handful of others. Here's what I've seen as a contributor to the Arizona Republic's (the state's largest newspaper) racing coverage: "PR" people who don't spend meaningful time in the media center, don't bother to introduce themselves to journalists, use NO! as response-by-rote to requests for access to drivers (don't even try to make it happen), seemingly are afraid of their drivers, have almost zero one-on-one relationships with reporters, send out non-news "news" releases (the driver is "excited about" and "looking forward" to this week's race), and, in short, exist only to carry the driver's helmet or walk with him to a hospitality appearance.

When Ryan Newman was testing at Phoenix International Raceway last spring, his person was viewing away on a laptop in the media center, but certainly didn't go to any effort to introduce herself to me or other locals. When I went over and asked a question about the sponsorship ID on his Dodge (and how many would do that?), the demeanor was that I was a bother and had asked a stupid question. (Note: Given business conditions, any opportunity to get your sponsor's name into print in a positive story about the Daytona 500 winner, sure as hell shouldn't be an irritant.) When Carl Edwards came to town for a promotional appearance, I got the first interview. His guy sat on the sofa, not introducing himself to the local reporters, or offering any help with background info. Why bother to even come?

The California Speedway bunch doesn't even bother to reply to E-mails -- at least in my experience. The recent AARWBA All-America Team ceremony, at the Ontario Hilton, was minutes away. IF anyone from the track troubled themselves to show up, I don't know it, because no one said hello to me . . . but, hey, why would they? . . . I was just the ceremony co-chair. (Gillian, please bring back Dennis Bickmeier!)

Last fall, at PIR, I was talking with a publicist and his boss. It was early afternoon. I had told both, in advance, I would have a story quoting the boss in that day's paper. Free copies of the Republic were stacked in the media center. In our conversation, I referenced my story. It was obvious neither had bothered to read it.

All of the above examples fall under the category of PR 101. I agree there's value in guest speakers like former White House press secretary Jody Powell, but this group is in desperate need of a strong reminder about the BASICS. Like relationship building. I have no interest in listening to any complaints about stories from PR people who have made no true effort to establish a professional one-on-one relationship with key journalists.

PR-wise, the stock car community is more challenged than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway trying to sell Allstate 400 tickets after last year's tire debacle. So here's a list of action points for the Summiteers to talk about at a time when delivering sponsors with a documented Return of Investment has NEVER been more urgent or important. Let me phrase that even more clearly: JOB SECURITY.

1. NASCAR would do well to post a daily PR reps sign-in/sign-out sheet in the media center. Officials would be shocked to see how many don't spend meaningful time in their constituents' base of operations.

2. Introduce yourself to the working media. Show the common courtesy to offer a business card with cell phone and E-mail address. Offer updated information. Ask if you can be of any help.

3. Only send out news releases if they actually contain NEWS. It's NOT news that a driver is "looking forward to" or "excited about" a race. It WOULD be news if they weren't! For an example, see my 1989 pre-Michigan 500 release.

4. Try to say "YES!" -- for a change -- when asked to arrange an interview.

5. How many times was Cup qualifying rained out last season? Use that "down" time to do phone interviews with local media in upcoming race cities, including newspapers and radio stations. Honestly, it wouldn't take that much of your effort to create a list of interested journos who could be offered interviews on short notice. Seek help from track publicists. Any of 'em worth anything will jump to your assistance, because, believe me, they've got plenty of tickets to sell.

6. Teach the driver to promote the network telecast during live local radio interviews. Those plugs, and those for sponsors, can't be edited out. In case you haven't noticed (I assure you, the sponsors have), ratings aren't what they used to be.

7. Do not allow your driver to walk around in public with his uniform pulled down. It looks sloppy. It's unprofessional. It presents a disrespectful appearance to the fans. It's costing sponsors big-time exposure value.

8. No hats worn backwards. No towels over shoulders, covering up corporate logos that sponsors have PAID for to gain media exposure.

9. Pay attention to where your driver is interviewed. NOT in front of a hauler or banner with competing sponsor ID. And, NOT in front of a Port-a-John.

10. Give the paying customers what they paid for: It's a disgrace to see drivers with their backs turned to the grandstands during the driver introduction parade laps.
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Congratulations to National Speed Sport News on the start of its 75th publishing anniversary season. I've been getting NSSN every week since 1970 or '71. Corinne Economaki attended the recent AARWBA All-America Team ceremony and explained the paper's plans for this special year during the Shav Glick Newsmakers Forum.
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Here's my January Drag Racing Online "All Business" column (NHRA has subsequently announced a "Fan Relief Program" that includes ticket price reductions):
http://dragracingonline.com/columns/knight/xi_1-1.html
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God love the people, but shows like ESPN's college football and NHRA preview shows, which are set with noisy fans in the background, are just gimmicks. That's what NBC News and its cable operations are becoming, too, and that should alarm anyone with a legitimate interest in standards of journalistic professionalism. Last Saturday, MSNBC buffoon David Shuster yelled out to the crowd behind him to scream, Yes or No, if there were enough Port-a-Johns in a spectator area for the presidential inauguration. Classy.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Monday, January 12, 2009

STROPUS WINS CHAPMAN AWARD

Jim Chapman Award: Making the presentation to Judy Stropus. (Photo by Ron Lewis.)

Congratulations to Judy Stropus, recipient of the 2008 Jim Chapman Award for excellence in motorsports public relations. Series executives, team owners and sponsor program managers in NASCAR, IRL, etc., please note: This is the THIRD time in FOUR years the Chapman has gone to an NHRA team publicist (2005 -- Susan Arnold; 2007 -- Dave Densmore).

Stropus, representing Don Schumacher Racing, was honored at last Saturday night's 39th AARWBA All-America Team ceremony. Presented by A1GP World Cup of Motorsport, it was at the Ontario Hilton, with Susan Wade joining me as event co-chair. NHRA Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher earned the evening's No. 1 honor, the Jerry Titus Memorial Trophy, as the top vote-getter on the Team regardless of category. It was Tony's second Titus in three years. Legendary broadcaster/announcer Dave McClelland, our MC, was the surprised winner of the Pioneer In Racing Award. And we rememberd Paul Newman, Mike Hollander, Bob Carlson, Phil Hill and Scott Kalitta.

The Chapman, which dates to 1991, is named in memory of the late and legendary PR executive. Jim was Babe Ruth's PR man and PPG's director of racing overseeing the landmark series sponsorship during CART's big-time days. The winner is chosen by AARWBA media members who knew and cared about Chapman. PR reps from all forms of motorsports are eligible to be considered. Judy took her rightplace place on the list of Chapman Award winners.

I remembered Jim and then introduced AP's Mike Harris, another of Jim's many friends, who announced Judy. Here are some of my remarks from the podium:

"Jim was my closest friend. He had a profound influence on my life and career. I take this time to tell you about him because, especially in an era of declining standards, it is important to learn from Jim’s unmatched example . . .

" Every year I try to share with this audience a different example of the way Jim lived his life. Mike Harris reminded me of a story . . .

" During a CART race weekend in September 1985, the fire alarm went off at the Holiday Inn in beautiful downtown Mansfield, Ohio. It was Saturday, between 1-2 a.m. As fire engines pulled up to the lobby, guests came down the fire escape and assembled in the parking lot – in various stages of dress and undress.

" As you probably know, you’re not supposed to use the elevator in this sort of situation. However, some of us standing outside could see inside the lobby, and were treated to this sight – The elevator doors opened, and out stepped Jim, wearing a double-breasted navy blue blazer, dress shirt, pressed slacks and loafers.

" That’s the way Jim was – his appearance and professionalism were a matter of personal pride . . .

" As Jim once said: 'There is almost NO decision made, about ANYTHING, that doesn’t, in some way, involve PR.'

" Jim loved the PR business. I know it would sadden him that, today, too many 'PR' people don’t bother to build one-on-one relationships with journalists. Jim would insist that PR people actually spend meaningful time in the media center, that phone calls be returned, and E-mails be answered. He knew people prefer the honesty of an answer -- even if it’s NO -- to the discourtesy of indifference. Those are things worth remembering . . .

"To tonight’s recipient, as well as those past and future, I say the honor is NOT in the plaque you receive. The TRUE honor is having your name forever associated with that of the great James P. Chapman."

Like every other organization, AARWBA has been impacted by the economic downturn. We thanked ceremony presenting sponsor A1GP and reception co-hosts ESPN, MAZDASPEED and Valvoline. We presented appreciation awards to five automakers -- Ford, Honda, Toyota, Mazda and Porsche -- which have long supported AARWBA and continued to do so as table hosts. Schumacher, Scott Pruett, Scott Sharp, Johnny Benson and Wolf Henzler were Team drivers who attended.

I also spoke from the podium in my role as event co-chair. Here are some of those comments:

"The wins and championships and great moments deserve to be celebrated . . . and we will.

"It is impossible, however, not to also acknowledge that we come together tonight at an especially difficult time in our sport, our industry, and our country.

"We understand that.

"But in the words of a senator from my state, Arizona, this occasion also calls for some ‘straight talk.’ Those of you who have had the questionable pleasure of knowing me for a long time won’t be surprised.

"Just as the world-wide economic downturn as affected the auto companies, team sponsorships, and track ticket sales, so has it impacted on our gathering. Members who have been fixtures at this event were unable to make the trip. Too many of the Team drivers aren’t with us. Some have a good reason. Some don’t. Anyone who wants to know who falls into which category, well, I’ll tell you privately. It doesn’t help that some of their so-called 'PR' people don’t give a damn. And, let me add, one of the most insidious trends in modern motorsports is driver business managers making media relations decisions. This is to be resisted at every turn.



(It was wonderful to hear Scott Pruett agree and say, especially in this economy, it's more important than ever for drivers to get closer to the fans and media. Tony Schumacher and Johnny Benson picked up on the theme.)


"Under the circumstances, the old thinking that companies automatically buy tables and ads just to seek favor with the media seems as outdated as an Offenhauser. The new reality, for journalists as well as everyone else, is EVERY expenditure MUST make business sense. It is AARWBA’s responsibility to attempt to organize the most VALUABLE event possible. The time of the AARWBA dinner being just that, a dinner, is in the past. Last year, we added an important new element with the Shav Glick Newsmakers Forum, an opportunity for participants to tell their news directly to media attendees. Today, thanks to NHRA and John Force, we had the good fortune to spend quality time with John and his Ford Mustang team at his shops and then do some media drag racing at Pomona. It’s been a full – and fantasic – day. It demonstrates AARWBA’s desire to host an important event for our members, corporate friends, and competitors. One that does deliver a Return on Investment and offers the chance for essential relationship building. In my opinion, AARWBA can and must change with the times."
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It is great to see new people come to the AARWBA ceremony and use the opportunity to meet new people and network and build relationships. Allison Barry, PR/media services manager for the ALMS, did so. Tony Veneziano of the World of Outlaws was back after a few years' absence. Jamie and Betsy Reynolds of Racing Roundup Arizona and Mark Armijo of the Arizona Republic and Chuck Givler of the Easton Express were among media on hand for the first time. Allison and NHRA Funny Car Valvoline Dodge driver Jack Beckman were interested to learn more about Jim Chapman, a joy for me.


As I said to NHRA President Tom Compton Saturday night, it was a good day for drag racing, and the Full Throttle series made some new media friends. NHRA and John Force Racing organized a fun and fantastic field trip. AARWBA members (Johnny Benson came along, too) went by bus to Force's incredible facility for breakfast, an "every room is open for you to see" tour and a typically incredible presentation by John and Robert Hight. (I engaged in a lively one-on-one interview with Force. Photo courtesy of Don Helms.) Afterwards, the bus went to Pomona, where Beckman taught Drag Racing 101 before an afternoon of media competition. Ace photographer Ron Lewis won the AARWBA Nationals. High-profile journalists who haven't been exposed much to drag racing came away impressed -- and that was a big positive for the sport.

Thanks to
the PR people who helped in various ways: Chris Dirato, Jerry Archambeault, Anthony Vestal, Michael Padian, Jamie Stephens, Dave Densmore, Elon Werner, Bob Dickinson, Allison Barry, Dean Case, Andy Hall, Mike Geylin, Andy Schupack, Kelby Krauss, Marc Spiegel and J.J. O'Malley.

Good News:
When Versus announces its IndyCar broadcast team this week, Bob Jenkins will be confirmed as host.
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I'm VERY sorry to report that Valvoline communications director Barry Bronson's position was eliminated last week due to the economy. And Susan Wade has discontinued 1320tv.com.


[ more next Tuesday . . . ]


Monday, January 05, 2009

THINGS THAT HAPPENED

Several noteworthy things have happened since I last posted. I'll review those right after reminding you the 39th AARWBA All-America Team ceremony, presented by A1GP World Cup of Motorsport, will be this Saturday night at the Ontario, Calif. Hilton. Members first will tour John Force Racing and do some media drag racing at Pomona. The Shav Glick Newsmakers Forum is at 5:30 p.m., followed by the pre-dinner reception, co-hosted by ESPN, MAZDASPEED and Valvoline. Legendary broadcaster/announcer Dave McClelland will MC. Susan Wade and I are co-chairs.

In addition to Team driver awards, the Jerry Titus Memorial Trophy winner will be announced. The Titus, named in memory of the late racer/journalist who was an AARWBA member, goes to the driver who received the most Team votes regardless of category. Some of the other honors to be presented include the Jim Chapman Award, for excellence in motorsports PR, and the Pioneer In Racing. AARWBA will pay tribute to Paul Newman, Mike Hollander, Phil Hill, Scott Kalitta and Bob Carlson.

* Carlson, Porsche's longtime PR expert, died just before Christmas after a lengthy battle with cancer. Bob was a Chapman Award winner. He was the first to step-up and promise Porsche as an official sponsor of AARWBA's 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2005. He and I worked on the Porsche CART program with the late Al Holbert in 1987 and 1988. I will never forget Sept. 30, 1988, when Al's plane crashed after takeoff from Columbus, Ohio. Bob and I went through that terrible experience together and fielded countless media communications from around the world. God Bless.

* I have no doubt financially struggling NASCAR fans just delighted in this news release:

"Clint Bowyer . . . took delivery of his Beechcraft Premier IA, the world’s fastest and most technologically advanced single-pilot business jet. With a cruising speed greater than 520 mph – 50 mph faster than its nearest competitor – the Premier IA is the only light jet in the world that satisfies Bowyer’s need for speed."

Somebody, tell me, please: What are these people thinking?


* PRNewser posted this in a year-end listing of hopes for 2009. I AGREE:


"Public relations professionals will rediscover (or remember) that PR is about people, not just technology. No matter the latest bells and whistles that emerge from social media -- the essence of communication and building relationships remains."

* Per my last posting, I was glad to see at least a couple of 2008 media year-in-reviews call NBC on the carpet for pandering to GE's business interests in "reporting" on the Summer Olympics. In-love-with-celebrity Matt Lauer deserved the blast he got on Fox News Watch for his disgraceful Today show segment, citing a poll that claimed a far greater percentage of the Chinese people are happier than Americans. A survey of McDonald's owners about the popularity of hamburgers would have more credibility.

Still, newspaper publishers and editors who wonder why their business is in such distress need look no further than this, taken from a 2008 wrap-up of cultural happenings:

"We will never again be able to watch a mere Super Bowl halftime, shamed by the extravagance and precision of the four-hour-long opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics. The show . . . wasn't just over-the-top, it was a message from an arriving superpower to a receding one."

No mention, of course, that a pretty young girl was ordered to mouth the words sung by a less attractive child. I thought the politically correct crowd was against that sort of thing. Or of the robotic joyless children who were used -- and that's the right word, used -- as ceremony props.

Just what proud Americans want to read: Their country is "receding." I wonder what it will take for the media elites to grasp that China represents the most serious long-term threat to the national security and sovereignty of the United States.

* Coming off my last blog, about reporting standards, I was saddened by AutoWeek's "Where Are They Now?" article. A good idea, except for this, about deposed CART President Andrew Craig:

"In retrospect, the personable Brit might be considered the most effective executive CART ever had. We can only speculate about the direction open-wheel racing might have taken had he remained at the helm."


FACT: Timing and circumstances gifted Craig with the most powerful unifying weapon any leader could ever have -- a common enemy (in his case, Tony George). FACT: Warnings from the engine manufacturers and (others) about diminishing ROI based on increased cost and less audience went nowhere. FACT: Craig's contempt for those who had worked hard for CART to even exist. I was standing there, on the grid in Phoenix, when he was introduced to a former staffer. "Oh, you're one of those . . ." FACT: I will never forget a 1998 Houston Grand Prix conversation with a CART front-office person whose commitment, dedication and loyalty to the organization cannot be doubted: "(John) Frasco doesn't look too bad now . . ."

* Then, of course, there was the even-more-disgraceful pre-Christmas incident where Detroit News columnist Rob Parker crossed-the-line with Lions' Coach Rod Marinelli. Parker used a post-game news conference as his personal ego forum, asking Marinelli if he wished his daughter had married a better defensive coordinator.

This, I remind you, is the same Parker who used racial considerations as the basis for an anti-Detroit Grand Prix column some years ago. There were many things to criticize about the Belle Isle event, but that kind of "race" wasn't one of them. I said then, and repeat now, that column should have been spiked.

* So, NBC Sports is using Matt Millen as an NFL playoffs' analyst. The genius behind the Detroit Lions' 0-16 season, just what credibility does Millen bring to the job? Why would network execs think fans would care what he has to say about anything football-related? Oh, as I understand it, the powers-that-be say Millen is good on TV. Just brilliant . . .

* Finally: The Brickyard Crossing (IMS Motel) closed. More cheating went on in those rooms than in any NASCAR garage area.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]