• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Monday, February 23, 2009

40 YEARS

Indulge me, please . . .

This is a special year for me -- it's the 40th anniversary of what I consider to be my first contribution to motorsports and participation beyond the role of spectator.

In April 1969, USAC ran Indy Cars at the old Hanford Motor Speedway oval, in Fresno, Calif. Sadly, during a pit-stop sequence, crew member Red Stainton jumped away from a refueling fire. He tripped and fell into the path of Mario Andretti's car. Stainton died. In the aftermath, I wrote a guest column for the old USAC News newspaper, suggesting the sanctioning body require pit crew members to wear fire-resistant uniforms. It was my first byline.

Eventually, that idea became reality. I'm not taking credit, but I do remember this: Years later, Dick King, who became USAC's president, recalled that column and thanked me for it.

A month earlier, I had my first taste of actual competition. I was the navigator in a 50-mile sports car rally in southern New Jersey. We won in our family's Ford Mustang. Yes, I still have the trophy.
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An Act of Desperation. A Cry for Attention.

That's the only way I know to describe the "Tale of the Tape" posting on IndyCar.com last week. Alex Rodriguez' news conference in Tampa, to answer questions about his admitted past use of performance enhancers, was twisted into a comparison to IRL racing in St. Petersburg. An example:

"Performance-enhancing fuel -- A-Rod -- Steroids; IndyCar Series -- 100 percent fuel-grade ethanol."

Bizarre. Outrageous. Offensive. Inappropriate. Bad judgment.

If I were Graham Rahal, or his representative, I would not appreciate being pictured side-by-side with A-Rod in this way. In fact, I would have been on the phone to Tony George, demanding the image be taken down.

One can only ask: What were they thinking? And: Where's the oversight?

http://www.indycar.com/news/?story_id=13168
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I covered last weekend's drag racing at Firebird International Raceway. Links to my Arizona Republic stories are below. I noticed many things that reflect on the industry -- some positive, some alarming -- and I'll have a lot to say about that next week.

Saturday was a long racing day: When qualifying was over at Firebird, I headed to Manzanita Speedway for USAC's Silver Crown, sprint and midget tripleheader.

When Coca-Cola announced that Full Throttle would take over from Powerade as the NHRA series sponsor, a more aggressive marketing/advertising effort was promised. I didn't see any retail promotion or point-of-purchase displays in the local supermarkets, which was disappointing. Time will tell, but I like this fresh creative: http://creativity-online.com/work/view?seed=2353381b . (Thanks to Autoextremist.com for the tip.)
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FAST LINES: Congratulations to former Champ Car PR boss David Higdon (right), just named the LPGA's chief communications officer. According to the announcement, "In this newly created role, Higdon will be a member of the LPGA management committee and will develop strategic corporate communications initiatives for the organization" . . . Congratulations to Chris Economaki, this year's recipient of Pocono Raceway's Bill France Award of Excellence. The NSSN 75th anniversary issue is June 24 with ad close June 22 . . . E-mails to John Medlen, recovering from insertion of a stent into his heart, can be sent to the John Force Racing crew chief at getwellmedlen@johnforceracing.com . . . A referral from John Force Racing helped Gary Densham land Asom Tequila as his new Funny Car sponsor.
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Here are links to my NHRA stories last week in the Arizona Republic:

Thursday -- Notebook, including Kenny Bernstein and Ashley Force Hood:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2009/02/18/20090218nhranb0219.html

Friday -- Alan Johnson, "Drag racing's Most Wanted Man":
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2009/02/19/20090219spt-nhra.html

Saturday -- First day qualifying, Ron Capps:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2009/02/20/20090220spt-nhra.html

Sunday -- Newsmaker Q&A (Jack Beckman, Brandon Bernstein, Jeg Coughlin Jr.):
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2009/02/21/20090221spt-nhra.html

Monday -- Race notebook:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2009/02/22/20090222spt-nhranb.html

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Monday, February 16, 2009

THE DAYTONA DOWNER

If Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball who routinely gets bashed in the media like Ryan Howard does a fastball, realizes how inappropriate it is to allow rain to end a World Series game before nine innings, then it's time for those who run America's two most important races -- the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 -- to wake-up and understand the same.

Last November 3, I posted here "The Selig Doctrine" -- calling on Daytona and Indy to follow baseball's example and mandate those events run to the full 500 miles. Here's a link:
http://spindoctor500blog.blogspot.com/2008/11/selig-doctrine.html .

Sunday's disappointing Daytona 500 proved the point. Congratulations to Matt Kenseth and Roush Fenway Racing's Ford team, but what a downer. The anti-climatic ending, with 120 miles to go, guaranteed that the Dale Earnhardt Jr.-Brian Vickers tangle would be the race's dominant story -- and that's a disservice to the winners, the series, and the sport.

Here's what's obvious to me: The finger rightfully gets pointed right at Fox, for hanging NASCAR with a 3:42 p.m. EST green flag. That's an insult to every true race fan. And, please, spare me the talking points about a late start to attract a larger audience. The dumbing down of the production has reached a stage where I'm expecting one of the pit reporters to be laid off -- in favor of more time for "Digger." We'd have seen 500 miles, no problem, with a proper and traditional and more respectful to the ticket-buyers 1 p.m. start.

At Daytona and Indy, "500" actually means something. It's truly important. Everywhere else, it's just a number, a marketing gimmick. Plus, Daytona and Indy have the advantage that the following day is a national holiday, making it easier for fans to return.

By the way, according to Weather.com, it was sunny Monday in Daytona.
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I intentionally steered clear of Daytona here last week, highlighting Mazda's driver development program as a contrast to the celebrity/star culture of which NASCAR has worked most hard to join.

That doesn't mean I wasn't paying close attention to what was happening in Florida, though. Some quotes, specifically as uttered during media day, cry out to be put in this spotlight.

Ryan Newman was asked, as virtually every driver was, about the economy and its impact on racers and fans.

“I hear everybody complain and I mean everybody complain about how bad the economy is and I don’t think it’s that bad. I think it’s just not as good as it was. I think that everybody from an organizational standpoint whether its NASCAR, Stewart-Haas Racing, Hendrick or Roush, whatever has to keep their pencil sharp and put themselves in a position to where they can be strong for the future. I think the economy is going to have more of an effect six months from now than it will now. If the economy is as bad as everyone says it is then, realistically, we are living off of our reserves whether it’s financially, or whatever, and we’ll have to see who has the biggest stockpile of reserves. I’m no economic adviser but that’s just my gut hunch about it.”

“I think it’s mentally affected everybody more than it has physically. Maybe this is my opinion but when we go to the gas station, and we can’t get a gallon of gas and a gallon of milk, then the economy is really hurting. Now gas is half of what it was last fall when the economy was good and there’s no shortage of milk. I mean how bad is it really? That’s just my gut feel. And I’m probably a little na├»ve from the standpoint that I think NASCAR spoils you a little bit. Spoils me personally, you know my lifestyle is not the same as somebody that is greeting at Wal-Mart, but in the end, I don’t think the economy is that bad. The cream is always going to rise to the top and I just think it separates it off from the weak individual. It’s like a minor plague, I guess.”

It must be nice to live on whatever planet Ryan is on. Unfortunately, the automakers, sponsors and ticket-buyers aren't acting like this is "minor."

Newman obviously didn't get the talking points, because his new boss, Tony Stewart, had this to say:

“It’s hurt everybody, obviously. We still have 13 races to sell on Ryan’s car. Haas Automation stepped up and is going to sponsor some of those races, but not all of them. So it’s no different for us than for anybody else. It’s hurt everybody this year.”

Clint Bowyer, had to explain -- if not defend -- that new jet he got during the off-season.

“That plane is a big part of what I do for all my sponsors. I can’t reach out to all my sponsors anymore without that. I can’t continue doing more for my sponsors without a means to get there. I can’t do what the media expected those auto execs to do. They had to drive a car there (Washington, D.C., for Congressional hearings) and it took more time to get there just to appease the media to keep them off their backs and what’s that doing? That’s taking away time from them trying to take care of business and keeping people’s jobs. That’s the way it is as far as transportation goes so those people can have at least a little bit of life and reach out to their responsibilities with their jobs. They have to have that. It’s no different than the president. Yeah, he reached out and put a (salary) cap on them all, but he had a pretty expensive party a few weeks ago too (inauguration). You gotta keep that in mind, too. There’s pro and cons to everything and there’s repercussions to everything. He’s our leader and we all have to have confidence in him and his programs.”

“He has the No. 1 one plane in the world. His plane
(Air Force One) is badder than any other plane out there. It is what it is. The biggest thing is not to get negative and not to get down on everything. It’s what we make out of it. If we work hard and make good decisions as a country, I think we’ll be just fine and our sport will be no different. I’ve been over to the dirt track in Tampa and, normally, I wouldn’t know anything about anything that was going on with our country, but the reason I know all this is because I’ve been sitting in the dirt hauler for the last two days watching the news for the last two days and it makes you want to put a gun to your head. The world’s over if you listen to CNN. There’s nothing positive. For four hours I watched the news and not one thing came on that was positive. Even ESPN -- everybody’s doing drugs. Come on guys, somebody’s doing something good. I finally quit and got on the racetrack and nothing happened good there either. It didn’t change there. Maybe it is bad out there. I think just with our sport I want to encourage the media to find positive things for our sport, too. There are good people doing good things out there and working their butts off to make this sport better for all of us. There are negative things going on in our sport, but there’s a helluva lot of good, too.”


Enjoy the jet, Clint. No one's saying you shouldn't have it if you can afford it. Just don't put out a news release release about it! (I'll bet Chevy's racing brass cringed.)

Finally, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was asked, "What's the hardest part about being Dale Jr.?"

“Answering a lot of questions. I got to answer so many damn questions. I never wanted to be asked so many questions. I just wanted to drive but that’s not all there is to it.”

Oh, OK. I can't end without a contribution from Kyle Busch. This, on NASCAR's new single-file restart within 20 laps of the checkered flag rule:

“Now when there’s a caution inside 20 laps, everybody’s coming to pit road. I guess they just wanted even more cautions in the last 20 laps and that’s just the way it’s going to be. Guys are going to come to pit road and they’re going to be driving erratically in the last 20 laps to try to get up through there and make up all the spots they can and probably running into each other. It will be pretty crazy when there’s cautions in the last 20 (laps). I’m not in favor of it, but whatever they want to do.”
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Here's a link to my new "All Business" column in the February Drag Racing Online (it's on two pages, so be sure to click over at bottom of the first page): http://www.dragracingonline.com/columns/knight/xi_2-1.html
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David Poole of the Charlotte Observer had the best story datelined Daytona Beach:
http://www.thatsracin.com/135/story/3681.html .

$ign of the Time$: No USA Today Daytona 500 special section (first time in memory; there was, however, an NBA All-Star Game section) and no Indianapolis Star staff coverage.
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President Obama's town-hall meeting in Elkhart, Ind. last week reminded me of this long-lost-to-history tale from CART in the 1980s. Upon hearing that the Marlboro team would be racing that weekend in "Elkhart," a New York-based Philip Morris manager traveled there, not Elkhart Lake, Wis. (!)
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I'll be NHRAing it this weekend, covering the Arizona Nationals for the Arizona Republic. You can check out my stories (and Mark Armijo's) at http://azcentral.com/. And good luck to Lachelle Seymour, who has left the NHRA PR staff for a job at Chicagoland Speedway.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Monday, February 09, 2009

OWNING THE PATH

Mazda's John Doonan is surrounded by karting kids Court Vernon (left) and Sage Karam, who have advanced to the BFGoodrich Skip Barber Nationals presented by Mazda.

As Dean Case's always useful news releases always remind us:

"On any given weekend, there are more Mazdas on the road-race tracks of America than any other brand of vehicle."

Case says Mazda has 9,000 customer racers!

As Gordon Kirby and others have written, Mazda is the No. 1 advocate and supporter of road racing driver development in the U.S. It is a very comprehensive program.

Most are familiar with the Atlantic Championship, powered by Mazda, and naming rights to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Other elements include: SCCA Spec Miata, the largest road-racing class in the country; Star Mazda, Formula Mazda, Skip Barber National and MAZDASPEED Challenge Series; Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup; and participation in karting, Grand-Am's GT class, Speed World Challenge Touring Car, Grand-Am Koni Challenge, SCCA and NASA Club racing, and Solo II Autocross. On the track are the MX-5 Miata, RX-8, MAZDA3, MAZDA6, RX-7 and other vintage Mazda models.

Going back to Atlantics and the old Bosch Super Vee series, I've always been a strong believer in robust driver development efforts. One side effect of the economic downturn we've seen, at least in Sprint Cup, is owners and sponsors trending toward veteran drivers who are known quantities -- they can qualify, and race consistently, if not spectacularly.

I wanted to know more about Mazda's very different philosophy. So, before he spoke at the recent AARWBA Shav Glick Newsmakers Forum, I asked John Doonan. He's Mazda's manager of motorsports team development.

"The program has always been built around grass-roots racing. Our competition parts program, coupled with all of the corporate partners we have, have allowed us to do what we do. The other piece of it is, Mazda has the youngest average age buyer in the industry. The ability to have our brand in front of young minds, and their parents, frankly, because we're involved in karting, allows us to identify our next generation of customer. We want to continue that. For us, it's not necessarily about everything that happens at the racetrack, but also, what happens at the dealerships. That whole ladder system, as it developed, as our partnership with Skip Barber came together, we noticed the missing piece was karting. You don't get any more grass-roots than karting. Now, on both sides of the open-and-closed wheel ladder, we've got everything covered."

I wondered if going with non-"star" names in our celebrity-driven, People magzine society, was a tough sell to management. Especially now.

"The whole philosophy we have is, we don't necessarily want to own the driver's name, we want to own their path. Someday, in the Indianapolis 500 winner's circle, Daytona 500, Le Mans, Sebring, have the driver say in their post-race interview, 'I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for the opportunities I had to grow my career in Mazdas.' It's not necessarily the 'name' driver. The management is fully behind that concept."

An important new addition to the lineup, however, is Mazda's involvement with the respected Dyson Racing team in the ALMS LMP2 class. Is this a "star" turn?

"Dyson's vision is to build a ladder system within Dyson Racing. But as a family-oriented, independent team, who has never necessarily been a factory-endorsed team, it's an opportunity for us to get our program out more visually. We're going to test some of our ladder guys in their car during the Le Mans break."

Anyone with any interest in the future of American road racing should keep an eye on what Mazda is doing. And, say thank you.
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Mike Harris has made it official: He'll retire from the Associated Press July 1. Mike, the AP's national motorsports writer since 1980 (when I first met him), began to formally tell people last weekend at Daytona. I'll have much more on Mike's enormous contributions to racing in the upcoming months.
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I'll be guesting on Racing Roundup Arizona next Monday, Feb. 16. The show airs from 7-9 p.m. (local time) and can be heard on 1310 KXAM or at http://RacingRoundup.com .
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FAST LINES: One of the most stunning things I've ever seen has been the near zeroing-out of staff-produced NASCAR coverage among a lot of Southern newspapers . . . Count me among those sorry to see John Daly end his The Daly Planet reporting/analysis/
conversation about NASCAR TV coverage . . . I wish broadcasters, writers and publicists would embrace the fact that event "records" aren't valid "records" when the format changes. The Budweiser Shootout was a great example. Lead changes and other stats from this year's event mean nothing when placed in contrast with previous runnings contested to different distances . . . According to a story in the Arizona Republic, an expert on how to do a job search in these tough times recommends making cold calls. Why? It helps you "stand out from the rest." Sounds like what I've been saying about PR people who actually take the time to reach out to individual journalists . . . Latest example of the decline in journalistic standards: Katie Couric's pre-Grammys special last week, in which she mainstreamed behavior that should be considered on the extreme fringe of our culture. Yes, the ANCHOR of the CBS Evening News mouthed what was essentially an infomercial . . . Congratulations to Paul Page, who recently was presented the Eddie Sachs Lifetime Achievement Award by the Michigan Auto Racing Fan Club. Eddie Sachs Jr. made the presentation . . . Sanctioning body and track publicists, take note: The number of media credentials issued for the Super Bowl was down, the NFL admitted. The reason? The economy and cost cutting, of course. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sent no one. Now's the time to be cultivating and appreciating -- not haranguing -- those who are still out there providing coverage. Especially those who go out-of-their-way to provide quality coverage . . . Politico.com posted a column recently that offered this observation: "Smart campaigns know that it’s a waste of time to attack and ban the media. Seducing the media is much more productive."
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Mediabistro.com (which I check out daily) recently posted a Q&A with Howard Bragman, CEO of Fifteeen Minutes Public Relations. I can't honestly say I agree with everything Bragman said in his interview, but here are a selection of right-on-point remarks:


" . . . we all have images -- whether we think we do or not. You don't have to be Angelina Jolie to have an image. You've got a Facebook page, or you're the president of the PTA, you're trying to clean up a river or run a dry cleaners; we all have something that we want to get out there. If you don't define yourself to the world, somebody else is going to define you -- and you're probably not going to like it as much as if you did it yourself."

"The metabolism of the media has gone berserk, meaning the speed at which things happen. You used to have time to take a breath, see what was going on, get the big picture. Now you barely have time to do that -- then the video's on TV. They're digging this hole for you so quickly. I've never seen reputations shattered so quickly in this world. Did you see how stunningly quick the governor of New York went down? A very powerful man -- did you see how quickly that happened?"

"The media can screw up very quickly because it seems to me many media outlets are more interested in speed than they are in accuracy. I like journalistic standards. I'd rather take a breath and get the story right rather than get it out quickly. This is the way the world is now. I can't bury my head in the sand. And the Internet has great value because, trust me, there ain't a lot of print space left, you know? When you've got to get publicity for a client, and they're paying you because they want to get their image out there, you don't have the same opportunities you did 10 years ago."

"There's a lot of PR people . . . who seem to be proud that they're inaccessible. You can't talk to them and they don't return E-mails, and I'm sort of proud of the opposite. If a journalist approaches me, even if it's a 'Sorry, we're going to pass on that,' they'll generally get a communication from me."

"We used to talk about crisis control. Now it's crisis management. You can't control the blogosphere and the Internet. I could maybe corral it. I could maybe get it to flow into the ocean like lava to a place where it's not going to do too much damage. But I can't stop it. There's ways to bury it once it's out there. There's tricks of the trade, but it's a different world."

"PR no longer stands for public relations. It stands for perception and reality. And the job of the PR person is always, always, always to manage the relationship between perception and reality. The concept is like the scales of justice, and you've got perception on one side and reality on the other -- you want them in balance. Because if perception exceeds reality, we call that hype -- or Dr. Phil. And that means the wind's going to come under your balloon and the balloon's going to pop. As I always say, you want a career made in a crock pot, not a microwave."



[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Monday, February 02, 2009

THANKS, JUDY

Judy Stropus, 2008 winner of the Jim Chapman Award, wrote the following for the February AARWBA newsletter. I am most grateful to Judy for this, which came as a surprise to me. Thanks for noticing, Judy, and this blog is part of what I see as the big picture learning experience for us all. I copy Judy's note here exactly as it appears in the newsletter:

“I had the greatest honor of receiving the Jim Chapman Award for Excellence in Motorsports Public Relations at the recent AARWBA awards dinner in Ontario, Calif.

“Receiving this award meant a lot to me, especially because it was given in the name of one of the titans of this business.

“Although I thanked nearly everyone who was instrumental in my career, I did not give true credit to the one man who has worked so tirelessly to maintain Jim Chapman's legacy through this award for so many years.

“Thank you Michael Knight for all your efforts in making sure the motorsports p.r. profession is duly respected. And thank you for your professional demeanor for so many years. Your belief in the value of good motorsports p.r. and publicity has kept this profession in the forefront. While we are so often forgotten or taken for granted, you have made sure that the media, the team owners, manufacturers and sponsors are made aware of the importance of high-quality p.r. and media relations.

“You are the example for that, and I have always respected your abilities. Through the years members of the media have on many occasions named you to me as the best p.r. person out there. So, congratulations also to you for initiating the Jim Chapman Award in memory of your friend and for everything you have done and continue to do.


“And thank you to all the AARWBA members for their hard work and support of the AARWBA awards programs.”

Warmest regards, Judy Stropus

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]