• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Monday, March 30, 2009

SUPER SCHEDULING

MANZANITA HISTORY: Three-time World of Outlaws' champion Donny Schatz accepted his 2008 AARWBA All-America Team Horsepower Trophy Saturday night from Arizona Republic contributor Mark Armijo (right). Jamie Reynolds (left) of Racing Roundup Arizona radio joined in the front-straightaway ceremony. Schatz was racing in Australia at the time of the AARWBA dinner. It was WoO's last appearance at legendary Manzy, scheduled to close April 11. I'd say the grandstands were about 90 percent full and I was glad for the chance to be there one more time. Thanks to hard-working Outlaws' PR director Tony Veneziano for his help in coordinating this presentation. (Photo courtesy of Terry Shaw.)


(There were two blogs last week. If you missed last Thursday's special posting, on the Bill York outrage, please scroll down.)

My first thought, upon receiving word that NFL owners were considering adding regular-season games that could push the Super Bowl to the Daytona 500's traditional mid-February date, was:
Maybe NASCAR and Fox could turn back the clock and take a page from the Indianapolis 500's better era -- Start the race at 11 a.m. That would be far-more respectful to fans than last month's 3:42 p.m. green flag, which was a key factor in stock car racing's Super Bowl only going a rain-shortened 380 miles.

That would be sweetly ironic. But it still wouldn't work. There are too many corporate conflicts. If forced to choose, I bet I can guess where sponsors would focus their attention -- and money. And it would be a media coverage Titanic for NASCAR.

If the NFL acts, NASCAR will be forced to adjust. It would not only throw off NASCAR's schedule, though. The ripple effect on race dates would be felt throughout motorsports. And, come to think of it, a large segment of the overall Florida travel/hospitality industry.

Actually, the best idea would be to use the NFL's move as a convenient excuse to delete the NASCAR All-Star race. It has outlived its usefulness. Remember, this event was originally created in the 1980s to generate publicity for NASCAR in May vs. the Indianapolis 500. That's no longer an issue. That date could be used for a regular Cup race or help provide for an off-weekend somewhere else on the schedule. The levels of desperation being used to hype the All-Star spectacle just proves my point: It has outlived its purpose.
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I just finished reading No Time to Think: The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-hour News Cycle. (Continuum, 2008.) The co-authors are Howard Rosenberg, former Los Angeles Times TV critic, and Charles S. Feldman, former CNN correspondent. The title is self-explanatory. It's a warning about the dangers present in our standards-challenged, instant-communications era.

I don't agree with all their points, but this book is worthwhile even if you just read Chapter 6 ("In-Depth Instant Results") and Chapter 7 ("Desperate Newspapers Play Catch-Up").
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All the best to Jim Pedley, laid off from the Kansas City Star, and my other friends now involved with the new Racin’ Today. Pedley, et al say the site "is our response to the decision of major newspapers to exit motorsports coverage.

"Here you will find entertaining and insightful features on drivers, crew chiefs, owners and teams from a staff of award-winning writers. Here you will find educated opinion from highly experienced racing journalists who have roamed the teams’ garages and shops, who have spent as much time in haulers as some crew members. Here you will get news and notes from reporters whom drivers, crew members and team owners know and respect and trust."

Bill Fleischman, John Sturbin, Larry Woody and Rick Minter also are involved. It's http://racintoday.com/
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Here's a link to my Arizona Republic story last Friday on the last Outlaws' race at Manzanita Speedway:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2009/03/26/20090326outlaws0327.html

I'll be in Las Vegas this weekend to see what happening in the NHRA Full Throttle series.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

SURPRISE! BILL YORK OUT at IMS

I like to tell myself nothing surprises me anymore.

I was wrong.

A decision made last Monday in a conference room at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's corporate offices -- which I learned about earlier today -- defies logic, good business practice and virtually every other quality I can imagine.

Thus, the need for this emergency post.

Bill York, who for decades ran the Speedway's media center with a gentlemen's class all-but-lost to another -- better -- era, was told to "retire."

The ramifications are no less than this: The last remaining voice of credibility, delivered with a sincere smile and warm handshake, within Tony George's communications apparatus has been silenced.

For what purpose?

Don't tell me the economy -- Bill's fee was modest measured against the hours he put in. More valuable was the goodwill and common sense he brought to the MC. Especially after some journalist or publicist had just gotten needlessly hassled by the credentials department or a Yellow Shirt or some other arrogant operative within the Speedway's self-sacred "system."

"Have a seat," York would say in that calm way of his, gesturing to a chair opposite his in a glassed office on the fourth floor overlooking the pits. He'd pick up the ever-present bowl of candy on his desk and offer it to you. "Have a piece of candy, Michael, you'll feel better," he said to me after one especially maddening bit of nonsense several years ago.

If Bill could do something tangible to make it better, he would. If he couldn't, he'd give some genuine words of support. In 2005, at AARWBA's annual pre-Indy 500 breakfast meeting, I introduced Bill by calling him "the media's perennial MVP during the month of May."

When I began covering Indy for the Philadelphia Daily News, in the 1970s, Bill was the first Speedway person to say, "Welcome. Glad to have you here." Even with a full house (those were the days!) in the old MC, Bill somehow always took time for our Eastern press group which included the late Bill Simmons of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Paul Reinhard of the Allentown Call-Chronicle, Nick Nagurny/Terry Brennan/Leroy Samuels of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Pat Singer of the Philadelphia Journal, and others in our crowd.

When I left the Daily News to become CART's first full-time communications director, in the midst of one battle in the CART-USAC war, Bill never treated me with any less respect or kindness. To him, I was a friend, not the enemy as other IMSers would act. In various team/sponsor PR roles starting in 1984, I would always make it a point to walk through the MC race morning, and I remember Bill would always not only offer a "good luck," but also "be safe."

York has provided statistical expertise for various Indianapolis sports teams for many years, but many of us know him from the Speedway. He first showed up there as a spectator in 1951. In '57, he proudly carried a flag as part of the Purdue University marching band parade. The next May, he worked on Stark & Wetzel's Rookie of the Year program, serving lunch meat in the press room and garage area. He's been an IMS man since '64.

I spoke with Bill a few hours ago. He says IMS' PR director Ron Green unexpectedly gave him the "word" on Monday. But, hey, the Speedway still will give him a credential. (!)

There have been times in my life when I have been wronged, and was deeply pained when "friends" didn't speak out. Bill York has tons-more friends than I'll ever enjoy, and their voices must be heard -- NOW. "It won't do any good" isn't good enough in this case.

I predict with true sadness that too many of the Indycentric, IMS-dependent will be too scared to do what's right. Shamefully, they will cower in their silence. That will not be a surprise to me.

For all that Bill York has done for them, for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and for the sport, he deserves much -- much -- better.

Monday, March 23, 2009

QUALITY vs. QUANTITY

Memo to publicists, track and sanctioning officials everywhere:

All media coverage is not created equal.

There are stories that simply fill a few seconds of airtime, or a few inches of print space.

And, then, there are stories that actually help SELL tickets. Not because they are re-written press releases masquerading as real journalism -- trying to fool the audience into believing everything is wonderful -- but because they are compelling and create interest in the subject.

It's amazing to me how few understand -- and appreciate -- the difference.

Tonnage is a favorite sales tool among those trying to convince others media are falling all over themselves to report on their particular team, event or series. I get "pitched" these numbers all the time. Take your pick: Total number of stories up in the last 12 months, total hours a network is televising a series has increased, higher number of media credentials issued, more website hits, better measurements in key (carefully selected) demos, etc. The list is limited only by someone's imagination to create a new category.

Nice, but such numerology ignores a central fact: One line buried in a general sports notes column ("Paula Creamer shot 2-under in yesterday's Pro-Am . . . Chipper Jones is continuing contract talks with the Braves . . . Robby Gordon will switch from Dodge to Toyota in NASCAR . . .) gets credited. But certainly doesn't have the impact of 750 well reported and written words on Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Especially in this media environment, it's really quite something how few acknowledge the journos who are actually still out there trying to be as comprehensive as space and time will reasonably allow.

Mark Armijo worked hard last week to interview as many of the players in the Manzanita Speedway sale as he could, especially given the limitations of time and space, and get their information included in his Arizona Republic story. I haven't seen elements of Mark's reporting anywhere else. And, yes, I know some will take this as self-serving, but I actually PLANNED my coverage when NHRA's Full Throttle series was at Firebird Raceway. I knew there were many more good stories than available space, so I intentionally got as many "voices" into print as possible. In seven Republic stories, covering testing and race week, I interviewed and quoted: Tony Schumacher, new crew chief Mike Green, Kenny and Brandon Bernstein, Alan Johnson, Larry Dixon, Del Worsham, John Force, Ashley Force Hood, Jeg Coughlin Jr., Jack Beckman and Ron Capps.

I'll always be interested in the tonnage stats. But I'll always place more value on Quality over Quantity. Because -- bottom line -- that is the work and those are the stories that add to the Bottom Line.

Think about it.
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I've said for a long time that people who spout the old "any publicity is good publicity" don't know anything about the business. Finally, someone in the Mainstream Media agrees.

Recently, USA Today writer Robert Bianco, commenting on CNBC's Jim Cramer's fiasco-of-an-appearance on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, wrote: "Well, despite what you may have heard from the lazily cynical, all publicity is not good publicity -- particularly not when respect is your stock in trade."
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FAST LINES: Phoenix International Raceway President Bryan Sperber wrote in an E-mail to me last week that he is "not interested in a February race date for our Sprint Cup event, nor has anyone proposed that." This to counter reports of a possible date swap with California Speedway . . . Tyler Alexander soon will be retiring from McLaren. If you don't know that name, that's a shame. Tyler is a legendary team manager with great success at the Indy 500, and in Formula One, Can-Am and CART. I had the great experience of seeing his organization, intensity and professionalism up-close when he managed Newman/Haas Racing in 1987 and I did the PR. That, in many ways, was a true Dream Team: Tyler as manager, Adrian Newey as engineer, in a Nigel Bennett-designed Lola, with the then-new Chevrolet engine. And, of course, Mario Andretti driving for Paul Newman and Carl Haas . . . Formula One got this much right: Fans want more emphasis on winning, not "a good points day" driving . . . Maybe someone can explain this news judgment to me: Speed's Thursday ALMS preview show from Sebring didn't report on qualifying until 50 minutes into the one-hour program. And there was no full-field qualifying results graphic. There was competition to like at Sebring, especially in the P1 class, but the quality of pit reporting still doesn't match the series' aspirations. Speed's crew uttered far-too-many "How does it feel?" "What does this mean to you?" "Tell us about your race" lines. Justin Bell handled the microphone about as well as stumbling White House press secretary Robert Gibbs . . . I'll have a story in this Friday's Arizona Republic previewing the World of Outlaws' last run at Manzanita . . . Mark Armijo and Jamie Reynolds will join me in presenting AARWBA's All-America Team Horsepower Trophy to Donny Schatz Saturday night at Manzy. Schatz was racing in Australia at the time of the AARWBA ceremony.
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I'll make a return appearance on Racing Roundup Arizona Monday, March 30. We'll be talking various Business of Racing issues, including, I'm sure, NASCAR's upcoming Phoenix weekend. And co-host Chris Hines says he wants to talk about the IRL season. The show airs 7-9 p.m. (local time) and can be heard on 1310 KXAM or
http://racingroundup.com/ .


I'm happy to be able to help faciliate an April 13 RRA visit by National Speed Sport News president/publisher Corinne Economaki.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Monday, March 16, 2009

SHORT CHANGED

When I got tipped-off last Thursday morning that legendary Manzanita Speedway was being sold and racing would end -- the official announcement came today -- I was disappointed but not surprised.

Reports on the demise of the Phoenix dirt track, where the green flag waved for the first time on August 25, 1951, have been around for several years. I was at Manzy last summer for a night of local competition, when Jim McGee was inducted into Arizona racing's Hall of Fame, and the crowd wasn't at 50 percent capacity. I returned last month for USAC's Silver Crown, sprint and midget tripleheader. Looking up at the grandstands from the pits before the heats began, I'd say they were 60-70 percent full. Doesn't sound too bad in these tough times, but certainly not good enough for a national show like USAC or the World of Outlaws.

Manzanita, for those who don't know, is where people like Foyt and Andretti and Bettenhausen raced on their way to fame. Sometimes, it was tough to tell what was more rough: the competition, track, or neighborhood.

Manzy's passing into history for the sake of property value is not just a sentimental moment for people like me. It's another head slap to the Business of Racing in Arizona. Other than local stars who developed there, like Yeley and Boat, at least three times a year national motorsports media attention was focused on the Valley when USAC and the Outlaws visited. I have no doubt there will be people who cite the end of Manzy as an indication enthusiasm for the sport is diminishing in this state. And, I'm sure, there are a few around here rubbing their hands -- figuring one less competitor for the racing entertainment dollar adds to their own power base.

So, let's everyone be clear about this: It is NOT a positive for racing in Arizona, from a fan or industry standpoint, to be viewed as limited to two NASCAR and one NHRA shows per 12 months.

While it will be very difficult in the current environment, there IS an opportunity for another short-track promoter to step-up and try to fill the void.

To me, the most important question now is: Who -- if anyone -- will that be? There's at least some optimistic talk about a new dirt track in the Valley, possibly even continuing the Manzy name.

Meanwhile, I'm glad that the Outlaws' March 28 event will go on. I'll be there to see Kinser, Swindell, Schatz and Co. take on Manzy one more time. Manzanita's final checkered flag is scheduled for Saturday night, April 11.
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I made the following comment at last January's AARWBA All-America Team ceremony: One of the most insidious trends in modern motorsports is driver BUSINESS managers being allowed to make MEDIA decisions. Where does it say just because somebody knows how to write a contract they also know how to write a proper press release?

I was reminded of this again last week. I received a release touting that Borja Garcia will race in this season's Atlantic series. To quote from this offering, "In a move masterminded by his management company, CJ Motorsport Consulting, the talented Spaniard . . ."

A self-congratulatory quote from a rep of the consulting company followed.

If these people knew anything about publicity or news, they'd know the idea is to promote the driver. Not his manager."Masterminded?" This is a perfect example why many journalists don't want to deal with managers or agents.
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This was lost during the Sprint Cup "off" weekend, but I noted a Jayski posting attributed to Fox. This was about the Atlanta ratings. I quote:

"One month into the season, NASCAR racing is being impacted by two disappointing trends on the track: lead changes per race are at an all-time low, while caution flags per race are near an all-time high. The season's first four points races have averaged just 14 lead changes per race. The same races a year ago averaged 30 lead changes."

As a follow-up to last week's posting, Sports Business News reported Bank of America CEO Kenneth Lewis defended spending on sports marketing.

"I was never inclined to pump big sums of money into sports marketing until I saw the facts and the numbers. In general terms, for every dollar we spend on sports marketing, we get $10 in revenue and $3 in earnings. This is not wasted money." ********************************************************************
Invented News: ESPN treated as "headline" and "breaking" news last weekend the drivel that one of its self-important "bracketologists" (it even sounds self-important) had changed his opinion on one of the four regional NCAA No. 1 seeds. Let's clearly understand this: ONE guy, who had no role in the actual selections, made a GUESS and ESPN acted like it was REAL, LEGITIMATE news. Oh, and by the way, he was wrong. This is what the media has become. I feel safe in saying this even though I never worked for the New York Times or Washington Post.
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It's no secret charitable giving is down. But the 28th annual CARA Charities' Fashion Show is scheduled for Thursday, May 21 at the Indiana Roof Ballroom. Money raised goes to Riley Children's Hospital and the Cody Unser First Step Foundation. More information from CARA Charities' executive director Cathie Lyon, 317-299-2277, or caraexdir@aol.com .
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First to 300. First to 30. Here's my new Drag Racing Online "All Business" column on Kenny Bernstein's 30th anniversary with Budweiser sponsorship. It was announced today Bud will conclude this sponsorship, as well as its NHRA relationship, after this season:
http://www.dragracingonline.com/columns/knight/xi_3-1.html

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Monday, March 09, 2009

SPORTS MARKETING UNDER FIRE

Sports marketing is in the cross hairs of Washington politics. Motorsports better take cover.

Anything that can be tagged as "wasteful" or "lavish" spending is getting denounced in the halls of Congress, by media hoping to tap into populist outrage, and in the court of public opinion. Recently, Northern Trust got headlines it could have done well without, for its title sponsorship and activation of a PGA golf tournament. Video of celebrity entertainment at a dinner for NT's customers found its way onto the network news and drew the oh-so-predictable ire of all the usual Congressional suspects. Wells Fargo, which now owns Wachovia, yanked W's name off a tournament and chose a non-corporate title rather than putting its own ID on it.

The message is clear: Any corporation accepting taxpaper money is going to be an easy target. What used to be considered legitmate marketing now is an unnecessary expense.

With word last week that even General Motors' auditors view it as a company on-the-brink, and Chrysler also on the receiving end of what is labeled with the generic "bailout," how much longer will it be before racing budgets get steered into the political center-stage? It probably already would have happened if not for NASCAR's own long-engaged lobbying efforts and the recognized electorial force of a voting strata known as "NASCAR dads."

A continued business downturn, and maybe evidence of attendance and TV ratings weakness, could help change that.

I understand why he did it, but it was painful to see Greg Biffle feel the need to offer a defense for sponsor Citi after winning the Nationwide race in Las Vegas.

I just read that Chevrolet is trying to sell-off its VIP suites at the NCAA Final Four and, if it can't, will leave them vacant. How many speedway suites and chalets and tents have gone unsold so far this year? How many more by season's end?

I truly pity the travel, leisure and hospitality industries, among America's largest employment sectors. Conventions and receptions in this economic and political environment are as taboo as peanuts used to be in the pits at Indy. Interesting to me that in four states which benefit the most from tourism -- Nevada, California, Florida and New York -- six of the eight U.S. senators are Democrats. Including, of course, senate majority leader Harry Reid.
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FAST LINES: Congratulations to good guy and fellow Scottsdaler Didier Theys (left), who announced his retirement last week. I first met Didier in 1986 when he won the championship in the old Bosch Super Vee series. He went on to success in Indy Lights, was in CART, and qualified for three Indianapolis 500s. But he's best known as a winner in endurance sports car racing, including Daytona and Sebring. Theys, 52, said he planned to retire at the end of 2009 but the worldwide economic downturn made it impossible to put together a sponsorship package for this season . . . Some people still get it: Thanks to Kelby Krauss for the outreach last week. Kelby did it the old-fashioned way -- He picked up the phone and called me. NHRA's Anthony Vestal sent a hand-written thank you note for my Firebird coverage. Kenny and Brandon Bernstein mailed their own thank you letter . . . Disspiriting -- Dave (King) Wilson off-the-air at WIBC in Indianapolis due to the economy . . . Please note Sunday's NHRA Gatornationals final eliminations this Sunday are on ESPN, not ESPN2, due to a coverage conflict with the World Baseball Classic. Qualifying and all other NHRA races are on "2" . . . One of the worst things I've ever seen -- The iconic yellow and black Ferrari Prancing Horse logo on a UPS-brown baseball cap. Whoever thought that was a good idea probably would like to see Reese Witherspoon with purple hair. (!)

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Monday, March 02, 2009

MEASURE OF RESPECT

It must be true: Desperate times call for desperate measures.

That's an impression I was left with after the interests of NHRA (Firebird Raceway), USAC (Manzanita Speedway) and NASCAR (Phoenix International Raceway) collided the other week here in the Valley of the Sun.

It was, from a historical standpoint, drag racing week here. The 25th annual NHRA Nationals ran at Firebird. There was a time in motorsports when that would have been respected and others stood down. No longer.

With Antron Brown (who went on to win Top Fuel) available for the media rounds on Thursday, Feb. 19, and Manzy hosting an open test in preparation for Saturday night's USAC Silver Crown, sprint and midget tripleheader, PIR brought in Clint Bowyer for a media availability and go-kart racing. Bowyer, of course, stopped on his way to California Speedway.

The bizarre element was that Bowyer's visit was promoted as not only to pump PIR's April NASCAR weekend, but also, "the track's relationship with Coca-Cola." Apparently, Coke's brand managers and sports marketing types aren't coordinating activities, since Full Throttle is NHRA's new title sponsor. (!)

With an admission that, back in my days as CART's communications director, I was involved in an episode of trying to step on someone else's event, I have a distaste for what I saw. If there's one thing in shorter supply than entertainment dollars, it's media airtime/space. USAC at Manzy on NHRA's traditional weekend was another in the seemingly endless examples of racing shooting itself in the foot. But the attempt to Big Foot NHRA with the Bowyer visit was much more regretable, and, I'm sorry to say, a sign of our less respectful times.

Furthermore, now comes word via a Mike Mulhern website report that Cal Speedway President Gillian Zucker wants to change the date of her first Cup weekend to April, "possibly in a swap with Phoenix International Raceway" according to Mulhern. Using this year's calendar, that would bring NASCAR to the Valley on NHRA's long-held weekend.

Are the straight-liners supposed to just give up a date in which they own a ton of equity?

(To the best of my knowledge, no Valley media outlet has raised this issue. If there's no space, money, interest or manpower to pursue a potentially important story like this, what will it be if NASCAR/PIR do try to claim the date, and both series run here at the same time? Let me be clear: THAT would be the biggest mistake, the greatest debacle, the dumbest move, in Arizona motorsports history.)

Meanwhile, credit to NHRA. The Firebird crowd -- especially Saturday's -- was solid. And overall media coverage -- especially local TV -- was up from recent years. As I've said many times, NHRA is an under-reported sport. Maybe, just maybe, this was an indication of increased awareness.
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Here are BASIC things we still don't know about USF1 even after last week's live "news conference" (and cheerleading) on SPEED:

1. It was said team founders Ken Anderson and Peter Windsor sold an ownership stake. Who was the buyer? What percentage? How much? Is the money in the team's bank account, or just promised?

2. It was said a visual presentation existed for display to investors. How many more investors are needed? What additional percentage of the team ownership will be sold? How much more funding is needed?

3. Is Bernie Ecclestone, either directly or through a company he owns/controls, financially involved in USF1?

4. The budget has been reported as $62 million. Is that accurate? If so, how much is actually in the bank, vs. pledged funds?

5. Sponsors?

6. Marco Andretti was promoted as a potential driver. The Andretti family position, from Mario to Michael to Marco, has been it would take a ride with one of the "top" teams to make the switch from Indy Cars. Are they saying USF1 will be considered a "top" team right from the start?

7. What is the actual deadline, go/no-go, date to ensure the team is on the grid for the 2010 season opener?

8. Oh, and why weren't the above seven questions asked?********************************************************************
I'm glad The Daly Planet is back and could not agree more with this post-Vegas analysis:

"It may be that time spent on setting up Digger in every segment of the race takes away from the time spent getting current information ready to be told to the viewers. The Fox team makes sure that Digger is a constant presence. It would be wonderful if information from the pit road reporters was presented as regularly as the animated cartoon character."
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Grab a copy of next week's (March 11 cover date) National Speed Sport News. My blurb in honor of NSSN's 75th anniversary is scheduled to appear in that issue.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]