• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, September 13, 2009

FORCE(D) ERRORS

CONGRATULATIONS: To Ashley Force Hood for winning the U.S. Nationals . . . but this image would have been SO much better without the cap pulled down on her head and the big sunglasses, which only served to hide her. The public needs to SEE Ashley (no, not like Danica) if she truly is to be drag racing's superstar for the next generation. The unzipped uniform and safety harness detracted, too, from what could have been a classic PR picture. Yes, there were other photo-ops, but this was the most important -- the moment of victory. Ten seconds of attention would have made all the difference. (Photo courtesy NHRA.)

For once, John Force shouldn't have plugged his sponsors.

I know. I know. He can't help himself.

But, this time, he should have.

For all the sound and fury that burst forth from the U.S. Nationals -- and I'm not going to replay all of that -- I honestly have only one criticism of John. And, it's probably not the one you think.

To me, it's not that he (almost certainly) let teammate and son-in-law Robert Hight win their semifinals match, and thus, advance into NHRA's Full Throttle Countdown to One championship. It's that John was TOO OBVIOUS about it.

Not just by being asleep-slow off the line (.209 light vs. his .086 season average), or going out of the groove, or smoking his tires.

Amidst a terrible season for Team Force in what John himself billed as his "no excuses" tour (no wins for John, Hight or Mike Neff), to me, the most surprising has been Hight's struggles. We are very accustomed to seeing Robert and tuner Jimmy Prock put up impressive ET and top speed numbers, and while I'm not into predictions, I likely would have made Hight my pre-season title favorite. Instead, he's had a couple of DNQs, and went into Indy needing to jump from 12th to 10th in points to make the Countdown.

John made no secret that he was willing to do whatever to get Robert's Auto Club Mustang into the Countdown, and that is where I think drag racing's greatest champion and biggest personality make a mistake. To me, the series of verbal errors launched with his post-Brainerd ESPN2 interview. That's when John announced he had just spoken with the Auto Club president, and would swap cars with Robert for the next two events.

And so it began: Over and over and over again, John said the same thing: That Castrol and Ford and the Auto Club and his other sponsors pay him to win and be in the Countdown. We heard that message some more at Reading, and certainly at Indy. No one could have missed it because John seemingly never did an interview without saying it, and because ESPN2 -- in the name of ratings -- heavily overweights its coverage in his favor.

John was clearly signaling his intentions. We all knew the story.

It would have been better, though, in this instance, if John had not attached the string of sponsor names to this talking point. I would rather he had just called it a "business decision" or "I'm going to do what's best for my team." By naming all the corporate names, he, in effect, put the burden -- and, maybe, the PR hit -- on them.

It was invisible to the media and public, but some of the best PR work I ever did was keeping a sponsor's name OUT of an interview or a story. Obviously, no one can control John Force. I'm not certain if he even can be counseled. But this was a time when John needed to carefully consider the possible consequences of what he said and did.

P.S. We had a lively talk about this in the first two segments of last week's The Race Reporters. Click this link to listen:
http://www.modavox.com/voiceamerica/vepisode.aspx?aid=40919

Here's a link to my September "All Business" column on Drag Racing Online.com, on NHRA's incredible self-inflicted wound:
http://dragracingonline.com/columns/knight/xi_9-1.html


Kenny Wallace had the nerve to talk about his "reflections" of Sept. 11, 2001, in the Richmond Raceway media center last Friday. Well, here's MY reflection of Wallace and 9/11: Kenny going on ESPN2's old rpm2night show a couple of days after the national tragedy and saying that everyone needed to "chill out." Yes, that's what he said. If there were any standards within cable TV, Wallace would never again have been hired as a commentator -- or had a sponsor, not to mention an agency of the U.S. government -- after that grotesquely insensitive and inappropriate remark. I'm still waiting to hear his apology.


Steve Snoddy was not only a friend of mine, he was the rare person who gave back to motorsports. When I was CART's communications director, 1980-1983, Steve took on the task of running photographers' seminars at just about every race. He taught the veterans and newcomers safety and courtesy tips. I had the pleasure of calling Steve to the stage at the 1983 CART awards ceremony and presenting him with an appreciation award. A couple of years ago, Steve told me it was his dream to create a racing photographers Hall of Fame. He didn't get the chance. Steve, a member of the Jim Chapman Award selection committee, died last week. Thank you, Steve, and God Bless.

Upcoming guests:

September 16 -- Newsmaker: Lee White. Panelists: Matt Yocum, Peter De Lorenzo.

September 23 -- Newsmaker: Jeg Coughlin Jr. Panelists: Alan Reinhart, Mike Kerchner, Jeff Burk.

September 30 -- John Daly (editor, The Daly Planet.) Panelists: Lewis Franck, Jonathan Ingram. Plus, NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Karen Stoffer.

October 7 -- Gil de Ferran. Panelists: Mike Harris, Gordon Kirby.

[ Lee White news nuggest Thursday. . . ]