• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Big Name headline wins by Jeff Gordon and Courtney Force made it a good weekend for NASCAR and NHRA.

Monday, April 27, 2009

TWITS

If the Internet is the Wild West of the information age, then social networks are No-Man's Land.

While many describe these sites as popular, I call them out-of-control.

For those unaware, people go on Twitter and some of these other cybersoapboxes claiming to be people they are not. It might be the ultimate form of disinformation. I think it's just another sign that we are a celebrity-driven society, and somehow, dopey nobodies think they can hang it all out on YouTube and MySpace, etc., to get their 15 minutes of fame. Except, now, in our short attention span nation, it's more like 15 seconds. Which, sadly, only means more people do it more often.

Technology makes such "fame" possible.

I refuse to participate. And, during his media avail the other week at Phoenix International Raceway, I was glad to learn Dale Earnhardt Jr. is saying no, too.

"I don't have a MySpace, a Twitter, or none of that crap," Earnhardt said. "There's a bunch of imposters out there that you have to beware of. I really would never get into social networking -- it's just a dangerous area to be involved in, especially if you're high profile . . . "

Good move, Junior. I'm hoping at least some of this techno-nonsense will turn out to be a fad.
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It's not exactly Top Secret that NASCAR's TV ratings are down like a flat Goodyear. Which only helps spotlight something I noticed at Phoenix. (Where anyone could have guessed the Fox numbers would be bad because -- let's just be honest about it -- the actual racing was not good showbiz.)

Among all the on-site "partner" microphone holders, I noticed only Dick Berggren came into the deadline media room to talk with the other journalists in a meaningful way. Now, it's no surprise to me Dick would understand to do this. One might think, however, that those other gentlemen and ladies might recognize (or be told) that a few minutes spent in relationship building and goodwill generating on behalf of their programs and networks might be a very smart investment of time. Especially now.

It sure would beat sitting around too long in what often are self-important production meetings, where various producers and announcers try to impress each other with their brilliant ideas and vast knowledge. Or, as I've personally observed numerous times over the years, try to one-up each other with talk of their new toys, vacation plans, and other ego-driven chatter.

I would say some personal media center contact would be more productive than the amateur-hour communications I've received in recent weeks from marketing agencies representing Fox and Versus.


Along these lines, YES, I noticed at PIR a little improvement as far as team/sponsor PR reps interacting with the media. But, still, way, way, WAY too many can't be bothered. And this includes those supposedly charged with generating publicity for some of the BIGGEST corporate players.
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FAST LINES: The Talladega TV ratings will tell us a lot about the direction of the rest of the year. Talladega was Talladega: Multiple multi-car wrecks, Dale Earnhardt Jr. at-or-near the front, and a dark-horse winner. If that didn't uptick the numbers, and give a boost to Richmond, it's going to be a bad season for NASCAR's TV partners . . . Fox management should give Chris Myers a wrist-slap for his pre-race "drag race" remark . . . More than once Sunday, Darrell Waltrip seemed to confuse Regan (Smith) and (David) Ragan . . . It was left to Larry McReynolds, as a secondary thought, to tell us who actually WON as Mike Joy gave an inaccurate first report on debris in the grandstands after the Carl Edwards crash . . . Attention Wind Tunnel producers: An accident that leaves fans injured is NOT APPROPRIATE content for "Eye Candy" . . . As best I can tell, here's what was left out of the Talladega coverage: It was the first Cup win for a single-car team since Ricky Craven won Darlington in 2003 for Cal Wells . . . Dick Mittman reveals in the new Indianapolis 500 Oldtimers Newsletter (I have membership card No. 1,000) that Pete Rose's brother, David, is a chef in the Brickyard Crossing restaurant. I covered part of Pete's historic 44-game hitting streak in 1978 while at the Philadelphia Daily News . . . Here's an honest question: If the Versus TV deal is so great, why is the roster of commercial spots dominated by a "male enhancement" product, while McDonald's and Target don't make a buy? What say you, Tony George and Terry Angstadt?

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Monday, April 20, 2009

OF DATELINES and DEADLINES

The law of unintended consequences played out last Friday as NASCAR visited Phoenix International Raceway.

NASCAR, in full cost-cutting mode, sliced one day from the traditional three-day PIR schedule. That meant all Sprint Cup practice and qualifying and every lap of Nationwide Series competition -- practice, qualifying and the race -- was jammed into one hectic day. No less than 11 Cup drivers -- including the likes of Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick -- were doing double duty.

And that meant driver media availabilities were, for the most part, shoved into mid-afternoon. Pity those journos facing East Coast deadlines. Especially when, for example, Jeff Gordon's 15-minute avail was at 3 p.m. at the back of his No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet hauler. Meanwhile, at 3:05, Kurt Busch was in the media center.

It was great for team budgets to make it a two-day show. I have no problem with that -- as long as everyone involved understands the downside from a media publicity standpoint. Plus PDT night races made for impossible newspaper deadlines. As far as I could tell, the only out-of-state daily to staff the race was the Charlotte Observer (Jim Utter).
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Here are links to some of last week's Arizona Republic stories:

Wednesday: The NASCAR Economy:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2009/04/15/20090415spt-nascar.html

Thursday: Notebook (Bobby Labonte): http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2009/04/15/20090415nascarnb0416.html

Friday: Notebook (No No. 8, No IRL at PIR, etc.):
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2009/04/16/20090416pirnb0417.html

Saturday: Jeff Gordon Q&A and notebook:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2009/04/17/20090417spt-gordon.html


http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2009/04/17/20090417nascarnb0418.html

Sunday: Notebook (Richard Petty, Steve Hallam, race items):
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2009/04/18/20090418spt-nascarnb.html

I'll admit: I'm pretty proud of the Jeff Q&A and would politely urge you to take a look.

Thank you to Jon Edwards, Jesse Essex, Sarah Wooley, Drew Brown, Judy Kouba Dominick, Nancy Wager, Dan Zacharias, Andrew Giangola, Catie Axup, Tom O'Connor, Christine Brownlow, Mike Arning, Jennifer Chapple, Steve Shunk, Paul Corliss and Griffin Hickman for their assistance with PIR coverage.

Thanks to Steve Post and Buddy Baker for a fun conversation last Friday on their SiriusXM show.
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FAST LINES: One small problem with the VICI Racing Porsche ALMS GT2 class team's sponsor news announcement pre-Long Beach. The release failed to name the DRIVERS . . . Racing Roundup Arizona has a new station: KFNN 1510 . . . Kurt Busch's outreach to press is to come to the media center for his avails, rather than having reporters go to his No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge hauler . . . The IRL is using technology to personalize pre-race media reports . . . Mark Armijo wrote a great piece on the closing of Manzanita Speedway for Racin Today.com. Here's a link: http://www.racintoday.com/archives/1690 .

USA Today had a story last week on how shrinking newsrooms have cut into baseball coverage:
http://www.usatoday.com/sports/baseball/2009-04-14-Baseball_writers_N.htm

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Monday, April 13, 2009

NO SURPRISE

The embarrassing, abysmal audience for the IRL's debut on Versus was no more surprising than another gushy Danica Patrick feature in Sports Illustrated. As usual, there's a backstory to how something like this happens, other than the economy and devastatingly diminished level of interest in Indy-type racing -- a direct result of the very creation of the IRL itself.

Versus took its own green flag in a big hole -- 20-plus million fewer households than ESPN. (Whose own Big Foot impact on an event was felt yet again last week as it presented the opening two rounds of the Masters for the first time.) As I told League PR officials in the months before St. Pete, no amount of network promotion was going to change that. And they couldn't print enough press releases or buy enough advertising to alter that cold, hard, honest fact.

What WAS needed, as I have written in this spec of cyberspace, was to create a water-cooler-talk sort of TV show. To repeat: Bob Jenkins has been a friend of mine for almost 30 years and I'm personally happy he was hired to call these races. But the absolute imperative for BUZZ turned out to be more like ZZZZ. I specifically offered suggestions in this blog, which I was told were "good ideas," that were no where to be found on a by-rote, uninspiring effort out of the production truck. Which, again, was no surprise to me.

Extra logos on the announcers' shirts and then-and-now photos of Jack Arute aren't going to cut it.

Meanwhile, the Vs. outreach effort somehow included a contact to me by the network's hired (and self-proclaimed) "organic" marketing firm. Oh-so-typical, the guy hadn't done his homework, had no idea of my own background in the sport and industry, and wasted my time and his client's money. Maybe, next time, this agency will get its head out of the cucumber plants to plant the seed of a legitimate idea.

And maybe -- I can at least dream here -- the small media corps that travels the circuit might engage in some candid journalism about what is REALLY going on. (Is Tony George as disengaged from his League's operations as it appears? Perception = reality.) One of these journos recently fawned over Danica by writing she had "reached her potential" by winning in Japan. That, the record shows, was a fuel economy run (fair enough) backed-up by her not getting anywhere close to the front the remainder of the season. If THAT is "reaching her potential," quit and become a full-time model.

I said in years past I blame the collapse of CART/Champ Car, in part, on reporters who allowed their anti-TG bias to block them from the necessary examination of management's arrogance and misguided business "plan." Yes, I know, no one wants to hear this -- but a journalistically sound airing of the IRL's true situation would be healthy for the sport.

Too much cotton-candy is no good for you, guys.

Now, I see Brian Barnhart quoted in the Indianapolis Star as expecting Indy 500 entries will "end up about in the 35 to 36 category. And that will make for a pretty good field." Even the chatroom cheerleaders should find that a pathetic statement.

Just one year after the much ballyhooed reunification of American open-wheel racing, we're being told 35 or 36 cars make for a "pretty good field" for what, supposedly, is the most prestigious race in the world.

I'll tell you what we ARE looking at -- with the month-of-May preliminaries on Versus instead of ABC/ESPN -- is a potential new track record. As in low race-day TV ratings. Reminder: History shows I was right when I predicted Annika Sorenstam playing in a men's golf tournament Indy week would knock-down the 500's numbers in 2003.
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Just how low have the standards in the Mainstream Media gone? Look no further than last week's "exclusive" two-part CBS morning show interview with the ex-boyfriend of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's daughter. It's one thing for Oprah-wannabe Tyra Banks to put this white trash jerk on, but CBS' Maggie Rodriguez proved herself to be a classic journalism bottom-feeder.

The agenda here, of course (if one cares to look beyond ratings), is this: Liberal establishment media types know Gov. Palin has "it" and is a legitimate national political figure. They would like nothing more than to knock Palin off the 2012 presidential stage as soon as possible.

Over at CBS Sports, all the microphone-holders participated in their annual credibility sell-out at Augusta National. Their words and tone were so reverential I thought they were reading from the Bible. (The TV tower was the real "Amen" Corner.) I've been to the Masters, and it IS a GREAT event, but not everything the Green Jackets do is perfect . . . despite what one would think listening to the CBS altar boys.

Are you proud, Katie Couric?
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Here's a link to my Arizona Republic story last Sunday on driver-owner Tony Stewart.
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2009/04/11/20090411stewart0412.html

I'll join Mark Armijo and Jim Gintonio in coverage all this week of NASCAR in Phoenix. Please check us out at http://azcentral.com/ . I'll have a story on what the NASCAR industry is doing to help fans in this economy on Wednesday, notebooks Thursday-Sunday, and a Q&A with Jeff Gordon on Saturday.

And here's a link to my April "All Business" column in Drag Racing Online. It features Gatornationals Funny Car winner Bob Tasca III.
http://www.dragracingonline.com/columns/knight/xi_4-1.html

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Monday, April 06, 2009

VIEW FROM THE TOP END

ANNOUNCER ALAN: Reinhart (left) interviews Greg Anderson after his Friday qualifying pass.

As I've written before, it's hard to find two people who enjoy their time at the racetrack more than NHRA announcers Bob Frey and Alan Reinhart. Last Friday, for the first round of Full Throttle qualifying at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway's SummitRacing.com Nationals, I went down to the top end with Reinhart to check out the scene as he interviewed drivers post-run.

Rain delayed the open of Pro Stock qualifying, followed by a long pause to fix starting-line electrical problems. Bob Bode (Bob Bode!) was quickest in Funny Car. Top Fueler Arley Langlo blew an engine big-time, whereupon high wind gusts blew debris on the track, ending "action" for the day.

As Frey called it, "a bizarre day."

Nevertheless, it was an interesting experience to watch alongside Reinhart. He got lap times via radio, passed them on to drivers, bantering and interviewing. In short, despite the conditions, having a good time.

His announcing philosophy?

"Three fold: 1. I love going to work in the morning. It doesn't matter what you do, if you like your job, you're going to do it well. 2. I'm a car guy. I have a '67 Mustang that I got when I was 17 years old (used) that I still own. I grew up with friends who had the big-block Camaros, Road Runners, the hot rod cars, and I just loved it. 3. Having raced a little bit -- I'm not anywhere near good enough to mess with the guys who do it regularly -- I understand the mentality. I know what the guys are going through when the car makes a perfect run or goes red by two-thousands of a second. One guy is jumping up and down and the other is ready to slit his wrists. I try to impart some of that.

"The late (broadcaster) Steve Evans told me a long time ago, 'One thing you've got to remember when you're up there (booth), everybody is somebody's hero.' Even a guy driving an old station wagon he got from his mom has got a buddy on the fence that wishes that was him out there. There's something special about every race."

Alan began announcing in the early 1980s at Arizona's Tucson Dragway. Then, on to Firebird International Raceway when it opened. "I went out to Firebird one night for a bracket race and, absolute dumb luck, their announcer didn't show up. Somebody said something to somebody and, for seven years, I was the announcer there." He helped out at the NHRA national event a couple of times, doing various jobs. "I mentioned to them that I was an announcer. They gave me an opportunity one year as a volunteer to come up in the booth for Super Gas and Stock Eliminator. The next year they put me on the payroll."

Reinhart says he's a NASCAR fan, too. "I follow it closely. (But) I believe everybody is a drag racer. At some point in time, you've tried to beat the guy to the merge lane. You've taken off across the intersection to beat the guy into the 7-Eleven."

The job mixes reporting with showbiz. Especially when fans need to be entertained (or distracted) on a challenging day.

"The sport needs the rivalries. Everybody gets out of their car and says, 'We were really lucky to beat the other guy. They've got a great team.' It's not the same as, 'I want to rip your throat out.' When John Force was racing Whit Bazemore, everybody in the stands wanted somebody to win, and somebody to get their butt kicked. That's what gets the fans into it. It doesn't have to be disrespectful."
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I spent a lot of time last weekend interviewing and reporting for a two-column ESPN2-on-NHRA series for the May and June issues of Drag Racing Online. (Where I write the monthly "All Business" column.) Can't wait to share this, though, courtesy of 22-time national event winner and ace analyst Mike Dunn.

Dunn's three-step process for racers who want more coverage:

1. Win races.

2. Crash and burn.

3. Cry during an interview.
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There is and probably always will be some grumbling in the NHRA pit area that John (and, now Ashley) Force get too much TV time. But ESPN has data to prove Team Force drives ratings. In contrast, Saturday's ALMS race on ABC tried to lure in viewers with a video blog from Chapman Ducote. I'd love for some producer to explain that one to me.

Meanwhile, as IRL debuted on Versus, we learned during qualifying that in the off-season Danica Patrick got a bread maker and hosted dinner parties. Just what she did to make herself a BETTER RACE DRIVER went unasked by the Vs. microphone holders. But, hey, why would they ask that when they can show swimsuit photos?

As much as anyone, I believe in innocent until proven guilty. This, however, must be noted: From the tone of the Versus announcers, the uninformed would have thought Helio Castroneves was recovering from illness or injury, not someone on trial for federal tax evasion charges. If Castroneves is found not guilty, I'm under the impression Vs. will treat him like a conquering hero. It's already obvious Versus is the place where seldom will be heard a discouraging word about IndyCar racing.

Yes, I KNOW, April Fools' Day gags are an American tradition. But last Wednesday's Car and Driver posting, that President Obama had ordered Chevrolet and Dodge out of NASCAR, wasn't funny. Not in this economic environment. The Internet already is the Wild West when it comes to so-called "news reporting" and this took it down another notch in terms of credibility.

I started buying C&D before I was 10, mainly to enjoy its rich sports car and Formula One articles. Post-Brock Yates, it's pretty much become a non-read.

The bigger issue is bogus April Fools' stories have outlived whatever humor they might have had. It was sad to see shows ranging from ESPN's Pardon the Interruption to Golf Channel's 19th Hole, and any number of websites, resort to this.
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I spied former Champ Car President Steve Johnson cruising the pits Saturday at The Strip. He was pointing out the sights to a couple of followers. Looked to me like he was trying to sell something. I'm told Johnson is doing some consulting for Heartland Park in Topeka.

I'll have a feature on Tony Stewart, as owner-driver, in this Sunday's Arizona Republic. Mark Armijo, Jim Gintonio and I will have coverage of NASCAR-in-Phoenix all next week.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]