Monday, December 13, 2010
On July 24, 2007, I wrote here about ESPN's return to Big Time NASCAR Cup race coverage after an absence of more than six years. Here's a link to that posting, titled "ESPN's Turn."
I expressed my enthusiasm, but signaled my concerns, based on what I'd seen on what-was-then the Busch series telecasts earlier that season. I admitted a bit of pro-ESPN mindset, based on my own minor role in the network's racing history. I recalled that ESPN's first stint at bringing NASCAR to the nation was a key in building stock car's popularity. I said that the original team of Bob Jenkins, Benny Parsons, Ned Jarrett, Dr. Jerry Punch, John Kernan and Bill Weber had the chemistry the 2007 crew lacked. I was glad Punch's loyalty was rewarded. I worried that Allen Bestwick was miscast as a pit reporter. I said Shannon Spake was a solid news reporter. I flashed a warning about NASCAR Now and NASCAR Countdown. I admitted I didn't understand Brad Daugherty's role. I figured Brent Musburger would be harmless and that Suzy Kolber would be fine. I was confident management wouldn't be afraid to make changes as needed.
I was right. I was wrong.
Forget Dale Junior. The biggest disappointment of NASCAR 2010 has been ESPN's continued inability to deliver to racing fans the kind of solid product it has to baseball, NFL and NHRA followers.
The situation is stupefying. Think of the thousands of great decisions that various ESPN managements have had to make over the years to create the juggernaut the network has become. But, quite simply, it hasn't gotten NASCAR right.
My theory is there are two reasons why. First, anyone who has had any dealings with ESPN knows the Powers-That-Be in Bristol, Conn., breathe the rarified-but-arrogant air of uber-success. No less than a dozen ESPN field reporters/producers have told me over the years of their frustrations and the common theme has been "the people in Bristol exist in a different world." And, I've experienced that personally. A few years ago a senior production person lectured me, on a phone call, about how to provide news information for possible use on race cablecasts. When I reviewed the rather lengthy list of exclusive, breaking stories I had delivered on a silver platter to ESPN announcers over the years, so they had the news first, I was told I should not do that. (!) That I should pass on such information only to this person, who would then be the sole decider of what (if anything) to do with such news. (!) Imagine if Ben Bradlee had imposed that rule on Woodward and Bernstein!
Emergency trips to Charlotte, as network biggies did in October, aren't the answer to the near-25 percent collapse of Chase ratings. The answer is for executives to unplug from the Planet Bristol mentality and get in touch with NASCAR Nation.
The second part of my theory has to do with research. ESPN is a research-centric organization, analyzing and re-analyzing, reminding me of Dan Gurney continuing to tinker with his car on the grid until it was time to get in and start the engine. For example, the NHRA producer has told me repeatedly the network has research data proving that there is an viewership-uptick when John Force or Ashley Force Hood are on. (Last week, ESPN released research concluding "cable cutting" -- people canceling cable because they can access programming via the Internet -- is a "very minor" phenomenon.) Well, I don't believe that sort of numbers crunching and audience autopsy can accurately figure out what works and doesn't work with NASCAR fans, who are special in all of sports for their high-octane passion, loyalty and opinions.
I don't need those kind of reports to know the IndyCar-background announcers haven't connected with the stock car crowd. I don't need research to realize there have been too many times when the effort to understand the story and report it hasn't been made. Just because someone works with ESPN doesn't mean he or she is an "expert" and doesn't have to do basic homework. I don't need studies to grasp that fans are more interested in following their individual favorite drivers than gizmos like the failed "Draft Tracker." I don't need anyone to conclude for me that the most profound story of the last few years -- the Business of Racing -- has been superficially covered by reporters with only Twiggy-thin knowledge of what goes on in the Board room.
With the unfortunate ouster of Neil Goldberg, ESPN has to have a new person in charge, and with that needs to come a new, more open-minded, production philosophy. That top-to-bottom, bottom-to-top review also has to include every last NASCAR-related position, from the truck to the booth to the pits to the studio to the roster and utilization of .com contributors. And isn't it about time a large chunk of the network's hosts, who only mention NASCAR when there's a flip or a fight, are "advised" to end the elist attitude and start talking about the LEGITIMATE stories that come out of EVERY race?
Change -- make that Dramatic Change -- is required.
More of the same from ESPN in 2011 isn't acceptable. In fact, that and another winless season from Junior, would be Very Bad News for NASCAR.
My other takeaway from 2010 was the on-going saga of lack of pro-active outreach to media by so-called PR people and the lack of supervision from team owners and sponsor managers.
Especially at a time when maximum Return On Investment to sponsors is a must, for people who are supposed to be publicists to just "hang out" should be considered unacceptable. There are media to meet, story ideas to be sold, relationships to be established.
I join many who appreciate the money and marketing Izod injected into the IndyCar series . . . but it was a mistake to use "Fastest Drivers/Fastest Race in the World" as a promotional and advertising tagline. All that did was bleep-off drag racing fans everywhere -- and that's exactly what I heard from fans of the straight-line sport. Despite Randy Bernard's efforts, that series still is in no position to alienate any potential customers.
If its sponsorship is truly to work over the long-term, Izod will have to find it's own Jim Chapman. The late, great Mr. C would have known public opinion well enough to have NEVER allowed that tagline to see the light of day.
It's the time of year to think Green, the topic of my December "Drags, Dollars & Sense" column on Competition Plus.com:
Man of the Year in 2010? Here's one view:
[ God willing, I'll be back in mid-January 2011. Thanks for your interest . . . ]
Sunday, December 05, 2010
But, for a few moments last Thursday, I was trying so hard to keep from laughing that I was close to blue.
At the annual NASCAR NMPA Myers Brothers Award luncheon, this time staged in the massive Bellagio (you need a golf cart to get around), Chairman Brian France laid out in the strongest terms yet the stock car sanction’s eco-friendly green program. It already had been announced that all three national series will run on E15, but what France announced – and carefully positioned – was the “American” side to the story. NASCAR’s new partnership is with American Ethanol, led by advocacy group Growth Energy. Get used to this tagline: “American grown. American made. Powering NASCAR.”
I jotted down some of France’s phrasings, such as NASCAR’s fuel will be grown on “American soil,” and that this is appropriate for a “family owned American series.” The parade of speakers included a trade rep and a corn farmer and we were told that American farmers grow twice as much grain per acre than in China or Brazil. Retired NATO Supreme Commander, Gen. Wesley Clark, now working for the ethanol industry, told the ballroom crowd that corn ethanol “creates jobs and strengthens national security.”
What had me amused, other legitimate considerations aside, this clearly was at least an indirect shot at the IndyCar Series. NASCAR has many ways to play the racing political game, and in the aftermath of the unhappy IndyCar-International Speedway Corp. split – no IC races at any ISC tracks in 2011 – this was an example of who still has the muscle in the U.S. motorsports industry.
Remember, when IC went to ethanol a few years ago, it was using corn E in association with a U.S. trade group. When said trade organization went belly-up, IC had to go to Brazil for its E fix. Now NASCAR has staked its claim to the red, white and blue benefits of green.
And that’s no coincidence. It’s a political shot across the bow of the IndyCar series. Oh, NASCAR is even copying IC’s E-logo green flag.
FAST LINES: Roger Penske unveiled Helio Castroneves’ Pennzoil yellow-and-red Indy 500 car at his Wynn Ferrari dealership Thursday night. I was surprised to learn the primary deal is for Indy only, at least as of now . . . I asked Penske if the racing economy is improving and he basically said no, it’s about the same, meaning it’s a huge struggle to find the $$$ to race on . . . The best joke going around at the Penske function, set amidst the wildly expensive cars, was: “Pick out whichever one you like and put it on George Gillett’s tab” . . . Looks to me as if IndyCar’s return is Vegas is in place save for a splashy announcement of a big sponsor for what apparently will be a street-course/oval doubleheader. Randy Bernard was on hand at the Penske announcement . . . Jimmie Johnson beat Jeff Gordon to the “Drive for 5” and I’m guessing the tagline for his try for another title will be “Six Pack” . . . The announcement that Jim Hunter, NASCAR’s late VP-corporate communications, won the Myers Brothers Award for contributions to stock car racing drew a standing ovation . . . I’ll end with this from Chad Knaus: “It’s about teamwork. It’s always been about teamwork. Teamwork is at the root of all success.”
[ next week I'll share some year-end thoughts . . . ]
Sunday, November 28, 2010
The Boss decided his teams had become too complacent after a 1-2-3 (Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon) Sprint Cup finish in 2009. Johnson, at least by his standards with Chad Knaus, struggled to a historic fifth consecutive championship. But Martin and Gordon joined Junior in the winless column.
Thus, The Big Shuffle.
Gordon, with only one win in the last three seasons, gets Alan Gustafson from Martin's No. 5 crew. Martin now will work with Lance McGrew, who had been with Junior's No. 88. And Dale has been assigned Steve Letarte, pegged by Hendrick for this perhaps thankless job, at least in part because of his people skills. I take that to mean the ability to get inside Junior's head.
But I think the most insightful thing we learned about the Hendrick Method was he kept Knaus and Letarte together in the same building. What had become somewhat legendary as the "24-48" shop -- where the Gordon and Johnson cars were built and prepped by what Knaus described as inter-changeable crews -- now will be the "48-88" shop. I have to believe Knaus wanted to keep that internal chemistry intact. Gordon's No. 24 now moves into the building with Martin's No. 5.
Who knows? Maybe some of the No. 48's magic will rub off on the No. 88. On the other hand, if Johnson has a bad season in '11, well, you can bet the pundits will start pointing even more fingers at Junior.
I'll be at the NASCAR Sprint Cup awards in Las Vegas this weekend and will share my reporting and observations here next week.
Last week I listed my top 12 drivers of 2010. Here's my friend Mark Armijo's top five as written for RacinToday.com:
[ more next Monday . . . ]
Sunday, November 21, 2010
1. Larry Dixon
2. (tie) Kyle Busch and Sebastian Vettel
3. John Force
4. Jimmie Johnson
5. Dario Franchitti
6. Scott Pruett
7. Denny Hamlin
8. Fernando Alonso
9. Jason Meyers
10. Steve Kinser
11. Will Power
12. Tony Schumacher
There's been a lot of news in recent weeks. What's gotten my attention is HOW that news has been announced.
Let's start with the IndyCar series' huge, breakthrough story of Chevrolet's return. That was made official on Friday of the Chase semifinal weekend in Phoenix, which meant a lot of key journalists were automatically not going to be able to pay attention. Why write-off so many important market areas represented by these media outlets? Because, I'm told, that was the day and time convenient for the executives involved.
Here's what I told an egomanic Texaco VP two decades ago: News conferences need to be scheduled at appropriate times in the news cycle, and for the convenience of reporters. Not for the convenience of the suits. Those who "get" that get the biggest and best coverage.
IndyCar has had a troubling history on this front. Let us recall that Randy Bernard was introduced as the series' new CEO on the same day the hometown Indianapolis Colts were doing Super Bowl media day. Even going back to 1996, the IRL's first season, the announcement that Nissan would be an engine supplier was made Daytona 500 week. I well remember being in the deadline media room at Daytona when several journos had to interrupt their otherwise busy schedules to (at least briefly) listen in on a conference call. "Don't they know what week this is?" one of the Biggest of the Media Big Foots complained to me.
As for my recent experience covering the NASCAR weekend at Phoenix for Arizona's largest newspaper, well, it was pretty much more of the same. I would not need more than the fingers on one hand to count the number of team/sponsor "publicists" who outreached in advance, just to check in, see if they could be of help. That number would be about the same to total those who actually bothered to come to the PIR deadline media room to say hello. For those not familiar with PIR, it takes about one minute to get to the media center from the garage area. Shame on the team owners/sponsor managers who pay so little attention to how they are being represented that this is tolerated.
The Dumbest of the Weekend Award goes to Coyne PR, the agency apparently repping Diet Mountain Dew for a Dale Earnhardt Jr. contest promotion at the Phoenix Coyotes' hockey game. On Thursday afternoon, I received an E from the Coyne rep, informing me he had a "phone interview opportunity" with Junior Friday night.
Think about that -- which is what this so-called "PR" person should have done. I was just a few hundred yards away from Junior all day Friday. Why would I want to do a telephone interview with him that night? Oh, I was a little busy covering the Truck race that evening.
What a stupid "pitch." About 10 seconds of thinking/research should have turned on any existing mental light bulb of just how stupid it was. You'd be shocked at the large fees clients pay to agencies -- for this?
I'll close with this: Given the ESPN Chase ratings collapse, and the wide-ranging bad reviews for the production and announcing, one might have thought some involved would think it a good idea to do a little relationship-building, question-answering, damage-control with writers. Of course, not one of the TVers who fall into the above category, bothered to make the effort.
FAST LINES: As forecast in my exclusive Arizona Republic story about future changes at Phoenix International Raceway, the ISC Board did vote to approve the budget to repave. That will happen after next February's NASCAR weekend . . . Ray Evernham says he no longer has any contractual obligations to George Gillett, so I'll be surprised if he doesn't have some non-crew chief role with Hendrick Motorsports, at least in part, trying to get into Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s head and turn around the No. 88 team . . . I've been asked a few times about who I think will be NASCAR's newly minted chief communications officer. I don't know the "who," but I'm betting it will be someone with a VP-corporate communications background. I just hope the person comes from a consumer products company rather than some B2B enterprise . . . If I were that person, here's the first sentence I would say in my first meeting with team/sponsor PR reps: "The current system for pre-race -- ticket-selling time -- driver availability to the media is broken, and we're going to fix it" . . . I hated to hear this: A recent caller to the Rush Limbaugh radio show compared the NFL's recent actions against helmet-to-helmet hits to NASCAR and said people want to see the "Roman Colosseum" and "blood sport." I repeat, a CALLER said this, not Limbaugh . . . Before the fact-less chatroomers get too zoomed-up, let me report that Tony Stewart was emphatic at Phoenix: No, he's not going to drive a Chevy in the Indy 500. No, he's not going to field a car for someone else. I was there. I heard him say it. He could not have been any clearer . . . I'm not sure anyone else has done it, but Peter De Lorenzo deserves a "congratulations" for breaking the Chevy-to-Indy story . . . It was fun to see sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson having fun at PIR with his 30-year hobby, photography. A guest of Getty Images, I watched Johnson on the photo stand in victory lane. He even stood patiently in the media food line before the Cup race! Johnson said he had recently been in Iraq, taking photos at Camp Victory. He noted NASCAR doesn't have a No. 51 (his jersey number) and said he might have to do something about that. Only when asked about baseball did Johnson not want to talk . . . When I interviewed Mike Helton for my Arizona Republic Newsmaker Q&A, I began by noting it was the 10-year anniversary of his appointment as NASCAR's president, and ended by saying next February will be 10 years since Dale Earnhardt's death. That reminded me to write this -- I expect Junior will have yet another new crew chief, and if somehow he wins the Daytona 500 on this sad decade-later anniversary, well, the Grassy Knoll conspiracy types will be out in such force they could invade a small country . . . Ponder this: In a disappointing season for Ford, Carl Edwards won the last two Cup races, two of the last three Nationwide events, and Roush Fenway drivers ended-up fourth, fifth and sixth in the Chase standings.
[ more next Monday . . . ]
Sunday, November 14, 2010
Jim Hunter, NASCAR’s vice president of corporate communications who died Oct. 30, today was announced as winner of the 2010 Jim Chapman Award for excellence in motorsports public relations.
The Chapman Award is considered by many in the industry as the highest honor in racing public relations. It is named in memory of Chapman, the legendary PR executive and innovator, who worked with Babe Ruth and was named Indy Car racing’s “most influential man” of the 1980s. Chapman died in 1996 at age 80.
The announcement was made before today’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway by Michael Knight, chairman of the selection committee, and one of Chapman’s closest friends. The award is determined by vote of media members, most of whom knew Chapman, and is authorized by the Chapman family. PR representatives from all forms of motorsports are eligible for consideration.
Knight said the committee selected Hunter for the honor a few weeks before his death.
“We had hoped to make this presentation in December, as part of NASCAR’s Champion’s Week celebration in Las Vegas,” said Knight, the longtime journalist/publicist.
“In several important ways, Jim Hunter’s career mirrored that of Jim Chapman’s. Most importantly, both deeply believed in the ‘old-school’ approach to working with the media – that it was essential to build one-on-one relationships with journalists. That’s too often missing today, but both Jims understood the value of actually talking to people and getting to know them, and that having those professional relationships best served their clients.”
Hunter’s career as a journalist and PR professional spanned portions of six decades. He was the Columbia Record sports editor, writer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and author of several books. He began in PR in the 1960s with Dodge’s racing programs before stints as PR director at both Darlington Raceway and Talladega Superspeedway. He joined NASCAR as vice president of administration in 1983. In 1993, Hunter was named president of Darlington Raceway and corporate VP of International Speedway Corp. He returned to NASCAR as VP of corporate communications in 2001. He died of cancer at age 71.
Chapman started as sports editor or managing editor of several Southern newspapers before joining the New York Times. He served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II. He entered the PR business in 1946, as regional PR director for Ford Motor Co. in Detroit.
Soon thereafter, Chapman hired Ruth as consultant to the automaker’s sponsorship of American Legion Junior Baseball. They traveled together for more than two years for personal appearances and became close friends. Chapman was one of only three friends at Ruth’s bedside when he died in August 1948.
In 1950, Chapman left Ford to start his own PR firm. One of his first clients was Avis founder Warren Avis. Chapman devoted much of his time to financial PR, which he once called his “favorite form of PR,” and helped companies get recognition among analysts and even gain admission to the New York and American stock exchanges.
Chapman’s first venture into motorsports was in 1951, when he joined with NASCAR founder Bill France to promote the Motor City 250. The race was part of Detroit’s 250th birthday celebration, a Chapman client. In 1967, Chapman entered Indy Car racing with client Ozzie Olson’s Olsonite sponsorship of Dan Gurney’s team, which later featured Bobby Unser as driver.
“Jim was one of the most innovative and imaginative PR men ever to grace a pit lane,” said Gurney. “Jim practically invented most of what is now considered routine sponsor PR work. He was the first, as far as I know, who thought of putting up a sponsor hospitality tent alongside a racetrack (at the old Riverside Raceway), filling it with extravagant race car ice-sculptures, beautiful food and beautiful people from the business, sports and movie industries. He started an ‘open house’ tradition in Ozzie’s hotel suite in Indianapolis, where journalists could rub shoulders with John Wayne or (astronaut) Scott Carpenter.”
Chapman also coordinated Olsonite’s sponsorship of the Driver of the Year award, orchestrating an annual luncheon at New York City’s famed ‘21’ Club.
Chapman’s greatest professional acclaim came from 1981-1992, as director of CART series sponsor PPG Industries’ program. Chapman was instrumental in raising PPG’s prize fund from $250,000 to more than $3.75 million at the time of his retirement in February 1993. The all-female PPG Pace Car Driving Team was another Chapman innovation, as were the PPG Editor’s Days, when he brought business and feature writers to the tracks for lunch, pace car rides, and driver interviews.
Indy Car Racing magazine named Chapman the sports’s “most influential” man of the 1980s, saying he turned “a public relations assignment into an art form.” After his retirement, Chapman continued to consult PPG, and agreed to Mario Andretti’s personal request that he serve as honorary chairman of Andretti’s “Arrivederci, Mario” farewell tour in 1994.
“The true honor of the award is not the plaque,” said Knight. “The true honor is having your name forever associated with that of the great James P. Chapman.”
PREVIOUS JIM CHAPMAN AWARD HONOREES:
1991 – Michael Knight
1992 – Tom Blattler
1993-94 – Deke Houlgate and Hank Ives
1995 – Kathi Lauterbach
1996 – Marc Spiegel
1997 – Mike Zizzo
1998 – Tamy Valkosky
1999-2003 – (Award not presented)
2004 – Doug Stokes
2005 – Susan Arnold
2006 – Kevin Kennedy
2007 – Dave Densmore and Bob Carlson
2008 – Judy Stropus
2009 – (Award not presented)
In a terrible, terrible decision by World Racing Group, World of Outlaws PR director Tony Veneziano was let go after the Outlaws' season. Tony's assistance to the media -- me included -- was always rapid and reliable. I would recommend him to anyone.
Here are links to some of my Arizona Republic stories from the past week, on NASCAR at PIR:
* Wednesday notebook -- Keselowski gets Penske to open up
* Thursday notebook -- Change, conflict, controversy good for PIR business
* Thursday feature -- Danica's first Valley race in five years
* Friday notebook -- Economy doesn't keep Bodine down
* Friday -- 5 Q&As with NASCAR fan Sen. Jon Kyl
* Saturday notebook -- Chevy to Indy could give Danica more options
* Saturday -- Bowyer wins Truck race; Bodine takes title
* Sunday notebook -- PIR likely to undergo dramatic change
* Sunday Newsmaker Q&A -- NASCAR President Mike Helton
* Sunday -- Carl Edwards wins Nationwide series race
The American Media, Nov. 11, 2010: On Veterans Day, the New York Stock Exchange paused for a moment of silence and the playing of taps before the opening bell. Fox News showed it live. CNBC thought it was a good time to show commercials.
[ more next Monday . . . ]
Sunday, November 07, 2010
But my antenna is telling me something very different.
I will leave it to John Daly and others to do the break-down what has been and is going on with the ESPN production and announce crew. I'll just say this: The excitement -- and there has been a good bit of it -- isn't coming through the TV and to the audience. Say what you will about individual "talent" personalities, but I know that if Eli Gold had been calling the last two races, I would have FELT the excitement.
When you have a Talladega where the winner was in doubt, and a Texas where Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon wreck under yellow and -- in as blunt an interview as you'll ever hear -- Burton calls it "my fault" and Gordon says he "lost respect" for Burton and "wanted to do a whole lot more than that" in shoving the other Jeff, and me and you at home don't FEEL it, well, that's NOT NASCAR's fault.
Even in our society where the bar-of-standards has been lowered, certain things still should not be acceptable. NASCAR considered Kyle Busch's gesture Sunday to be in that category. In this day, even in the context of Texas and six-shooters, for Marty Reid to make an analogy about "bullets flying" simply cannot be tolerated. At least, it shouldn't be.
Daly, on his The Daly Planet TV commentary/analysis site, has wondered about ESPN management making booth changes before the end of the season. No sign of that happening: ESPN's philosophy, other than for legal or conduct code violations, seemingly is to wait until the off-season.
I duly note Hendrick Motorsports, be that at the direction of Rick Hendrick or Chad Knaus or whoever, decided it couldn't wait to bench Jimmie Johnson's under-performing pit crew mid-race at Texas, bringing in Jeff Gordon's to service the No. 48.
The Lords of Bristol should give that example a good, long, hard, ponder.
Me? I'd have Allen Bestwick and Ray Evernham in the booth this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. And tell Brad Daugherty the NBA season has started. And, I'd remind the hosts of the various ESPN cable and radio shows who seldom-if-ever talk about NASCAR, to get their brains in gear.
FAST LINES: I want to add a positive postscript to what I wrote last week about the NHRA Las Vegas Nationals. Late Sunday afternoon, Graham Light, NHRA's senior VP of racing operations, was in the media center and individually told several media people (me included) that he "apologized" to fans for the bad, bad show. Yes, Light used the "A" word -- and he was 100 percent right to do that. I said for years that the leaders of IndyCar, Champ Car and the Indianapolis 500 should have apologized to the fans -- and the industry -- for the wretched mess they made. When Tony George and Kevin Kalkhoven announced reunification at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the words "I apologize" should have come out of both of their mouths within the first 60 seconds. Only ego and arrogance (and maybe bad-or-no advise) stood in the way. Let others take proper notice of Light's correct example . . . As a baseball fan, let me say congratulations to all San Francisco Giants fans. Enjoy. As (easily) predicted, though, Giants-Texas Rangers was a no-buzz TV ratings downer . . . One more baseball item: I'm not a Commissioner Bud Selig basher, at least to the degree of others, but I say NO to his idea to expand the playoffs. NO! More is not better (take note, NASCAR, in considering adding drivers to the Chase) . . . As a native of California, given the Golden State's sad state, and last week's election results, I'm about to write it off . . . It's ALL PR? Apparently so, since the president faults not his policies, but the way they've been communicated for the election thumping . . . Who would ever have thought it? Howard Beale believed he was above the rules. Or, maybe he didn't read them, like congressmen who didn't read the health cost law. The Nutcase Network suspended him for violating NBC News regulations against contributing to political candidates. The real question for Comcast, when it takes over soon, is not what it will do with Versus. But, rather, what it will do with the MSNBC Mess, and if it will stop using a journalism organization for the purposes of gaining favor for government contracts and business in China for its parent company.
Here's a good read, even if I say so myself: Actually, that has nothing to do with me, but rather, 22-time NHRA National event winner and ace ESPN analyst Mike Dunn. It's 10 Q&As with Mike, my November "Drags, Dollars & Sense" column on CompetitionPlus.com. Even if you're not usually intro drag racing, but would enjoy a TV type telling it straight, this is worth your time:
Here's a link (below) to my story in Sunday's Arizona Republic. It's about the Dodge comeback in NASCAR this season. Please check out the coverage Mark Armijo and I will have all this week. For those who have asked, yes, I'll be writing about Danica -- see my story this Thursday and you just might find out one or two things you didn't know. My traditional Newsmaker Q&A is scheduled to be with NASCAR President Mike Helton and it will run Sunday. If you're not in the state to buy the paper, read us on http://azcentral.com/
[ please check back here next Sunday for something important . . . ]
Sunday, October 31, 2010
Saturday was a Halloween Eve Horrow Show at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. I was there for the NHRA Nationals, and I have never, ever, seen such a bizarre day at any racetrack ever. Crash-after-crash, oildown-after-oildown, incident-after-incident resulted in hours-long delays in both qualifying sessions. Pro quals were to wrap around 4:30 p.m. but were still running at 9. I felt sorry for Jeff Wolf, writer-on-deadline, for the Las Vegas Review-Journal!
In a sense, this is the downside to strong car counts, because some of the machines were held together with spit and gum. I respect anyone who wants to be a racer, but . . . There was a lack of professionalism in some cases, and a lack of respect for the sport as a whole. I thought the crowd was very good Saturday and excellent Sunday, but . . . while, there definitely was some GREAT racing (Matt Hagan vs. John Force, 1-2 in Funny Car points, in the finals is one example -- Force won), I don't think four-second bursts of terrific racing can overcome long, terribly long, delays as far as cultivating repeat customers is concerned.
Some well-funded racers had issues, too. Robert Hight got sideways on his last run and failed to qualify. On that same run, Jeff Diehl turned sideways, the throttle stuck, and he had a huge accident. Happily, he walked away. Every drag racing expert I asked, ranging from NHRA "voice" Bob Frey to senior VP of competition Graham Light, said they had never experienced a day like it. I sure haven't, including the most wacko days I've ever spent at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It was Example One why drag racing can't have live TV.
This isn't a rip on NHRA, although I continue to believe dropping the fines and point penalties for oildowns was a mistake, and a decision that MUST be reversed. No question NHRA's Safety Safari did the best they could to get the track ready under most trying circumstances. I would say, however, NHRA must make a very careful, round-by-round review -- and not allow regional competitors to return, the ones who have proven they simply can't or won't put a reasonably prepared machine on the track. It was more than lack of budget. There were some who exhibited lazy work, and the result of that lack of work ethic was a terribly embarrassing national event. LVMS said Sunday ticket holders can come back free for this weekend's Lucas finals.
I talked with Light about this late Sunday afternoon. A couple of times he rightful pointed to the stands and said, "Those are the most important people here." He said he did send a couple of teams home. Don't be surprised at some response from NHRA before Pomona. In fact, from a PR standpoint, I'd say there is no choice.
I'm glad none of the accidents ended in injury. Taken as a whole, it was the worst racing event I've ever attended in my life.
P.S. -- Summit Racing Pro Stock team owner Ken Black made his racetrack return following a stroke . . . Nicely done: Video tribute to Jeff Byrd during pre-race ceremonies.
FAST LINES: Entertainment media reports say NBC is developing a NASCAR-themed family drama, The Crew, for the next TV season. NASCAR's cooperation is being sought, including use of logos, etc. To me, the timing doesn't seem too good for such a project, although I understand NASCAR would like the exposure and some revenue. But no one should think this would be the next Days of Thunder. If the TV show bombs, it will be just another talking point on how NASCAR's popularity has gone downhill . . . Congratulations to Paul Page, who recently received the Sagamore of the Wabash, the state of Indiana's highest honor . . . How far have standards of conduct fallen? Look no further than Jon Stewart calling the President of the U.S. "dude" to his face. This lowering of the bar hurts all of us . . . Please look for my NASCAR story in this Sunday's Arizona Republic. Mark Armijo and I will have coverage of the Phoenix International Raceway events all next week. If you're not in the state to buy the paper, check us out on http://azcentral.com/ .
[ more next Monday . . . ]
Sunday, October 24, 2010
Remember the buzz when G-A tested at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in fall 2009? Word was the series would give it a go at the Brickyard. But it didn't happen in 2010 and IMS isn't on the '11 sked.
I say because of the business split between International Speedway Corp. (let's just say ISC is closely aligned with NASCAR) and the IndyCar organization.
All ISC-owned tracks are gone from the '11 IndyCar schedule.
Back on Feb. 6, 2007, after Indy drivers and machines tested on the Daytona road course, I wrote here it "was at least as much about business and politics as it was competition." I said then what was in it for the France family was a G-A race at IMS. I noted such an event "would strike a piercing blow to the rival American Le Mans Series."
But with issues over promotion and sanctioning fee increases, ISC and what is no longer to be called IRL went in different directions. How deep the emotional divide? Watch to see if IMS entertains a new approach from ALMS . . .
It also needs to be observed that Utah's Miller Motorsports Park has no G-A or ALMS dates next year. When I visited MMP last year, shortly after owner Larry Miller's death, I was told by track officials all appropriate arrangements had been made for the track's future. Now, I have to wonder . . .
This also means G-A is ending its season at Mid-Ohio. I say, "Ouch!" Not exactly the big media/marketing area one might wish for to determine champions. I'm going to figure the awards banquet won't be at the Holiday Inn in Mansfield, Ohio.
Tony George, in one of his rare public comments about his ouster from IMS and the Hulman family businesses, admitted he didn't react quickly enough to the economy by cutting expenses. The same can't be said of ISC. Last week, it closed the Daytona 500 Experience and largely completed a corporate reorganization that basically eliminated one whole layer of bureauracy.
FAST LINES: I think I figured out why Al-Anabi is shutting down its Funny Car program and shifting Del Worsham to Top Fuel with Larry Dixon: Toyota must have recalled Worsham's Funny Car, probably something about unintended de-acceleration . . . As if ESPN didn't have enough issues relating to its ratings-challenged NASCAR productions: Two NASCAR know-nothings were assigned to guest host NASCAR Now last week. Fans were left with a former pro wresting mouth to lead a big breaking news story of Kasey Kahne's departure from Richard Petty Motorsports. Following, I suppose, in that proud tradition of racing experts Whit Watson, Kenny Mayne and Rece Davis as rpm2night anchors. Yet, it's been reported that network execs are perplexed why fans aren't watching . . . Shamefully, Speed has been promoting that its announcers will again be in Halloween costumes for the Truck race at Talladega. Too bad no one in executive authority considers this: It's TALLADEGA. How would anyone think Speed microphone holders would have the CREDIBILITY to SERIOUSLY report on the CONSEQUENCES of a Big One wreck that resulted in injury or death? That would be impossible. Fortunately, I'll be at the NHRA Nationals in Las Vegas and won't be watching . . . It's only six points between Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin with four races to go. Will THAT boost the TV ratings?
Last week I noted that MSNBC has a new slogan: "Lean Forward." I suggested "Bend Over" would be more appropriate. Wishing to be of further help, I have some additional suggestions:
* MSNBC: Our Hosts Are Off Their Meds!
* MSNBC: Where America Is Always Wrong
* MSNBC: Rev. Jeremiah Wright's Favorite Network
* MSNBC: All Together Now -- Tax and Spend! Tax and Spend!! Tax and Spend!!!
* MSNBC: When We're Not Watching Ourselves, We're Listening to NPR
* MSNBC: Coming Soon -- Woody Paige on Sports!
* MSNBC: If you liked 'Network,' You'll Love Us!
Or, my No. 1 pick:
* MSNBC: We're Obama's Monica!
P.S. -- The back-and-forth in the cable news wars took another twist with Fox News Channel debuting its new promo spots. The tagline? "Move Forward." While MSNBC's feature images of Jimmy Carter, the Clintons and Barack Obama, Fox's showcase Ronald Reagan.
[ more next Monday . . . ]
Sunday, October 17, 2010
The first call came from sprint car Hall of Famer Casey Luna. It was followed, a few hours later, by one from Bob Baker. Bob is the executive director of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and Museum, in Knoxville, Iowa. The Hall is right on the property of the track where the great Knoxville Nationals are staged each summer. That's the Indy, Daytona, Super Bowl of sprint car racing.
After some conversation and an E-mail exchange, Baker invited me to join the national induction committee to nominate and vote on candidates for the Hall. Following some due diligence, I accepted.
There are 72 committee members, 18 in each of four geographic regions. Bob said there was an opening in the western region and asked me to fill it.
It is, of course, an honor. Sprint cars found their way into my racing consciousness at an early age. I'm old enough to have enjoyed the glory days of the "Gary (Bettenhausen) and Larry (Dickson) Show" in USAC's mighty sprint division. Pancho Carter on the high banks was thrilling. When I worked in Philadelphia, I enjoyed the skills of the late Dick Tobias. I'm glad to say I knew Jan Opperman a little and will always be glad he had a shot at Indianapolis. Ditto Greg Weld. When Robin Miller gave his top-10 list of sprint car drivers a few months ago on Wind Tunnel, I wrote him to say I was disappointed he didn't include Greg. Now being an Arizona resident, I still am saddened by the demise of Manzanita, where so many young names got famous. I was there, along with Mark Armijo and Jamie Reynolds, for the World of Outlaws last run at Manzy last year and shared a few words of remembrance with Steve Kinser before the heats.
One thing I've long known and respected about sprint car drivers -- given the high horsepower and brutish nature of the machines and many of the tracks: They are BRAVE people.
The Outlaws are concluding a terrific season that has showcased the closest championship fight in history, with Jason Meyers, Kinser, Joey Saldana and Donny Schatz. Kinser had neck surgery before the year's first green flag and Saldana has come through a hand injury and a concussion. In my opinion, the Outlaws are not just the "Greatest Show on Dirt." They are the best show in American motorsports.
Anyway, it's most rewarding to be asked. As I promised Bob Baker, I'll give it my best consideration, as the process to pick 2011 Hall inductees begins. I know it will be a challenge. To learn more about the Hall, go to http://sprintcarhof.com/ .
FAST LINES: I also have a vote for NHRA's Auto Club Road to the Future (rookie of the year) award. Honestly, that choice is easy this season . . . Good idea: The Indianapolis Motor Speedway put 33 winning cars on the front straight for a 100th anniversary race photo session (left). Bad idea: They did it on a TUESDAY. Why not on a weekend when the public could come out and enjoy the historic scene? (And maybe sell a few tickets) . . . I see a pattern in the NASCAR Hall of Fame voting -- David Pearson should have been in the first class, and Cale Yarborough should have been in the second class . . . To me, all the media hand-wringing about Darrell Waltrip not getting in was disrespectful to the chosen five. Even more out-of-line was all the campaigning for DW on Speed. Votes for honors such as the Hall of Fame should NOT be campaigns. I know it's a negative for me, as a voter for several racing honors, when someone overtly arm-twists for my vote. I said before the first NASCAR class was chosen that DW should go in the third year. It's true he's one of those who helped elevate NASCAR to the next level but it's also true he diminished his career with the very sad "Victory" retirement tour, during which he criticized his own sponsor, Kmart, and forced NASCAR to limit past champion provisional starts . . . I was disturbed by the way some involved with the Hall activities dressed. To me, it was a no-brainer suit-and-tie occasion -- minimum a sports jacket. The Hall, and what it represents, deserves a certain level of respect and that includes attire. It's a reflection of our society's dumbed-down standards some people came as they did. If NASCAR, which specifies attire for the Sprint Car awards, has to do the same for Hall activities, well, so be it . . . Now that ESPN is back into full gushing-over-Danica mode, I expect they'll nominate her for the NASCAR Hall . . . Good luck to my friend Herb Branham, new Grand-Am managing director of communications . . . Sub hosting on Wind Tunnel, Robin Miller asked what driver you'd pay to watch. My all-time list would include Jimmy Clark, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Jackie Stewart, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, John Force, Jan Opperman, Rick Mears, Bobby Unser, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Robby Gordon, Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell, Emerson Fittipaldi, Cale Yarborough, Parnelli Jones, Steve Kinser, Al Unser Jr., Michael Andretti, Gilles Villeneuve, Shirley Muldowney, Don Prudhomme, Bobby Allison and that's 25 who immediately come to mind. But, in any era, my No. 1 choice is clear: Alex Zanardi. You could see his passion even at 200-plus mph at Michigan. His 1996 "The Pass" of Bryan Herta on the last lap at Laguna Seca will always be the stuff of legend. It's very meaningful to me that Alex gave me the helmet he was wearing that day and it's on display in my office . . . MSNBC has a new slogan: "Lean Forward." A better choice for the nut job network would have been: "Bend Over" . . . Sad news of the death of long-time NASCAR writer Jack Flowers. I conducted plenty of business with Jack over the years and it was always pleasant and entertaining. And, my friend Beth Tuschak, the former USA Today and Detroit News racing writer. It was a great professional achievement for me to have the USAT cover story on its Memorial Day special racing section for three consecutive years (1991 -- the Andrettis; 1992 -- Paul Newman/Carl Haas; 1993 -- Nigel Mansell), all written by Beth. And Jeff Byrd, who I first met when he worked on the various RJR/Winston sponsorships. Thanks for all you did. God Bless.
Here's a link to my October "Drags, Dollars & Sense" column on Competition Plus.com. I offer a few suggestions for NHRA's 60th anniversary season in 2011:
What a disgrace -- but it tells us everything about today's media mentality. Read this AFP report on the media mob in Chile as the miners were rescued:
SAN JOSE MINE, Wednesday 13 October 2010 (AFP) - The joy of family members of the first miner to be rescued in Chile Wednesday turned suddenly to horror when hundreds of journalists trampled their humble tent in a mad rush to speak to them.
The chaos and jostling marred what had been a celebratory moment shared by the relatives of Florencio Avalos, the 31-year-old miner who was the first of the 33 to be winched to the surface.
Moments before Avalos stepped out of the rescue cage to hug his son and wife, and President Sebastian Pinera and other officials, the family had been surrounded in their tent on all sides by walls of cameras and journalists.
But when Avalos appeared on the television they were watching, to cheers, applause and horns throughout the camp where the miners' families were staying, the news workers rushed forward as one to capture the historic moment.
Avalos's father Alfonso, tears running down his face, said: "It's a huge joy. I'm so happy."
Then, as Alfonso hugged his wife Maria Silva, things turned ugly.
Reporters pushed and shoved to be the first to interview them, pulling on the hair of those in the way, throwing punches and almost knocking others to the ground.
The family retreated, and a frightened-looking Maria angrily hit out at journalists close to her with the Chilean flag bunched in her hand.
But the media mob, five-deep, kept advancing, crushing furniture and finally toppling the family's humble tent.
Two Chilean police officers watched from nearby but did not step in.
Finally, the media crowd dispersed.
I call on the executives of media organizations who had representatives on site to investigate. If any of their people were involved in this incident, they should be fired.
P.S. I -- From an image standpoint, I couldn't help but notice government officials made sure the miners were clean-shaven and had fresh clothes for their moment in the world spotlight. From a media standpoint, Chile closely stage-managed the rescue.
P.S. II -- MSNBC "Screwball" host Chris Matthews said that if the miners had been Tea Party believers, “they would have been killing each other after about two days." The twisted context here apparently was that the TP believes in self-reliance. This is what passes for "insight," "analysis" and "intelligent debate" on cable.
[ more next Monday . . . ]
Sunday, October 10, 2010
I was reminded of that ancient adage the other day upon receipt of a news release on Richard Petty Motorsports' newest sponsor.
It's none other than Perky Jerky, described as an "ultra-premium" brand that combines the power of an energy drink with beef jerky. PJ now also is the official jerky of the Daytona 500 and all ISC tracks.
No disrespect to PJ, but this does show us -- again -- how the racing sponsorship scene has changed so dramatically. The motorsports industry -- as with the country -- is in an economic storm so, these days, no one can afford to be picky and is happy to make port with whatever sponsorship can be located. Yes, NASCAR's history includes Goody's as well as Goodyear and Goodwrench, but it was only a couple of years ago a business the size of PJ probably would have had enough budget for Trucks, not Cup.
Think about it: Even mighty Budweiser only signed-on for a partial season deal with Kevin Harvick and Richard Childress. Jeff Gordon and Rick Hendrick still haven't announced the sponsorship lineup for Gordon's iconic No. 24 in 2011. The Roger Penske Cup and Nationwide teams have sponsorship issues and reductions are on the table. So many Nationwide and Truck teams are so thinly sponsored that any day now I expect vastly reduced fields.
So, welcome, Perky Jerky. Your entry into NASCAR, however, is a clear $ign of the economic time$.
Book It: With a 12-for-12 record in the final round, and a Top Fuel championship all-but in his pocket, Larry Dixon is the Driver of the Year. Or, at least, he should be, if NASCAR-centric media voters are paying attention.
Randy Bernard doesn't want "Indy Racing League" used any more, correctly noting its negative heritage in the bitter and destructive CART/Champ Car-IRL split. I agree with him.
Now, how to banish "IRL" to the ashbin of history? Here's a useful place to start: His series' hometown Indianapolis Star, which continues to use "IRL" as boilerplate several places on its website -- including the "expert" section. Randy, you might pick up the phone, and ask them to trouble themselves to make the change.
Or, am I the only one to notice? If so, glad to be of service in pointing this out.
FAST LINES: It was important and proper for Jim Utter to point out last week on ThatsRacing.com that NASCAR's TV numbers are down about a quarter from last year after three Chase races. A fact that should be a flashing red light to whoever NASCAR hires as its Chief Communications Officer . . . Since ESPN is in a cost-cutting mode, here's a suggestion: Trade Woody Paige to MSNBC, where he'd be most comfortable with the other nut jobs. Maybe some day I'll relate here how Paige's negativity and egomania, uninfluenced by any bothersome reporting or fact gathering, nearly triggered a sponsor revolt during the first version of CART's Denver street race . . . I can't wait for the day when ESPN gets back the rights for baseball's divisional post-season games. TBS = Terrible Baseball Storytelling. It was most obvious David Aldridge (an NBA guy who probably was fantasizing about the Miami Heat) didn't know what questions to ask -- or how to ask them -- to Roy Halladay after the Phillies' ace pitched a no-hitter against the Reds. After that performance, Aldridge should have gotten the hook for the rest of the series. He'd fit right in with the Versus IndyCar pit-road bunch or could do the Indy 500 winner's interview for ABC . . . And, for those who have asked, no, Jon Beekhuis vs. Jack Arute isn't in the same galaxy as the Bobby Unser vs. Sam Posey glory days in ABC's CART booth . . . The all-new National Speed Sport News website is worth checking out: Much easier on the eyes design and the centerpiece of publisher Corinne Economaki's aggressive digital strategy to deliver news, features and opinion 24/7. NSSN Mobile coming soon . . . Yeah, right: Disgraced former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer -- desperate to draw any following for his train-wreck of a new CNN show -- claims to be a NASCAR fan. I bet his only interest would be in filing suit for environmental damage at race sites. Go ahead on put a countdown clock on Spitzer's show -- and so-called "conservative" Kathleen Parker (anti-Sarah Palin) should feel humiliated by her role in what might be TV's version of Ishtar. CNN letting Paula Zahn go in this same time slot now looks like the dumbest TV move this side of ABC hiring foreign sympathizer Christiane Amanpour to host This Week. No surprise, ratings have tanked since both changes . . . I suspect CNN is a good candidate as Katie Couric's next career stop, in part because of the Spitzer-Parker disaster, and because there is no way CBS is going to offer anything close to her current $15 mil a year deal when Couric's contract ends next year. The going-rate for last-place anchors of a failed newscast is a lot less.
[ more next Monday . . . ]
Sunday, October 03, 2010
* Congratulations to Dario Franchitti on winning the IndyCar title. But that new Izod trophy ranks as the most unappealing piece of championship hardware in American sports. It's so scary ugly it should have been unveiled at a Halloween party. The thing comes close to making my stomach turn. Wood? That's something you won't find on the Stanley Cup or Vince Lombardi Trophy. Didn't the ICS retain approval rights on the design? How could it possibly have OK'd it? This monstrosity should be withdrawn like the NASCAR wing.
* Proving again that Izod needs a Jim Chapman.
* Say what you will about NASCAR's TV partners, but it's impossible -- impossible -- to imagine any of them waiting 24 minutes to interview the championship-contending drivers at the start of the final race of the season. But that's what Versus did Saturday night. In as unprofessional a production decision as I can ever remember, the deadly-dull pre-race show went from Helio Castroneves to Scott Dixon to Indy Lights to support series to a series sponsor exec to a tech feature to rookies before we first heard from Dario Franchitti at about the 24-minute mark. Will Power wasn't interviewed until about 31 minutes in. The reason anyone might have had to watch was to see who would win the title and yet the misguided producers didn't put the championship rivals up-front? Grade it an F minus. I urge Randy Bernard to do a focus group of non-fans and have them watch the Versus pre-shows and see how many people are more interested in watching the race as a result. Here's what he'd find: The Versus pre-race shows are more effective than Ambien. If this is allowed to continue in 2011, well, just forget the whole thing . . .
* And, for a series that likes to promote its use of 100 percent fuel-grade ethanol, I can't help but notice how many people on TV say "gas."
* ESPN is reorganizing its communications structure in a cost-cutting move. Mark Mandel and George McNeilly are leaving instead of moving to Bristol, Conn., while Andy Hall will work from a home office. I could easily suggest egoist talking heads and arrogant production people who could go, wouldn't be missed, save budget, and would make the network a more legitimate news organization.
* Sprint needs a Jim Chapman.
* Honestly, now, is there anyone out there who really thought Richard Childress Racing's appeal had a chance?
* Nationwide needs a Jim Chapman.
* The Ryder Cup is the most overblown event in sports. Let's see -- The teams require clothing for evening social gatherings. They need different (and ugly) uniforms for the opening ceremony, day one, day two, day three, rain gear, the closing ceremonies. Please . . . And I think there was more talk about "rookies" than in the entire history of the Indianapolis 500.
* Camping World needs a Jim Chapman.
* Michael Waltrip's been praising Trevor Bayne all season as a phenom, but now, has let him go? There's got to be a most interesting back story here beyond what we've been told. No doubt Brad Daugherty will let us know.
* Full Throttle needs a Jim Chapman.
* Why is it I think there's more than meets-the-eye to the Al-Anabi shift out of Funny Car and to two Top Fuelers? The way it was the team had a chance to win twice at each event.
* Rolex needs a Jim Chapman.
* Raise your hand if you know what type of eco-fuel was used by each of the Petit Le Mans class winners. Bonus points if you know the names of the winning drivers. No, I didn't think so . . .
* Remember this the next time some local media outlet presents its "Best Of" list. In naming Danica Patrick the "Best Sports Babe," the Phoenix New Times described her as "the only woman seriously competing in professional motor sports these days . . ." Nice research. Ever heard of Ashley Force Hood, Melanie Troxel, or another Scottsdaler, Simona De Silvestro?
* Why are lawyers viewed as residing on the underbelly of American society? Two words say it all: Gloria Allred.
* I've said here several times that Rick Sanchez is a journalistic sleezebag and he proved it to the world last week and was fired by CNN.
[ more next Monday . . . ]
Sunday, September 26, 2010
I credit new CEO Randy Bernard for his ideas, energy and most especially his outreach. It's quite possible Bernard sought out the views of more people this season than Frasco, Caponigro, Stokkan, Craig, Heitzler, Johnson, Hauer, Long, Mehl and George did in the last 30 years. That was the smart thing to do, since, as Randy admitted, he had never been to an IC race before taking this job. I'm sure he learned a lot. One thing I really hope he started to get a handle on: Who has something useful to say; and who can't be trusted. Who has experience and accomplishments to offer an informed opinion; and who just has a big mouth.
Now, as he gets ready for his first "off-season," I urge Bernard to tackle, head-first, his series' most serious problem. One that, if it can begin to be fixed, would help cure IC's other woes such as sponsorship and TV ratings.
That problem: Beyond Danica, no one outside the shrinking hard-core fans KNOWS or CARES ABOUT any of the drivers.
That's how the IC series can and must grow -- by real EMOTIONAL CONNECTION, PRO-or-CON PASSION -- from the non-chatroomers.
Giving everyone every benefit of the doubt, there are maybe four drivers currently known by anyone other than base fans: Danica, Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan. If Will Power captures the championship this season, and the series tries to book him for interviews, I bet more than a few producers would think it's a prank -- "An interview with 'Will Power?' Yeah, sure, that's a good one!"
A few weeks ago, I posted here a series of suggestions to improve the Versus production. One was to quickly open each show with a The McLaughlin Group-type debating panel. That's necessary to try to draw in viewers because Briscoe, Matos, Meira, Moraes, Mutoh, Viso, Lloyd, Sato, etc. are so obscure more people could probably name the secretary of labor or the Green Bay Packers' special teams coach. Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon are Indianapolis 500 winners -- try that word association game on Jeopardy.
I know Izod has been applauded for its promotions, and I know the theme of its commercials has been "Race to the Party," but I'm at a loss to understand how showing Kanaan riding a watercraft or Wheldon riding in a helicopter helps make new fans. And, speaking of fans -- drag racing fans -- every time I've been around them this year, they say they are offended by the Izod tagline about "The Fastest Drivers/The Fastest Race in the World." Guess no one bothered to take a look at NHRA Top Fuel and Funny Car top-end speeds. This, two years after the series insulted the straight-line sport's followers by leading its Japan race news release with the false statement that Danica became "the first female to win a major auto racing event."
Let me say, Izod and the IC series are in no position to offend anyone. (And it was a mistake on the Versus' Japan show to knock other series for having "manufactured" championships. Who sells more tickets? Has higher TV ratings? Big-time sponsors?)
One thing that's obvious to me and should have been the first thing on the agenda a year ago: Izod needs a Jim Chapman.
I'll say again -- the Versus' production philosophy is fundamentally flawed and does nothing to attract fresh eyeballs and there aren't enough core fans left to generate the audience numbers sponsors require. One essential element of any successful TV presentation is CREDIBILITY. For the Versus announcers to discuss the 2011 schedule, as they did during the Japan show, and fail to mention the loss of four ISC tracks only served to reinforce the perception that it's a place where seldom is heard a discouraging word about the series. The "we, us, our" commentary fits right in with the Indiana mindset where news broadcasters talk about the Colts and Pacers in the same homer way. Impossible to imagine Bob Costas calling a baseball game, or Al Michaels a football game, that way. And, I'm sure it helped sell Homestead tickets to waste time on a feature on the IRL's bouncer, who should have received an internal reprimand. And, Jack Arute saying Danica's victory "seems just like yesterday" was intellectually insulting when the REAL story was she hadn't won again in TWO-AND-A-HALF YEARS! Yesterday, indeed . . .
I repeat -- credibility.
IC on Vs. needs a "Once Upon a Time" storyteller, a person capable of revealing the HUMAN drama, totally separate from the blacks vs. reds/push-to-pass/fuel strategy/half-turn of front wing techno talk. IC needs to be presented from the first second it goes on TV as an ADVENTURE, not an Ambien.
Meanwhile, to further advance this imperative, the series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway PR staffs must promptly set out for a winter of meaningful relationship building. I wonder how many of them even know that there was a time when the Speedway's off-season media party would be attended by representatives of the New York Times and Los Angeles Times? Ponder that the next time you look around the vast empty spaces in the media center.
But, with the bean counters and numbers crunchers in charge, and PR foolishly being retooled into a marketing function (a fundamental misunderstanding of how to deal with journalists), most of those relationships have been lost. Or destroyed by arrogance. No doubt the local media cheerleaders, looking to protect their preferred credential status, told the media center manager last May that the system was working just fine. Any honest research into the views of those outside the Indiana borders would reveal a much different landscape. It's quite something that, at a time when IMS management has finally realized it needs to advertise and market outside of the Hoosier state to fill its massive grandstands, relationships with a big section of the non-Indiana media are nearing a state of near-evaporation heading into the 100th anniversary of The Greatest Spectacle.
So, once that checkered flag waves this Saturday, there's tons of work to be done. The Delta Wing was considered too bold a move. I hope doing what must be done to fix these other problems won't be thought of the same way.
Back in the days of the Winston Million, eligible drivers were ID'd for fans with a special bright decal on the windshield. I'm VERY surprised NASCAR doesn't ID the Chase drivers in some similar way. And, to take the idea a step further . . . I think Start-and-Park entries should be required to notify NASCAR of their "status" in advance and run a marking making their intension NOT TO RACE visible to the public.
How self-absorbed are too many media types, especially in the cable TV/Internet age? Too many to count. After Delaware's Republican senate candidate, Christine O'Donnell, canceled scheduled interviews on Fox News Sunday and Face the Nation, Bill O'Reilly offered this as one reason why that was a mistake: "The media were looking forward to it." Now, as someone who has spent a few minutes booking interviews, I agree it's not nice to cancel. But not because "the media were looking forward to it." It's about the VOTERS of Delaware, not the MEDIA!
My personal all-time favorite example of this: The Los Angeles Times' long-time Washington bureau chief, the late Jack Nelson, bitterly complained on a PBS show after President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. Nelson's beef? That D.C. reporters felt "cheated" out of the chance to cover a Nixon trial. The mindset this revealed: It wasn't about what was BEST for the COUNTRY. It was about what was BEST for the MEDIA. (!)(If you missed it, go back and read my Aug. 29 posting.)
Throw the bums out! Why is that the No. 1 rallying cry among voters? Look no further than last Friday's Congressional subcommittee hearing in which Stephen Colbert was invited by chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (Democrat of California) to testify on immigration issues. (What? !) He testified as his TV character, not as a concerned citizen. With the U.S. in deeply troubled times and the approval rating of Congress somewhere south of Antarctica, Colbert was allowed to turn the institution into a laughing stock. Talk about the dumming-down of America! Fox Business News reported the average Congressional hearing costs taxpapers about $100,000 an hour. An obviously out-of-touch-with-reality Lofgren should be sanctioned by the full Congress for bringing disgrace to the body, and then she should be bounced out of office by voters in November. But what I want to know is: Why didn't Republican committee members get up and walk out?[ more next Monday . . . ]
Sunday, September 19, 2010
Sorry, but that would not be true.
We're told changes are coming to NASCAR's playoff format, but this we already can say for sure: The air has gone out of the balloon as far as the pre-Chase hypefest is concerned. Last week's gathering of the 12 championship contenders in New York City resulted in the least amount of media buzz since this tradition began in 2004. It's not NASCAR's fault the Letterman show wasn't in production last week, for example, but the overall results did not justify the time, effort or resources expended and was yet another fast-blinking yellow light for the sanction's new (as yet unnamed) Chief Communications Officer (see last week's blog) and his/her team.
Two years ago, as a cost-cutting move, NASCAR and the Chase tracks did away with individual media gatherings in those 10 locales -- the highlight of which was a satellite TV interview with three drivers. I said at the time this was a mistake because it erased the valuable opportunity for one-on-one relationship building with journalists. Last season, a webcast was put into place, with the explanation it would make things more convenient for reporters. Unless I missed something, even that went by the board this time around.
The 2010 Chase "kickoff" was more than a disappointment. It was a near dud. (If I didn't know better I'd think this was an IndyCar production.) Requiring the Chasers to come to New York so they could be interviewed on Sirius radio? Please . . . That, given a good cell phone connection, was doable from anywhere. (Ask Paul Tracy his location when I made him do a live radio talk at CART's 1995 Cleveland Grand Prix.)
With Most Popular Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of Chase contention -- again -- and not much drama surrounding the final positions, there simply wasn't much chatter to help build interest (let alone excitement) going into New Hampshire. Jim Utter wrote about all of this well the other day and I'll just provide the link here because I agree with him:
Every last detail of Drum-Beating-for-the-Chase needs to have a good, long, hard, HONEST, comprehensive rethink. Another example: Ryan Newman has been assigned to go to Phoenix in a couple of weeks to publicize PIR's November race. No disrespect to Newman, who did win at the Arizona oval earlier this season, but HE's NOT IN THE CHASE AND THE EVENT IS ROUTINELY HYPED AS BEING THE "CHASE SEMIFINAL." Someone please tell me how tasking a non-Chase driver to promote the Chase semifinal makes any sense? While such decisions are made well-in-advance, for scheduling purposes, NASCAR MUST be more nimble when it becomes obvious which drivers are going to be in-or-out of the playoffs.
Since NASCAR is about to completely recast its communications operation, here's a thought: Use the example of your own Fan Council, and create a professional PR Advisory Panel. Be sure to have a meaningful representation from outside the Cup garage area. If you wonder why I say that, well, ponder this: I've been contributing to the Arizona Republic's racing coverage since the fall of 2007, but it was only recently that two of the participating automakers' publicists got around to putting me on their news release distribution list. (!) I've said for years one of the biggest errors committed by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and it's soon-to-no-longer-be-called-IRL was an "Indiana only" mindset in terms of ideas-generating hires. NASCAR's new CCO, very likely to come from outside the sport, will certainly need to listen to the garage insiders -- but balance that against the concepts of those who actually can see the landscape beyond whatever speedway is being occupied on any given weekend.
And, if NASCAR would benefit from such a PR Advisory Panel, just imagine how badly IMS, IRL, NHRA, ALMS and Grand-Am needs such a group.
I mentioned above, and did so last week, and have done so many times, the absolute golden value of true one-on-one-relationship building. Well, I've finally gotten around to something I've wanted to do for awhile -- read President Ronald Reagan's The Reagan Diaries -- and historian/editor Douglas Brinkley notes this in his introduction (bold emphasis mine):
"While Reagan was always guarded in his attitude toward the Soviets, he believed that progress would be made if he could communicate directly with them -- by letter, telephone, or in person. And he was right."
Please note, all who think pressing "send" on the keyboard or putting 140 characters on Twitter constitutes legitimate relationship building.
I'm always glad when someone tweaks one of the media elites, and it happened last week to Bill O'Reilly. During his opening "Talking Points Memo," O'Reilly said it would not be "prudent" for him to comment on the bizarre dustup created when Fox News Channel (and George W. Bush political strategist) Karl Rove dumped all-over Delaware senate primary winner (and Tea Party favorite) Christine O'Donnell. O'Reilly's first guest was none other than O'Donnell supporter Sarah Palin, who said of course it wouldn't be "prudent" for her to comment -- "but I'll do it anyway."
Meanwhile, over at last-place CBS Evening News, Katie Couric was smiling as she read the results of a CBS poll that claimed people believe Gov. Palin is more interested in promoting herself than in serving the country. Here's the poll I'd like to see CBS commission: Do you think Couric is more interested in being a serious journalist, or more interested in being a rich celebrity?
On the flap regarding the female TV reporter and the New York Jets: It says here that, while there's never an excuse for bad behavior, the NFL itself shares in the responsibility. If the League had shut-down the outrageous nonsense that has long gone on at Super Bowl Media Day, and insisted on proper and professional conduct by both its players and media types, this latest incident might not have happened because there wouldn't have been an atmosphere for it. The NFL itself has been an enabler of such behavior.
Here's a link to my September "Drags, Dollars & Sense" column on CompetitionPlus.com -- "NHRA did what it had to do":
RIP, the press release?
[ more next Monday . . . ]
Sunday, September 12, 2010
My view is we'll have to see how the new "Integrated Marketing Communications" department actually functions. I won't go through the layout of what NASCAR is going to do. I have said for years it is a basic mistake to place together, for the purposes of an organizational chart, communications/PR and marketing. I certainly understand how both can trade-off benefits, one to the other, but I can tell you this for sure: No journalist wants to think he/she is being "marketed to" or "sold." To have a PR rep, who is under the control of marketing, dealing with media is a fundamental misunderstanding of that constituency group.
The truth, of course, is different from the perception. More than 25 years ago, when I was CART's communications director, I was talking with Roger Penske in Gasoline Alley at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway about business details of an upcoming CART-promoted race. Thinking in terms of ticket and corporate sales, Roger said to me: "Now we'll see how good a salesman you are." Respectfully, I answered by telling Roger that in working with the media and other influential opinion-shapers, I already was a salesman. "A salesman of image and ideas," is the way I phrased it.
NASCAR says the department will be led by a "Chief Communications Officer (CCO) who will become part of the senior leadership team, reporting directly to NASCAR Chief Marketing Officer Steve Phelps, with a direct line to Brian France." I get it that the CCO title is trendy, but it's one with peril. I bet I can tell you in whose direction the fingers will be pointed the first time an out-of-the-loop promoter, owner, driver or sponsor manager complains about a "lack of communications."
Here's what I passionately believe is the most important thing:
I hope that the new CCO will know enough and care sufficiently to not operate solely behind Facebook, Twitter, IM and Email. What the modern NASCAR culture lacks is one-on-one relationships. NASCAR, itself, was built by classic drum-beating publicists like Jim Hunter (who will become VP of Special Projects), Bob Latford, Joe Whitlock, Big Tim Sullivan, Houston Lawing and others (and, in the Winston days, by the RJR staff) who would drive to towns nearby the races on goodwill missions. They'd go visit the newspaper, radio and TV offices. They knew the names of the sports editor’s children, the sports director’s wife, and -- yes -- the local media’s adult beverage of choice. The upcoming race was talked-up, news releases handed-out, and ultra-valuable personal relationships built.
When’s the last time anyone followed in that proud NASCAR tradition? Way-too-often these days, too many PR people think "one-on-one communications" is 140 characters on Twitter. WRONG! No social network in the universe can replace the essential human touch of a smile, a handshake, a look in the eye, a "Thank You."
New Mr. or Ms CCO, please, please, please, remember-- above all else -- the Human Touch.
Beyond that, since NASCAR is using executive recruiting firms, I'll tell a personal story about my experience with a search company.
In the fall of 1992, I received an unexpected call from a New York City-based "searcher," looking to fill the VP-Communications opening at the National Hockey League. I was with Newman/Haas Racing at the time but came to learn that senior-level people at a couple of prestigious media organizations had mentioned me as a good candidate. (I had been a member of the Hockey Writers Association while assistant sports editor at the Philadelphia Daily News.)
While many key specifics of the job were as yet unrevealed to me, I had an interest. Rather than simply submitting the usual paper resume, however, I also provided a video resume. That was outside-the-box thinking at the time. The video, less than 10 minutes in length, showcased some of my PR "greatest hits" and kind testimonials from Paul Newman, Al Unser Jr., Mario Andretti and several prominent journalists. A brief segment showed how, at the 1989 Indianapolis 500, I had arranged with the advance team for Vice President Dan Quayle and his family to receive personalized team jackets, and that the Vice President wore his during an ABC-TV interview.
Before my meeting with the recruiter, I called her office to confirm receipt of my materials. When we met at the St. Louis airport Ambassadors Club, after several minutes of polite conversation, I showed her a file I had brought with hard-copy evidence to further support what had been on the video, including a photo of VP Quayle in his jacket and an AP shot of Mrs. Quayle with Mario -- with a crewmember carefully positioned for maximum visibility of the Kmart/Texaco Havoline ID on his shirt. I was surprised to observe something of a blank look. So, I asked if she had watched the video, and was kind of shocked when she said no, and really shocked by the reasoning: "No one else sent a video, so I didn't think it was fair to the other candidates to look at yours."
So, instead of being credited for my extra effort, I was penalized by the search-firm rep, on the basis others hadn't thought of, or maybe were too lazy, to do what I had done.
The process didn't advance much beyond that meeting. (As it turned out, I wound-up managing Mansell Mania the next year, and learned more during that PPG Cup championship season with Nigel than I had at any other time in my career.) A few months later, however, I received another call from the same search firm, only this time it was from one of the partners. He asked me about my experience with his recruiter. I told him about the video and expressed disappointment that his person had not even looked at it. Well, to make a long-story-short, he said he was investigating because a few other candidates had complained, and he offered me an apology. He ended the conversation by letting me know the person I had dealt with was no longer at the firm -- she had left for a job in the personnel office at the Clinton White House.
So, I guess that's why my outreach to a Republican Vice President of the United States didn't impress her!
I couldn't help but remember the above some time later, when a former bar bouncer -- hired as a Clinton White House personnel office security director -- was discovered to have collected the FBI files of hundreds of Republicans.
FAST LINES: Congratulations to retired Charlotte Observer writer Tom Higgins on being elected to the National Motorsports Press Association's (I'm a member) Hall of Fame . . . Rare good judgment by elected officials: Oklahoma City City Council voting down public funds for an ALMS street race, which the promoter had ridiculously claimed would bring Final Four-level economic benefits . . . Let's just say it -- Any media outlet who interviews white trash Levi Johnston has an agenda of trying to embarrass Sarah Palin. I saw a report that the CBS morning show has had him on SIX times. And, according to USA Today, Johnston was one of the "stars" (the paper's description) at Entertainment Tonight's Emmy party, which tells you all you need to know about ET . . . USA Today hasn't had a motorsports special section for several years now, but last week published a 12 pager for the start of the NFL season. Seven of those pages were full-page ads.
[ more next Monday . . . ]