• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, November 28, 2010

THE BIG SHUFFLE

It certainly was no surprise Rick Hendrick assigned Dale Earnhardt Jr. a new crew chief last week but the scale of the changes within Hendrick Motorsports provides even more insight into Hendrick's fantastic success.

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:
http://www.racintoday.com/archives/23177

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, November 21, 2010

MY FINAL TOP 12 of '10

For what anyone wants to think it's worth, here's my final 2010 driver top-12 rankings:

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 HONORED WITH 2010 JIM CHAPMAN AWARD FOR PR EXCELLENCE

NEWS RELEASE ISSUED SUNDAY, NOV. 14, 10 A.M. MST

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
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2010/11/09/20101109motor-sports-nascar-roger-penske.html

* Thursday notebook -- Change, conflict, controversy good for PIR business
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2010/11/10/20101110auto-racing-nascar-pir-notebook.html

* Thursday feature -- Danica's first Valley race in five years
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2010/11/10/20101110auto-racing-nascar-danica-patrick.html


* Friday notebook -- Economy doesn't keep Bodine down
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2010/11/11/20101111nascar-todd-bodine-aims-truck-series-championship.html


* Friday -- 5 Q&As with NASCAR fan Sen. Jon Kyl
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2010/11/11/20101111nascar-five-questions-senate-minority-whip-jon-kyl.html



* Saturday notebook -- Chevy to Indy could give Danica more options


http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2010/11/12/20101112danica-patrick-chevrolet-indycar-nascar.html



* Saturday -- Bowyer wins Truck race; Bodine takes title
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2010/11/12/20101112clint-bowyer-trucks-series-phoenix.html

* Sunday notebook -- PIR likely to undergo dramatic change

http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2010/11/13/20101113pir-undergo-dramtic-renovation.html


* Sunday Newsmaker Q&A -- NASCAR President Mike Helton

http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2010/11/13/20101113nascar-president-mike-helton.html

* Sunday -- Carl Edwards wins Nationwide series race


http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2010/11/13/20101113carl-edwards-phoenix-nascar-nationwide-win.html




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

THE STRENGTH TO CHANGE

With a wacko Talladega finish and a wild Texas race in its immediate rear-view mirror and a terrific Chase championship nearing the finish line, all logic would say NASCAR should be the driver's seat as far as the ESPN TV ratings are concerned, with only Phoenix and Homestead-Miami to go.

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:
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/15982-drags-dollars-a-sense-mike-dunn-is-the-best


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/

http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2010/11/06/20101106dodge-brad-keselowski-nascar-roll.html

[ please check back here next Sunday for something important . . . ]