• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, January 30, 2011

HENDRICK TALKED INDY WITH PENSKE, BUT . . .

One of journalism's great traditions -- at least when I was starting out in the business -- was the classic "follow-up" story . . . Providing the reader with additional and updated information on a subject of interest.

My first 2011 blog, posted January 13, included direct quotes from five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson about his desire to race in the Indianapolis 500. (Nice the Indianapolis Star last Friday finally got around to using some JJ quotes about this from last week's media tour.) There was an obvious follow-up to that, and that was to talk with Rick Hendrick, owner of Jimmie's No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet. I saw Mr. H at the Barrett-Jackson classic car auction. As circumstances would have it, his time was limited, as he was on his way to the bidder's area. So arrangements were made for a telephone conversation. That happened last Wednesday.

Here's the complete transcript of Hendrick's answers to my questions if he'd give Johnson permission to give it a go in the I500, keeping in mind Johnson said he couldn't race a Honda-powered car, but Chevy is returning to Indy in 2012:

"His wife (Chandra) and I both feel the same way. We don't want to take a chance on Jimmie getting hurt in an open-wheel car when he's got what's going on here (NASCAR). I know it's one of those things he'd love to do, but I'm more concerned with his safety, just having him drive a car where, as competitive as he is, that he hasn't had any experience in. It's hard to get the test time in. You never say never, but right now, I'm going to be wanting him to concentrate on what we're doing here and not take a chance on getting hurt."

What if Chevy expressed a desire for Johnson to race Indy? Would Hendrick consider a partnership with an existing IndyCar team -- perhaps with Roger Penske?

"Roger and I have talked about it. He's a good friend. I'm not going to say it's out of the question, but it's not something I want to do right now."


FAST LINES: This is my 20th year as a member of the Indianapolis 500 Oldtimers (membership card number 1,000). So, recently, I automatically received my special gold cap plus a very nice 20-year Cross pen. Thank you to Oldtimers Executive Secretary Jack Martin . . . Not that the above means anything to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway PR department, which didn't even think that I might be interested in interviewing IMS President Jeff Belskus when he was at Barrett-Jackson. This is the kind of "oversight" that happens when PR is improperly cast as a marketing function, a fundamental misunderstanding of how to effectively work with the media. The ability to use an adding -- or should I say a subtracting -- machine doesn't mean someone knows how to sell. I have no sympathy for IMS in terms of its unsold tickets and declining TV numbers and overall media coverage. You get what you deserve and the IMS Corp. is richly deserving of all the negative consequences of all its self-inflicted wounds of the last 17 years . . . I've expressed my concern on the state of journalism many times in this blog, but let me tell you, real journalists don't need any condescending lectures from Larry McReynolds. Let's remember that it was McReynolds who one year used his TV position to keep current on garage area technical developments, then spent the non-Fox half of the season taking that knowledge to Kyle Petty's team -- hugely inappropriate. Also, supposedly "objective" TV announcers have no business MCing team publicity events. Shame on those who provided McReynolds' the forum . . . Congratulations to Ashley Force Hood and husband Dan, expecting their first child. Now, let's tell it like it is: Ashley's on-track absence this season is bad news for NHRA in terms of ticket sales, media coverage and TV ratings. And I'm not saying she should place business considerations ahead of personal fulfillment, just stating a fact . . . The new World of Outlaws PR coordinator, Kyle Luetters, has huge shoes to fill following the excellent Tony Veneziano . . . Congratulations to Kevin Kennedy, the 25th recipient of the Spirit of Ford Award, and the 2006 Jim Chapman Award winner for excellence in motorsports PR. Plus: Dodge PR rep Denny Darnell (Ken Patterson Helping Others Award) and Ford's Dan Zacharias (Joe Littlejohn Award) on being honored at the National Motorsports Press Association convention. The late Jim Hunter, earlier recognized with the 2010 Jim Chapman Award, was remembered with the NMPA Speedway Spirit Award . . . Another follow-up -- the Phoenix Business Journal reports sales at the 40th Barrett-Jackson collector car auction in Scottsdale reached $70 million with total attendance of 230,000 . . . Chutzpah: Chris Matthews -- the most over-inflated media ego in Washington -- has taken to calling a congresswoman "Balloon Head." Civility, indeed. I suggest that the new Comcast management bursts the balloon it just inherited.


When I became CART's first communications director in November 1980, a priority during that off-season was to simplify the points system, one carried over from USAC. The numbers ran into the thousands and, in certain circumstances, even fractional points were awarded. The system Kirk Russell and I created was easy to understand and follow: 20 points for the winner, 16 for second place, down to one point for 12th. The Board wanted about half of the drivers in a typical non-500 mile field to get points. Plus, we added one bonus point for the pole winner, and one for the driver who led the most laps. I'm glad NASCAR has finally embraced the concept of easy-to-understand. It's impossible not to notice, though, that with all available bonus points, the winner can earn a maximum of 48 points per race. Yes, that's right, 48.

As I've written before, legendary TV production executive Don Ohlmeyer was a great choice as ESPN's Ombudsman. Ohlmeyer wrote his last column in that capacity last week. It's too long for me to generalize about, but I did take a measure of satisfaction that Don got into some topics that I've highlighted here: The need for better storytelling, news reporting, transparency and being more responsive to the audience. The link is below and it's worth your time to read -- and think -- about what Don wrote. I don't know who ESPN's new "O" will be, but I'm hoping for something more than the rubber-stamp of an Eastern media or academic elite. And, this is a good time to say again that Speed really should have an Ombudsman. Why? Cutting away from Brian France's news conference Q&A in favor of pundits would be a valid place to start.
http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/columns/story?columnist=ohlmeyer_don&id=6063051

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Monday, January 24, 2011

THE BIG SHOW

MY FAVORITE: Mainly for nostalgic reasons, my "best" pick at Barrett-Jackson was the 1969 Chevrolet Camaro Indianapolis 500 pace car model, because that was the year I attended my first I500. In the background is the version of the 2011 pace car.


Last week I wrote that the Big Events of 2011 will truly be Big in helping us evaluate the health of the Business of Racing. The first on my list was the 40th anniversary Barrett-Jackson collector car auction here in Scottsdale. I saw my friend Joe Amato, the NHRA Top Fuel legend, out at B-J Friday (he was a buyer) and Joe wasn't kidding when he said the event "is a happening."

Calling Barrett-Jackson a car show is like calling the Super Bowl a football game. Oh, yes, it's so much more. (The program book was a massive 338 pages.) It is quite something to walk the long vendor areas where everything from clothing, jewelry, furniture, photos, paintings and even financial planning services can be had. In the three days I was out there, I saw the big crowds at many of these booths, although it was impossible to determine if sales were up or down. The weather was Arizona Chamber of Commerce perfect.

I asked Amato about the state of the collector car business and he described sales as "about flat" from last year. Whatever the $$$ numbers, it was impossible not to be impressed with the crowds, and the enthusiasm.

I thought Ford and Bridgestone had the best display areas. The cars, of course, are the stars of the show, but in cruising around and seeing all there was to see, I was reminded again that the auto industry and motorsports are a PEOPLE business. Among those I saw and talked with were Mike Helton, Rick Hendrick, Rusty Wallace, Linda Vaughn and Jim McGee. On Wednesday, Lyn St. James hosted a panel discussion, headlined by Melanie Troxel. In perhaps a signal that the racing economy is getting slightly better, Melanie (now single and relocated to Atlanta) told me her team is committed to the full NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car schedule, even though the In-N-Out Burger sponsorship is limited to their markets. Melanie's team is switching to Toyota bodywork even though the automaker hasn't yet stepped-up with technical help -- which, along with marketing support, it should do.

The theme of the panel discussion was taking advantage of opportunities. And that reminded me of the two other Big Events I referenced last week -- the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500.

By all accounts I've read, the Big Daytona test last week was successful, and helped generate some useful buzz for NASCAR and the Feb. 20 race. Opportunity seized. On the other hand, last Thursday, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway unveiled its Camaro pace car at Barrett-Jackson. I would have been interested in that, but no phone call from the newly-recast IMS PR department to make sure I was aware of the event. Opportunity lost. Either the bean-counting going on in Indy is such they can't afford to make a phone call, or the "publicists" don't know how to get publicity. To me, this is yet another flashing red-light signal that the Speedway is racing toward the 100th anniversary running of the I500 in reverse gear.


Last Thursday was one of those very interesting days that people in the journalism business can experience. Early afternoon, and unexpectedly, I was provided with a copy of a lengthy letter sent by a Washington, D.C., law firm to the IRS. The letter, sent on behalf of an unnamed client, requested an IRS review of NHRA's status under the tax code. I was the first in the media to call NHRA for comment. Because of schedule conflicts, I couldn't write the full story, but CompetitionPlus.com editor Bobby Bennett did interview the lawyer, and mobilized Jon Asher and Stan Creekmore to contribute to this potentially huge story. Here's the link:
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/news/16540-letter-to-irs-questions-nhra-tax-status


FAST LINES: If his new pairing with crew chief Alan Gustafson doesn't produce wins, maybe Jeff Gordon should audition to replace the retiring Regis Philbin. Live with Kelly and Jeff ? . . . Jeanne Zelasko. From Fox NASCAR and baseball coverage to Judge Joe Brown . . . For the first time in my 40 years as a National Speed Sport News subscriber, Chris Economaki's name isn't on the editor's notebook. Last week's column began with this: "With Ye Ed’s 90th birthday in the rearview mirror and an aching knee limiting travel, we are going to hand over more of the space in this column to our younger and more active contributors. We will continue to contribute news and insight to the Speed Sport Notebook, but our many capable in-the-field representatives will do the heavy lifting" . . . Maybe, just maybe, there is hope that Comcast will clean up the MSNBC mess, even though the spinners say new majority owner-to-be Comcast didn't make the call to remove Keith Obermann. I'm not buying that. But with Olbermann's protector, NBC Universal boss Jeff Zucker, out the door perhaps this was inevitable. However it happened, it's good news for journalism. Zucker's place in J's Hall of Shame is guaranteed, as he imposed his personal left-wing politics and the desire to get government contracts for GE, to replace journalism's time-honored standards. Olbermann's reckless and irresponsible rants did more to contribute to the inflamed tone in America's political discourse than anyone else -- he didn't allow a contrary voice on his show. Say what you will about Fox News, and I've expressed my criticisms here, those hosts do have guests with opposing views, even if sometimes they are props to boost the host's ego. One thing that troubled me the most in the Olbermann exit reporting was that Bob Costas has been a great cheerleader of O, and that will now always make me view Costas' own reporting in a very different light.


The sheriff of Arizona's Pima County broke every rule in the crisis communications book in his news conference hours after the shootings in Tucson. This guy's ego was clearly out of control in front of the national TV cameras, but he either ignored good advice from his public affairs officer, who didn't get good advice. There are ONLY THREE POINTS to address at a news conference in such a situation. THREE. I wonder how many racing team, sponsor, track and sanctioning body PR directors can name those THREE things? Not more than a handful, I bet.

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Monday, January 17, 2011

THE BIG EVENTS WILL BE BIG IN 2011

It's always a compliment when someone asks for your opinion. Starting back in early December, when I was in Las Vegas for the NASCAR Sprint Cup awards, I've gotten what I guess is the typical question: What do you expect in 2011?

As regular readers well know, I'm not much into predictions. But I feel confident in writing here that I believe The Big Events will be especially BIG this year -- in what they will tell us about the health and success and future of their respective arenas.

I'll be attending the 40th anniversary Barrett-Jackson auction this week here in Scottsdale. Is the economy REALLY better? At least for those wealthy enough to play the collector car game? Barrett-Jackson will give us an indication if those who have money to spend are actually willing to spend it.

Next month is the Daytona 500 and, boy, does NASCAR ever need for it to be a sensational race. My theory is last year's embarrassing pothole red flags put the brakes on whatever pre-season public-interest momentum had been generated by the "have at it" officiating philosophy and other moves. I don't think NASCAR ever got it going after that -- and the TV ratings reflected that belief. I ran this theory by NASCAR President Mike Helton last November and he didn't disagree, but added the competition the sport faced from the Winter Olympics and other events.
History tells us Daytona's necessary repave won't make for a good race. Everyone involved had better hope for an exception to that rule. The Sprint Cup industry needs a lot of excitement out of Daytona, plenty of interesting news, and a great 500 miles that will create water-cooler talk and buzz into the season's new second race, at Phoenix, and onward. Maybe Dale Jr. and new crew chief Steve Letarte will help with that.

It's very troubling to even ponder what the year will be like, from a business perspective, if Daytona is another dud.

Then, in May, is the 100th anniversary of the first Indianapolis 500. If NASCAR needs Daytona to be boffo, well, the IndyCar series needs a moon shot. I can't truthfully say I'm predicting that, as the same old tired car-engine formula is used one more time, before the announced arrival of new engines and bodywork kits in 2012.

Given that reality, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its sanctioning body sister company need to go out and MAKE the 100th a news and social and historical happening that will bring out the national media, wake-up sponsors, and fill the grandstands and infield. They won't lick that huge challenge with a postage stamp, as nice as that is to have.

There have been a lot of staff changes in the last year. I, as a non-member of the Indiana media cheerleading society, am not too impressed. As Chris Economaki once said on my radio show, the Speedway needs a drum-beater.

Just WHO is that? Maybe somebody's pinky finger is tapping the bottom of a paper cup, but that isn't drum-beating.

Who, if ANYONE, is actually pro-actively outreaching to the national media community? Only five months out, WHERE are the national marketing promotions, sweepstakes, advertising tie-ins and everything else that so obviously should be going on?

Placing 33 historic cars on the front straightaway was a nice-enough photo-op, featured on some websites, but it's a mystery to me why that wouldn't have been turned into a spectator happening that maybe could have been connected to a ticket sales promotion.

I know there's a lot of bean-counting going on at IMS these days. I agree a good bit of that was necessary and overdue. I noticed the effects of those cutbacks last May -- among other things, the grounds weren't as well maintained as usual. But it says here bean-counting is not going to drive sales or make the 100th anniversary of the first Indianapolis 500 what Tony Hulman would have wished it to be. And I say that as someone who actually knew Mr. Hulman . . . how many of the current paycheck collectors can say that or actually lived what the Indy 500 once was but hasn't been since 1995?

The entire sport and industry of IndyCar racing is desperate for Indy to once again be Indy. If the existing Powers-That-Be can't or won't or don't know how to do that for the 100th anniversary running, well, forget it then, because they'll never figure it out.

Yes, the Big Events of 2011 will indeed be BIG in telling us about the health of the industry.



FAST LINES: If you missed what I wrote about Jimmie Johnson last Thursday, scroll down and see that posting . . . AOL's surprise announcement that a reorganization will, among other things, result in sports coverage being subcontracted (to The Sporting News) apparently means Holly Cain -- one of racing's best journalists -- will be out-of-a-job come March. Holly wrote for the Seattle and Tampa newspapers before the AOL assignment. As far as I'm concerned, Holly had the "scoop" of 2010 with her exclusive interview with the ousted Tony George . . . Congratulations to Ray Evernham on his new consulting deal with Rick Hendrick, but NASCAR TV fans are the losers. Ray should have been in the booth from Day One of the current ESPN package . . . Sad to report 2008 Jim Chapman Award recipient Judy Stropus is no longer doing PR for Don Schumacher Racing . . . Congratulations to my friend Larry Henry, honored as Track Announcer of the Year by the Michigan Auto Racing Fan Club . . . Sympathy to the family of Dick Trajnowski, who spent more than 30 years covering sports for the Jackson Citizen Patriot, including everything that moved at Michigan International Speedway, who died last week . . . Congratulations to the 13 inductees to the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame: Jimmy Boyd, Bob Burman, Wally Campbell, Danny Lasoski, Joe Sostilio, Gary Wright, Bruce Bromme Jr., Andy Granatelli, Leonard Kerbs, W.W. Bowen, Gene Marderness, Della Rice and Emmett Shelley. I'm a member of the HoF nominating and voting panel. They will be honored Saturday, June 4, in Knoxville, Iowa . . . Racing PR is better now that S. Jarrod England is no longer a part of it . . . Please be sure to check out my new feature, The 'It' 11, at the top of this blog. You'll find a new list every week.


Here's a link to my January "Drags, Dollars & Sense" column on CompetitionPlus.com, the first of two parts on sponsor activation:
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/16462-drags-dollars-a-sense-the-importance-of-activation


I'll be interested to see how sponsors and fans react to ALMS' move away from mostly live start-to-finish productions on Speed to mostly ESPN3's digital platform, with edited and delayed presentations on ABC and ESPN2. Not a second of live traditional TV from Sebring, for example, with 90 minutes of highlights on ABC the next day. More value or less for the bill-payers? I don't think anyone honestly knows the answer to that yet. The fact that the series felt it necessary to send out a talking-points E-mail on a Friday night was an indication damage control was needed. (I've had to do that myself.) A warning signal that flashed to me upon reading the transcript of ALMS' media teleconference on this subject was the references to possible opportunities on SportsCenter, ESPN.com, ESPN the Magazine, etc. I think someone at ALMS should ask NHRA or even IndyCar about that! When only drivers named Force or Danica get that attention, well, I wouldn't be expecting a big feature on Simon Pagenaud! Meanwhile, the new production entity had best use announcers who actually understand what ALMS "racing" is: A place for alternative fuels and, in some cases, power sources; a series that views itself as techy and trendy. That's how the story must be told (for better or worse) and the old Speed crew didn't have the business/marketing experience know-how to tell the story with that mindset. I wish Dorsey Schroeder would be back, but not Jamie Howe, the Brienne Pedigo of sports car racing.

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Thursday, January 13, 2011

BREAKING NEWS: NO JIMMIE JOHNSON IN INDY 500

Welcome and thank you for returning for my sixth calendar year of blogging. My first "official" post for 2011 will be next Monday -- a big-picture look at the year ahead -- but here is some breaking news that can't wait:


Forget all that happy talk about Jimmie Johnson driving in May's 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500. He says "no." I sat with the five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion for over 20 minutes late Wednesday afternoon in a Casino Arizona club lounge -- he was in Scottsdale to help bang-the-drums for Phoenix International Raceway's new Feb. 27 Subway Fresh Fit 500 date.


The link to my Arizona Republic story is at the bottom here, but I didn't have room for this nugget. During our conversation, Johnson said he originally thought Indy Cars would be his career path. I took advantage of him opening that door to ask if he'll drive in the I500. All of Johnson's quotes that follow are word-for-word, as transcribed by me from my recorder.


"I don’t have anything working, so I’d say no for this year."


I then asked Johnson if Chevrolet's return to the series could present an opportunity in 2011.


"It could. It’s been a hurdle in the past. I just don’t know if it’s the smartest . . . my wife and I have discussed it for a long time. She knows how bad I want to do it. We, together, thought if I could run that race before we had kids, it makes sense. Those days are long gone.


"If a legitimate opportunity comes along, the first place I start is with my wife, make sure she’s comfortable with it. From there, I still have quite a few hurdles: Mr. (Rick) Hendrick, Chad (Knaus), Lowe’s. I enjoy making it public knowledge that I am interested, so, if one day I do go to Rick or Lowe’s, they’ve heard of it before.


"I just don’t know. I have (talked to Hendrick about it) in years past when Chevy wasn’t a part of it. He’d say, ‘Look, contracts exist, you can’t drive a Honda-powered vehicle.’ So it’s eliminated the opportunity. Since GM has announced it’s coming back, I have not spoken with him about it."

What does he think about Indy rulemakers going to a NASCAR-like double-file restart rule? Unlike NASCAR, however, supposedly lapped cars won't be positioned behind the front-runners.


"I think we’ve proven it in our sport, lapped cars should . . . you need to let the guys racing for the win and those positions have their space. I’ve never been in an Indy Car. I’m not comfortable watching them side-by-side on TV (laughter). I can only imagine what it would be inside the car."




[ more next Monday . . . ]