• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, March 27, 2011

TASK FORCE: CALIFORNIA

Decades ago, it was said that what was good for General Motors was good for America.


Let me update that to say what's good for racing in California is good for the motorsports industry everywhere.


Which means it's time to form Task Force: California. Sunday's downsized Auto Club 400 was the only chance for fans in the southern part of the Golden State to see Sprint Cup this year as what originally was known as California Speedway lost a prized date to Kansas. Less didn't mean a lot more, however, in terms of ticket sales.


Long Beach remains America's greatest street course event and benefits from what others have rightly called being "spring break for adults," but the ticket-buyers don't come out the way they once did. (Yes, put much of the blame on the split.) Pomona sure has had its share of empty grandstand seats. Laguna Seca, well, people like me remember the hillside completely occupied for CART. Sears Point is now Infineon Raceway but the crowds are not infinite.


I'm a California native, and understand the problems associated with plunging property values, high taxes, and the overall down economy. But I'm sensing there's more to the situation than financial concerns, because we are talking about, after all, the spiritual home of hot rodding and the classic place for cruising in convertibles, specially sports cars. The sport's California history includes names like Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones, Wally Parks, Don Prudhomme, J.C. Agajanian, Shav Glick, Ascot Park, Riverside International Raceway and oh-so-many more.


It's in the best interests of the motorsports industry to dig-down and understand what is going on. Any series that considers itself "major" should care -- and I am sure all those sponsors, manufacturers and automakers do -- considering the massive market size, diverse demographics and media opportunities.


I suggest the industry come together, as it did (under NASCAR's leadership, directed by Les Richter) during energy "crisis" situations of decades past, and come up with answers -- and an action plan. NASCAR, NHRA, IndyCar, ALMS, Grand-Am, AMA, World of Outlaws, USAC, SCCA, IMSA, everyone needs to contribute to this cause. NHRA, of course, is based there and both NASCAR and IndyCar have West Coast offices.


Some members of Task Force: California are obvious -- the heads of the tracks and sanctions located within the state. I think Long Beach founder Chris Pook is still out there, somewhere, and longtime NASCAR operative (and new NHRA director) Ken Clapp would be great resources. So would veteran publicists Owen Kearns and Doug Stokes. But I'd avoid the "Indiana only" mentality that has been a huge mistake by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar series managements and bring in experts (and good workers) from outside Calif. There's very valuable and experienced talent out there in the rest of the country who could be excellent contributors to this process.


Something's going in California that I don't think we really have a grasp on. Interest seems down and some of the passion within what we've always considered a "car crazy" state has cooled. It's in the interest of racers from Sea-to-Shining-Sea to find out why and get on with doing what must be done to change course.


To all industry leaders, I say, let's get on with it. Task Force: California, here we come.



At least for those of us of a certain vintage, there is no more shocking symbol of the "changing times" than the end of National Speed Sport News. For almost 77 years, from the first issue (published as National Auto Racing News) on Aug. 16, 1934, until the last newspaper on March 23, 2011, it was influential, sometimes irritating, always important. Chris Economaki -- who sold copies of that first paper at Ho-Ho-Kus Speedway in northern New Jersey -- became a powerful presence in every corner of the sport in virtually every corner of the world. But Economaki is now 90, and his byline went away from the legendary "Editor's Notebook" column at the start of the year.


I've witnessed several newspaper closings, as far back as the early 1980s in Philadelphia. When I was at the Philadelphia Daily News, we had four competing dailies, but not long after I left to become CART's first communications director, the Evening Bulletin and then the tabloid Journal went away. NASCAR Scene folded last year. The checkered flag for NSSN, though, strikes home in a different way because I've been a continuous subscriber for 40 years. I can't remember racing without this source of news, opinion and rumor. As a PR person, sometimes what was written was, well, "stressful," but then again Chris always understood the sales value of a little controversy. As a reader, it was always entertaining. For a very long time, the classified ads were among the most fascinating reads -- Carl Edwards advertised himself there. That turned out to be a good "buy" on his part.


That's what I'll miss the most, that weekly adventure of holding Speed Sport in my hands, wondering what might be on the next page.


The news business is not what it once was, of course, and the newer and more immediate sources of instant information won out over print and paper once every seven days. (NSSN.com will continue to be updated.) Economaki's well-traveled Royal typewriter is in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and NSSN's place in the history of the sport it chronicled is secure. To Corinne Economaki, Mike Kerchner, loyal staff past and present, and ace writers like Dave Argabright, I offer a most sincere Thank You.



Below is a link to my Sept. 6, 2010 blog, titled, "How to Fix the IRL on Versus." The entire theme of that posting was that IndyCar's cable TV outlet needed -- and this is the word I used more than once -- STORYTELLERS. Well, exactly that word was used in the series' official news announcement last week about the production and talent changes. I also suggested a pre-race The McLaughlin Group panel to draw-in viewers. Along those lines, it was revealed that Robin Miller will join the Versus pre-race show. Not that anyone involved had the common courtesy to acknowledge where these ideas came from or, God forbid, to say "Thank You." (Ditto when it was pointed out here that the Indianapolis Star's "expert" blog continued to use "IRL" in its headline long after the series officially abandoned that name. It was changed soon thereafter.) The rest of you, please just remember where you read this first:




FAST LINES: I've known Mike Wells, the new Versus director, for many years and he's a good upgrade in that position. New booth analyst Wally Dallenbach Jr.? Oh, you mean the "veteran" of THREE CART races in 1990 and 0-for-244 "star" in NASCAR's three national series? NASCARite pit reporter Marty Snider has given the impression for years that he thinks he's as important as the people he interviews -- just what ICS does not need. When Dallenbach and Snider were a part of a few ALMS/Champ Car telecasts on NBC in seasons past, well, viewers who were really paying attention could tell those were "mail it in" performances . . . Good news -- my friend Larry Henry is now the ALMS series PA announcer . . . ABC's St. Pete promos described IndyCar as featuring "the world's fastest drivers" even though NHRA's TV home is sister network ESPN2. Why NHRA puts up with this, I'll never understand . . . Laugh line -- Darrell Waltrip said fans at California were standing up at the start and looking to the TV booth in anticipation of his "Boogity" line, then a few minutes later, said some crew chiefs need to "check their egos" . . . I'll be in Las Vegas this weekend for the NHRA Nationals. A lot of people in that series have "Thank You" in their vocabulary.



The American Media, March 22, 2011: While ABC's Diane Sawyer went to Washington, D.C. for the first interview with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after military operations in Libya, CBS' Katie Couric was laughing it up with David Letterman.


[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, March 20, 2011

ANOTHER UNLEARNED HISTORY LESSON

PIR REPAVE: Here's your first look at the repaving work underway at Phoenix International Raceway, the first since 1990. The November Kobalt Tools 500 will be the real "wild card" in the NASCAR Chase this season.


In 1987, when then-CART Chairman John Frasco and Marlboro cooked (or smoked) up the idea of the Marlboro Challenge All-Star race, and announced it at the Long Beach Grand Prix, PPG racing director Jim Chapman quietly-but-effectively issued a statement expressing the view of the series' landmark title sponsor: In brief, that while PPG supported increased prize money for drivers and teams, there should be no prize that out-headlined PPG's, and no special event that might detract from the news value and prestige of the PPG Cup championship-deciding final race of the season.

I agreed with Mr. Chapman then, and I agree now, as it pertains to the $5 million IndyCar bonus at Las Vegas for a non-IC regular who would win. I realize the current series sponsor says it supports the Vegas gimmick, but what is fundamentally more important to the core foundation of the series than its season-long championship -- and champion? If IndyCar believes that it's necessary for something to draw more attention than that -- and the Indianapolis 500 -- then the series is in an even more desperate condition than I thought. Among the several unintended consequences I can see is the devaluing of the title for the championship winning team sponsor.

As I have said and written many times in recent years, IndyCar's (and IMS') most valuable asset is its history. And, yet, the majority of those responsible haven't lived that history and don't know the lessons of that history. In the case of the Challenge, history teaches that it came to be moved off of championship weekend, and after several very forgetable runnings, passed into a richly deserved oblivion.

P.S. -- It's a very, very, VERY bad idea to invite Alex Zanardi to compete at Vegas. The reasons are clear: For a man who lost both his legs and endured great trauma and hasn't competed on a high-speed oval in a decade, the consequences of even a smallish accident should be obvious. This is the sort of thing that gives IndyCar the stench of desperation. And, despite Zanardi's incredible and inspirational example and spirit -- I'll just say it flat-out -- To me, the invitation is exploitive. (For those not aware, I say this from the standpoint of someone who worked with Alex when he was in CART, have a championship ring courtesy of him, and the helmet he wore when he made "The Pass" at Laguna Seca is displayed in my office -- a gift from Zanardi.)

It's disturbing to me, personally, that Randy Bernard again took some bad advice whispered into his ear. It's great to have advisors (official or unofficial) who are passionate about IndyCar racing. That does not mean they understand common-sense medical/safety issues, know who would be the kind of pro-active/outreaching PR representative the series oh-so needs, or what cities will be financially-successful race markets. Bernard's been in the job long enough to start expanding his pool of suggestion-makers -- some who actually combine passion with a proper business perspective.


Paul Tracy, Tony Kanaan and Dan Wheldon are among the IndyCar names needing sponsorship. Well, if the amount companies waste on all-hat-but-no-cattle agencies was redirected, they'd have enough for 10 years. The other day I received the following and the first graph is copied here exactly as received (except bold and italics added by me):

"Hello Brian - This is Calvin from Big Fuel in NYC. We're producing a web video series on behalf of the Chevrolet Cruze called the 'Cruze-arati'. We just filmed two videos, and we want the Spin Doctor 500 blog to be our premier partner to help us debut two videos."

Thanks for that offer, Wilbur, but I'll pass . . .


FAST LINES: Here's a test of the value of an IndyCar team sponsorship, at least in terms of goodwill -- Simona De Silvestro's sponsor is Nuclear Clean Energy . . . Just wondering: Have any of those chatroomers who called for a boycott of Firestone posted apologies since the tiremaker is back in IndyCar through 2013? . . . PR people who send images without captions shouldn't bother to waste the time or effort. Amazing that even needs to be said, but one series does it all the time . . . Insulting and ridiculous: That's the best way to describe it when a TV network wants us to hang around all day to watch our favorites race, but then doesn't show them taking the checkered flag . . . Ponder this: The way the people of Japan have acted in the face of terrible disaster vs. the way the people of New Orleans did after Hurricane Katrina.


This year marks the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's birth. It will be the 100th anniversary of the first Indianapolis 500. Reagan visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on a practice day before becoming president, escorted by Tony Hulman. (One might have thought that, given the timing, this historic photo would be on the IMS site, but I don't see it.) Reagan greeted several Indy winners and CART champions in the Oval Office. A video tribute to Reagan was shown before the Super Bowl. And before the Daytona 500 (see link below). And before the Sprint Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway. And will be before Sunday's event at California's Auto Club Speedway. I talked with two Reagan Foundation officials at PIR and was told several Major League Baseball teams will show a version of the video before games this season. Why not at Indy?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FCJa2mjLPmQ

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, March 13, 2011

SPEEDWAY CHARITY

One of the popular talking points among those yearning for a Return to Glory by the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar series is what a huge boost both will get from this May's 100th anniversary running of the first "Greatest Spectacle."

Don't hold your breath.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corp. has had plenty of time to gear-up, from a marketing and publicity standpoint, for the 500's 100th. After all, IMS announced it would celebrate the "Centennial Era" from 2009-2011. Even with the management and staff changes and internal Hulman-George family problems, anyone with a reasonable knowledge about the Business of Racing might well have reasonably assumed firm plans -- and budgets -- had been locked-in and would be speeding along.

Looks more like a crawl to me.

I think it's fair to say even those who gulp the IMS/ICS Kool-Aid would think the Indy Centennial would be partnered by at least as many corporations as the 50th Daytona 500 was three years ago. And, one would be wrong.

Where are the tie-ins with national name-brand products? Consumer sweepstakes? Contests? Ad campaigns? Point-of-purchase displays? Packaging? Discounts? Giveaways? Coupons? Promotions? PR push? Media blitz?

The other week, an IMSer asked me to write something about 1993's Nigel "Mansell Mania" from my insider perspective, having lived that experience as the Newman/Haas Racing PR director. The "offer" came with this notation: There was no budget to pay me.

Now, there are legitimate charities that I am happy to contribute to, from a work and financial standpoint. As the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corp. is not on my list of charities, I declined.

I know the bean-counter mentality has fully enveloped the Speedway, but I can assure you of this: Budget cuts have never SOLD a single ticket. Not one.

If you're in the neighborhood and in a giving mood, you might want to consider stopping by the 16th and Georgetown offices. Maybe a marketing or publicity person will be standing outside, wearing red, next to a kettle ID'd with a wheel-and-wings logo, ringing a bell.


Here's a link to my March "Drags, Dollars & Sense" column on CompetitionPlus.com:
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/16934-drags-dollars-a-sense-toyota-missed-the-boat


FAST LINES: Brian France wisely helped fill the news void of an "off" week by spending 30 minutes on a national media teleconference to tout the strong start to the NASCAR season . . . How important was it for IndyCar and its team owners to keep Bridgestone/Firestone's tire technology and marketing activation? Important enough for them to pay a lot more in fees to B/F. The power within the IndyCar industry rests with manufacturers/suppliers, not the series or team owners . . . It's long, long past due for anyone/everyone associated in any way with Toyota to stop blaming others for the problems of its own doing. Try this message instead: "We're Sorry." If I ran T, I'd call on the carpet everyone with anything to do with PR -- corporate, consumer, product and, yes, racing. It's the worst PR collective I've seen in over 40 years in the industry. And, believe me, it really takes some doing to top that Marlboro bunch . . . It's still a mystery to me, after covering the recent NASCAR events at Phoenix International Raceway: How is it possible for any so-called "PR" person to be there on-site, collecting a paycheck, and not make the rounds in the deadline media room, even if just to say "hello" and ask if any help was needed? Not even a half-dozen did so at PIR, in my experience. Shame on the team owners and sponsor managers who don't bother to understand how poorly they are represented . . . PR 101: The vast majority of media people do not want news releases that have to be downloaded. Capacity limitations at any number of tracks makes that a slow and inconvenient process. Just send the basic info as a plain E-mail . . . It was embarrassing to AMA Pro Racing that Speed's announcers felt it necessary to keep saying they were still waiting/still had no word about the status of a Daytona 200 restart after tire problems forced a long red flag. And it was wrong for Speed Center updates not to respect its viewers by giving the news of the race's results. Nobody likes to be jacked-around, and in the age of instant news, that's what Center did with this credibility-bending decision . . . How can you tell when an announcer really has nothing new to say and is just speaking to avoid dead air? "It will be interesting to see . . . " . . . A classic example of cable TV news' need to show pictures -- any pictures -- last Friday morning on CNBC as the Japan story was unfolding -- Dark video of what appeared to be debris floating in the water and this commentary, "We don't know what this is, but this is live video . . . " . . . What's the big deal about Charlie Sheen? Remember Keith Olbermann?

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, March 06, 2011

THRILL RIDE WITH TREVOR BAYNE

THANKS, TREVOR: Mark Armijo (left), Bayne, Chris van der Beeck, me. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)

It's about 9:30 a.m., Sunday, Feb. 27, and I'm standing on pit road at Phoenix International Raceway talking to Trevor Bayne.

Just one week earlier, he won the Daytona 500 in the famed No. 21 Wood Brothers Motorcraft Ford. One week later, less than four hours before the Subway Fresh Fit 500k, he has just taken The Phantom of the Opera (movie version) star Emmy Rossum (at PIR to sing the National Anthem -- and she did it well) for a ride around the one-mile oval. I had arranged for Arizona Republic columnist Paola Boivin to ride in the backseat.

Now, mission accomplished, Emmy is having her picture taken. Paola has gone off to write. Trevor's standing next to the Ford brought out for this purpose and we're reviewing the remarkable happenings of the last week. I tell him about my PR background and some somewhat similar adventures I've shared with drivers I've worked with, like the Andrettis, Nigel Mansell and Alex Zanardi. He's interested in hearing these tales from Big Time Auto Racing. I tell Trevor I don't think anyone could have handled it all better, especially any 20-year-old instant celebrity. He thanks me.

NASCAR print communications manager Denise Maloof is nearby, there to coordinate the media goings-on. She mentions there are about 10 minutes left before control of the track is lost for PR purposes. Trevor says to me, "Come on. Hop in. Let's go!"

I ask Denise and Trevor to please "hold" for a minute. I run up the stairs to the media center and yell to fellow Republic writer Mark Armijo, and our coordinating editor, Chris van der Beeck, "Come on! Come on!" They follow me as we rush down the stairs and back to the pits.

"Hop in, guys!," Bayne says with a smile. "Let's go!"

Having covered all the major so-called "stick-and-ball" sports, I am completely impressed that he's not only willing, but seemingly happy, to do this hours before he has to race. I know it wouldn't happen elsewhere, including by an active Indianapolis 500 winner.

Take the ride with us, as recorded by me on my BlackBerry (3:15) :




FAST LINES: I, of course, was fully engaged in the NASCAR-at-PIR events but friends passed on some positive comments about the NHRA's 60th anniversary opener at Pomona. As with us at PIR, NHRA was working around bad weather issues, but got in the race. I'll see the Full Throttle series first-hand the first weekend of April at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway . . . Last week was the official end for the AOL Fanhouse site, now folded into the Sporting News operation. Some talented people, including Holly Cain -- one of the country's best racing writers -- are looking for new opportunities . . . Embarrassing: The Indy reporter who, in noting Sam Schmidt had bought-into an IndyCar team, wrote that the wheelchair-bound Schmidt "walked into yet another good deal in his life" . . . I'd invite Regis Philbin to wave the green flag for the Indy 500 to ride the wave of public affection for the Notre Dame grad as he leaves his talk show later this year. Pace car driver? Well, IMS management will find a proper role at the 100th anniversary running for the first four-time winner, A.J. Foyt, won't they? . . . I get the gimmick factor of offering $5 mil to a non-regular who would win (bank it: it won't happen) the Las Vegas finale, but IndyCar crossed a bridge-too-far with this one: The starting lineup for the second half of the Texas doubleheader will be determined by blind draw. I guess Randy Bernard didn't want to copy Bernie Ecclestone's suggestion that Formula One tracks artifically be made wet during parts of races. This stuff is getting out-of-hand and makes NASCAR's infamous "debris" cautions look rule-book legitimate . . . Firestone going is a bigger loss for IndyCar than Chevrolet returning . . . Since Marty Reid doesn't understand the difference, would some responsible ESPN producer please wake up and tell Reid Brad Keselowski is not the "defending" Nationwide champion? Keselowski can't "defend" because he's not eligible for series points. Words mean things. Meanwhile, Jamie Little -- as usual trying to figure out which end is up -- said Robert Hight is Courtney Force's "husband." Reid did correct that one . . . Good luck to Michael Hargrave, who has opened his own Charlotte-area company, "Developing and executing winning brand strategies and business relationships." I worked with Mike when he managed Budweiser's sponsorship of Paul Tracy and I was the Newman/Haas PR director . . . If you haven't as yet, please try to grab a copy of last week's National Speed Sport News. I had six stories in the paper.



It's amazing what you learn when you ask the right questions, not just the superficial stuff we as fans get from too many of the TV microphone holders. Here are three things I learned at PIR because I gave some thought to what I wanted to ask:

1. Emmy Rossum has never seen the stage version of The Phantom of the Opera. She said there was little time between when she got the movie role as Christine and the start of production. No, at first, she didn't tell that to Andrew Lloyd Webber. And, in thinking about it, she made a very good point: Original stage actress Sarah Brightman became such a worldwide sensation playing that part, Rossum didn't want her own performance influenced by what Sarah had done. Makes sense to me . . .

2. Roger Penske doesn't expect to run a fourth car for anybody -- including Sam Hornish Jr. -- for the $5 million challenge to end the IndyCar season. I went to the Sunday morning drivers' meeting at PIR and asked him. Specifically, when I asked Roger if he'd run an extra car if one or more of his three full-time drivers had a shot at the championship that day, he said: "No. It's a conflict of interest." Indianapolis-area media cheerleaders, please take note . . .

3. Chevrolet is returning as an engine supplier to IndyCar next year, but won't play a direct role in Danica Patrick's new contract. NASCAR or IndyCar, it's up to her, according to Mark Kent, director of GM Racing. I know this because I asked him. "The driver agreements are strictly with the team," he said. "We don't get involved in that . . . It's really up to Danica to figure out what her career path is. I think it's going to be very difficult to try to do both, and I think she's seen that -- getting into one car and out of the other -- it's difficult. You need to focus on a specific series and hone your skills." Reporters who pretend that they understand the Business of Racing, please take note . . .

[ more next Monday . . . ]