• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, April 24, 2011

AN IDEA FOR AUSTIN

The World Economic Forum is an annual week-long gathering of business and political leaders, cultural and entertainment figures, and media elites, in Davos, Switzerland. An impressive percentage of the global corporate and money players participate. It generates worldwide press coverage and it's CNBC's version of Super Bowl week.

There are speeches, seminars and panel discussions plus lots of networking and countless cocktail parties, receptions and dinners. "Posh" is an appropriate word to describe the after-hours activities.

Since before the financial collapse in fall 2008, I've thought of what a motorsports version of the WEF would be like. Yes, I know, there have been some attempts at business summits. Champ Car tried to justify its existence with a few such sessions, hoping to hang onto sponsorships by promoting business-to-business relationships. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway took a shot with its version and there have been biz meetings in New York City and Charlotte. Formula One has done it in Monaco. But none has been organized along the lines of the WEC and certainly not remotely close to the same scale.


So it caught my attention the other week when, during the news conference for the new track in Austin, Tex., it was said the planned 2012 Formula One race will create "the largest gathering of corporate leaders in the United States." Match that with F1's global sponsorships and the importance of the American market, and it seems to me Austin might be the right venue for a legitimate World Racing Economic Forum. While it's probably not realistic to think every bit of construction will be in place right away, it has been announced that the facility will include meeting rooms, a conference center and a banquet hall.


I put this idea to Tavo Hellmund, managing partner and chairman of the U.S. Grand Prix, when we both guested in Rick Benjamin's Sirius XM Satellite Radio show after the Chinese Grand Prix. Hellmund surprised me by saying two of his partners in the Austin project have gone to Davos.


"We had to make this (Austin facility) about being a destination," he said. "I know that sounds like a clever line for a television ad . . . not just a racetrack. We know the events will do well but it's pretty hard to justify spending anywhere from $250-400 million on something if you're not going to be using it 300 days a year. That's what we're trying to achieve."



The Austin group obviously has a lot on its to-do list. But I hope, at least down the road, they'll consider formally organizing something strongly along the lines of a WEF. It could be a historic, landmark -- and profitable -- venture for the entire industry.


I've explained before that while I used to be a avid viewer, I rarely watch ESPN's SportsCenter any more, because I'm so turned-off by the gimmicks and nonsense of what is supposed to be the network's flagship "news" show. Last Wednesday afternoon, I heard that Major League Baseball had taken over the National League's most historically important franchise, the Los Angeles Dodgers, due to management concerns. By any standard, this was a HUGE story, so I went to the 6 p.m. (EDT) SC for find out the details. Instead, the first segment was devoted to a gimmick "top 5" thinly veiled to promote the network's programming favorites. The actual news report on the Dodgers didn't happen until 17 minutes into the show, even though ESPN's own announcer and reporter called MLB's move "shocking" and "stunning." This is a perfect example of how journalistic standards have fallen. I can't fully explain how upset it made me. I truly hope ESPN's new Ombudsman collective will deal with this monumental lapse of judgment.


CompetitionPlus.com (where I write a monthly column) now has a video element. Watch the first one, with drag racing legend Shirley Muldowney. There's also a new audio component and I'll be involved in that in the near future:
http://competitionplus.com/drag-racing/news/17298-video-feature-drag-racings-first-lady-of-nitro-shirley-muldowney

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, April 17, 2011

BIG TALK IN TEXAS

They say everything's bigger in Texas. Well, for sure, there was a lot of big talk during last Tuesday's news conference to announce more details of the facility being built in Austin for a 2012 Formula One event. The place is now officially named "Circuit of the Americas" and a 10-year contract for a MotoGP event, starting in 2013, was also revealed.


I watched most (the streaming video cut out a few times) of the conference. The scale of the site -- said to be 1,000 acres with the 3.4-mile road course taking 350 acres -- the cost -- pegged at $250 million by one speaker and $400 million by another -- employees -- 1,300 at the peak -- and usage -- said to be planned for 365 days-a-year for racing, concerts, business meeting, educational purposes, etc. -- certainly are Texas-sized.


We're told there will be meeting rooms, a conference center, banquet hall, trauma center, centerpiece tower and a park that will generate business year-round. The projection is 120,000 race-day spectators with 300,000 over a weekend. It was said the F1 round will create "the largest gathering of corporate leaders in the United States." And, over 10-15 years, "$3-4 billion" added to the local economy.


We shall see. The project was widely "greeted" with skepticism throughout the motorsports industry when first revealed. It sure seemed to take a lot of political maneuvering to get going with the construction, which now is said to be "on schedule."


I've been around long enough to have covered the U.S. GP at Watkins Glen for many years and was on the CART staff when negotiations shifted Long Beach from F1 to the PPG Cup series. Since then, of course, we've seen Phoenix and Dallas and Indianapolis come-and-go and countless rumors about Central Park in New York City. Take Phil Hill and Dan Gurney and Mario Andretti off the list and American drivers haven't been world-wide headliners. And, most recently, was the massive embarrassment of the still-born so-called U.S. F1 team. It's still worth saying "shame on you" to those involved in that one.


From a PR standpoint, the Austin news event had moments of disorganization -- "Where are the jackets? Where are the jackets?" -- with speakers unnecessarily bouncing back-and-forth to create a cluttered presentation. And, in recalling how Speed Channel cheerleaded for that bogus U.S. F1 effort, it was troubling to observe history possibly repeating itself.


Speed F1 caller Bob Varsha was brought in as MC and it was, well, perhaps unfortunate that Varsha compared the "buzz" around Austin to Adelaide, Australia -- which, as we know, no longer hosts the Grand Prix tour. It was perhaps even more unfortunate, given the many reports that Melbourne will leave the schedule due to high costs, that Varsha said, "The Aussies were great friends." Note past-tense "were." As in likely not successful enough from a business standpoint to continue.


All in all, it all sounded great. I always cheer for Big Thinkers. From the standpoint of America's credibility in the international motorsports world, however, Austin had best not be all hat and no cattle.


FAST LINES: I again guested for most of a half-hour Sunday a.m. on Rick Benjamin's Sirius XM Satellite Radio show after the Chinese Grand Prix. As a follow-up to what I wrote about being on with Rick the previous week after the Malaysian GP, this show Rick is doing is new and will be live post-race after this season's Formula One events. Rick has asked me to be a semi-regular guest. I also was interviewed by the Austin American-Statesman last year about the proposed new U.S. Grand Prix site . . . STP's aggressive return to big-time racing sponsorship, announced last week, is welcome news to many old-time fans and participants. Can't help but notice, however, the involvements will be in NASCAR, drag racing and World of Outlaws. I'm one of those who will forever associate the brand with the Indy 500 -- Andy Granatelli, the Novi, turbine, and wins by Mario Andretti and Gordon Johncock. No Indy sponsorship included this time, though . . . I see one of the Indianapolis media cheerleaders has again speculated on the possibility of an IndyCar race at Phoenix International Raceway. Too bad it was just lazy guessing with no real first-hand reporting involved. I've covered this pie-in-the-sky subject point-blank several times both in this blog and in the Arizona Republic but, you see, I was doing actual journalism . . . Excellent news -- Tony Veneziano, who did a very good job as the World of Outlaws publicist, will join JR Thompson Co. May 2 to work on motorsports and non-racing projects . . . It's not a one-size-fits-all solution, but good for ESPN management to more clearly define its policy on announcers as product endorsers. Now it's time for Speed to step up to the ethics plate -- start by hiring an Ombudsman and ending the OK for announcers to sell sponsorship on their network-logo clothing . . . Any so-called "publicist" who allows his/her driver to do TV interviews with his/her uniform pulled down -- losing valuable visibility for sponsors -- is not doing his/her job. Period. End of story. Shame on the team owners and sponsor managers who aren't paying attention.


Two items from Tony Stewart's pre-Talladega news conference, as provided by Chevy's excellent NASCAR PR duo:


IS THIS TYPE OF RACING MORE MENTALLY DRAINING THAT SOME OTHERS? “It is still more mentally draining to deal with you guys (the media) than it is to drive the cars here.”


WHAT DID YOU TELL THE JOURNALISM STUDENTS AT ALABAMA THIS WEEK? “I gave them the list of the hit-list media and I’m sure they will be interviewing you guys soon. (Smile.) Not that you guys didn’t know that already.”



[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, April 10, 2011

HOW RELATIONSHIP-BUILDING PAYS WITH A FAVOR

Here's a case study for PR people who think relationship-building with national media consists of sending an E-mail: Sunday morning, I guested on Rick Benjamin's Sirius XM radio show right after the Malaysian Grand Prix. (Yes, I'm one of those who usually stays up to watch Formula One, even in the middle of the night.) My live conversation with Benjamin was at 3 a.m. PDT. I did it not only because Rick is a long-time friend, but because he and his producer cared enough to pick up the phone and ask. One-on-one relationship building is how PRers can get media to work with them. It's a voice, a handshake, a look in the eye -- the human touch. An occasional, lazy, E-mail is NOT relationship building.



It was a VERY exciting final round, but money once again triumphed over journalism in last week's ESPN and CBS coverage of The Masters golf tournament. It's not that seldom is heard a discouraging word -- like IndyCar on Versus (now we're told restart/crash, restart/crash, restart/crash action is "good" for the series) -- but NEVER is uttered anything not gushy and wonderful and politically correct -- "spectators" are "patrons" and the "rough" is the "second cut" -- it's broadcast as a near-religious experience. Yes, I had the pleasure of being invited to attend The Masters final round quite a few years ago by a golf (and racing) sponsor, and it's a beautiful place and a classic sports event. The Augusta National Golf Club knows how it wants the world to see it and keeps TV on a short rope via one-year contracts. The Augusta National media committee has intimidated most of the written golf media into compliance as well, because, otherwise, they might not get accepted for credentials the next year or might not be in the lottery that chooses journalists to play the course. I bet the management of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway must shake its collective head because I know from long-time first-hand experience the same level of arrogance ("The Most Important Race in History") exists over at 16th and Georgetown. IMS does, of course, enjoy local media cheerleading, but has poor (or no) relationships with a lot of the national media. (Why? See above for one reason.)



Why was longtime NASCAR West Coast operative Ken Clapp added to the NHRA Board of Directors? Read about it in my April "Drags, Dollars & Sense" column on CompetitionPlus.com: http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/17180-drags-dollars-a-sense-the-nhra-did-the-right-thing-with-newest-board-members



[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, April 03, 2011

GOOD SHOW, NHRA

A REMINDER OF THE GOOD OLD DAYS: Tony Pedregon's STP graphics and multi-logo crew shirts, which recalled Andy Granatelli's Indy 500 teams of the mid-to-late 1960s.


It's usually a pleasant experience when I attend an NHRA event and so it was last weekend when the Full Throttle series ran at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Proving again that drag racing's organizational format -- and mindset -- provides fantastic access to drivers for both media and fans, I did one-on-one interviews with John Force, Matt Hagan, Jack Beckman, Ron Capps, Robert Hight, Kenny Bernstein, Mike Edwards, Jimmy Prock, Larry Dixon, Bob Tasca III and Antron Brown in two days. Unheard of for that to happen in any other major series.


Once again, I found drag racing unpredictable nature to be endlessly fascinating. There were legitimate upsets, like in Funny Car round one with Jeff Arend taking out Hagan and then Johnny Gray beating Mike Neff. And then there were just great races, topped by Tony Pedregon besting Force on a second-round holeshot for a 1/1,000th of a second victory. WOW!

As someone in the media center said after round two: "This race is a perfect question mark."

And, as I pointed out, NHRA caught a break when Kevin Harvick got around Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the last laps at Martinsville. Otherwise, they might as well have called-off the rest of the Vegas rounds, because it wouldn't have existed from a national media standpoint!

Brown led Brandon Bernstein all the way in the Top Fuel finals. Hight won for the second time this season in Funny Car, over Johnny Gray. Edwards beat Vincent Nobile in the Pro Stock. Very respectable crowd on a very pleasant day, weather-wise. Oil-down delays were at a minimum with the finals concluding just past 4 p.m. Good show as NHRA continues its 60th anniversary season.

Tasca, by the way, has been invited to attend this month's launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour by commander Mark Kelly. The two met at NHRA's Houston race last year. Kelly is the husband of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, still recovering from gunshot wounds while at a public event in Tucson last January. The 14-day mission is scheduled to be the last one for Endeavour. "I told Mark, I hope I get the chance to win the Wally
(trophy) for you because if I do, I'm going to dedicate it to you and your family," Tasca said. "Maybe we can get Wally in space."


FAST LINES:
ESPN2 reached 100 million homes as of April 1, the network says . . . Holly Cain is now a FoxSports.com contributor . . . For all the talk of all the empty seats at Bristol the other week, one of the most shocking sights I've seen in sports in recent times was how many were unoccupied for the New York Yankees' season opener last Thursday. Yes, the weather was terrible, but it was Opening Day at Yankee Stadium. Wow -- very troubling about what this might say about the greater sports industry business . . . Heads-up on how inflation in commodity prices could affect racing sponsors. Hershey's, which has been in NASCAR, announced an almost 10 percent across-the-board price hike last week. Cotton prices are soaring, which could impact Izod. Walmart's U.S. CEO said last week inflation is "going to be serious" . . . How silly (and annoying) so many of these on-screen graphics have become. After the president's speech last week, CNN put up the following -- "Exclusive: Pres. Obama Defends Libya Action". Exclusive? News? Here's another one for you, CNN -- Exclusive: Pres. Lincoln Still Dead.

The American Media, March 29, 2011: Phoenix radio station KFYI uses an anonymous blogger to provide "expert" commentary on the Fiesta Bowl scandal. [ more next Monday . . . ]