• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, June 05, 2011

I OBSERVE

UPDATE: I'll be on The Checkered Flag with host Rick Benjamin right after this Sunday's Canadian Grand Prix on SiriusXM Channel 208. Race coverage from Montreal begins at 1 p.m. EDT with Rick's post-race show right after the finish.

Some recent observations:

* Indy 500 drivers might as well have taken the green flag with their middle fingers extended to race control. For all the talk of returning to the traditional tightly bunched 11-rows-of-3 start, and for all the hype from Randy Bernard, no matter what was said in meetings, the drivers did what they thought was in their best interests from the standpoint of safety and were again spread out from Speedway to Terre Haute. Who's the Boss?

* Was Indy "The Most Important Race in History"? Absolutely not. Was it memorable? Absolutely.

* For those who got all excited about a report last week of a possible Roger Penske-Rick Hendrick Indy 500 partnership -- as if this was something new -- go look at my January 30 blog. I asked Hendrick about that very thing, potentially with Jimmie Johnson in a Penske car. His quote as published by me then: "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." Some of us actually remember that Penske wore a Hendrick Motorsports cap in victory lane after Ryan Newman's 2008 Daytona 500 win.

* As I hinted at in one of my Indy blogs last week, Versus' weekly IndyCar show is history. It came and went as fast as Bruno Junqueira's time as an A.J. Foyt driver. Even in the age of DVRs, it couldn't generate an audience. Yes, it had a truly terrible time slot, but make no mistake that this is an embarrassment and a psychological blow to the Kool-Aid drinkers. The only thing surprising to me is that so many people seem surprised.

* When I told Bernard that an IndyCar event in Phoenix "would not be financially successful," his facial expression was that of surprise. When he asked why, one of the things I told him was that 23 of his usual 26 drivers COMBINED wouldn't sell one ticket in my home market. His expression then changed to something just short of shocked. Let me repeat for the benefit of the chatroomers and cheerleaders: There will NOT be an IC race at PIR next year.

* Good that Indy's final national TV rating was up from last year's all-time low. Now, let's be realistic: Given all the hype about the centennial running, shouldn't the ratings and attendance have been up? Even more? The question now is: Will these positives carry over into the rest of this season, or even Indy 2012? Just what ACTION PLAN does the track/series have in place to make it so? Let me also note my trained eye didn't observe an increase in on-site coverage. Where were the national columnists? I don't know, but not at the Speedway. While a couple of new mediaites were there, and an old-timer or two returned after long absences, this was offset by the loss of the Boston Globe and San Diego Union-Tribune.

* Another recent racing embarrassment from the PTI intellectually-lazy (anything other than basketball) pseudo-intellectual co-hosts: Misstating the length of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s winless streak and talking about JR Hildebrand being on "bald" tires. Then, there was the example of the post-Chicagoland SportsCenter co-hosts who mocked two drivers for running out of gas because the cars have "telemetry." How disappointing that ESPN management doesn't get it that this sort of thing undercuts these guys' credibility on EVERY subject.

* Allow me to repeat one of my favorite things: You can't be a good racing fan without knowing something about the Business of Racing. The same applies to the news media. At Indy, I couldn't help but shake my head, as media center conversations showed no such understanding. When I pointed out to one veteran reporter that thin sponsorship levels would make it very difficult for quite a few team owners to afford new cars next year, I was told that the Hulman-George family would buy them! I'm not sure how it could be much clearer that the H-G family's riches are not what they once were. Hint: That's a big reason Tony George was ousted. I also noted one national writer praised Versus' weekly IC show the very day it was canned. I know it takes time to do homework, but that homework needs to be done, if the job of journalism to to be done. If you don't know about the B of R, learn, or at least ask someone who does

* Since none of them have been around long enough to know any better, I'm not interested in having anyone from the IMS Corp. PR office tell me I'm wrong: The budget-cutting was apparent to me on a number of fronts. Including the appearance of the grounds. Let's just say it was obvious to me the maintenance program isn't what it was. Sad. Plus, no printed media guide. What a mistake.

* Further proof when I say the IMS Corp. employs and enables one of the five worst PR operations in all of professional sports: The numbers one and three on the Speedway staff, and number two on the ICS staff, didn't make the media center rounds to say hello or thanks or offer help. You either know this basic sort of thing or you don't. IMSC does not.

* This, by the way, carries over to series backer Izod, which apparently thinks it got a God-given right to good relationships with the media when it signed the sponsorship contract. Several obvious, very basic, media relations things are not done by Izod. I500 media day was poorly planned: It was only AFTER individual interviews with drivers were well underway that designated MC Jack Arute tried to get everyone to shut up for on-stage remarks from ICS CEO Randy Bernard, IMS President Jeff Belskus and an Izod exec plus show a video. Arute repeatedly insulted the media with remarks such as it was like "trying to herd cats" to get them to stop interviewing and that reporters didn't know how to follow orders. Let's state the obvious: Any formal program HAD to happen BEFORE the driver interviews got underway. What an amateur hour act this was! Did Bernard and Belskus notice?

* As I told CART President Andrew Craig, all the way back in 1994, individual team/sponsor PR people are "the front-line soldiers in the sport's never-ending battle to attain media coverage." It's about time for Bernard to remind his team owners of that fact and for the series to impose some NFL-like standards. I would not need too many fingers to count the number of "publicists" who knew enough or bothered themselves enough to make the daily rounds of the Indy media center. You might be surprised to learn two of the worst offenders were Team Penske and Andretti Autosport. One of Mr. Penske's frequent talking points is the importance of "one-on-one relationships" in business. The PR function of his empire is no different. If you don't go around and introduce yourself to new people or say hello to infrequent media visitors, just HOW do you establish said "one-on-one relationships"? It's the exact opposite of the Penske business mantra. I asked something of a P R PR boss almost six months ago, and have yet to get the courtesy of any follow-up. Penske often mentions he doesn't advertise much, but gains through media coverage of his race teams. I'd say it's obvious such coverage is important to more than his sponsors; it has great value for his auto dealerships, truck rental outlets, etc. Meanwhile, for the last three years, AA people have topped the list of those who would like to see those who operate at the opposite end of Jim Chapman's standards "honored."

* I'll say it again: Good one-on-one relationships are not built by pressing "send." There is no substitute for the human voice, a look in the eye, a handshake. When will they ever learn?

[ more next Monday . . . ]