• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, September 25, 2011

LESSON FROM THE BUSINESS WORLD

As I've often pointed out, anyone truly interested in the Business of Racing must pay attention to general business news. An instructive example of that emerged last week.

Reed Hastings, co-founder and CEO of Netflix, used a blog to post an extraordinary apology to his customers. To briefly recap the situation, Netflix announced some weeks ago that it would split its movies-by-DVD and movies-via-streaming video into two separate companies. Some customers were going to be hit with big price increases. Well, the market -- meaning the customers --spoke, pushing back, and Netflix had to pull reverse.

In part, Hastings wrote, it was a failure to communicate:

"In hindsight, I slid into arrogance based upon past success. We have done very well for a long time by steadily improving our service, without doing much CEO communication. Inside Netflix I say, 'Actions speak louder than words,' and we should just keep improving our service. But now I see that given the huge changes we have been recently making, I should have personally given a full justification to our members of why we are separating DVD and streaming, and charging for both. It wouldn’t have changed the price increase, but it would have been the right thing to do."

"I want to acknowledge and thank our many members that stuck with us, and to apologize again to those members, both current and former, who felt we treated them thoughtlessly.
(We) will work hard to regain your trust. We know it will not be overnight. Actions speak louder than words. But words help people to understand actions."

This wasn't exactly a repeat of the 1985 "New Coke" fiasco. But there's a useful lesson here for motorsports' executives.

Hastings' quote that he "slid into arrogance based upon past success" smacks of what has gone on at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for decades. And directly led to the steep decline of a great American sporting institution and its open-wheel series. NASCAR started to steer into this ditch a few years ago, attempting to expand the fan base, with unappealing Car of Tomorrow rear wings and vanilla driver code-of-conduct policies that turned-off traditionalists. Of course, my latest favorite example comes from Formula One, and the scheduling of next year's U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, Tex., on the same day NASCAR's Chase ends in Homestead, Fla. To whatever extent Bernie Ecclestone and the F1 Powers-That-Be consider the American public and media their "customers," this is an act of arrogance and stupidity.

Unknowingly, Netflix did the racing industry a service with this reminder. At least, it did for those who bother to pay attention and think about it.


Is Jimmie Johnson's historic run of five consecutive Sprint Cups in danger of ending? You bet. He's 10th after two Chase events, 29 points behind no-wins-in-the-regular-season-but-2-for-2 in the Chase Tony Stewart. Johnson's won six times at Dover, second only to Richard Petty's and Bobby Allison's seven, so this Sunday has all the looks of a "must" for Johnson. As for his Hendrick teammate, Jeff Gordon, this has been a legit "comeback" season but like the Brickyard, Bristol, Richmond and some others, New Hampshire sure seemed like one that got away.


When Tony Stewart said this in New Hampshire's victory lane -- "We got rid of some dead weight earlier this week. So, it made it a lot easier. It’s been a big weight lifted off our shoulders. Just sometimes you have to make adjustments in your life and we did that and it has definitely helped this weekend, for sure" -- why didn't ESPN's Vince Welch ask him to explain? It was an obvious follow-up question and the need to do that is taught in Journalism 101. TV viewers everywhere were left confused and frustrated. Print reporters did ask and Tony refused to answer -- bogus, since he's the one who first brought it up.


FAST LINES: As written here last week, retired Chicago Tribune sportswriter/columnist Bob Markus' new book, I'll Play These, is a MUST read if you love great writing and storytelling from what many consider the Golden Age of sports (including auto racing). In addition to the information I listed, you can also order the book directly from Bob at bobmarkus34@gmail.com . I recommend you do just that . . . The infield road course at Michigan International Speedway is being repaved for the first time -- ever. While the official word is this is for industry testing, I can't help but wonder if a Grand-Am event will find its way onto the MIS calendar. It's going to happen at Kansas Speedway, also owned by ICS. (Yes, I know, it's part of the casino project). Remember, NASCAR's holding company also owns the G-A series . . . Great move by Speed to add Ray Evernham as an analyst. He should have been in the booth right from the start when ESPN regained the NASCAR rights . . . IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard said in Sunday's Indianapolis Star that "It's the hatred that I don't like" regarding criticism of the series. I agree. But this is a problem since one of Bernard's top advisors, Robin Miller, has been saying for years that "hate is good" . . . Congratulations to Kenny Bernstein and John Force, who along with Richard Childress, have been elected to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega. I'm a Hall voter. All three were on my list of 20 nominees and final ballot of five.

[ more Blogging the Chase next week . . . ]

Sunday, September 18, 2011

MEDIA CHASE IS CHASE FOR MONEY

UPDATE: I'll guest on Sirius XM's post-Singapore Grand Prix show Sunday, at about 10 p.m. EDT. Channels are 94/208. This is The Checkered Flag show, hosted by Rick Benjamin.


The Media Chase was on last week. NASCAR, as I suggested a year ago, didn't take all 12 drivers to New York City (Jeff Gordon got that assignment -- smart move) but scattered them around the country for the benefit of all Chase tracks. Brad Keselowski was in Phoenix pre-Chicagoland. Here's a link to my Brad story in the Arizona Republic:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2011/09/15/20110915nascar-brad-keselowski-injury-return-sprint-cup-contender.html

I think this was a more effective utilization of the Chase drivers. NASCAR has had a useful uptick in its TV numbers this season and it's a MUST that continue through the quasi-playoffs -- despite the rain delay at Chicagoland. Some very smart money people fear the country is close to a double-dip recession and, true or not, the warning signals in the NASCAR economy are obvious. The Truck series, which has become a Toyota-Chevrolet circuit, is not healthy and the deeply troubling decision by Kevin and DeLana Harvick to discontinue their championship team is a blow to the series and Chevy. Of course, champion Todd Bodine's Tundra got parked earlier this year due to lack of sponsorship.

Take a look at the number of unsponsored cars in Nationwide. All Business of Racing eyes are on Roush Fenway and the future of Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in Nationwide -- both have driven blank cars for much of this year -- while in Cup, Carl Edwards' program isn't fully funded and no corporate deal has been confirmed for David Ragan or Matt Kenseth.

Meanwhile, important sponsors Bank of America and Pepsico had management shakeups and/or big layoffs last week.

Very worrisome . . .

So the bottom is: In dispatching 12 drivers around the country, NASCAR was doing more than Chasing the Media. It was Chasing Money.


For decades, Bob Markus was a sportswriter and columnist for the Chicago Tribune, covering major events around the world. Luckily for many of us, Bob liked auto racing. If you weren't a regular reader in Bob's time, I have good news. He has just published a book, I'll Play These, which not only reprints many of his great writings but also provides additional behind-the-scenes details and context.

From the PR side, I always enjoyed working with Bob -- a true pro, nice guy and class act. In 1988, when I did PR for the Porsche factory CART team, I invited Bob to join our crew at the Indy 500. For three weeks, Bob was in the pits and the garage, taking on various tasks, and writing almost daily accounts for the Tribune. Thanks to the cooperation of Al Holbert, Bob had total access. It was a journalistic and PR triumph. Bob has included most of those stories in his book. It was very, very rewarding to read that Bob considers this
"the most fun assignment I ever had."

If you like sports -- and love great writing -- get I'll Play These. It's available at
http://www.xlibris.com or call 888-795-4274.


Here's a link to my September "Drags, Dollars & Sense" column on CompetitionPlus.com. Some Business of Drag Racing things for you to think about during the Countdown:
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/19012-drags-dollars-a-sense-stuff-to-ponder-headed-into-the-countdown


FAST LINES: There's a new addition to Mario Andretti's massive trophy case -- a chunk of the old Phoenix International Raceway start/finish line. I UPSed it to him last week. Mario said he'll display it right next to his 1993 PIR winner's trophy -- his last career victory . . . Read what I wrote last week about the Associated Press and then consider this: The wire service ran ANOTHER nothing-new Danica story last week. Ridiculous . . . Incredible -- Simona De Silvestro's team actually used the Nuclear Clean Air Energy car name in Japan . . . If you saw all the photo coverage Donald Trump received the other day for accepting gold bars instead of cash from a business tenant, then go look at the very last item in my September CP.com column, link above.

[ more Blogging the Chase next week . . . ]

Sunday, September 11, 2011

RACING's SHAMEFUL 10-YEAR ANNIVERSARY


THANKS, RON: After 40 years with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, photo director Ron McQueeney (right) will retire Sept. 30. His last day in the office was last Friday. Over decades at IMS, Ron was a big help to me, providing guidance when needed and cooperation when needed even more. No, we didn't always agree -- but that was business, nothing personal. Ron says he'll be back helping out at IMS next season. I sure help so.


I talked about this with Rick Benjamin Sunday morning on the post-Italian Grand Prix The Checkered Flag show on Sirius XM 94/208. To me, it's important enough to write about here, too.

The 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on the U.S. means there is another 10-year anniversary for racing fans to remember: Alex Zanardi's terrible crash in the Champ Car race in Germany just a few days later. In a heroic triumph of skill by the medical team, and of the human spirit, Zanardi survived and remains an inspirational figure throughout the motorsports world. And, certainly, to me, as someone who worked with him in the CART series for a few years.

What I remember the most -- and what makes me profoundly angry to this day, to this moment as I write this -- is that this was a race that should never have happened.

While the rest of the America-based sports community paused in respect for the dead and the affected, Champ Car raced on. In one of the most pathetic PR statements ever issued, the in-over-his-head CC spokesman of that time told the media the group wished it had known NASCAR had postponed its race before making their own decision. (That's leadership!) Of course, it wasn't just NASCAR that did the right thing. NHRA, IRL, NFL, college football, baseball, right down the line, they stayed on the sidelines that following weekend.

The explanations offered by then-Champ Car leader Joe Heitzler and his minions were and are nothing more than butt-covering excuses. Anyone who knows anything about PR and dealing with public opinion knows that, if you want to maintain your own credibility, never defend the indefensible. Heitzler and Champ Car decided a trival auto race was more important than respecting the raw emotions of its home-country people -- and customers.

Many people think Tony George's decision to create the IRL was the worst decision in modern motorsports history. No, it was the SECOND worst. The grotesque decision by Champ Car to race in the aftermath of Sept. 11 was, by far, the worst decision in modern motorsports history. At the moment the green flag waved, the Champ Car organization lost all moral legitimacy and no longer deserved the respect or support of American racing fans. As reported in this space a few weeks ago, Heitzler had the nerve to speak recently about ethics in sports.

I know this: If Bill France Sr. or Junior, or Tony Hulman, had been in charge, they would have known to place the feelings of the Germans second, and the Americans, first.

If I had been a manager in charge of sponsorship of a team at that time, I would have urged the race to be canceled. If that didn't happen, I would have asked my team owner to withdraw. If that didn't happen, I would have ordered all corporate ID to be removed from cars and uniforms. Then, I would have ended all involvement with the series ASAP. History does show that, a few months later, Heitzler was booted from his job and the series' co-founder, Roger Penske, shifted his team out of Champ Car and to the IRL. (For many reasons.)

Alex Zanardi --yes, he knew the risks -- was critically injured in a race that never should have happened. My anger flared anew this year when another executive in another series -- Randy Bernard of IndyCar -- publicly said he wanted Zanardi to race in the $5 million Las Vegas challenge. His advisors/cheerleaders in the media applauded. As I wrote here during the summer, that was exploitive, seeking some cheap thrills, quick headlines, and a few dollars in ticket sales. Thank God common decency and common sense prevailed elsewhere, and Zanardi won't race.

The 10-year anniversary of the worst decision in modern racing history was followed by another horrid one. Both times, Zanardi was, in a sense, the victim of executive insensitivity. (To put it as politely as possible.) On this occasion, all involved should be very, very, ashamed.


For the three decades he worked as Associated Press' motorsports writer, Mike Harris would make sure the local AP writer covering an event Mike wasn't attending was up-to-speed and would offer some story ideas. Apparently, no one is paying attention at AP these days, because the wire service for the last few years has been spitting out the same-old non-news Danica Patrick features every week or every other week. It happened again last week pre-Richmond. This is more than about staff reductions. How long would it take to check, via search engine, what's been on the wire recently and if there is any real "news" in what is being offered? Mark this kind of inattention to detail as one (of many) reasons why survey after survey shows the public does not trust or respect the media the way it once did.


I guested on Larry Henry's Pit Pass USA show last week. We spent about 20 minutes talking the Business of Racing, mainly NASCAR and IndyCar. I'll admit, I jammed-in too many points in each answer. But if you are interested in a very candid assessment of the B of R, please give this a listen -- it starts at about 2:50.
http://www.voiceamerica.com/episode/56209/pit-pass-usa-with-larry-henry

[ Blogging the Chase begins next Monday . . . ]



Monday, September 05, 2011

A NON-STORY

UPDATE: I'll guest on Sirius XM's post-Italian Grand Prix show Sunday, at about 10 p.m. EDT. Channels are 94/208.

As I've said and written many times, you can't be a good fan without knowing something about the business and politics of racing. Politics and business came together in an interesting way last week with the announcement that President Obama would host a Chase-related event at the White House -- but five of the 10 invited NASCAR drivers wouldn't be there.

One would think -- wish and hope -- that "journalists" would understand that words mean things. That' not how the coverage played out, with words like "rejected" and "refused" used by some controversy-thirsty writers as if it meant the same as "not able to." That, in turn, got picked up by some conservative media outlets. As far as I can see, this was completely bogus.

NASCAR’s first news release stated that Kurt Busch was among those who would not attend, but Busch said at Atlanta Motor Speedway he had been able to change his schedule and would be present. Carl Edwards serves on the presidential Council for Fitness Sports and Nutrition, so absolutely no reason to imply any snub, even though he won't be there. Kevin Harvick flat-out told the media "none of your business" as to why he won't attend, but made general references to scheduling conflicts. Ditto Tony Stewart. Greg Biffle thoughtfully explained a long-standing sponsor obligation that was built around him.

Now, I don't think there's a lot of Obama support in the NASCAR garage area, especially policy differences regarding business. This manufactured controversy came at the same time the federal jobs report revealed no new net jobs were created in August. And, with consumer confidence way down, that comes at an especially bad time for the NASCAR industry -- the Chase ticket-selling season is on and plenty of teams are trying to finalize 2012 sponsorship. Just as the NFL season kicks off.

But should that be cast as a presidential snub? No. Yes, there was a time in our country when a chance to meet the president -- regardless of party -- would trump everything. The reality is that's not the way it is these days. One reason is that some of these driver had their schedules set months ago. And, depending on Atlanta-area weather, the whole non-issue could be meaningless, anyway.

This was bad journalism, involving use of some inaccurate words, and I'll stand on that analysis unless I see video of Harvick and Stewart at a Tea Party rally at the same time the other drivers are at the White House. I find it especially unfortunate coming at the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11.


Here's a link to my Arizona Republic story last week on NASCAR tire testing at Phoenix:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2011/08/30/20110830nascar-phoenix-international-raceway-test-advantage.html


FAST LINES: Yes, IndyCar needs to replace Brian Barnhart. Some of the prospective replacements floated by the "experts," however, are inane ideas. A few of those guys would make the Chris Kniefel era in Champ Car look good. If you want a smart/competent choice, here he is: Gil de Ferran . . . A recent story on PRdaily.com was headlined, "Writing: The No. 1 skill for PR pros." Amen! Way too little of that these days. All releases I receive that talk about how "thrilled" a team is to sign a new sponsor, or how "excited" a driver is to be racing that weekend (both completely non-news) result in an instant press of the "delete" key by me . . . The "Danica is mailing it in" posts got postponed by her sixth place in Baltimore . . . TV coverage of the U.S. Nationals was dumbed-down by the dumb decision to add Just Horrible Jamie Howe to the "talent" lineup. Otherwise, a great presentation of drag racing's biggest event.

[ more next Monday . . . ]