• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

2011 IN REVIEW

END OF AN ERA/SIGN OF THE TIME$: The closing of Newman/Haas Racing's IndyCar series operation reflected the third consecutive year of the sport's most difficult sponsorship environment. The team, co-founded by the late Paul Newman and Carl A. Haas, won eight titles. That's me, at left, with Haas, Nigel Mansell and Newman after victory at Nazareth Speedway clinched the 1993 PPG Cup. Note the powerful lineup of corporate backers on our championship banner. Will those days ever come again?


Every meaningful story of the racing year had a strong Business of Racing component. So that's how I'll conclude this blog for 2011.

I say this with respect: Even Dan Wheldon's fatal accident had profound BoR ramifications. The image of the series as a good corporate advertising and marketing place certainly being one. Randy Bernard's decision-making and leadership was another ("Untenable," Oct. 26.) And the future of the series' historical foundation on ovals.

That was probably the most important racing biz story of the year: The IndyCar financial failures at Milwaukee, New Hampshire and Kentucky were so obvious and embarrassing that even the media "experts" who had been promoting Bernard to do these deals had to admit it might not be the way to go. How this might further erode the fan base, already complaining about too many road/street courses, will play out in 2012.

The opening three weekends of the NASCAR season gave Sprint Cup a strong launch: Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the Daytona 500 pole, fresh-faced good-kid Trevor Bayne's improbable and popular D500 win, and Jeff Gordon ending a long winless streak with a Phoenix victory certainly created momentum. Add in five first-time winners (including Regan Smith at Darlington), flashes of more-competitiveness from Junior, revamped points system, Tony Stewart's Chase charge and a Homestead finale for the ages -- a tie! -- ended a successful season for NASCAR. The TV numbers were up, including in key demos. NASCAR's overall PR operation was retooled -- results to be determined. Sprint renewed its Cup deal through 2016.

On the other side, the Nationwide and Truck series clearly struggled, especially with team sponsorships. Kevin and DeLana Harvick decided to pack-in their team -- a blow to the dreams of making it Big of grass-roots racers everywhere. Roush Fenway perhaps took the biggest hit, with the redirection of the UPS and Crown Royal sponsorships. As I write, Matt Kenseth has no backing for 2012, and the exact plans for Bayne and Nationwide titlist Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are unclear.

Tracks like Dover, Michigan, California and Atlanta had a major inventory of unsold seats. Phoenix announced two grandstand sellouts for Cup. Nashville went away but, apparently, Gateway is coming back. Circuit of the Americas turned out to be a Texas-sized soap opera. Baltimore attracted a lot of people but lost a ton of money.

M&M's pulled off the power move of the year by pulling its ID off Kyle Busch's car for the last two Cup races. Controversial Kyle managed to keep his job with Joe Gibbs -- brother Kurt didn't with Roger Penske.

Red Bull shut its team doors. Roush and Richard Childress will go down a Cup car in the new year.

In drag racing, Kenny Bernstein's retirement from team ownership was not only a huge story, it was a somewhat perplexing one. He left two years of his lucrative Copart.com sponsorship on the table at a time when most everyone else is scratching for scraps. Kenny sent me a letter afterwards and wrote, "It's time to sit back, relax, and enjoy life!"

Ashley Force Hood -- as popular in drag racing as Sarah Palin at a Tea Party rally -- sat out the season in favor of motherhood and looks to do the same in '12. Track ticket sellers felt her absence. After two consecutive Top Fuel championships, the mysterious Al-Anabi Super Team went into the holidays looking a mess -- Del Worsham "retired" and Larry Dixon was "released."

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosted a successful 100th anniversary 500 -- complete with unbelievable finish -- but to what effect remains to be seen. Nationwide and Grand-Am debut on Brickyard (now Crown Royal) weekend next year. The series tried to spice-up the show with double-wide restarts and the Texas doubleheader with a draw for starting spots in race two. Las Vegas, well . . .

Grand-Am gained a little media notice by placing a bounty on dominant Scott Pruett-Memo Rojas. No matter, they won another championship. The 50th anniversary Rolex 24 comes in January, with important new bodystyles (Corvette!) that a lot of people are counting on to generate more interest from the sports car fan crowd -- such as it is.

ALMS continued to push its "green" platform but -- at least indirectly -- was hurt by the bad Solyndra headlines and various controversies about the viability of such technology. Chevy's Volt is a sales flop, took another smack with recent stories about possible problems with battery fires, and CNBC Wall St. guru Jim Creamer last week called the Volt "a failure." None of that helps ALMS sell what it is trying to sell to the highly fragmented fan base. And then there are the political wranglings over rules with the ACO in France.

The World of Outlaws again provided the most consistent entertainment value and good stories -- Joey Saldana's winning comeback from serious injuries should not be forgotten -- but the lack of a consistent TV package means too many people don't know. No "live" TV for the Knoxville Nationals is simply unacceptable.

The media world got upside-down, too. The fabled print edition of National Speed Sport News folded. Excellent journalists like Dustin Long, on the NASCAR beat, had their jobs eliminated. Too many people got their "news" from anonymous chatroom rumors and Twitter.

My friend Gordon Kirby wrote a few very important sentences the other week and I want to share them here. Reviewing NASCAR's sensational season finale and positive year, GK published:

"Meanwhile the rest of the sport cries out for leadership. It's sad that in the second century of the sport's history amid a new technology boom American auto racing is so rudderless. So many old-time fans have lost their interest in today's racing and shake their heads over the disturbing similarities between our governing classes in Washington and so much of American auto racing."

Amen.

In conclusion, what continued to bother me the most was the overall lowering of standards. It seems almost impossible to have a honest difference of opinion -- what results is anonymous personal attacks on the chatrooms. Media too often no longer seek-out all sides of a story. Too many people -- especially so-called "public relations" people -- don't bother to build one-on-one relationships with the media -- or even talk to them.

At the November NASCAR weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, Ford's on-site rep sat a few feet away from our Arizona Republic work area -- with a direct line-of-sight to see reps from the other three manufacturers over there talking with us -- and never moved from his seat to speak a word. (Sadly, this is all-too typical.) I guess Ford isn't interested in major-market publicity or selling vehicles in Arizona -- that's the impression this kind of PR indifference leaves. In February, Goodyear racing boss Stu Grant told me the tiremaker liked "technology transfer" stories (this in the context of developing a new tire for the repaved/reconfigured Phoenix oval) but whatever racing PR capability he thinks Goodyear has did nothing to follow-up and left an oh-so-bad impression. Made it seem like Goodyear wasn't confident it could produce a good tire for the new PIR. Oh, for the days of Dick Ralston, Phil Holmer, Dave Hendrich, Bill King and Carole Swartz -- Goodyear actually CARED about good media relationships in those days.

What possibly could be more basic than for a "PR" person to talk with media people?

It's too easy to push "send" when what's really needed is a phone call. It's become a very bad, but increasingly accepted, habit in American business to put into an E-mail what properly should be said in person or on the phone.

PR giants like Jim Chapman, Jack Duffy, Bill Dredge and Ralston would be aghast by what passes as "acceptable" these days. No surprise to me committee members selected old-school guy and class act Bill York as winner of the 2011 Jim Chapman Award for Excellence in Motorsports PR.

It's a Crisis of Communications within the industry -- and within our society -- and we all suffer for it. One hundred and 40 characters on Twitter is NOT how to establish and maintain a proper professional relationship. There's a right way and a wrong way of doing things and, these days and in this past year, way-way-way too many people were doing it the wrong way. I think, because it was "easier."

Going forward, I am convinced the consequences of this C of C will be profound. How can any series, any sport, any industry, any society, any culture, any country, be successful when people don't understand how important it is to talk to one another?


The Men of the Year:
http://valvoline.com/racing/behind-closed-garage-doors/2909


Thanks to each one of you who takes time to read what I write here. Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Happy New Year.

[ more in January, or as news developments warrant . . . ]

Sunday, December 04, 2011

NASCAR's GOOD YEAR ENDS IN VEGAS

The mood was upbeat at last week's NASCAR Sprint Cup awards activities in Las Vegas -- as well it should have been.

Tony Stewart was there to take his bows, of course, as series champion. History will record Stewart's accomplishment of taking Gene Haas' doormat team to the title in only three years as one of stock car racing's great accomplishments. A quick Google search will reveal how most of the "experts" called Stewart's decision to leave Joe Gibbs' team a mistake, with one of the ESPN bright lights predicting Stewart would never again make the Chase.

It was obvious to me, and I'm sure everyone else, that Stewart was not going to let anything take away from his personal satisfaction and the joy he shared with his team. It was awkward, though, with outgoing crew chief Darian Grubb sharing the spotlight -- especially after Grubb's emotional speech at Thursday's NMPA Myers Brothers awards luncheon at the Bellagio. He nearly broke down a few times and got a standing ovation afterwards.

A little while later, in a one-on-one interview, I asked Stewart if that had been hard for him to watch. Of course, Tony will forever be regarded as one of America's great true racers, and I know from many of the great drivers I've worked with, separating emotion from the competition is a common quality. "It was an emotional scene," Stewart admitted. Stewart said the tough part is he tries to treat his team members as family but stepping away from the emotion to make the best decision for the overall organization is what he had to do. Remember, Stewart let competition director Bobby Hutchins go last summer, too.

Oh, for the record, I asked Stewart if Homestead was his best win of the year, if his first career World of Outlaws victory was the second. He came out with a big smile and said, "You are right on the money with that."

Las Vegas seems to bring out a happier side of the drivers and Jimmie Johnson said he thought the atmosphere and fun fan activities allowed the drivers to get to know each other a little better on a personal level. That's a good thing. I have to say, though, that there was no doubt to me the two guys who were glad when it all was over with were Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin. The format is for a group media avail with the top 10 drivers after the Thursday luncheon. Friday, after the drivers come off stage in the Wynn ballroom, they are brought to a photo and interview area. Carl and Denny both were gracious but their body language and facial expressions were more revealing than their words. It's quite understandable Edwards would have had enough after losing out on the epic Cup tie-breaker race, while Hamlin's disappointing campaign after being touted as a pre-season title contender was one of the year's more important stories. Friday night, after he finished his last interview, Hamlin turned to a NASCAR PR rep and asked, "Is my season finally over now?" I sympathized and told him I hope he enjoys spending the winter months here in my home area of the Valley of the Sun.

NASCAR itself deserved to join Stewart in taking a bow. The Cup season started with the boffo triple of Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the Daytona 500 pole, Trevor Bayne as the stunning and popular winner of the Great American Race, and Jeff Gordon ending a long winless streak the following week at Phoenix. There were five first-time winners, TV ratings were up, there were some upticks in the key demos, a fantasic finale at Homestead, and Friday night's black-tie gala (with Reba McEntire providing the Big Name entertainment) wrapped with official announcement of Sprint extending its Cup series sponsorship until 2016. (In a classy move, NASCAR remembered Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon during the ceremony.)

Yes, given the economy, there are still attendance issues at tracks like Indianapolis, Michigan, Dover and elsewhere (Phoenix had two announced grandstand sell-outs), and teams -- including Roush Fenway -- continue to struggle for sponsorship. (I asked Matt Kenseth if his No. 17 had anything yet; he said no.) NASCAR President Mike Helton said to me, "We still have work to do."

But no fair-minded observer of the American racing scene can do anything but give NASCAR and it's Cup season the credit it deserves for moving in a positive direction in 2011.


What were the top 10 business and political stories of the year in drag racing? Here's my list in my December "Drags, Dollars & Sense" column on CompetitionPlus.com:
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/19721-drags-dollars-a-sense-the-business-top-ten


[ I'll wrap-up the year here next week . . . ]