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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

DANICA's DAYTONA

BILL FRANCE Jr. HONORED: The late NASCAR president had a statue unveiled last week outside Daytona International Speedway. Jim France (left), Betty Jane France, Brian France and Lesa France Kennedy are in front.


UPDATE: I'll be on SiriusXM NASCAR radio Thursday at 1 p.m. ET with Rick Benjamin and Chocolate Myers.



As Trevor Bayne proved last year, there's a certain appeal to surprise winners.

With all due respect to John King and James Buescher, however, that didn't apply to their Truck and Nationwide victories at Daytona International Speedway. Not, at least, as it pertains to what I wrote here last week -- NASCAR's need to launch its season in the boffo way it did in 2011. At first glance, the Daytona 500's first-ever rainout and delay to Monday afternoon seemed to put a KO punch to that hope.

Until, that is, more rain pushed the race to Monday night. PRIME TIME on Fox. As I post this, the ratings aren't in, but if in fact they do turn out to be HUGE, will NASCAR and ISC give serious consideration to a permanent rescheduling to PT? (Especially if it's not up against the Academy Awards.) With the The Great American Race's move off the President's Day holiday weekend, that could well be a problem for ticket-buying fans, but something no doubt we'll read and hear about a lot more.

Congratulations to Matt Kenseth -- no surprise, there -- for winning a sometimes crazy, sometimes bizarre, sometimes routine Super Bowl of stock car racing.

Upon further review in my trained and experienced mind, though, I'm not sure how much it all mattered. It was Danica's Daytona -- and that had been ordained by the media Lords before the first wheel turned near the Florida beach.

All one had to do was watch the opening minutes of Fox's Budweiser Shootout telecast to know what was coming. Even though she wasn't in that race, it didn't take Fox a minute to showcase her, right there live-and-in-person on the set. Dear Danica was guaranteed to be making her Daytona 500 debut -- thanks to some owner points game playing -- and Fox had decided it was high time it grabbed its share of Danica away from the loving attentions offered by ESPN since 2005. Krista Voda's early Tuesday a.m. interview of a crashed-out (for the third time in three races) Patrick put a bow around the whole package.

Not that it was anything other than business-as-usual over at ESPN. "She's a better race car driver now than I thought she'd be three years from now," gushed ESPN reporter Marty Smith, obeying orders from Bristol not to miss any opportunity for breathless hype.

The most honest reaction of all Speed Weeks came from Allen Bestwick, when Danica was wrecked in Saturday's Nationwide opener. "Oh, no!," moaned Bestwick, undoubtedly echoing the thoughts of network management as visions of viewers clicking away raced through their heads.

Sunday morning, on ESPN Radio's Coach and Coleman show -- always the place for intellectually lightweight sports talk -- it was NASCAR/Danica conversation that made Brad Daugherty sound like a real racing expert. Oh, the agony for hosts like these two -- and all of the ESPN networks -- having to divert time and space away from its precious NBA for NASCAR.

(Over on Fox Sports Radio, four hours into the rain delay, a host whose name I didn't get said come the green flag Daytona fans "would be so drunk they won't remember what happened." Yes, I said this was on FOX. ESPN-like discipline to follow?)

Other than poses and sound bites, Danica did contribute video highlights which TV's bad-taste bottom-feeders delighted in. The various angles of Patrick's last-lap qualifying race crash were replayed by Speed almost instantly and, seemingly, on a continuous loop. I don't know about you, but when she hit the wall, I wasn't sure Danica would climb out OK. Which made the immediate use of her in-car camera, looking right at her, troubling to me. It was the most exploitive use of racing video since Carl Edwards flipped into the catch fence at Talladega a few years ago -- and remember, that left spectators injured. The legitimate news value of the video quickly gave way to the grotesque imperative for hype.

If you want a bottom line assessment of how ridiculous much of this got, just consider the amount of time wasted talking about how Danica positioned her hands when she was going to hit the inside wall at the end of the qual race. Much ado about nothing.

Except when it's about Danica and NASCAR. Unless you're a Patrick fan, it's going to be a long season. The media Lords and their obedient "journalists" will make sure of that.


Mark Armijo and I will have coverage of this weekend's NASCAR races at Phoenix International Raceway in the Arizona Republic. Below is a link to my Sunday NASCAR preview, and the rest of our work will begin Tuesday. My now traditional Sunday Newsmaker Q&A will be with AJ Allmendinger. If you aren't in AZ to buy the paper, see our stories at http://www.azcentral.com/ . Thank you.

http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2012/02/26/20120226nascar-2012-story-lines.html


Posted a little early, but here's my March "Drags, Dollars & Sense" column on CompetitionPlus.com . It's about the future of the Arizona Nationals:
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/20376-knight-nhra-largely-to-blame-for-az-nats-shortcomings

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, February 19, 2012

AND SO IT BEGINS

Last year's NASCAR season got off to such a great start one might have thought NASA was pushing the buttons and the starting line was at Cape Canaveral, not Daytona.

Think how those first three weeks went: Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500 pole, out-of-no where Trevor Bayne put the Wood Brothers' No. 21 back into victory lane at the Great American Race and impressed America during his media tour with a humble, God-fearing personality. Toss in Michael Waltrip's 10-year anniversary of his D500 win with a Truck series checkered flag and Tony Stewart's Nationwide series triumph. Then, onto Phoenix where Jeff Gordon got back on track with an ultra-popular victory over Kyle Busch.

Taken as a whole, Brian France couldn't have planned it much better. Or paid anyone to orchestrate it. And that rocket launch beginning provided momentum that carried through the long, LONG season. Add in five first-time winners, Tony Stewart's Chase glory, the end of the Jimmie Johnson era, and a Homestead for the ages and it wasn't surprising some key TV numbers showed a much needed boost.

One year later, France and NASCAR and the sport and the industry need it all to happen again.

One year of uptick will quickly be forgotten if the storylines aren't compelling, the racing good (or better) and the Business of Racing metrics still headed north.

Sure, a Junior or Gordon or Stewart (or, yes, Danica) victory in the Great American Race would be very good for biz. But, as Bayne proved last February, someone else can power the stock car sport to heights if it's the right he/she with the right personality and a personal story that the national media believes it just HAS to tell -- because it will attract viewers and readers.

I'm sure Brian and Co. are giving that a lot of thought this week. And hoping for another electric start for the Sprint Cup season. A wild Budweiser Shootout (too many wrecks for my taste), close Kyle Busch-Tony Stewart finish, and ESPN darling Carl Edwards on the pole isn't a bad beginning.


Here are links to three of my Arizona Republic NHRA stories from last week:
Friday, Courtney Force --
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2012/02/16/20120216nhra-driver-courtney-force-great-expectations.html

Sunday, Jack Beckman Q&A --
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2012/02/19/20120219nhra-arizona-nationals-jack-beckman.html

Monday, new NHRA venue in Arizona?
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2012/02/20/20120220nhra-future-firebird-international-raceway-question.html


FAST LINES: The fans spoke and ESPN and NHRA woke-up, with live streaming returning to ESPN3 starting with the Arizona Nationals. Congratulations, folks, you did it . . . There will be an IndyCar test this week at Phoenix International Raceway. Don't automatically assume that means the series will return to PIR in 2013. But it will help show if the new track configuration and open-wheel cars are suitable for each other . . . NHRA's Arizona Nationals featured all teammate finals: John Force Funny Cars, Don Schumacher Racing Top Fuelers, and Summit team Pro Stockers . . . NASCAR did something last week I suggested to NHRA years ago. On the eve of the Sprint Cup season, Brian France E-mailed a note of thanks and appreciation to the news media. That's the kind of gesture that is remembered.

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, February 12, 2012

FILLING THE VOID

This past weekend marked the annual transition on the American sports scene. The NFL -- the dominant U.S. sports league -- wasn't playing after a record-setting Super Bowl. What to fill the void?

Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Pebble Beach stepped forward. If all you paid attention to was ESPN, well, you would have thought the only game in town was the NBA. I've said it before and I'll say it again: The "Association" is the most over-covered sports league in this country. The fact that an unknown New York Knicks' player -- and it meant everything it was a New York guy -- had one good week was good timing for the All-Basketball-All-The-Time crowd. It took about five seconds for the shallow Jeremy Lin-Tim Tebow comparisons to flow from the media "experts." There was some baseball "hot stove" league chatter, involving the New York Yankees.

NHRA started at Pomona. It's only the first of 23 races but I have a growing sense of dread that this year's marketing philosophy is based on giving reverse gear a try. No one is going to convince me parking Larry Dixon for Khalid alBalooshi is good for the sport. Ditto Melanie Troxel on the sidelines. I'm as interested as everyone else in how Courtney Force races (look for my story on Courtney in this Friday's Arizona Republic), but she can't be expected to carry the Full Throttle series on her own shoulders. The print version of the all-important media guide was discontinued without consulting with the media and now we find out the live streaming on ESPN3 ain't happenin'. It does not bode well for a successful NHRA season, despite John Force's win to open the campaign.

NASCAR was on the sidelines, having moved Daytona back to avoid a potential Super Bowl conflict if the NFL had gone to an 18-game schedule. That changes this week as pre-Daytona 500 activities rev-up. Brian France is hoping something as headline-making as Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning the pole will happen again this year.


Here's a link to my February "Drags, Dollars & Sense" column on CompetitionPlus.com: Drag racing doesn't need any more John Forces --
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/news/20111-commentary-only-one-john-force-needed


Good News (for a change): A print version of National Speed Sport News will return March 23 as Speed Sport Magazine. The rights have been acquired by Turn 3 Media LLC, consisting of my friend and well-known broadcaster Ralph Sheheen (who will be publisher), Curt Moon and former Speed TVer Joe Tripp. Mike Kerchner returns as editor.

The
http://NationalSpeedSportNews.com website continues. Print subscriptions are $24.95 with a digital edition for $12.95. Good luck and great fortune to all involved.


Mark Armijo and I will be covering this weekend's NHRA Arizona Nationals for the Arizona Republic, starting this Thursday. Look for my feature on Courtney Force Friday and my Q&A with Jack Beckman Sunday. If you're not here (100 years as a state) to buy the newspaper, check us out at AzCentral.com.

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, February 05, 2012

GUIDE-LESS

In the early 1970s, in the early years of Pocono International Raceway, the press box was a slapped-together wooden structure that could seat 30 reporters. However, no matter where you sat, it was impossible to see the entire 2.5-mile tri-oval.

Now, understand, this was before the days of routine live TV coverage and monitors where replay-after-replay could be reviewed. Those of us covering on deadline -- I was by this time at the Philadelphia Daily News -- needed to be able to see what happened as it happened.

On one of the all-too-often rain days ("Poc-No-Go" we called 'em), a group of us met with track owner Dr. Joseph Mattioli, whose funeral was last week. We told him of our problem and someone wisely explained, "It's like trying to cover a baseball game without being able to see first or third base." Doc Mattioli got a little defensive and said, "What about Indianapolis? You can't see the whole track there either." As politely as possible, I told him that Pocono International Raceway wasn't the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and that what they could get away with at Indy wasn't what Pocono could get away with.

Pocono made improvements over time -- and everyone benefitted.

I was reminded of this last week, when NHRA announced there would be no hard copies of its 2012 media guide, only an online version. In justifying what was obviously a cost-saving move, NHRA noted that other sports had already gone all-digital. Quoting directly from the media notice:

"Thanks to increases in technology in recent years, it has become more practical for sports teams and leagues to eliminate printed copies and make their media guides available in digital-only formats. As many of you know, this has been an ongoing trend in major sports leagues since as far back as 2009. Many teams in the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, major colleges, and the PGA Tour no longer print media guides."

With respect, I'm sorry to tell you this, NHRA, but you're not the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, major college or the PGA Tour. You're an ultra-niche sport that has struggled for many years to get on-going, consistent, national media coverage. And, as I've written many times, I don't think that's right -- I believe NHRA is an under-covered sport that deserves more than it gets.

For NHRA to try to explain-away a bean-counting -- not a media relations -- decision by comparing itself to truly Big Time sports teams and leagues shows it's out-of-touch with reality. Fine if football and baseball and golf think they can properly service media needs by going online only. NHRA can't. That is a cold, hard, honest FACT.

What's enormously frustrating to me is, for several years now, I have been encouraging NHRA to be more pro-active in developing good one-on-one relationships with key media. I don't mean E-mails -- I mean picking up the phone and actually TALKING with journalists. There is no substitute for the sound of the human voice but NHRA, maybe more than any of the other important racing sanction organizations, has continued to slip into the de-humanized world of E-mails, texting, Twitter and so forth. I guess the budget for phone calls got cut along with the media guide budget because, at least with me, the phone hasn't been ringing.

If -- IF -- the appropriate NHRAers had worked to foster such relationships -- and then actually bothered to pick up the phone and ASK -- it would have taken maybe 10 minutes to realize what a Big Mistake discontinuing the printed guide was. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway discovered just that last year. Anyone who has ever been under deadline writing pressure knows it's much easier -- and faster -- to pick up a printed guide and find the needed information than it is to store a story, go to a website or another file, navigate through it to find the needed page and information, then click out of that and go back to the original story. Add to that the slow and inconsistent Internet connectivity at many tracks -- already burdened by the large file size of photos and video -- and that just slows the process down even further.

Let me guess: NHRA, having saved peanuts on a printed media guide, isn't going to turn around and invest substantial dollars on trackside Internet upgrades.

I'll say it again: NHRA deserves more national media coverage than it gets. Already struggling mightily to make gains on that front, it just made a dumb bean-counting decision that will make it more difficult to cover the Full Throttle series. And give media looking for a reason not to cover drag racing another excuse.

As Roger Penske told me 30 years ago, self-inflicted wounds are the most painful -- because they could have been avoided. NHRA just hurt itself with a needless, self-inflicted wound.

If only someone would have asked first.

[ more next Monday . . . ]