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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 . . . ]