• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, April 29, 2012

OF BRIEFCASES and BRANDS

When Budweiser seriously went NASCAR racing in 1984, with owner Junior Johnson and drivers Darrell Waltrip and Neil Bonnett, I set up the PR operation. I hired Bob Latford to go to all the races and handle the day-to-day details. My other mandates from Bud were: 1) Address DW's image problem (he was routinely booed during driver intros in those days); 2) Try to change the media's perception that two-car teams couldn't work in what was then Winston Cup (none had been truly successful at that point).

The high-profile, two-car sponsorship by The King of Beers upped the ante in NASCAR in several ways. Business of Racing pressures and expectations were a relatively new thing in the garage area, at least on that scale. About the only thing drivers used to carry back then was a helmet bag. (In our modern era, so-called PR people now have that "honor.") But people like me, and the Bud brand and sports marketing directors and managers would come through the gate carrying briefcases. Years later, Waltrip admitted old-school drivers like him would cover their faces and laugh at the sight of the briefcase carriers, and call such people "sillies."

These days, of course, drivers routinely have expensive leather briefcases, and also tote around iPads and laptops. That's what the BUSINESS of being a NASCAR superstar requires. Trust me, the times of giggling and pointing fingers at the "sillies" is ancient history, right there with white cotton driving uniforms and open-face helmets.

This came to mind last week, when Forbes proclaimed Jimmie Johnson America's Most Influential Athlete for the second consecutive year. Forbes says Nielsen and E-Poll surveyed over 1,100 adults about dozens of well-known athletes to measure their likeability and whether they are considered influential to marketers.

"Influential," of course, is subjective. Forbes admits it can mean different things to different people. Forbes' story noted that "some may see an athlete as influential in his sport, while others see him as crossing over and being influential in society at large." This year's best example of that is Tim Tebow, who rocketed to No. 2 in the rankings.

Wins and championships certainly define Johnson's on-track career, but have no doubt, Mr. 2-Time as Forbes champion is a significant definer of his off-track career. Johnson admitted as much: "Not only is it very good for me and my career and what I do in the race car and my brand, I think it's very good for NASCAR as well." Emphasis mine: "My brand."

Considering Johnson's historic run of five consecutive Sprint Cups ended in 2011, and thus changed the nature of his media coverage, perhaps retaining the Forbes crown was a bit of a surprise. To me, though, it's absolutely no surprise that Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s long winless streak helped contribute to his plunge from third to seventh in the rankings. The news was even worse for Jeff Gordon. Despite a return to victory lane three times, Gordon dropped off the list completely. Contributing factors: A major shift from corporate to cause-marketing sponsorship. And Pepsi and Chevy aren't activating their relationships with Jeff the way they once did.

Forbes wrote that Johnson's "talent and guy-next-door demeanor endears him to fans, as well as to marketing chiefs of brands like Chevrolet, Quaker State and Lowe’s . . ." But a clear reflection of the NFL's status as America's dominant most popular sport came with quarterbacks taking six of the top 10 "poll positions."

Remember that come Chase and Countdown season.


For all of the success that has come to the Petty family, there sure has been a lot of hurt, too. I found last week's official statement from Victory Junction (a camp for sick children founded as a tribute to the late Adam Petty) terribly sad. A dispute with the VJ Board of Directors punted Pattie Petty (Adam's mother, Kyle's wife) to what was called a "goodwill ambassador position as Chairwoman Emeritus." The statement, issued in the name of Victory Junction COO Austin Petty (Pattie's son) referred to VJ having "extremely high ethical standards" and referenced his mother's situation as one that "involves ongoing negotiations between an employee and employer." I bet there are a lot of empty chairs around the Petty family dinner table. SAD. (Full disclosure: I've donated money and commercial time to VJ.)


Congratulations (I think) to my friend Gordon Kirby, marking 40 years of motorsports coverage. Read his reflections here:
http://www.gordonkirby.com/categories/columns/theway/2012/the_way_it_is_no332.html


FAST LINES: Take note, NASCAR and IndyCar fans -- The World of Outlaws' points lead has changed SEVEN (7!) times already this season . . . Congratulations and have a great night to Kenny Bernstein, John Force and Richard Childress, who will be inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega this Thursday. (I'm a Hall voter and all three were on my ballot.) NHRA announcer Bob Frey will present Bernstein, NHRA President Tom Compton will do the honors for Force, and NASCAR President Mike Helton will be standing up for Childress . . . Let me tell you the group not complaining about the lack of Sprint Cup wrecks, which has set off some in the media and grandstands -- Car owners . . . As is being proven more and more often in racing, letting some people have a Twitter account is akin to handing some people a loaded gun . . . How desperate is ABC to get eyeballs on its Sunday morning news program? It invited The Mad Hater to be on the media panel.

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, April 22, 2012

F1 NEEDS 'AMBASSADOR' ANDRETTI and GURNEY

This is supposed to be the season when Americans are reawakened to Formula One. That, of course, is because the world championship is scheduled to return here in November at the new -- and still controversial -- Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.

So far, I can't say I've seen much interest. (Too bad since there have been an unusual four different winners for four different constructors in the first four races.) The news out of CotA has been at least as much negative as positive, what with management issues and construction delays. Bernie Ecclestone buddy Tavo Hellmund got the rights to the event but then had a falling out with the CotA main investors and -- surprise! -- a lawsuit followed. The track's money men worked out their own deal with Bernie and work is said to be "on schedule." (Whatever that means.) This much I'll bet you on: For the opening F1 race, the facility won't have nearly all the upscale features heralded in those heady early days of the project.

What with the early season GPs happening in places like Australia and China, the time zone differences have left U.S. TV viewers with the choice of watching in the middle of the night, or replays up against other motorsports programming. Bernie and the FIA went ahead with the Bahrain GP last weekend, taking a big check despite internal political turmoil. There were protests and at least one team, Force India, was affected. As I wrote last week, it was a mistake for F1 to go. I'm writing this before everyone and everything is scheduled to be packed-up and shipped-out. I'm hoping that happened safely. If so, Bernie and Boys will say "Told You So!" as they smile at the nice fat bank deposit. Sorry, that doesn't make it right.

A bit of welcome good news filtered out of CotA last week. The track has teamed up with Pirelli (and are "excited" about it according to the lead of the "news" release) in a much-needed promotional partnership.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect is a road show featuring the Lotus show car and driving simulator. According to CotA, the tour will include visits to Montreal, the Monterey Classic Car Show, Denver, Chicago, Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, Cleveland, South Florida and Austin. A Formula Expo has been announced in Austin for June 16-17 and is supposed to include the chance for the public to meet some F1 drivers.

Considering America's ticket buying public knows as much about the drivers as they do rugby stars, and that the U.S. media has precious little access to interview the likes of Hamilton, Vettel, Schumacher, Alonso, Rosberg and friends to build name recognition here, I'm surprised and disappointed CotA hasn't taken what -- to me -- is an obvious step.

Why not hire Mario Andretti and Dan Gurney as official "ambassadors" for the event? Both are household names everywhere. Both are legends. Both are respected figures in the history of Formula One (Mario, of course, being the 1978 world champion.) Both are great with fans and the media. Mario is based on the East Coast and goes to most of the IndyCar races. Dan is on the West Coast and heavily involved in the DeltaWing Le Mans project.

Mario and Dan would give potential ticket buyers credible people to deliver the sales pitch. They'd give media legitimate spokesmen to interview. The list of positives stretches from Monaco to Melbourne.

I can't believe CotA hasn't already brought Andretti and Gurney into the fold. Now's the time. It should be part of Austin's Formula for Success.


Fred Rhue -- a name you might not know or remember but should -- died last week. It was Rhue, as vice president of automotive finishes for PPG Industries, who helped make Business of Racing history by authorizing a then-unprecedented $1 million point fund for the 1981 CART series. It was Rhue who also was wise enough to hire Jim Chapman to run PPG's CART series sponsorship. That business union resulted in landmark things like the PPG pace cars, the all-female PPG pace car driving team, the PPG hospitality tent (where deals were made and relationships formed) and a major sponsorship with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. As CART's first communications director, I got to know Fred well. I liked him a lot and respected him even more. He was a gentleman and a very smart business guy. His daughter, Becky, married driver Scott Brayton, who she met as Scott was racing in the CART series at that time. Thanks, Fred, for all you did. God Bless.


FAST LINES: The Long Beach Grand Prix and NHRA's 4-Wide Nationals are supposed to be two of the most important races of the year, yet both were covered only in USA Today's notes column. And ALMS' round in LB got zip -- not the way to start for the series' new PR director . . . Interesting timing -- NASCAR's visit to the White House last week came on the same day President Obama took on the oil industry. Tony Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet was displayed with prominent Mobil ID. It was also tax day . . . Congratulations to Corinne Economaki, the former National Speed Sport News publisher, now executive director of the North Carolina Motorsports Association. The NCMA Board chose well and chose wisely.

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, April 15, 2012

CATCHING UP

This week, let me catch up on a few items . . .

I always find it interesting how people choose to spend their money. In the case of Texas Motor Speedway, for last weekend's NASCAR weekend, track boss Eddie Gossage unveiled his new TV studio-like set in the media center (right). Impressive, certainly, but perhaps a surprising use of the capital improvements budget. "It is important that Texas Motor Speedway always be first, best and most creative in all aspects and how we present ourselves to the world through the media is another tool," said Gossage. "There is no one else in professional sports, not to mention motorsports, that has such a set in its press room. It is a big step forward for not only 'The Great American Speedway,' but for auto racing as well." Special drafting chairs position those on the set at the right height to show their sponsors more prominently. Texas, of course, is an SMI-owned track. I keep waiting -- and hoping -- ISC will OK the funds to upgrade Phoenix International Raceway's infield facilities, including garages, media center, medical building and parking. That's surely needed -- more, I wonder, than the latest spending on Michigan International Speedway.

I can't say who sent me the E-mail, other than it was a journalist reporting on both NASCAR and IndyCar, but the point was made that the PR people who need to be reading this blog the most are the ones who don't. Which is not a surprise.

On a related note: As I noted the other week, no team or sponsor or track or sanction should employ a PR representative without proof he or she has, at least, passed a basic Newswriting 101 course. Journalists don't care that someone is "proud" or "excited" about a new sponsor -- it would be NEWS if they WEREN'T happy. That's about as basic as it gets. Unfortunately, Bryan Herta Autosport and Circuit of the Americas don't get it. Herta's new publicist was back at it again last week, with a lead graph of a so-called "news" release that the team is "proud to announce" sponsorship of an Indy Lights car. Graph three told us said sponsor is "so excited" about the deal. CotA, meanwhile, was "proud to announce" a new investor. Too bad those involved don't understand what a turn-off this is to legitimate media. In my case, it leads to an immediate push of the "delete" button.

Formula One should not go to Bahrain. The reasons are so obvious I don't know why this is still an issue. Well, check that, I do know: MONEY.

Here we go again: Jeff Gordon NEEDS a win.

And, now, so does Jimmie Johnson. (You thought this category was reserved for Dale Jr.?)

Roush Fenway's Nationwide program is hurting for sponsors (Trevor Bayne wasn't even entered at Texas), so it was a bad move when winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. thoughtlessly used a Terrible Towel to cover over sponsor IDs on his uniform in victory lane Friday night. Where are the PR people who are supposed to be observant enough to notice this sort of thing?

In a similar vein, it was disrespectful for Michael Schumacher to sit with his uniform pulled-down for the world feed TV interview after China GP qualifying. I'm surprised the FIA would put up with this since it's so concerned about its image. A fine would be meaningless but I'd penalize Schumacher and Mercedes one world championship driver's and constructor's point.

I didn't watch much of the Texas Nationwide race, only flipping on occasionally. I didn't even think about where Danica was running until 50 laps to go. She was 20th at that time and finished eighth.

I'm about ready to admit standards of what is acceptable are gone. In the worst move since video of Carl Edwards' flip into the Talladega catch fence was used to sell tickets and promote TV viewership (remember, people were injured), Fox hyped Sunday's morning news program all week with word that host Chris Wallace would offer a "touching" tribute to his late father, Mike Wallace, the TV news legend. Respect went out the door in the name of an extra ratings point.

So Howard Beale has filed a $70 million lawsuit against his former employer Al Gore's lefter-than-Daytona's turn one network, which counter-sued The Mad Hater. Count me as one who is cheering for this to go all the way to trial, even though I'm sure it will be settled for an undisclosed amount. I can't help but wonder what the evidence-gathering process, known in legalese as "discovery," might reveal about both Keith Olbermann and Gore -- personal stuff they don't want in the public domain.

How out of touch with reality is ESPN's Michael Wilbon? He described the horrendous, disrespectful version of our National Anthem played before the NCAA men's basketball final as "authentic." I guess so -- if you ignore almost 200 years of American history. Apparently Wilbon's ego has gotten so big it covers his ears.

I don't like that CBS bends over and permits Augusta National to dictate journalism (for fear of losing the prestigious broadcast rights), but I will say this about the Masters' telecast: How refreshing to watch a sporting event where the announcers know to park their egos and allow the event and the athletes their rightful place in the spotlight. Was anyone at NASCAR paying attention? Just wondering . . .

Whit Watson, the TV lightweight who will forever be remembered by racing fans as the NASCAR know-nothing ESPN inexplicably had host rpm2night the night Dale Earnhardt was killed, showed up on The Golf Channel's Masters coverage. Nit Whit was paired with obscure tour player Notah Begay and formed one of the worst TV combos in recent memory. Not Dan Rather-Connie Chung terrible, mind you, but B-A-D. CNBC's Melissa Lee-Simon Hobbs is another bizarre pairing, making you wonder what those high-priced network execs and producers are thinking. The late Mark Haines and Erin Burnett were boffo together on CNBC. I'd say today's best duo are Fox News Channel's Martha MacCallum and Bill Hemmer.


I think Jeg Coughlin Jr. is the best pure driver in NHRA's Pro Stock class. He's back after a one-year hiatus and his family's Jegs.com mail order business is an important part of the Business of Drag Racing. My April "Drags, Dollars & Sense" column on CompetitionPlus.com is 10 Q&As with Jeg:
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/20794-knight-talking-business-with-jeggie

USA Today explains how the New York Yankees media train their players. I've used some of the tools described in the story. A lot of people in racing should pay attention to what is revealed here:
http://www.usatoday.com/sports/baseball/al/yankees/story/2012-04-12/Yankees-player-media-training/54238364/1

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, April 08, 2012

THE KING's THINGS . . .

(An old tradition continues anew here, transferred from another venue.)

When I'm King of the Racing World . . .

Ferrari will design, build and enter a car in the Indianapolis 500.

And win.

Melanie Troxel will have a locked-in, rock-solid five-year sponsorship in either Funny Car or Top Fuel (her pick) with a good activation/PR budget so she can truly become the on-and-off-track star she should be.

Max Papis will win a Sprint Cup race, setting off one of the most emotional winner's circle sessions in racing history.

Several swarrow cactus plants will be planted under the white line exiting turn 2 at Phoenix International Raceway to discourage drivers from cutting down on the apron to pass. Make them step-up to the challenge of the dogleg.

T. Wayne Robertson will be elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Ditto, Linda Vaughn.

Rush Limbaugh will be grand marshall at the Daytona 500.

Ditto, Sarah Palin.

NHRA will go all-out with manpower, ideas, effort and budget for one season in the PR/national media relations/publicity arena. The results will be so good Tom Compton will want to -- no, NEED to -- come back for more.

Mario Andretti will wave the checkered flag at the Austin and New Jersey U.S. Grands Prix.

Michael Schumacher will win another Formula One race -- then immediately retire -- for good.

There will be a truly American Formula One team -- U.S. owners, designers, crew, chassis, engine, sponsors and drivers.

After he retires from full-time NASCAR competition, Jeff Gordon will win the Rolex 24, Sebring, and Le Mans.

Steve Kinser will drive a Tony Stewart-owned car in the Indy 500.

Mark Martin will win the Daytona 500 or Sprint Cup championship.

There will be ONE American sports car series, with races at the classic venues like Sebring, Watkins Glen, Road America, Daytona, Laguna Seca and Road Atlanta. And, yes, Indianapolis.

Said series will have a robust prototype class, with strong factory participation, and a separate GT class. That's it -- one race, two classes. Anything more is too confusing even for ardent fans (anyone who tried to understand Sebring this year knows that I'm saying is true.)

The World of Outlaws will have a solid, season-long TV package, including live and delayed telecasts.

Road America will be a permanent fixture on the IndyCar schedule.

Roger Penske will have NHRA Top Fuel and Funny Car teams.

Penske will field Porsche's new prototype at Le Mans, with an All-American driving lineup -- Scott Pruett, Brad Keselowski, Patrick Long and Graham Rahal.

Pruett will be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated under the headline: "America's most underappreciated racer."

The specific, factual cause of Jimmy Clark's fatal accident will be determined once and for all.
The moment he retires from driving, Dario Franchitti will go into the IndyCar TV booth.

Jim Chapman will be inducted into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Hall of Fame.

Public relations people will figure out the "old school" way of building solid one-on-one relationships with the media is the RIGHT way. That means actually TALKING to journalists.

The mainstream media will figure out that drag racing is the most AMERICAN of all motorsports.

One NASCAR weekend will go by without one mention of "Danica".

I'll do my best Tony Hulman impression giving the "start your engines" command somewhere before moving on to that Great Speedway Media Center in the Sky.

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, April 01, 2012

A LITTLE HONEST REPORTING REVEALS THE FACTS

Over the last year, a lot has been written and said about the possibility of the IndyCar series returning to Phoenix International Raceway. The overwhelming majority of it inaccurate because it was not properly "reported" from the standpoint of real journalism.

Last year, in the midst of this fog, I was the only reporter to actually interview the three key players: PIR President Bryan Sperber, IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard, and ISC President John Saunders. When I wrote here and said elsewhere there would be no 2012 race, it was because I had bothered to go out and actually gather the FACTS. (How basic is that?) To this day, a few of the most serious offenders, co-opted by Bernard, still have not even tried to interview Sperber. Another one did FINALLY outreach to Sperber -- basically because he was embarrassed into it.

OK, what's new on this front? Here's the latest, as of last Friday, as reported by me in the Arizona Republic:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2012/03/30/20120330could-indycar-make-return-pir.html

I'd say it's about time for a bunch of media people (Kevin Lee, you're on the pole) -- and a bunch of chatroomers -- apologize to Sperber after bashing him last year for supposedly refusing to talk to Bernard. I say that because their man Randy is now "on the record" as having apologized to the PIR prez.

It's a sad commentary on the state of fandom that a story like this is twisted into a chance to criticize NASCAR, PIR, ISC, safety, Las Vegas, each other and, yes, me. Fans are entitled to their own enthusiasm, but not their own "facts." The most laughable from the chatrooms was the one that former PIR owner Buddy Jobe kicked-out CART because he didn't like Carl Haas controlling the catering. I worked for Carl at that time -- he had ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH ANY CATERING BUSINESS. So-called "fans" who anonymously push out this kind of junk only hurt the sport they claim to love.


The headline in last Friday's USA Today sports section -- Fox considers converting Speed to general sports network -- might finally shed some useful light on the big management changes at the motorsports channel late last year.

"That Fox might convert its Speed channel, now . . . in 82 million households, to a general sports network would simply create another Lilluptian to tie down Gulliver-like ESPN . . .," read the story. Which went on to suggest they go after Major League Baseball's cable rights after the 2013 season.

Whatever one thinks of Speed's collection of automotive "lifestyle" programming -- I don't watch a second of it -- one also has to wonder: What would happen to the auto racing event and news coverage? I'm sure NASCAR, and probably Formula One and Grand-Am would continue. As for all the others . . . ???

FAST LINES: I recently had the pleasure of meeting writer Steven Cole Smith. If you aren't reading his excellent stories in AutoWeek and elsewhere, you should be. His April 2 AW piece on the mess that was trying to understand Sebring proves my point . . . It's a pleasure to say Tommy Kendall is a friend of mine. But here's a memo to the Twitter crowd offering the "idea" of TK in the IndyCar announce booth. It's been tried -- TWICE. Which is not to say he shouldn't be there. It's just to say this isn't new . . . Since nothing seems too outrageous to be true in today's "real" news world, it's hard to imagine some PR people still think it's OK to put out fake April's Fool "news" stories figuring people will get that it's a joke. This is stupid and should end . . . Speaking of stupid, how many references were made to Martinsville hot dogs last week? Enough of that, too . . . So now Keith Olbermann has been fired by Al Gore! What's next for The Mad Hater? An anchor gig on Al Jazeera would seem perfect. Or, if he wants back into "sports," play-by-play of pro wrestling. Best move for Olbermann: Partner with a fellow Worst Person in the World, Andrew Craig. They deserve each other.

[ more next Monday . . . ]