Sunday, April 29, 2012


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:

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 . . . ]