• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Friday, September 28, 2012

WHAT CHRIS TOLD ME

I'm not sure, but I think it's possible Chris Economaki's last "live" interview was with me on my old The Race Reporters Internet radio show. (He taped at least one TV interview after that.) That show was Wednesday, June 24, 2009, which was the day the 75th anniversary issue of National Speed Sport News was published.

Chris, in declining health in recent years, died Friday at age 91. But here are three highlights from that radio conversation. Chris -- as usual -- spoke out as he believed-it-to-be, and his comment about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway needing a "drum beater" certainly stirred things up over at IMS, I can tell you:

I asked Chris what was the most important story covered in the pages of NSSN during those 75 years:

"That was in 1935 with the general acceptance of the crash helmet by people in American auto racing . . . It was an incredible move. The death rate in American racing to that point was horrendous. The crash helmet saved life-after-life-after-life. When everybody decided to use one, it was a big story."

Is America's most important race the Indianapolis 500 or Daytona 500?

"The Daytona 500 is important because it is heavily promoted. The Indianapolis 500, unfortunately, is not heavily promoted. It's presented and managed well, but it isn't promoted well. That is the big difference. You have to beat the drums for your event and the Indianapolis 500 doesn't have a drum beater."

Who is the greatest driver you've seen?

"It's a toss-up between A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. It's a difficult question to answer. One of those two is, without question, the senior performer in American auto racing."


Occasions such as this demand an Economaki story. Dave Argabright invited me to share a personal story for the bonus section of the hardcover edition of Chris' 2006 book, Let 'Em All Go! (I still have an autographed copy of the book on my desk.) Here's what I wrote:

It was in the pleasant surroundings of the PPG hospitality tent at Long Beach that I learned an essential, and enduring, truth about auto racing.

I sat with Jim Chapman, the legendary public relations executive who precisely arranged every detail of PPG's CART series sponsorship, as he patiently helped educate a journalist who was new to the sport. The writer asked Jim what he expected to happen in the Grand Prix. Just at that moment, Jim looked up from his plate of fruit and Virginia baked ham, and saw Chris walking toward their table. In his wise and fatherly way, Jim responded, "There are only three things certain in racing. Someone will win. Everyone else will lose. And Chris Economaki will be everywhere, asking questions he knows his readers want answered . . . whether they like it or not!"

Mr. Chapman, a friend and fan of Chris, was right as always. In the 35 years I've been in motorsports journalism and PR, I've fielded my share of the famous to-the-point Economaki inquiries, especially in CART's early years when I was the communications director. Chris is always working on some story and he's certainly not shy to press anyone to get information. He has called me at home before 8 a.m. and after midnight and even on New Year's Day!

One time I was with Nigel Mansell, waiting for the David Letterman Show to begin, when the dressing room door suddenly opened and Chris came in firing questions machine-gun style. When Chris left, Nigel took a deep breath just as a producer arrived to escort him to the stage. I told Nigel, "Relax. The hard part is over!"

Chris has never apologized for his aggressive pursuit of the news he knows the public wants to know. Nor should he. Agree or disagree with him as we all may on occasion, but acknowledge this: Chris's unflinching trust in the story -- and the reader -- deserves our profound respect.


Amen. I sure hope that, somewhere, Jim and Chris are sharing a vintage bottle of wine, a gourmet meal, and those irreplaceable Economaki-Chapman stories. God Bless.

[ more next Monday . . . ]



Sunday, September 23, 2012

BIZ NEWS BIG

Behind the headlines of who won, who lost and who is leading/out-of the championship, the real news action remains in the Business of Racing.


In NASCAR, the pressure to win and fill sponsorship gaps led a family owned-and-operated business -- Junior Motorsports -- to part ways with two family members, Tony Eury Sr. and Jr. Oh, by the way, Dale Jr.'s No. 88 Cup Chevrolet has some sponsorship openings for 2013 with Diet Mountain Dew cutting back. Phoenix International Raceway is about to announce a new title sponsor for its Nov. 11 Sprint Cup semifinal. Roger Penske, who for decades has said he retains the final decision on drivers, conceded Shell-Pennzoil had a huge say in hiring Joey Logano for the No. 22 instead of sticking with Sam Hornish Jr. Denny Hamlin did a great job winning New Hampshire but a boring race and not much from Junior didn't help NASCAR's Chase for TV audience.

Over in IndyCar, with the season over, the Edmonton race is no more but Randy Bernard says he's on-track for 19 events in 2013. Doubleheaders will be his latest try to get something to stick. I was at Auto Club Speedway for the finale and, based on my garage area conversations, there's a better than 50 percent chance up to five entries on the California grid won't be around for '13. There's less than a 50 percent chance of two, maybe three, new entries. The issues remain terrible TV ratings and how that impacts the search for team sponsorship. Paul Page has been told he's not a candidate for either the ABC or NBC Sports Network IndyCar host jobs. NSN is going "younger." IndyCar's bouncer is moving on to run the Detroit Grand Prix and, as one private security expert told me, if the series hires a new one the first order to business will be to keep the guy off TV -- a huge mistake of the past.

In NHRA, that sanction had a worse week than Mitt Romney. Just hours after the responsible official gave an interview proclaiming "parity" in the Harley-dominated Pro Stock Motorcycle class, new rules were published for 2013 and a 10-pound weight penalty imposed on the H-Ds for the rest of this year. What an absolute, total PR fiasco in terms of credibility with media, fans, racers and sponsors. John Force won his own sponsor Traxxas' $100,000 special Funny Car event in Texas (moved after being rained-out at the U.S. Nationals) and daughter Courtney virtually guaranteed herself top rookie honors by qualifying No. 1. In what has too-often been a mess of a Full Throttle season, Courtney is the most obvious positive. Just ask ESPN or any national event promoter.

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, September 16, 2012

80 POUNDS SHORT OF A SELLOUT CROWD


HOW NOT TO DRESS FOR SUCCESS: The MavTV 500 pole winner during his news conference Friday at Auto Club Speedway.

A necessary piece of personal business required me to travel to the Los Angeles area last week. I took that opportunity to then head over to Auto Club Speedway for IndyCar's return to the California oval and the Izod series' finale, the MavTV 500.

Roger Penske said he had a huge group of employees and their families there for the race. Thank goodness. The most optimistic attendance number shared with me was around 20,000. I don't know for sure but will say, to my eye, there were more folks in the grandstands than I would have thought and probably more than most people predicted. Yes, the bar has been lowered and that's terribly sad, but I'll be positive and say there just might be something there for the Speedway and IndyCar to build on.

For want of 80 pounds, they could have sold out!

Let me explain . . .

In what was a truly interesting week for me, after a long interview with Jeff Gordon on Tuesday (see below), I spent almost a half-hour with A.J. Foyt Saturday. The main purpose was for a project I'll explain at a later date. But, in sitting with A.J. in his transporter office at ACS, the Indy 500's first four-time winner brought up the subject of Mike Conway. As I'm sure you know, Foyt driver Conway (who relocated to my residence city of Scottsdale earlier this year) decided he simply was not comfortable on ovals and stepped-out of the No. 14 ABC Supply Co.-Honda after the first practice session. I'll bet you are not surprised that the Great A.J. was not happy and here's what he told me Saturday.

"I told the crew, if I was about 80 pounds lighter, I'd get back in (the car) now. I'm using weight as an excuse. I really wanted to because, tracks like this, I liked. What I'm trying to say -- you know what I'm talking about -- it's a challenge. I said to myself, 'A.J., you're 77, you know better.' Since I got out, I have not sit back in one. Not that I don't want to, don't get me wrong. I know I can't do what I did at 30 years old."

After some other talk, Foyt went on: "I respect Mike very highly for telling me he don't want to run. But don't wait until we get here."

A.J. went on, but you get the point. Can you imagine the national headlines -- and last-minute ticket sales -- if word went out Foyt was going to get in the No. 14 and race? !

(More amazing A.J. quotes somewhere down the line, including what he thinks of today's generation of driver -- in a way you might not have heard before.)


Great, touching, wonderful tribute to Bob Jenkins pre-race on the NBC Sports Network. Bob's retirement marks the end of a race broadcasting era. AARWBA presented him with a nice award. Now, on the other end of the spectrum, there's Mr. Irrelevant, Wally Dallenbach Jr. "Expert" WD suggested on TV that Penske should pull Ryan Briscoe out of his car and put Will Power in as a way to take the championship after Power's crash. Relief drivers are not eligible for points! Nothing like the TV "experts" doing their homework to actually know the rules!


NASCAR dispatched Jeff Gordon to Phoenix last week to promote the Chase and Phoenix International Raceway's Nov. 11 Chase semifinal. What a great conversation Mark Armijo and I had with Jeff, who is such a professonal. Jeff -- and I think Rick Mears is another -- is one of those people who has the ability to not only say interesting things, but make you feel he's totally engaged in what you are saying. My Arizona Republic story was played BIG at the top of sports Page 1.
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/20120911nascar-superstar-jeff-gordon-chasing-doubt.html


Be careful what you wish for, NHRA fans. Here's my September CompetitionPlus.com column:
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/22414-michael-knight-be-careful-what-you-wish-for

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, September 09, 2012

THIS WEEK

This promises to be a very interesting week in TV, politics and motorsports.

In the early days of this blog, I often commented on the hype leading up to Katie Couric's debut as anchor of the CBS Evening News. There was a Hillary Clinton-like "listening tour," signs on buses, full-page newspaper ads, logo souvenirs, etc. It was an interesting case study for publicists. Of course, it was for naught, because after a huge initial tune-in audience, viewership collapsed and Couric's five years-at-$15 million-a-year tenure was a failure. The most noteable thing that happened might well have been Celebrity Couric's guest shot with David Letterman in which she said Michael Jackson wanted to date her.

Couric attempts to get back into the daily TV game this week with the debut of her syndicated ABC talk show. It has cleared an impressive 93 percent of TV households. The Hollywood Reporter calls Katie "the most talked about, most anticipated, best positioned . . . the most expensive . . . (of shows) seeking to fill the 'Oprah void' in afternoon television."

Good luck. This time around, the PR campaign has been decidedly different. Promos included her previously off-limits daughters and a reminder that her husband died of cancer. It's a try to soften her image, create sympathy, and generally spark new interest, all very useful in bringing in the afternoon female audience. Her executive producer and business partner, Jeff Zucker, who produced her at the Today show, has a well-deserved place in the TV News Hall of Shame as a pioneer in more-overtly injecting liberal bias into "objective" reporting.

I would not be surprised if, despite more hype, Katie will have underperformed expectations by the end of its first season.

Over in the presidential race, we should have some new polls. As these will be the first after both the Republican and Democratic conventions, the numbers should give us a real good read on the state of the race. Next up: The Debates.

Speaking of hype, NASCAR's 10-event Chase for the Sprint Cup begins in Chicagoland. This version has the look of being all about Jimmie Johnson's attempt to reclaim the Cup and JUNIOR! The absolute best thing that could happen to NASCAR would be for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win the Chase opener and stay in the top three in points all the way to Homestead. IF that happens, the real strength of Junior Nation will be tested against the powerhouse programming that is football. Jeff Gordon's amazing second-place run at Richmond added a little pop going into the Chase, but Kyle Busch not being in it takes away a little excitement.

IndyCar's Izod series wraps with a 500-mile return to Fontana, Calif., and Auto Club Speedway. Hold your breath. While the Will Power-Ryan Hunter-Reay contest for the championship should be the event headline, I'll have two other things on my radar screen: Attendance and what my friend Bob Jenkins says will be his final race telecast.

After taking a financial bath with the rain-out of the U.S. Nationals at a track it owns, NHRA gives its six-race Countdown to one last Full Throttle series class championships another shot. If NASCAR is hoping to ride Junior to ratings success, so NHRA will be with rookie sensation Courtney Force. She needs to win early and stay in legitimate Funny Car title contention going to Pomona if drag racing is to make any impact vs. the Chase and football.

Let's see what happens this week. And how the media-at-large plays the stories and does -- or doesn't -- pay attention.


As one who has been calling for a unified American sports car series for years, I welcome last week's announcement of a "merger" between Grand-Am and the American Le Mans Series. In strictly business terms, it was more of a "buyout" with Jim France and the NASCAR holding company that already owns Grand-Am taking control. Similar to when Tony George and the IRL effectively bought-out Kevin Kalkhoven and Champ Car. Be happy, fans, but watch for the details -- so many things have yet to be determined or announced. ALMS bet its house on manufacturers wanting to spend significant money on "Green" racing and that didn't happen. Certainly not in the headline Prototype class. NASCAR, of course, has been steadily increasing its "Green" PR campaign but I'd be cautious of going all-out the way ALMS tried to do. No one buys a ticket or watches on TV/Internet because of what kind of fuel someone is using! One of the highest priorities must be building a solid Prototype class -- without that, sports car racing is like drag racing without Top Fuel and Funny Cars. ALMS' existing GT class is terrific and should be continued "as is" as much as possible. But Grand-Am has had it right in a simple two-class structure while even passionate ALMS fans could not possibly follow or understand its complex and confusing multiple class structure. The new entity, which begins with Daytona in 2014, MUST AVOID THAT MISTAKE. Americans have a short attention span and it's not "sellable" to run so many different classes, so it's mandatory to combine where possible and eliminate where necessary. NASCAR's business resources, I'm sure, will be employed for this series just as for Grand-Am. I would suggest finding a significant role for my old friend, Ed Triolo, the longtime Porsche exec who now works for ALMS. Finally: ALMS' official association with the ACO, which organizes the 24 Hours of Le Mans, provided international credibility and name value. But the ACO hasn't always understood that the needs of an American sports car series, its public and its corporate participants, aren't necessarily the same as those in Europe. Keep the tie-in with Le Mans ONLY IF it makes reasonable sense, but remember this: The "NASCAR" brand is way more valuable in the U.S. than that of "Le Mans."

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Monday, September 03, 2012

WILL COKE's NEW NHRA SPONSORSHIP BE THE REAL THING?

WALLY A LUCK GUY: Courtney Force kisses her Wally trophy after first NHRA Funny Car victory in Seattle. Unfair or not, the TV ratings and media coverage success of NHRA's Countdown probably rides on Courtney being a championship contender all the way to Pomona. (Photo courtesy of Ron Lewis and John Force Racing.)


We're all about the Business of Racing here which meant I was on last week's NHRA media teleconference to make official what I vagued hinted at here several weeks ago: That the underperforming Full Throttle energy drink brand will yield its drag racing series sponsorship to fellow Coca-Cola Co. niche product Mello Yellow. The contract is through 2018.

I found it bizarre this was done in the middle of the week before the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals -- the sport's most prestigious race (postponed to this weekend due to rain) -- but that's NHRA for you. (See below for another example.) P.S. -- I thought it also was a PR/competitor-relations blunder not to include a prize money increase as part of the new deal announcement.

I might well have been the only media person on the teleconference who also was on the call when Coke revealed the NHRA title was shifting from Powerade to Full Throttle. Big Time promises were made on that call, about activating the sponsorship and promoting drag racing, few of which seemed to come to reality. I'll have a lot more to say about this down the road in my CompetitionPlus.com column.

But very pointed and direct B of R questions were the order of the day for me in talking with NHRA President Tom Compton and Coke's Senior Vice President Sports and Entertainment Marketing Partnerships Sharon Byers . The transcript of that Q&A follows. They now are on the record and we'll see if this becomes fact or more fiction. An important bit of news for sponsor-seeking racers was Compton responding to my question if the new contract re-opens the energy drink category for team sponsorship and he said yes. That's the kind of question that needed to be asked because this was fundamentally a business, not a sports, announcement. The chatroomers probably still would not know about this if I hadn't asked.

Q: Sharon, I was actually on the media teleconference call when the announcement was made that Powerade would be transitioning over to the Full Throttle brand, and I'm actually looking on my computer screen at the column I wrote at that time, and the Coca Cola representative on that conference call talked quite a bit about activation in non NHRA markets, and so I'd like to ask you, is this program going to include specific activation beyond the NHRA core audience, and if so, could you give some examples?

A: Yeah, I mean, that's a great question actually. We got that question from our bottling community when we announced it to them last week, so absolutely. There's a ton of power in drag racing overall, whether it's in market or outside of a race market, and our intention is absolutely to take this as broad as we possibly can.

Q: Can you provide some specific examples, for example, when the announcement was made several years ago, there was talk about the retail promotions, NHRA signage on trucks, promotion in non race markets. It's unclear to me how much of that actually happened, but beyond the general statement of it's going to happen, do you have specific commitments to activating beyond the NHRA core audience?

A: This is taking place in 2013, so we're actually in the process of planning this out with Tom's team along with Gary (Darcy, NHRA senior vice president of sales and marketing). But obviously we'll pull in a lot of driver appearances, we'll do some national promotionals, consumer take rates, take large customers, like Dollar General are very interested in taking this nationwide. So we will do the power of Coca Cola's marketing. We're going to take it to the finish line on this one.

Q: When you say driver appearances, do you mean in retail outlets?

A: Yes.

Q: I haven't heard it specifically said other than a reference to age demographic why Coca Cola corporate feels that the NHRA is the best available fit for Mello Yello. Could you be more specific on why the demographic works in your opinion?

A: Yeah. I mean, Mello Yello's consumer base is a youth based consumer group. Really the history that Mello Yello has had in motorsports really helped us tip it over the edge with some other brands that we were looking at between the relationship with Kyle Petty, what we did with Days of Thunder, and we really wanted Mello Yello to get centered and focused on a huge passion point here in America, and we just felt with all of those tenets, the NHRA was a fantastic fit for that brand from a consumer base, from a customer base, and just overall strategically.

Q: For Tom: When changes in the telecom industry resulted in NASCAR switching its series name from Nextel Cup to Sprint Cup, Brian France said a change like that is "not ideal." Next year will represent the third ID change in six years for NHRA. Do you agree with Brian France and have concern about that from a public ID standpoint?

A: Actually I don't. Two parts to that: One is I think we're very fortunate to be enjoying basically 17 years under contract with the Coca Cola Co., and we've already received calls, Tweets, things today from fans and the fans here in Indianapolis that have come up and said what a great move, that's terrific. Our fans know where to find us, and I think with the power of the Coca Cola Company behind us with the Mello Yello brand, it's going to be a good thing for the sport, terrific actually, as opposed to largely being in convenience stores as Full Throttle is. And again, they're still going to be part of this program. Mello Yello is available in grocery stores, big box stores. The distribution is much greater, so the touch points are many.

Q: Could you just speak to the question I asked Sharon about activation beyond the NHRA core fan? Is that something that was a specific negotiating point in putting this deal together?

A: Obviously Mello Yello is a much larger brand. It has tremendous resources. The bottling group as Sharon mentioned was very excited about this announcement because there's an association with motorsports and Mello Yello. The brand planning is still in the works right now, but as always, we're looking to reach beyond the race markets and do things on a national basis which will now be much more able to do with this brand. So I think, yes and yes, we'll be doing much more activation around the races, and there will be opportunities to do things beyond the race markets on a national basis that probably weren't wouldn't be as effective with Full Throttle. And again, Full Throttle we're happy to have still as a partner on a certain level.

Q: Tom, does this change or re-open the energy drink category for individual team sponsorships, or is that still locked up?

A: Yes, it does. Obviously our partner is Coke, but for race teams, race teams are the most important form of sponsorship, and we have such a great partner in Coke. They understand that, and they're willing to let competitors come in now in the energy category and be on cars, that's correct.

Q: Starting in 2013 does that take effect?

A: Yeah, next year, next season.


It can be absolutely maddening to be an NHRA fan or to report on the drag racing industry in a positive way. Latest example: The 2013 schedule includes the Arizona Nationals (quite possibly the last at Firebird Raceway) on Feb. 24, the SAME DAY AS THE DAYTONA 500! And one week before NASCAR will be at Phoenix International Raceway. As I used to be a sanctioning body official, I don't need any lectures from NHRA or anyone else about how complex it can be to schedule races. I see the season will open the previous week at Pomona so, obviously they couldn't go one week earlier, or one week later. BUT . . . This conflict with Daytona GUARANTEES net less media coverage for NHRA and its sponsors. Drag racing simply cannot put an event up against football's Super Bowl or NASCAR's Super Bowl.


FAST LINES: Other BIG B of R news from last weekend -- Office Depot not renewing its co-primary sponsorship deal with Tony Stewart. That leaves a huge budget gap for an organization getting Danica's GoDaddy money next year but still looking for funding for the Ryan Newman car . . . DuPont is selling its foundation automotive paints business. Remember Jeff Gordon's Rainbow Warriors' vivid color design? That helped showcase DuPont's paints. In the long-term, whether other DuPont business units will pick up the sponsorship will be an important question . . . Track problems weren't the only complaints coming out of Baltimore last weekend. Based on the E-mails I received, media operations weren't the best, either. Among the issues related to me -- A much longer walk to the media center to accommodate an "off-limits" sponsor area; conflicting news conferences at different locations; PR/promotions people "suggesting" questions to be asked at a sponsor news briefing; and, yes, food.


As I have noted here before, I rarely watch SportsCenter any more. For years it was a daily appointment for me, but in the current ESPN philosophy, it has too many gimmicks, too much content based not on news but on programming, and has too many anchors and reporters there for reasons other than journalistic (or even broadcasting) talent. Here's a good read regarding the lack of legitimate news judgment:
http://www.thewrap.com/tv/blog-post/espn-journalistic-standards-emperor-no-longer-wears-clothes-53481?page=0,0

Meanwhile, one of the emptiest of the ESPN Empty Suits, Jonathan Coachman, was used on NASCAR Now. I guess that was his reward for saying Stewart's helmet throw at Bristol "was one of the best things I've seen in a long time." After his NASCAR gig, Coachman then went on ESPN Radio to brag about it and called NASCAR his "second home." Real NASCAR fans should feel insulted, on a number of levels. For one thing, Coachman's "first home" is professional wrestling.

[ more next Monday . . . ]