• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

2013

It seemed like such an easy question.

Who would be driving the No. 47 at Phoenix International Raceway? Bobby Labonte or A.J. Allmendinger?

That was the simple E-mail I sent the team's media representative in preparation for November's Chase semifinal. Routine, I thought. I guess it wasn't. 

I never received a response.

And, then, there was this one. I outreached in September for a telephone interview with young Nationwide series driver Alex Bowman. He's from Tucson and as my story would be in the state's largest newspaper, the Arizona Republic, it seemed logical this would be most useful publicity and recognition. Maybe it would even be appreciated. But Bowman's Knill-and-Void "publicist" went silent, the interview never happened, the story wasn't published, and it was one less bit of pre-race publicity for the November event at PIR.

Those examples, in so many ways, sum up The Year in PR and Media. 

There's plenty of blame to go around. And lots to be concerned about going forward.

I fundamentally disagree with NASCAR's Integrated Marketing and Communications approach where, the impression I'm left with, is counting Tweets and understanding what's Trending is what it's all about. While the responsible executives are congratulating themselves on this bit of techno wizardary -- which I'd be cautious about since this is just another type of data mining and that has become so controversial in our country -- the essential humanity of dealing with real-life flesh-and-blood journalists continues to slip away from what Bill France Sr. and Jr. and Jim Hunter knew was vital. (I'm still waiting for a second word of communications from the Chief Communications Officer.) High tech has, too often, come at the expense of conversation. The basics of blocking-and-tackling have been shoved into a secondary role and my sense is that, despite expressions of concern from within the media centers, the decision-makers either don't get that or are OK with it.

This isn't just a problem limited to the NASCAR garage area. It exists in IndyCar, sports car racing, hell, even the NHRA people who usually go the extra mile dropped off this past season. No one is ever going to convince me NHRA, John Force Racing and ESPN maxed-out the opportunity of Courtney Force's magazine cover -- quite possibly a once-in-a-decade chance to get the straight-line sport noticed by the mainstream media. (For my list of the year's Top 10 stories in the Business and Politics of NHRA, see my new CompetitionPlus.com column:
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/27184-michael-knight-looking-back-on-a-year-of-mixed-results .

And isn't it quite stunning that one of the worst non-communicators, non-relationship builders, is housed at none other that Penske Racing? I know damn right well that one way Roger Penske built his business empire was by pro-actively going after customers. That's what journalists are to publicists -- customers -- and the Penske bunch doesn't even bother to walk the few feet from the garage to the press room  to visit with current customers or attempt to make new ones. I write for the hometown newspaper of a team sponsor, Discount Tire, which one might logically think would matter . . . 

For the record: I started covering Penske in the 1970s, when the team was based outside Philadelphia, when I was at the Philadelphia Daily News and writing full-page stories about Penske, his Indy 500 wins, and even attended/covered Mark Donohue's funeral. One might logically think that also would matter . . . 

For shame.

You'll understand why it truly came as no surprise to me (as I wrote last November on AzCentral.com) that Brad Keselowski's season as Sprint (another company that doesn't do it's homework with the media -- but looks fabulous compared to Izod and Coca-Cola's NHRA entitlement) Cup champion was a benchmark of unsuccessfulness off-the-track, controversy replacing the great hope that a social-media savvy champion of a new generation would advance the stock car sport's popularity. Now, if Brad K (and Helio Castroneves and Will Power and Joey Logano [PR old-timer Tom Roberts wasn't rewewed] and the others) had had the RIGHT people around them . . . 

When that mindset comes from the top, well, no wonder the front-line soldiers that are the team and sponsor PR people act as described at the start here. Let me be clear: There are still some good people out there, either doing it the old-fashioned way of one-on-one relationship building because that's what they know, that's what they grew up with, or that's what they've been taught (or bothered to learn), but their numbers continue to shrink. I see it on many fronts, including the nominating and voting for the Jim Chapman Award for Excellence in Motorsports PR. Which was won this year by old-school Anne Fornoro of A.J. Foyt Racing. Not surprisingly, she was one of the precious few team PR people I saw in the media center Indianapolis 500 race weekend. I say again: I blame the sponsor managers who pay little attention for much of this mess. And others who are supposed to be providing "supervision."

Of course, everyone looks good compared to Jay Carney, who has lost all credibility, and is a classic example of someone being in over his head. It shows every day.


And there was plenty to be unhappy about on the media front. 

It started with the relaunch of NASCAR.com. The only website more difficult to navigate was HealthCare.gov. At Daytona 500 media day, the first 18 -- EIGHTEEN! -- questions asked Danica Patrick were about her dating relationship with double NASCAR Nationwide series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. The first 21 -- TWENTY ONE! -- questions to Stenhouse dealt with Danica. The first question to Keselowski was, well, you guessed it. Questions 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 to Jimmie Johnson? I don’t have to tell you.

“God.  We're at Daytona and this is the stuff we're talking about at Daytona,” said Tony Stewart. “Amazing.” He was absolutely right.

Then Danica, to her and her team's credit, took the Daytona pole. Meanwhile, Courtney Force was largely ignored as winner of the season's first Funny Car race in Pomona. As John Force said to me at the Arizona Nationals, which I'll put up as Sports Quote of the Year: "I get that Danica got the pole is a big deal, but it is not like she delivered the baby Jesus." 

Danica-Ricky, Dale Jr.'s potato chips, that's what way-too-many media types considered important "news." Not just the in-the-field reporters, but their editors, too. 

Speed signed-off and became Fox Sports 1. See ya, Wind Tunnel, which had been mailing-it-in for over a year. FS1 still insulted us with Rutledge Wood and absolutely should have suspended Michael Waltrip for the rest of the season following the Richmond cheating scandal. FS1 also ignored journalistic standards by allowing Waltrip to make excuses on two of its shows while being "interviewed" by co-workers. Kyle Petty was bread-and-butter controversial -- sometimes, a little too much so. ESPN2 was so concerned about FS1 it gave new life to The Mad Hater. NBCSN took over the Formula One races with live over-the-air coverage of Monaco and Austin (with announcers actually there), which was most welcome. What was not was buffoon Will Buxton, actually allowed to join in a couple of IndyCar telecasts. The "red pants/yellow hat" act of Buxton and Marty Snyder on the Indy 500's non-bump day Bump Day show was the year's TV low point. Maybe the decade's. 

Sports Illustrated printed, inaccurately, that Roger Penske was at Indy 500 Pole Day, and as far as I know, never corrected it. The reporter didn't report, the fact checkers didn't check, the editors didn't edit and the managing editor didn't stand up and do the right thing. SportsCenter, with Hannah Storm at the helm, showbized-up the Sept. 10 a.m. show with 53 stories in one hour to match the number of plays the Philadelphia Eagles' ran in the first half the night before. The legitimacy of news was placed second to a stupid gimmick.

The overall media landscape continued to change. I kept reading and hearing from the "experts" that "original content" was what was needed to drive traffic to websites. At the same time, too often I heard that there wasn't "budget" for such original content. Which is it? What you'll hear about more and more, perhaps due to those budget issues, is "branded content." Reader be alerted to know the difference.

On the mainstream media front, it was very instructional that new NBC networks owner Comcast made no serious attempt to re-sign its 20-year CNBC business brand name Maria Bartimoro, who found her money elsewhere at Fox Business Channel. Let that be noticed by agents looking to sign their talent for the upcoming NBC/NBCSN NASCAR package. Matt Lauer was finally unmasked as the outright phony he is; his public approval numbers rank with the average congressman. The media in general -- CNN in particular -- made massive and unacceptable "reporting" mistakes on the Boston Marathon bombing story. There was much hand-wringing about the use of sources, but nothing (of course) really changed going forward. MSNBC was just plain vile. That is, when it wasn't cheerleading for the president.

I can only wonder how little self-esteem -- or desperation for a paycheck -- must be involved for Jesse Watters to go on The O'Reilly Factor each week and ask people, "What do you think of Bill O'Reilly?"

The build-up and launch of Katie Couric as anchor of the CBS Evening News was a big case study in the early days of this blog. She failed terribly and Rush Limbaugh was not far off when he said near the close of her five-year tenure that Couric had "destroyed" CBS News. It tells you everything that Couric's CBS time is best remembered for her agenda-driven interview of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. (Which the media handlers the McCain campaign assigned to Palin should have known to skip.) If only the news had been as important to Couric as People magazine and telling David Letterman that Michael Jackson had wanted to date her. (The executive suits who engineered this $15 million-a-year-for-five-years Hindenburg were either slow to be or not fully held accountable by CBS owners.) When Couric shifted to her own daytime talker, I predicted here that show would unperform ratings expectations. Now Katie is on the verge of cancellation and Couric's on her way to Yahoo! as a trophy celebrity presenter. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.   

Elsewhere, the motorsports industry was the loser as John Daly decided not to update his must-read The Daly Planet. Disappointing. Sad.

There was some good news at year's end: Paul Page is returning as chief announcer for the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Radio Network. Smart guy Jeff Burton will be a key player when NBC/NBCSN takes over NASCAR from ESPN after next season.

Does that mean there's hope for brighter days and higher standards in 2014? 

Well, I guess we can hope . . . 

[ Thanks to all who use some of their valuable time to visit here each week. I am very grateful. Please come back around mid-January. Meantime, I'll have updates on Twitter @SpinDoctor500 . . . ]

Monday, November 25, 2013

DEC. 10

More urgent priorities this week. Please come back Tuesday, Dec. 10 when I'll wrap-up 2013.

If you didn't already see this in Saturday's Arizona Republic, CompetitionPlus.com or on Twitter ( @SpinDoctor500 ) here's my story on the half-million dollar plus repaving and fan upgrades going on at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in preparation for next February's NHRA national event. ISC, please take note.

http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/20131122upgrades-expected-make-wild-horse-pass-motorsports-park-faster.htmlja

Sunday, November 17, 2013

GREATNESS

Scott Dixon is my Driver of the Year for 2013. But Chad Knaus is my MVP.

If Knaus isn't a first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer, there should be a Congressional investigation.

I'm not interested in any complaining about Jimmie Johnson's sixth Sprint Cup championship in eight years being "boring." I say enjoy GREATNESS while fortunate enough to be around to see it first-hand. I know I wish I could have seen Babe Ruth becoming Babe Ruth.

My feeling upon hearing the news of Dario Franchitti's retirement was the same as when the great Emerson Fittipaldi's career ended due to a crash at Michigan in 1996: I find it sad when athletes of this elite level are not able to go out on their own terms. But I cheer Dario for doing the right thing -- what doctors believe is medically necessary. I'm one of those who passionately believes that when a driver feels he must stop, that should be the end of it, no comebacks. The risk is not worth the reward, certainly in the case of Franchitti, with his many IndyCar and sports car successes. I've known Dario since he first came into CART and have always considered him one of the real Good Guys. Thanks, Dario, for your great professionalism. Congratulations on a great career.

The harsh Business of Racing reality for the IndyCar series is Franchitti's retirement means one less "name" driver to promote, one less media-friendly interview, and a subtraction of one of the precious few drivers actually capable of selling tickets.

Franchitti would be an instant upgrade in the ABC TV booth.

Last week's chatter by the chatroom "experts" only proves -- again -- what a short attention span people have these days. In response to a question during a Phoenix International Raceway news conference about its 50th anniversary season (I was there), track President Bryan Sperber gave his standard answer about an IndyCar return to the Avondale oval. Absolutely nothing new. (I had broken actual new "news" earlier in the week with my report that IndyCar's Mark Miles had never even called Sperber about a 2014 race.) But Sperber's words generated a few "news" stories. Anyone interested should Google the detailed stories I've written for two years on this subject in the Arizona Republic, including financial numbers and date issues. Too many of these "experts" still don't even know the correct facts about the track since it was repaved/reconfigured two years ago! And then there's the "breaking news" that Sam Hornish Jr. isn't interested in returning to open-wheel racing. He's been saying the same thing for five years!

I've been a patient in the Mayo Clinic system for over a decade. The customer service has often not been what one would expect, especially given the high fees charged for services. Last week I called to make a routine appointment, only to be told the first availability wasn't until MARCH. Those of you still not certain of the ripple effects of ObamaCare, take note.

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Monday, November 11, 2013

CARL EDWARDS, ROLE MODEL

While it was professionally challenging and rewarding to work the Mark Martin story last weekend at Phoenix International Raceway -- see my Sunday Arizona Republic/AzCentral.com story based on an exclusive 35-minute interview with Mark in his motorcoach last Friday morning and my Monday notebook follow-up -- my best memory of the PIR weekend came courtesy of Carl Edwards. In an era where many athletes would have put on a big physical and verbal show of frustration, Edwards handled himself with great class after running out of fuel coming to the white flag in the lead. Edwards was more than calm and polite in talking with me and other media people. A few times, he even smiled. See my story on him in Monday's paper and on the site. Well done, Carl. I sure wish the Powers-That-Be in all of sports would put together a video of Edwards in this situation and make it required viewing in locker rooms around the country.

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, November 03, 2013

NASCAR IN THE VALLEY

Other life priorities means just a reminder Mark Armijo and I will have full coverage of NASCAR in Phoenix this week in the Arizona Republic and AzCentral.com . Here's a link to my Sunday story on why fans are fans:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/20131031reasons-vary-each-nascar-fans-favorite.html

Mark and I will be in the paper daily starting Tuesday with features and my notebooks. See my notebook Tuesday for reaction to the latest Brad Keselowski controversy -- and why Phoenix International Raceway isn't on the 2014 IndyCar schedule. (You just might be surprised.) Later in the week I'll have updates on Tony Stewart and changes coming to the Gen-6 car and a Thursday feature on Jeff Burton. He'll hit a historical milestone at PIR. By the way, PIR's grandstands are again sold-out for Sunday's AdvoCare 500.

Follow me on Twitter -- @SpinDoctor500 -- for other updates and news alerts. There will be some announcements of interest and (hint) I'm pursuing a few other stories.

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, October 27, 2013

MINDLESS

Brad Keselowski's tenure as Sprint Cup champion has been disappointing, at best, and unsatisfactory, which is my true opinion. And I'm talking off-track. You all know of his various comments and controversies this season but Brad locked-up the Tin Ear of the Year Award on Friday at Martinsville by questioning NASCAR's (at least one year too late) decision to mandate imPACT baseline concussion testing for 2014. Just hours after legendary NFL quarterback Brett Favre admitted to memory loss, Not So Special K said he was concerned, "Because doctors don’t understand our sport.  They never have and they never will.  Doctors aren’t risk takers.  We are.  That’s what makes our sport what it is and when you get doctors involved, you water down our sport.  I’m trying to be open-minded to the possibility that they can help us, but past experience says no.”  He added, "I don't like doctors in our sport."

Hey, Brad, anyone who has ever known a surgeon (I have, more than one) would say they ARE risk takers. Like racers, they are confident enough to accept the risk.  Oh, and I can think of many dozens of racers who DO like doctors in the sport and -- in IndyCar and Formula One -- with the decision-making power to keep drivers out of races. Alex Zanardi, Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti, the list goes on and on and on . . .

Let's remember it was only last year that Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed Chase races because of the effects of (at least one) concussion. As surprising as Keselowski's diss was, Junior's support of the rule was no surprise: "If you care about your wellbeing and your health and quality of life it’s a smart move to embrace.”


It never seems to end. Kevin Harvick did a promotional visit in my area the other week to hype the Nov. 10 AdvoCare 500k at Phoenix International Raceway. Maybe his PR rep talked to some other media there, but not to me or Mark Armijo, both there interviewing Harvick and I wrote an Arizona Republic story the next day. Quick: Someone PLEASE explain to me how you can be a "PR" person but not talk to the media! Here's another hint: Media should be contacted in advance and asked if any stats, photos, info, whatever was needed. And they should be thanked afterwards. Since Harvick has rotating primary sponsors, the first question I asked him was what sponsor would be featured on his car at PIR. He said he appreciated that I asked. I used that ID in my story the next day. But I guess that wasn't important to the sponsor PR person. 

(Our coverage of NASCAR at PIR begins Sunday, Nov. 3 with my Arizona Republic / AzCentral.com story on "why are fans fans?" Mark and I will be daily starting Tuesday, Nov. 5. and I'll have more on the Keselowski concussions controversy. No doubt some Twitter updates along the way, too.)


It was fantastic that A.J. Foyt attended the announcement at Auto Club Speedway that Anne Fornoro had won the 2013 Jim Chapman Award for excellence in motorsports PR. A.J., of course, knew Jim and Jim respected Foyt a great deal. 


I was glad to hear Scott Dixon say in his post-Fontana news conference that he was willing to get out into the public and promote the IndyCar series as its new champion. Dixon admitted he'd grown more comfortable in the role since his 2003 and even 2008 titles. But the real issue is what can the series, team, sponsors and marketing partners do with him? Ryan Hunter-Reay was willing and able to do whatever asked of him as last year's champion, but IC's greatly diminished standing among mainstream media decision makers didn't allow for the opportunities he'd have wished for. It's another test and challenge for CEO Mark Miles and staff.


I'm not much into predictions, but based on experience (and common sense), I'll say this: The fact that IndyCar is jamming so many races back-to-back in 2014 will hurt the quality of the racing. This isn't NASCAR, where teams have the manpower and cars and resources for such a stretch. Those mechanics will have their tongues hanging out of their heads as the championship is to be decided. Human error and mechanic failures will increase.



I have to acknowledge Tim McCarver, calling his last World Series before retirement. When I was at the Philadelphia Daily News in the late 1970s, Tim was Steve Carlton's designated catcher. Carlton was infamous for not speaking with the media so McCarver was the go-to guy for quotes after those games. And, plenty of other times -- good and bad, too. I wasn't the regular beat writer, just a periodic visitor to the clubhouse, but no matter, McCarver was always nice to me and answered my questions with respect. His insight into the game from the booth has well served both the casual and avid fan and Tim's career has taken him to assignments I bet he never thought possible, such as co-hosting the Olympics with Paula Zahn on CBS. Thanks, Tim. Enjoy whatever is next. 


Those on Twitter ( @SpinDoctor500 ) saw this first last week: Of Einstein, NHRA and ESPN. My new CompetitionPlus.com column --
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/26835-michael-knight-improving-fan-experience-mandatory-for-nhra

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Saturday, October 19, 2013

ANNE FORNORO WINS 2013 JIM CHAPMAN AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE IN MOTORSPORTS PUBLIC RELATIONS



Anne Fornoro, who has worked with racing legend A.J. Foyt for almost three decades, today was announced as winner of the 2013 Jim Chapman Award
for excellence in motorsports public relations.


The Chapman Award is considered by many in the industry as the highest honor in racing public relations. It is named in memory of Chapman, the legendary PR executive and innovator, who worked with Babe Ruth and was named Indy Car racing’s “most influential man” of the 1980s. Chapman died in 1996 at age 80.

The announcement and presentation were made at Auto Club Speedway by Michael Knight, chairman of the selection committee, and one of Chapman’s closest friends. The award is determined by a vote of media members, most of who knew Chapman, and is authorized by the Chapman family. PR representatives from all forms of motorsports are eligible for consideration.

“Anne actually knew Jim, so her receiving this award is especially meaningful,” said Knight, the longtime journalist/publicist and award rights-holder. “Jim once said to me that every time he saw Anne she was smiling, and Jim liked that.

“Anne’s approach to working with the media is ‘old-school’ in the best sense.  She’s made A.J. more accessible.  Anne’s annual media guide is one of the most comprehensive in all of motorsports, filled with information that makes it -- and her -- a valuable resource for journalists around the world.”

Fornoro, of Newton, N.J., began her motorsports career at National Speed Sport News where she worked with legendary editor Chris Economaki.  Fornoro joined the U.S. Tobacco Co. in 1984, working in the promotions division before moving to the company’s motorsports division and its wide range of programs. However, she is most closely associated with Foyt, whose team she has worked with since 1985. In 2000, she formed her own company, A-Line Communications, with Foyt’s teams in IndyCar and NASCAR as her sole clients.
Fornoro is the daughter of the late midget racer Russ Klar and is married to nine-time NEMA midget champion Drew Fornoro. Her father-in-law, the late Nick Fornoro, was a driver and CART’s official starter at the same time Chapman directed PPG Industries’ series title sponsorship.
Established in 1991 by media and publicists within the CART series, the Chapman Award originally focused on achievement in CART. After a hiatus of several years, the award was resumed in 2004, with eligibility expanded to anyone working in racing PR.
Chapman started as sports editor or managing editor of several Southern newspapers before joining the New York Times. He served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II. He entered the PR business in 1946, as regional PR director for Ford Motor Co. in Detroit.

Soon thereafter, Chapman hired Ruth as consultant to the automaker’s sponsorship of American Legion Junior Baseball. They traveled together for more than two years for personal appearances and became close friends. Chapman was one of only three friends at Ruth’s bedside when he died in August 1948 and then officially announced Ruth’s death to the press corps that had maintained an around-the-clock vigil at New York’s Memorial Hospital.

Chapman proudly showcased several photos of Ruth in his office.  One was inscribed: "To a pal that is a pal." Chapman also displayed a framed letter, written on Ruth's personal stationery from Memorial Hospital, dated July 13, 1948, inviting him to the July 26 premier of the film, The Babe Ruth Story. That letter read, in part, "That evening would not be complete without your being my guest.  To you, Jimmy, I say you must be with me that evening."

In 1950, Chapman left Ford to start his own PR firm. One of his first clients was Avis founder Warren Avis. Chapman devoted much of his time to financial PR, which he once called his “favorite form of PR,” and helped companies get recognition among analysts and even gain admission to the New York and American stock exchanges.

Chapman’s first venture into motorsports was in 1951, when he joined with NASCAR founder Bill France to promote the Motor City 250. The race was part of Detroit’s 250th birthday celebration, a Chapman client. In 1967, Chapman entered Indy Car racing with client Ozzie Olson’s Olsonite sponsorship of Dan Gurney’s team, which later featured Bobby Unser as driver.

“Jim was one of the most innovative and imaginative PR men ever to grace a pit lane,” said Gurney. “Jim practically invented most of what is now considered routine sponsor PR work. He was the first, as far as I know, who thought of putting up a sponsor hospitality tent alongside a racetrack (at the old Riverside International Raceway), filling it with extravagant race car ice-sculptures, beautiful food and beautiful people from the business, sports and movie industries. He started an ‘open house’ tradition in Ozzie’s hotel suite in Indianapolis, where journalists could rub shoulders with John Wayne or (astronaut) Scott Carpenter.”

Chapman also directed Olsonite’s sponsorship of the Driver of the Year award. He orchestrated all the details, including the media panel voting, and an annual luncheon at New York City’s famed ‘21’ Club. That gathering was considered so prestigious it was routinely attended by leaders of all the major U.S. sanctioning organizations regardless of what series the Driver of the Year competed in.

Chapman’s greatest professional acclaim came from 1981-1992, as director of CART series sponsor PPG Industries’ program. Chapman was instrumental in raising PPG’s prize fund from $250,000 to more than $3.75 million at the time of his retirement in February 1993. The all-female PPG Pace Car Driving Team was another Chapman innovation, as were the PPG Editors’ Days, when he brought business and feature writers to the tracks for lunch, pace car rides, and driver interviews.

In 1982, Chapman negotiated a landmark sponsorship for PPG with then- Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Joe Cloutier, which formally made the Indy 500 a points-paying event in the PPG Indy Car World Series, an arrangement that continued through the 1995 season. “That was one of the most satisfying moments of my career,” Chapman recalled. “Roger Penske, among others, told me it was the best thing that had ever happened to CART.” In addition to a major contribution to the prize fund, PPG later became sponsor of the $100,000 Indy 500 pole award, and paid a special winner’s bonus in the early years of NASCAR’s Brickyard 400.
“With Jim, when he says ‘jump,’ we just ask ‘how high?,” Indy 500 winner and PPG Cup champion Al Unser Jr. said on behalf of his fellow drivers. “And we do it right then.”

Indy Car Racing magazine named Chapman the sport’s “most influential” man of the 1980s, saying he turned “a public relations assignment into an art form.” After his retirement, Chapman continued to consult PPG, and agreed to Mario Andretti’s personal request that he serve as honorary chairman of Andretti’s “Arrivederci, Mario” farewell tour in 1994.

Chapman's professional achievements earned him vast recognition.  The mayors of Detroit and Long Beach, Calif., presented him proclamations and the key to each city.  In 1993, Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh named him Sagamore of the Wabash, the state's highest honor. He served as president and/or director of more than 30 Michigan and Detroit-area civic and charitable organizations.  Chapman became active in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and represented the Detroit Urban League and United Negro College Fund in several controversial situations.  He admitted to shedding "buckets of tears of joy" when Willy T. Ribbs became the first African-American driver to qualify for the Indy 500 in 1991.

“Jim set the ultimate standard of professionalism, class and dignity,” said Knight. “He knew that building good one-on-one professional relationships with journalists was important in good times and absolutely essential in bad times. That’s too often missing today in a communications age where an E-mail or text message is incorrectly considered ‘relationship-building.’ Jim was a true ‘people person’ and knew nothing could replace a handshake, a face-to-face conversation, or the sound of another person’s voice.”

“The true honor of this award is not the plaque,” Knight concluded. “The true honor is having your name forever associated with that of the great James P. Chapman.”

PREVIOUS JIM CHAPMAN AWARD HONOREES:
1991 – Michael Knight
1992 – Tom Blattler
1993-94 – Deke Houlgate and Hank Ives
1995 – Kathi Lauterbach
1996 – Marc Spiegel
1997 – Mike Zizzo
1998 – Tamy Valkosky
1999 -- Carol Wilkins
2000-2003 – (Award not presented)
2004 – Doug Stokes
2005 – Susan Arnold
2006 – Kevin Kennedy
2007 – Dave Densmore and Bob Carlson
2008 – Judy Stropus
2009 –  (Award not presented)
2010 -- Jim Hunter
2011 -- Bill York
2012 -- Judy Kouba Dominick and Nancy Wager


Sunday, October 13, 2013

DIXON MIGHT BE YEAR's BEST RACER

If Helio Castroneves doesn't win the (final) "Izod" IndyCar series championship this Saturday night in the MavTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway, it will be the fourth consecutive year a Roger Penske team driver has blown the title near season's end. But if Scott Dixon takes the trophy -- and even if he doesn't -- Dixon deserves very serious Driver of the Year consideration.

Even the NASCAR-centric media voters should take a long, deep look at Dixon. (Along with Donny Schatz, who has 22 World of Outlaws feature wins -- and, yes -- Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson.)

Right from the year's first race, on the streets of St. Pete, Dixon has been maximizing what he had to work with. He went from 20th on the grid to fifth at the end there. Let's remember Honda was clearly behind Chevrolet early on and certainly at Indianapolis. But Dixon, sometimes starting deep in the field, was turning in solid points results. Not that it was widely noticed by the national media "experts." So when he was able to start winning at Pocono and Toronto, those early gritty points runs suddenly took on even more significance.

I doubt many people would have thought Dixon, coming out of Indy, would come to the finale in position as championship leader. But that's what he is. No matter the result in California, to me, he has the look of maybe the season's best RACER.


Here's the fundamental mistake sports broadcasters make: They think they are on-site to cover the game, race, match, etc. No. They are there to cover the NEWS. CBS wasn't ready to cover the news of the stadium blackout at this year's Super Bowl and NBCSN wasn't nimble enough to report on the spectator injuries at the Houston IndyCar race. They should have been prepared.


Should the NFL's Washington Redskins change the team's name? Candidly, that's a question for the politically correct crowd, but I expect in today's environment it eventually will happen. That's not the issue at issue here for this blog. The issue is media organizations who decide, on their own as a political statement, to refuse to call the team by its current legal-and-proper name. I'm not talking about what opinion columnists or commentators decide to do. I'm talking about media orgs -- supposedly in business to factually report the news -- deciding as a matter of policy to become part of the story and help influence the news. That is wrong and another very troubling sign for what now passes for "journalism."


I had several Es regarding what I wrote last week about sports car racing. Let me just add this: It's good the Powers-That-Be finally got together (read that: Money from Jim France to Don Panoz) to form one series. But, as we all saw in IndyCar, that does not translate to automatic success or regained popularity. Given all the to-be-expected transition issues, car rules unclarity, only 11 races per class, and too many classes (a necessary evil to maintain car counts and keep competitiors happy), I fully expect 2014 to be a fairly messy season. That's not negativity. I'm a longtime sports car fan and was part of the Castrol Jaguar team that finished 1-2 at Daytona in 1990. It is just a statement of historical fact.


It's good news anytime Dave Argabright writes something new. His latest book is Let's Go Racing, the story of ASA founder and president Rex Robbins. Go to DaveArgabright.com for more information. 

[ announcement of the winner of the 2013 Jim Chapman Award for excellence in motorsports public relations here next week ]


Sunday, October 06, 2013

HOUSTON, THE MEDIA HAS A PROBLEM

The lack of fundamental reporting and interviewing skills on motorsports TV continues to cast doubt on those involved and the judgment of decision-makers. Let me cite three more examples:

1. NBCSN's Leigh Diffey talked-up all the "news" since the last IndyCar race and there was a graphic, too. But what wasn't mentioned or listed as "news" was official announcement that Izod is departing as series sponsor. No, that wasn't exactly a surprise, but surely by anyone's definition it was "news" since the last race. This leaves in-the-know viewers with the impression these presentations are dangerously close to continuing the old Versus philosophy of "hear no evil, see no evil." The mistake was compounded when Jon Beekhuis interviewed Roger Penske and didn't ask him if Izod was going to continue with his team as a sponsor. I've said before Jon is much better as a booth analyst and the Penske interview proved it again. It's all about CREDIBILITY.

2. Why wasn't THIS question asked during the Ganassi-to-Chevrolet IndyCar news conference? Will Chevy also power CGR's Grand-Am car(s)? The question should have been even more obvious since the linkage of CGR's NASCAR entries was emphasized in the announcement.

3. I guess announcers like Diffey, who say in the wake of a big accident that they won't "speculate" but then go right ahead and do just that, don't even realize the difference in doing or not doing it. And why didn't the NBCSN producer put a pit reporter and camera crew on a golf cart and down to the Dario Franchitti accident scene? The story was there, including what happened to spectators, not that James Hinchcliffe finished third.

Elsewhere from last week's news front:

* NBC Nightly News sensationalized the Franchitti accident, playing the "split from Ashley Judd" card, and the voice-over reporter saying the track had reinforced fences since Dan Wheldon's (not named) fatal crash two years ago. Of course, the Houston track didn't exist until this season, so there were not fences to be reinforced. What bothered me as much as anything about the report was it was done by a Los Angeles-based reporter, who knew nothing about the Houston race, except no doubt what he read off the Internet and wire reports. His "report" was nothing but an attempt to make the viewer think NBC was doing some actual, real REPORTING. It was not. And this is an all-too-common falsehood done across the TV networks, as budget cuts have eliminated field offices and bureaus. When the Pope visited South America some months ago, Fox News put out a report voiced by a reporter sitting in Los Angeles. Viewers, do not be fooled!

* Why hasn't this question been asked of United SportsCar officials? Instead of wasting all the time, effort and money trying to equalize the performance of Daytona Prototypes (Grand-Am) and P2 (ALMS) cars -- teams are STILL waiting for the rules (seems impossible to me) -- why didn't the series take a page from Tony George (yes, Tony George!), who bought IRL chassis for all Champ Car teams when the series combined. There are only a handful of P2 cars compared with the majority count of DPs. Seems to me it would have been easier and, in the end, cheaper to do it this way.

* In an effort to jump-start interest in Speed Weeks and, ultimately, the main event of the Daytona 500, Daytona International Speedway officials start SW with a race on the infield road course. SOUND FAMILIAR?

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, September 29, 2013

REMEMBERING DOVER's CASE OF PETTY LARCENY

Dover is the least interesting Chase race to me. No disrespect to Denis McGlynn and staff. I covered many boring 500-mile Dover marathons when I worked at the Philadelphia Daily News. With all the recent talk of NASCAR controversy, and Jimmie Johnson's track record win Sunday, it reminded me of a long-ago Dover race I covered. So, let's go back in time, to the Daily News story topped by my byline on Sept. 15, 1975.


DOVER, Del. -- Forget the mumbling about some boxing matches being fixed. Never mind the occasional inferences that there are pro football players who shave points in order to beat the betting-pool spreads.

Yesterday's Delaware 500 at Dover Downs International Speedway appeared to be a case of Petty larceny.

No one would point their finger directly at Richard Petty after his amazing win, coming from six laps behind the leaders after a pit stop to repair a broken steering arm with about 150 miles remaining. Rather, 37-year-old Buddy Arrington of Martinsville, Va., was said to be the driver wearing the black hat.

Petty, 38, the five-time NASCAR Grand National champion, was easily holding a one-lap edge over the field when Elmo Langley's Ford blew in turn three. The STP-Dodge driver was right behind.

"The crank, rods, pistons, you name it, came flying out," King Richard recalled after collecting the $14,725 first-place check. "I ran over it and it knocked a big hole, about like a good-sized cantaloupe, in the floorboard. They (his pit crew) had to reset the front end."

While Petty sat helplessly, Lennie Pond, Cale Yarborough, Dick Brooks and Benny Parsons diced for the lead on the high-banked, one-mile oval before a sun-warmed crowd of 28,000.

Showing the speed of a Saturn V booster lifting Apollo toward the moon, the Randleman N.C., rocket took up the chase and watched as Pond retired and Yarborough slowed with engine problems. Still, with 22 laps left, Petty was about 20 seconds behind Brooks and Parsons.

At that point, Arrington gently spun into the turn-four infield and waited for the yellow flag to appear. When it didn't, he drove through the pits and stopped next to the third-turn wall, like a frustrated center-city parker.

THAT brought out the day's fifth caution flag and allowed Petty to close on the two front-runners. When the green reappeared, he quickly zapped Brooks and Parsons and went on to take his 174th Winston Cup victory by two seconds.

"I don't think I would have ever caught up if it hadn't been for that last yellow," Petty admitted.

Brooks, who took second, and Parsons knew that. Heavens to Andy Granatelli, they knew that.

"I can't say there was teamwork or collusion, but I think we were robbed," Parsons, this year's Daytona 500 winner, said. "We didn't deserve to win but we should have been given a fair chance to win."

"I'd be glad to take his (Arrington's) car out right now and run faster than he did all day," said Brooks. "If I didn't, I'd give him my prize money ($9,000.)

"Maybe he was scared and just pulled off the track," Brooks said facetiously. "Or maybe he needed his truck paid for (Arrington recently purchased one of Petty's old transporters.)"

Bill France Jr., NASCAR president, and officials Lin Kuchler and Bill Gazaway inspected Arrington's racer and found no signs of the handling difficulties Buddy had used as an excuse for his actions.

Such shenanigans are not totally unheard of. One old-time driver remarked after the race, "I used to get paid more for spinning than for racing."



The media are calling it maybe the greatest comeback in American sports history. That's Oracle overcoming a huge win-loss record to claim the America's Cup. To me, though, the international sailing competition was an example of wretched excess where competitors get to write the rules on what is actually raced and thus the yachting sport lost touch with its base. Sound familiar, race fans? We saw it in CART. We saw it in the IRL. We saw it in NASCAR until the automakers got tough with Daytona Beach and the Gen-6 car was introduced this year, bringing back the visual connection between the showroom and the speedway.

What was generally passed off as "sailboats" (exotic catamarans speeding along on hydrofoils) in San Francisco had as much to do with what the weekend sailor pilots as NASCAR's CoT did with passenger models. Yes, I know, we live in a high-tech world and the younger generation is consumed with all-things tech -- but how many of them are out there actually sailing their own boats? Damn few, I bet. Meanwhile, the natural core base fan had zero emotional attachment to the America's Cup craft and crews. Competitor ego got in the way of common sense.

I much prefer the old days of sailing off Rhode Island with Ted Turner and Dennis Connor taking honors for the U.S. That seemed much more relevant. To me, last week's incredible Yankee Stadium ceremonies honoring the great and class act Mariano Rivera were much more important than some spaceship-cum-sailboat.


Let's just see how many of the low-information chatfans post apologies this week for all the inaccurate, nonsense, guesses about this Tuesday's Phoenix International Raceway announcement. As I've said many times, these days, you can't be a good race fan without knowing something about the business and politics of racing. That means you have to understand there is more to all of this than the actual racing. Let's see how many stand up (anonymously, of course)and say, "Boy, did I have that wrong." And use that as a lesson going forward.


I knew George Bignotti for many years. It was sometimes challenging to deal with him as a sanctioning body official. It was interesting to deal with him as a sponsor representative. I have to say that whenever I asked George to talk to a reporter, when I was with CART or repping Emerson Electric, he was gracious and did a great job. Bignotti died Friday at age 97 with the record of seven Indianapolis 500 wins and most Indy-series victories by a chief mechanic securing his place in the sport's history.


Breaking News: Marty Reid out at ESPN, effective immediately. Allen Bestwick to call rest of Nationwide series. New IndyCar host unannounced. (As first posted by me on Twitter Sunday.) Elsewhere: Jerry Archambeault, NHRA VP-PR and Communications, has left for an agency job.

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, September 22, 2013

TOO LITTLE. TOO LATE?

Maybe, just maybe, Michael Waltrip finally gets it. Too bad it just might be too late.

It apparently took the multi-million dollar loss of his longtime NAPA sponsorship for Waltrip to understand the depth of his problems coming out of Richmond. Because, at first, he sure didn't sound like someone who understood the profound consequences of what happened in attempting to manipulate the Chase.

Waltrip was a posterboy for the modern pseudo-celebrity who gets in trouble. On his first TV interview, he whined about Twitter posters being "mean" to him. Chicagoland morning he cited the mistake as merely sending Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers down pit road on the last lap at Richmond. That was completely outrageous and proof the team owner wasn't honestly addressing the real issue. Even the statement issued on behalf of MWR after the NAPA decision came across with an undercurrent of defiance.

But then, finally, came a statement directly from Waltrip. For the first time, he apologized and accepted responsibility. “To the fans and those who made their voice heard through social media, as the owner, I am responsible for all actions of MWR. I sincerely apologize for the role our team played and for the lines NASCAR has ruled were crossed by our actions at Richmond." Waltrip then met the media Friday morning at New Hampshire. The Charlotte Observer's story began this way: "Sounding contrite and rattled . . . "

As I wrote on Twitter, in an age of declining standards, NAPA did the right thing. It stood tall for integrity, sportsmanship and -- yes -- its own image. I feel sorry for Martin Truex Jr., who has driven his can off with an injured wrist. Whether MWR can actually field a competitive No. 56 entry next year without major sponsorship is certainly questionable. And, have no doubt, such sponsorship will be extremely difficult to find this late in the game. And, let's be honest, it's going to take a brave CEO or marketing VP to take the place of a sponsor who opted-out of its deal early because of the team's ethical lapses.

If the team is shut down, if employees are laid off, then it is Michael Waltrip's responsibility to reach into his own pocket and pay them full salary and benefits for a full year if they can't find other employment. It's his name on the door. The buck stops with him.

And, let me close with this: Fox Sports cannot allow its employee, Waltrip, to use its network or cable channels as outlets to try to rehab his image. (And neither can brother Darrell.) Frankly, Fox management should have, by now, told Michael he's parked for the rest of the season.


Helio Castroneves will likely win this year's IndyCar series championship but hasn't been a real race winning threat at the Indianapolis 500 for 3-4 years. Will Power hasn't had the pace of the last three years and, having blown three consecutive championships, has shown himself to be more Kevin Cogan than Rick Mears. Those are the reasons Roger Penske signed Juan Pablo Montoya for an open-wheel return in 2014 even though there is no sponsorship in place and, let us remember, Penske has cited lack of sponsorship in the past for not running the likes of Ryan Briscoe and A.J. Allmendinger(both, like Power, are not mentally tough enough). Penske apparently felt Montoya was a better choice than available free agents Tony Kanaan and James Hinchcliffe, proclaimed by some in the media and the chatroom crowd as the new "face" of IndyCar, which made me laugh. No doubt Montoya himself is on a one-year deal with Penske-favorable options, and if he succeeds, non-performing Power or Castroneves could be on the outs depending on sponsorship with Helio a possible Indy-only driver.


Just asking: What was the point of ISC spending all that money to build an infield road course at Kansas Speedway but IMSA (i.e., NASCAR) not awarding the track a United SportsCar Series event for 2014? Says to me KS took a big financial bath on its Grand-Am race earlier this year.


Why we continue to despair about the media: Only months after the embarrassing examples of inaccurate "get it first, not necessarily right" reports after the Boston Marathon bombings, the mainstream media were right back at it again with last week's Washington, D.C. Navy Yard shootings. NBC and CBS were forced to retract false reports. Across the board, media went with an inaccurate description of the weapon. Nothing has been learned and I, for one, refuse to accept (and am sick of hearing) excuses about how mistakes are going to happen when covering breaking news. How about this? Waiting for confirmation of actual, real, truthful FACTS!


Twitter followers saw this last week: My new CompetitionPlus.com column -- Improving the Fan Experience is a Must!
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/26431-michael-knight-improving-fan-experience-mandatory-for-nhra

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, September 15, 2013

THE WORST THING THAT COULD HAPPEN TO NASCAR

Despite all the progress NASCAR has made over the last two decades -- spreading its schedule to become a truly national sport, with big money, major network TV deals, impressive sponsorships and celebrity/star drivers -- it has never managed to escape the ignorance and bias of a significant group of elitist mainstream media people who still look down on stock car racing and its fans as too Southern, too blue-collar and too linked to its moonshiner past.

It was only a few years ago, for example, when well-known NASCAR expert Tony Kornheiser "reported" that he had been told Dale Earnhardt Jr. was allowed to win the Daytona 500 pole in an illegal car. No evidence was offered. Just he "heard" and to the likes of an elite egoist like Kornheiser, that was enough, it struck him as something that could easily happen. After all, it's NASCAR, you know.

Which is a big reason why NASCAR did not do enough to punish Michael Waltrip Racing after the Richmond disgrace. And, why, the absolute worst thing that could happen to the credibility of the sanction would be for Clint Bowyer to win -- or even seriously contend for -- the Sprint Cup championship.

You knew something big was up when NASCAR called journalists to its R&D Center at 8:15 p.m. Monday night. (The season-opening Monday Night Football doubleheader was well underway.) You all know by now the penalties that were issued, the main impact being Martin Truex Jr. knocked-out of the Chase and Ryan Newman put in.

For the sake of fairness, for the imperative that is maintaining its legitimacy at all costs, NASCAR did not do enough. Not nearly enough.

The Chase, after all, was created to give NASCAR an increased national media profile against football. If that increased media attention is there, that means more scrutiny. Those higher expectations come with it the need for higher standards from officials and competitors.

I'm good with the end result for Truex and spotter/Michael Waltrip Racing exec Ty Norris. (It's absolutely not credible that MWR didn't have pre-race scenarios to help Truex make the Chase -- totally bogus -- I've been in such team situations.) But the penalties, and the inadequate statement issued by Waltrip that didn't say a word about Bowyer's spin, didn't nearly do all that needed to be done to maintain any sense of non-professional wrestling conduct. To really make it right, I would have:

1. Docked Bowyer sufficient points to drop him to 11th in the regular-season standings, and thus, eliminated him from the Chase. (Jeff Gordon, who also got screwed in this deal, would have advanced.)Bowyer also would have been fined $250,000 and suspended from competing in the 2014 Daytona 500. Yes, I would have carried over a penalty to the following season (as CART Chief Steward Wally Dallenbach once did to Paul Tracy) to inflict the punishment of non-participation in the year's biggest race and the embarrassment of still being on-track in 2013, just not in the Chase. Let the booing begin.

2. A $250,000 fine to Bowyer crew chief Brian Pattie and suspension for the rest of the 2013 season. Supposedly, NASCAR makes the crew chief responsible for the whole team.

3. I don't know what an appropriate fine is for a spotter, but something.

4. The buck stops with Waltrip himself. Therefore, suspension from all NASCAR activities (and, to Fox Sports 1 executives, that should mean TV announcing) through Dec. 31, 2013.

5. A $1 million fine to Michael Waltrip Racing.

Not even the Kornheiser types could accuse NASCAR of not managing its competition is a most serious way.

I posted on Twitter about this, but Waltrip and Bowyer didn't do themselves any favors with their interviews on Race Hub or SportsCenter (respectively), either. Waltrip whined about people who were "mean" to him on Twitter. Bowyer whined about the "pressure" of the Chase. The most powerful impression to come across from both was: Self-absorbed. Ricky Craven, who should be hired by NBC Sports Network for its NASCAR team in 2015, was excellent in questioning Bowyer. Craven mentioned fans who felt cheated -- Bowyer didn't respond directly.

Here's a Crisis Communications basic: When making a SINCERE apology, never use the word "but." Never!

Of course, it got worse for NASCAR as the week went along, with radio communications from David Gilliland's team implying there was a deal with Penske Racing to benefit Joey Logano. NASCAR put both teams on what has come to be viewed as meaningless probation. This cloud makes a Logano title the second worst thing that could happen to NASCAR. Jeff Gordon was added as a 13th Chase driver. If the exact situation existed but the driver involved was Travis Kvapil, not Gordon, would the same decision have been made? No doubt Gordon got screwed at Richmond in a season that hasn't been his, or his team's, best. But superstars are superstars in every sport and often get the benefit of the doubt. I'm accepting of that -- in the real world, they've earned it -- and OK with Jeff in the Chase. Besides everything else, it's good for business.

One talking point during NASCAR's growth period was it seemed to fans to be a safe harbor from societal ills that occurred in the stick-and-ball sports. It was often cited that protecting the interests and image of sponsors was an important reason for this. But just as NASCAR has worked to include more segments of the American public in its sport/industry, so have the lowered bar of acceptable standards evident throughout our society found their way into the garage area.

Why should anyone believe conduct away from the track doesn't carry over to it? If, generally speaking, competitors think it's OK to conduct their off-track lives a certain way, why would anyone think they change once inside a speedway? Ethics are always ethics. Ethics are not situational. There was a time when standard driver contracts contained a morals clause. Yes, I know, times change, and I'm no moralist, but one thing -- just as an example -- we've certainly seen is having children out of wedlock doesn't violate such clauses these days. Even as the sanction prides itself on being so into family values.

What happened at Richmond went far beyond the days of Junior Johnson's "innovative" cars and other things that have become cemented in NASCAR's heritage and lore. What happened at Richmond shows us the modern NASCAR sport isn't a better NASCAR sport. Or a more respectable one.


Talk about a lack of communication and/or cooperation: The Chase, PGA Tour's FedEx Cup semifinal, Bears and White Sox all played Sunday in the Chicago area. Ridiculous!


ESPN's SportsCenter on Tuesday morning, Sept. 10, lowered the bar in its own way. After Coach Chip Kelly's Philadelphia Eagles' fast-paced offense ran 53 plays in the first half of the previous night's game, some SC producer decided the show should go for 53 stories in its first hour. Consideration of importance, context, substance and other journalistic imperatives weren't acknowledged. Shame on ESPN. Shame on supposed "news" show SportsCenter. And shame on Hannah Storm, who punted her own journalistic credibility for a gimmick. She thus stepped dangerously close to Susan Rice/Jay Carney territory.


And, finally, when it comes to lowering the bar in the PR industry, Goodyear showed again last week it is a true leader. Once again I skipped coverage of a tire test at Phoenix International Raceway, refusing to accept insulting restrictions such as being escorted from the entrance tunnel to the media center and absolutely no access to the garage area. A mere 15-minute photo op was offered: at 4:45 p.m. (!) Of course, not one single word either verbally or in writing from Goodyear's so-called "PR" person even though local media is one of the foundational basics of publicity, something taught Day 1 to PR pre-schoolers. I've written before of G's fine corps of PR reps of decades ago. Dick Ralston and the rest would have known that all Goodyear does with such restrictions and non-communication (besides being unprofessional) is make itself look unconfident of the quality of its own product.

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, September 08, 2013

THE MOST CHALLENGING TIME OF THE YEAR

Many fans I know think this is the most exciting time of the racing season: NASCAR's Sprint Cup Chase and NHRA's Countdown quasi-playoffs are about to begin. Elsewhere, in IndyCar, Nationwide, Trucks, the World of Outlaws and so forth, including the Grand-Am and ALMS sports car series competing separately for the last time, seasons are winding down with champions to be determined.

I understand the enthusiasm and passion of that fandom. To me, however, this is the racing industry's most challenging time of year.

The NFL and Big Time college football are back and, have no doubt, football remains America's most popular and dominant sport. Despite its own challenges with concussions and making politically correct rule changes which alter the game in the name of greater player safety. Whether there will be a fan backlash remains to be seen, but certainly, there's no evidence of it yet. The NFL wisely got the head injury issue out of the headlines, for now, with its $765 million legal settlement (paid over a number of years) with former players. Believe me, the NFL can afford it, with estimated annual revenues in the billion$.

NASCAR's best hope to stay in the mainstream media coverage and TV ratings game vs. football is a compelling, dramatic championship run involving more than a Jimmie Johnson runaway. Dale Jr. in the mix would help, but I'm not expecting that.

But it's not just about the actual racing. It's about the storylines -- either real or PR generated -- that can be picked-up by the media and then catch the attention of the public.

Saturday night's Richmond "regular season" finale ended with two controversies. ESPN, in its role of storyteller and news organization, reported one well and completely blew the other.

I'm not sure there can be any argument winner Carl Edwards accelerated too soon on the last restart. Booth analyst Dale Jarrett said it directly: "You can't do that." But there was no penalty and Edwards got to celebrate.

I was at Daytona in July 2001 when NBC debuted as a new NASCAR TV partner. A comment from a member of the NBC production crew was shared with me, this person calling pit reporter Dave Burns "lazy." I took that to mean intellectually, not physically, lazy. I remembered that conversation Saturday night when Burns completely botched the victory lane interview by not pressing the restart issue with Edwards. Nothing could have been more obvious. Nothing was more journalistically necessary. Not doing it was a complete disgrace.

One thing to watch when NBC returns in 2015 is what current ESPN "talent" the network will pick up. Allen Bestwick as the race caller should be a clear choice. But Burns leads the list of those who should not be. I like Dr. Jerry Punch -- he's always been kind to me and is a loyal, genuinely nice man -- but his habit (and Vince Welch's) of referring to interview subjects as "my friend" and other words of affection is outrageously unprofessional. Feel free to cite me an example of a network NFL or baseball sideline reporter doing something like that. It's not acceptable and doesn't do NASCAR any favors.

One of the most meaningful elements of the Richmond telecast always is the post-race interviews with the drivers who either made the Chase, or didn't. Ryan Newman throwing his pit crew under the bus and Kurt Busch nearly in tears were classic examples. As the TV types say, it "made for good television." I was left shaking my head at how unemotional Jeff Gordon seemed -- but it's been one of those seasons for the four-time champion, and I'm guessing he was expecting it.

Rusty Wallace and Ray Evernham bailed ESPN out of the journalistic hole dug by Burns in victory lane and the gushy post-race interview introductions by directly taking on the question: Did Clint Bowyer intentionally spin at the end to help Michael Waltrip Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. make the Chase? The video and team radio communication evidence made for a strong case. Even so, too often, we've seen former competitors punt on such controversies. Wallace and Evernham went at it head-on. As they should have. Great stuff.

That's the kind of honest reporting and commentary that will be needed over the next 10 weeks to give NASCAR a real foothold as football marches up and down the American sports landscape.

But ESPN should have put on Mike Helton or Robin Pemberton to explain NASCAR's side of the restart non-call as well as Bowyer's Chase-altering loop. Frankly, that was another botch to end the post-race coverage.

P.S. -- For the record, NASCAR did the right thing in denying access to its events to Kelly Heaphy, girlfriend of Truck series driver Mike Skeen. The now infamous Heaphy was the one who slapped Max Papis after the recent Mosport race. In my view, she should have been charged with assault. NASCAR also fined her $2,500 although I'm not sure how it can collect. I invite the likes of Heaphy, who lower the standards of conduct and thus the standards of the entire sport, to stay away -- permanently.

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Monday, September 02, 2013

A DISSATISFYING WEEKEND

Higher personal priorities means I have not had much time for this week's posting. But . . .

I found the traditional and prestigious Labor Day racing weekend to have been very, VERY dissatisfying.

I'll start with ESPN2's Monday presentation of NHRA's Big Go, the Chevy Performance U.S. Nationals. This has, in the past, largely been a "live" presentation so I just could not believe it when the first hour-plus of the show was wasted on pre-taped filler. I expected the show to immediately begin with "live" first-round action. WE WANT TO SEE RACING! Even in Glendora, Calif., it should be obvious (well, wait, this is NHRA) that the TV model is completely outmoded and outright broken. The collapsing TV audience numbers prove it. If the true definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then we'll know who really is insane if NHRA and ESPN come back in 2014 with the same format and people. Social media and the immediate nature of Internet news means taped-delayed sports events belong in a 20th century museum. And people changes are needed, too. The concept of keeping pit reporters locked up in a production trailer during qualifying is absolutely one of the dumbest things I've ever seen. They are REPORTERS. They need to be out in the pit lane REPORTING. I don't know how more obvious that could be. Except, of course, for the truly woeful Jamie Howe, who, if she ever asks a MEANINGFUL question, it will be the first. (Gary Scelzi as a guest analyst was great and Paul Page's return for essays and interviews was welcome.)

Get out the broom, NHRA and ESPN management!

I will say the Nationals again proved the completely unpredictable and fascinating nature of nitro drag racing. Just look at who lost in the first round Monday: Antron Brown and Tony Schumacher, the 1-2 Top Fuel qualifiers, and pole winner Matt Hagan and Courtney Force in Funny Car.

Elsewhere: I thought a lot of the driving in Sunday's Baltimore IndyCar event was just terrible, amateur-hour stuff . . . The on-going talk of an international off-season series in IndyCar is astoundingly ridiculous given the political and security and economic realities of the world and shows no learning has been done of open-wheel racing's past such misadventures and the team economics of such. Honestly, Mark Miles, it is simple: Most team sponsors use U.S. marketing budgets. Non-American races thus produce a ZERO (or near-0) ROI. I shake my head that time and effort continues to be wasted on such follies when the needs and problems here at home are so damn obvious . . . Finally, there was the depressing (not amusing, as too many TV heads portrayed it) spectacle of another driver's girlfriend slapping Max Papis (yes, Max is a friend of mine) after the Truck race. If that does not show how standards have declined, well -- Attention, NASCAR: Pull the credential and ban her from race sites for the rest of the season, at a minimum. To call her stupid is too polite.

Yes, dissatisfying.

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, August 25, 2013

THE NATIONALS MOOD

The Big Go is this weekend (finals Monday) but I doubt the Business of Drag Racing atmosphere surrounding the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals will be positive.

Amidst a season of plunging TV numbers and attendance, and sponsorship levels that have the gap between the top and bottom half of the nitro class ladders maybe larger than ever, came more bad news last week: Castrol will end its 29-year sponsorship of John Force Racing after next season. (That's one year less than Budweiser's record 30-year run with Kenny Bernstein.) This just weeks after Ford announced it will exit pro NHRA racing after 2014.

When NHRA's biggest name (John) with a daughter (Courtney) who stands at the foot of sports marketing superstardom admits his team can't survive as it currently exists without a new automaker partner and big sponsor, it's legitimate to question of biz health of the Mello Yello series. (A big problem is the lack of activation by the Coca-Cola Co. brand, which was publicly promised when the entitlement switch from Full Throttle was made.)

I won't be in Indy for the Big Go, but I have a feeling the private conversations among team owners and headliner drivers won't carry a good vibe. I know this: In any other properly run business enterprise, the Board of Directors would call in the CEO and ask for his views regarding the negative metrics. Then, they'd ask for his plan to address those problems.

Those conversations need to happen. I'm also going to hope, however, that the downers won't detract from the entertainment and competition of a great motorsports event. As I've said for years, even if you aren't a straight-line fan, you should get out and attend the Nationals. Or, at least, watch on ESPN2.


I Tweeted about this, but it's worth repeating here: Since basic common sense seems to be in such short supply in our everyday lives, last week's news that Mark Martin will sub for Tony Stewart the rest of this season (except Talladega) was refreshing. Martin was leaving the No. 55 after this year anyway and Brian Vickers already was confirmed as the full-time driver for 2014. Giving Stewart-Haas Racing a quality replacement in the No. 14 while allowing Vickers extra seat time with his new team, well, it just made common sense.

Even Martin noted what he called "the amazing amount of cooperation that it took to get this deal done by so many parties, and I haven't seen this much cooperation in the past, and I think it was largely in part for the incredible amount of respect that everyone has in the sport for Tony Stewart."

Applause to Michael Waltrip Racing, Aaron's, Toyota, Chevrolet, Mobil 1, Bass Pro Shops and everyone else who had to give the green light.


Regular readers know I'm a sprint car fan and am a National Sprint Car Hall of Fame voter. But it's important to be honest and admit it's been a tough few months within this exciting, daring -- and dangerous -- sport. Jason Leffler and HoF driver Kramer Williamson have died in crashes. Stewart broke his leg in his third big wreck of the year and is out for the rest of the season.

The economic scale of sprint car racing means the reality is more limited resources for safety measures. I'd love to see USAC and the World of Outlaws step forward in a leadership position and help fund some new initiatives. But the best bet in improving the safety of the cars themselves might well be Stewart and Kasey Kahne, who have access to things and people most sprint car owners don't.


Just wondering: With ESPN to be out of the NASCAR game come 2015, what will it do with Jayski, which it owns?


Here's the downside to social media: Comments on Ben Affleck as Batman. Consider all the other important news out there. Ridiculous. Sad.

[ more next week . . . ]

Sunday, August 18, 2013

LET THE COMPETITION BEGIN

It has been a momentous few weeks in the media business.

You've seen the headlines: The Graham family, sainted patrons of investigative journalism and Social Washington, agreed to sell the Washington Post to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos for $250 million. The D.C. insiders wailed about the "end of an era." The New York Times Co. dumped-off the Boston Globe to John Henry, Red Sox' and Roush Fenway Racing partner, for a mere $70 mil, a tiny fraction of what it paid for the paper. Big Mouth/Bigger Ego Should-Have-Been-Farmed-Out-to-Pasture-Long-Ago Globe columnist Bob Ryan called it "scary." I would suggest Ryan deal with it or quit.

Given the troubled state of the newspaper and print businesses, I bet those who get to keep their jobs thanks to Henry will have a vastly different opinion.

We'll see what much-needed new ideas Bezos and Henry will bring to these iconic enterprises. And how the actual journalism is impacted. It's difficult to imagine how the Globe could increase its reporting on the Sox. But will criticism be tolerated by ownership? I got an E-mail asking if I thought NASCAR would now get more coverage in the Globe. I said: No.

Not to worry. NASCAR recently completed its long-term TV deals with more races (eventually, including part of the Nationwide series schedule) on the various Fox networks and a move off ABC/ESPN to NBC/NBCSN. At a reported total of more than $8 billion, this again proves the MONEY in U.S. motorsports is in NASCAR. The chatroomers can criticize all they want, but that is the true bottom line.

But the REAL action began Saturday with the launch of Fox Sports 1, which replaced fade-to-black Speed Channel. Combine FS1 with NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus, becoming just NBCSN) and CBS Sports cable channel, and suddenly, ESPN has REAL competition for the first time. EVER. This reminds me of when CNN had the cable news space all to itself and basically dictated terms of what was -- and wasn't -- "news." And how that "news" was covered. Then, along came MSNBC, and -- far more importantly and successfully -- Fox News Channel.

That's the way it's been for decades with ESPN. It could arrogantly do as it pleased and decided what "news" was "worthwhile" for SportsCenter. I'm hoping competition will make that a thing of the past. I remember when I worked at the Philadelphia Daily News and we, for a time, had four competing daily newspapers. It made us better.

Besides various NASCAR programming and, starting next year, the United SportsCar Series, FS1 has loaded-up on popular sports, including baseball. Last week, Fox grabbed the rights to USGA golf from NBC -- golf being a new venture for the network. I'm hoping the additional resources and higher emphasis from management will lead to better auto racing production. (Are Phil Parsons and Hermie Sadler the best it can do in the Truck series? Really?) It's a new era and, in part, that should mean the end of the weak pit-road microphone-holders who make speeches instead of asking crisp, meaningful, to-the-point Chris Economaki-esque questions. THAT'S what viewers APPRECIATE. THAT'S what viewers WANT.

More than anything, I'm hoping for some good, honest news reporting from FS1. That will largely come from its late-night version of SportsCenter. Will sports whose rights aren't owned by Fox get the bottom-feeder treatment we've come to expect from ESPN over the years? That would be a mistake, for a lot of reasons. CREDIBILITY needs to be established at FS1 and I'm hoping all involved know that and will act accordingly.

Yes, I know, there will be gimmicks and nonsense. But, please, FS1, not to the degree now found on SportsCenter. NFL guy Sal Paolantonio is actually a very good reporter, but he's recently taken a big back, back, back step with his Chris (Buffoon) Berman style. Why the NFL and Pro Football Hall of Fame permits an MC with an ego that overshadows the HoF honorees is beyond me.

Finally, sadly, is the impending Howard Beale ESPN2 show. A few days ago I saw an interview with ESPN President John Skipper in which he said the hiring of Beale is in keeping with the net's tradition of "smart." I guess Rutledge Wood was otherwise occupied.

Here's an easy prediction: Skipper, in the end, won't look too smart in giving Beale yet another chance.

Oh, how standards have fallen. Please, may true competition raise the bar.

[ more next Monday . . . ]