• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, June 30, 2013

RETURN TO POCONO

I actually walked some of the spinach farm that would give rise to Pocono International Raceway. I was given a tour, by then track General Manager Bill Marvel, of the 2.5-mile triangle oval while it was under construction. One memorable moment that day was when I asked about the "press box" and Marvel pointed to where it would be and corrected me that it would be called the "media box" because electronic and well as print journalists would be housed there. (Bill was ahead of his time.) Duly noted by me. This was more than four decades ago.

I attended the dinner in Philadelphia where the "Triple Crown" (Indy, Pocono, Ontario) was announced. I was there for the first Schaefer (beer) 500 in 1971, when Mark Donohue dominated but was passed by Joe Leonard in tricky Turn 2 in the closing laps, then learned Leonard's line and repassed him for the inaugural victory. I was there for the first USAC stock car race and the debut of NASCAR. I was there for Formula 5000 and IMSA road races and even the ill-fated World Series of Auto Racing, where midgets and sprints ran the infield three-quarter mile oval in the snow! I reported on most of those happenings for the Philadelphia Daily News. Frequent rainy days and a leaky infield media center led us to call it "Poco-No-Go."

I covered a lot of weird Pocono stories in those 1970s days. Deer ran onto the track, forcing yellows. A National Anthem singer, apparently under the influence of adult beverages, got booed. Pancho Carter let loose with a long list of complaints about the track that got him in hot water with his sponsor when I and others quoted him at length. A.J. Foyt invited me and one other writer into his garage one afternoon and offered his opinion on subjects ranging from Ted Kennedy to international wars to yes, the media. There were many traffic nightmares so Dr. Joseph Mattioli asked me to join him on a race-morning helicopter flight to survey the scene -- we wound-up making an emergency landing in a nearby open field. Roger Penske's helicopter wasn't allowed to land in the infield one year because -- no, I'm not making this up -- management claimed it was guarding against people sneaking in on helicopters without buying a ticket. (!)

I was there when USAC ran without CART in 1979. I was CART's communications director when that happened again in 1981 and lawsuits were filed. I was there when those issues were settled -- but hard feelings remained -- and CART leased the track for a 1983 race, the Domino's Pizza 500, which we promoted and staged on about 90 days notice. (Try that some time!) And I was there for CART's last race in 1989. The cars of Indy for which Pocono originally was built would not return.

Until this weekend. Last year Randy Bernard negotiated with new track leader Brandon Igdalsky to bring IndyCar back to Pocono. It's an important Business of Racing moment for both organizations. Bernard is gone, of course, but it's essential for IndyCar's future in the northeast (where we used to have races not just at Pocono, but also Langhorne, Trenton and Nazareth) to have an entertaining show. The kind that generates positive word-of-mouth buzz. It can't be another New Hampshire one-and-done deal. The series is too fragile as it is to take that sort of blow.

Doc Joe vowed open-wheel machines would never return to Pocono under his watch, but Igdalsky has made bold moves since Mattioli's death, including the much-needed call to shorten the Sprint Cup races to 400 miles. Now he's welcomed IndyCar back and is trying to sell tickets to three major events in a short period of time -- never an easy task.

I'm not buying the storyline that the "Triple Crown" has returned (with Auto Club Speedway's 500) because, due to TV time limitations, Pocono will only be 400 miles. But, I guess you could say for sentimental reasons, I'll be watching Pocono more closely than any race this season aside from the Indy 500 itself.

I wish I could have gone back to Pennsylvania to see it first-hand and remember again some of those strange stories I wrote about and was a part of. But that's not doable. If the racing is good, if the track's numerous facility and safety improvements work, if the crowd is at least respectable, I'll be glad. Good luck to all.


I joined other members of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame nominating and voting committee for a lively and passionate one-hour teleconference last week. The Hall's Board of Directors has revised the process which likely will mean a maximum of eight people will join the Hall in any given year (from the usual 12): Three drivers, two people from the "vehicles" category (owners, mechanics, etc.) and two from the "events" category (promoters, PA announcers, media, etc.) plus another person involved in the sport prior to 1945.

I support these changes. So should avid sprint car fans.  Sprint car racing is hard and it should be hard to get into the Hall. As several voters mentioned, there are many people worthy of consideration, but it's that very kind of debate over who is nominated and elected and who isn't that is healthy for the process, the sport, and the Hall.

I'm a strong avocate of honoring those who didn't have a "hands-on" role with the cars but who otherwise made important contributions to sprint car racing's success and helped bring a wider public attention to this thrilling type of motorsports. Such as sponsor/manufacturer representatives, promoters, officials, PA announcers, PR people and media. I spoke up for that during the call and will continue to encourage due consideration for those who helped make it happen.

The National Sprint Car Hall of Fame is located in Knoxville, Iowa. To learn more, go to the website: www.sprintcarhof.com

[ more next Monday, special thoughts on the seventh anniversary of this blog . . . ]

Sunday, June 23, 2013

NHRA WON THE WEEK

The political pundits love to proclaim the "winner" and "loser" of each week. Good or bad, right or wrong, that's the nature of today's non-stop media cycle.

In motorsports, NHRA was the clear winner last week. The Mello Yello series made its New England debut in Epping, N.H., to by all accounts huge and enthusiastic crowds. There was a media luncheon in Boston and Courtney Force was among the drivers who visited ESPN HQ in Bristol, CT. The inaugural national featured a Force Final -- John vs. Courtney for the first time -- with CF winning for the second time this season.

The Boston Globe ran a long, good piece on NHRA that included a line I really liked: "The sport has its quirks. But the atmosphere is infectious."

Also, NHRA made it official that it will return to the Phoenix-area as the Arizona Nationals will continue at Wild Horse Motorsports Park, formerly Firebird International Raceway. I broke the details in a Friday Arizona Republic exclusive. I also had an expanded version on CompetitionPlus.com. If you didn't grab these off my Twitter feed, here are the links to those two stories:

http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/20130621firebird-raceway-keeps-nhra-event-changes-management-name.html

http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/news/25442-firebird-raceway-becomes-wild-horse-motorsports-park-will-return-for-21014-arizona-nats

After meeting with Paul Clayton and Dick Hahne, the two main men on the Wild Horse project, I'm bullish on the future of that facility. I'll tell you more about them in my July CP.com column, coming in a couple of weeks.

Meanwhile: There was a driver fatality at Le Mans, Audi won again as predicted and almost 25 percent of the event was run under full-course yellow. IndyCar had heat races with no TV and Mark Miles accepted the failed business reality of Indy Lights and moved to dump off that series elsewhere. NASCAR (see below on the Nationwide race) had an OK road race with an unexpected winner in Martin Truex Jr. at Sonoma. 

The dominance of NASCAR and the current realities of mainstream media coverage in America means NHRA doesn't offen win the week. But it did last week, even with the unfortunate parking of Erica Enders-Stevens' winning Pro Stock team due to lack of sponsorship. Smiles are deserved by Tom Compton & Co.


Road America is one of my five favorite tracks and the original Can-Am and high-horsepower CART cars were awesome there. But the ending of Saturday's Nationwide series race was just plain annoying. It reminded me of an NBA game where it takes a half-hour to play the final two minutes. NASCAR should not use its Green-White-Checker rule at Elkhart Lake -- the four-mile laps just drag-out the finish way, WAY too long. Oh, the other thing I took away from the race was winner A.J. Allmendinger didn't know how to correctly pronounce the last name of the vice chairman of Penske Racing. (!) Somehow, that didn't surprise me.


Sign of the PR Times: I received a post-Le Mans news release that had plenty -- too many -- quotes from drivers and team executives, but -- BUT -- never gave the actual FINISHING POSITIONS of its cars. (!)

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, June 16, 2013

THINKING ABOUT . . .

Thinking about this and that . . . and USAC champion Jason Leffler. 


Here's an early nominee for Auto Racing Story of the Year: What's going on at Penske Racing .

To be the most polite and generous as possible, there seems to be a serious lack of attention to detail and quality control.

First, the Fords of Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano were found by NASCAR to have illegal rear-end housing modifications at Texas. That produced big fines and penalties, although crew chief suspensions were reduced on appeal. Then Brad K got docked again because his car was out-of-spec after Dover.

Helio Castroneves' IndyCar Texas win was clouded by a fine and points loss due to an underwing violation. And the Keselowski-owned Camping World Truck series entry driven by Ryan Blaney got nailed because it didn't meet minimum height at Texas.

What the . . . ???

My institutional memory goes back to when the team operated out of Newtown Square, Pa., and then Reading. I remember dry ice in fuel tanks and acid-dipping bodywork in the Trans-Am in the days before live TV and more-intense media and social media scrutiny.

But for a team and owner which/who prides itself/himself on image, this turn of events is incredible.

The team's invisible "media relations" people just might find out what some of us have known for years: Good relationships with journalists is always important. It's especially important when trouble hits and you -- and your sponsors -- could use the benefit of the doubt.

Throw in Keselowski's blunt comments, one of which before Daytona resulted in him being called into a private meeting with NASCAR's hierarchy, and the 2013 season is rapidly becoming a case study of how not to act as champions.


NHRA's return to New England comes this weekend at Epping, N.H., and, candidly, the sanction could use a jump-start. To me, at least, it's been a somewhat lackluster Mello Yello season on and off the track. (Still waiting for all that Big Activation Coca-Cola's responsible executive promised on a media conference call last year.) Things got off to an exciting start with Courtney Force's win at Pomona, but since then, I've noted Jeg Coughlin Jr.'s and Bob Vandergriff Jr.'s welcome return to the winner's circle, but not much else, other than Robert Hight's flying bodywork at Charlotte. A Funny Car win by Rhode Island's Bob Tasca III no doubt would be memorable for the NE fans.


Remember that Beaux Barfield was a Randy Bernard hire and now IndyCar is run by Mark Miles with Derrick Walker in charge of all-things competition. Making the Gasoline Alley rounds at IMS a few weeks ago, I got an earful about Barfield from one influential credential holder. Yes, it was just one person, but someone who is accomplished and knows the political lay of the IndyCar land. Stay tuned.


Many Business of Racing eyes are on Pocono International Raceway CEO Brandon Igdalsky these days. He's trying to sell tickets to two NASCAR Cup races and the return of IndyCar, all three events coming in an eight-week period. That's going to take a lot of promoting and a lot of selling.


Here's two suggestions for the NASCAR Hall of Fame voters the next time they gather: 1) Some of you need to learn appropriate business attire is called for on such an occasion; 2) Recognize the reality -- and importance -- of the Business of Racing and elect the late T. Wayne Robertson. NASCAR's Cup series got to the level it did, in good measure, because of T. Wayne's leadership of the RJR sports marketing team.


United SportsCar Racing, which is what the merged Grand-Am and ALMS will be called next year, continues to stress that a key part of its operation will be maxing synergy opportunities with NASCAR. Since sports car racing gets even less national media attention than drag racing, here's what looks to me to be a quick and easy way to ease the way for more coverage: Make NASCAR's media hard card credential valid in USCR, or automatically issue a USCR media hard card to everyone who has one from NASCAR.


Mark Miles admitted in the Indianapolis Star that there are not as many good options for new IndyCar venues as he would have hoped. From a common sense and business standpoint, to me, that means he best find a way to cut a creative financial deal with Phoenix International Raceway. When I talked with Miles before the Indy 500, he admitted an oval before Indy "could be interesting." Yes, of course, but of even greater importance is getting back into a big and demo-diverse market. Especially with what he admits are limited options elsewhere. Whether or not this gets done will be a key test of Miles' biz philosophy and leadership.


[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, June 09, 2013

ANOTHER PROBLEM FOR MARK MILES TO FIX

I had need to go deep into my vast racing files recently and, there it was, a thick folder marked "CART Public Relations Task Force."

One thing CART did well was organize the annual "Winter Meetings" where sponsors, promoters, team owners, drivers, marketers, PR people, TV talent and production folks and media would gather with the sanction's execs, officials and staff. Locations were in enjoyable cities like Tucson, Las Vegas and Palm Springs. There were general meetings, specialized workshops, good opportunities for networking and it always began with a classy cocktail party organized by Jim Chapman on behalf of series sponsor PPG.

At the January 1988 meeting, Frank Yodice, then head of Marlboro's racing program, stood up and said he'd been doing a lot of thinking about how much untapped potential the series had, especially in the media. He proposed the formation of a PR Task Force to learn more about this and try to find solutions. I was chosen as Frank's vice chairman and, later, when he moved on to other pursuits, became Task Force chairman.

Our group went out and talked to media decision makers -- sports editors and directors, program and station managers, etc. -- to find out why they did or didn't cover CART. This research was put into a written set of conclusions. And we didn't leave it at that. We also wrote a set of recommendations to address the problems. Collectively, our volunteer bunch put hundreds of hours into this work -- for the good of the series, sport and industry.

We formally reported on our findings at the following year's Winter Meetings. CART leadership at that time gave it lip-service support. (Which didn't surprise me.) When Bill Stokkan became CART's chairman, he took a far-more active interest in the TF, and met with us regularly. A lack of resources and political will ultimately meant a lot of what we put on the table went undone.

But, in re-reading these documents a quarter-century later, it struck me how many of our conclusions and recommendations remain valid to this day. And, candidly, part of that is because they were common sense things.

My recent lengthy conversation with new Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles and on-site experiences at the Indianapolis 500 got me to thinking about this all over again. Much of what was contained in our TF documents was nuts-and-bolts, blocking-and-tackling stuff. In other words, the BASICS. And I'm not sure how much more basic it gets than for team/sponsor "publicists" to spend plenty of time in the track media center. After all, that's where their "customers" or "potential customers" are!

In three days at Indy, I saw only one team PRer on the IMS tower fourth floor: Anne Fornoro, of A.J. Foyt Racing. I saw four or five others elsewhere on the grounds. (I'm not including manufacturer reps from Honda, Firestone or Chevy or series/IMS people here.) Think about that! Where were the others? What were they doing? What results and Return On Investment were they working to deliver for their sponsors?

It might have been easier to find Osama bin Laden than any of the so-called "PR" representatives from Penske Racing and other supposed "top" teams. Last year Merrill Shame told me Penske PR people don't often come to the media center because they have so many hospitality visits to do with their drivers. Whether that truly embarrassing excuse was his, or came as a result of the behind-the-scenes puppeteering visible to my experienced eye, one can only wonder. Pathetic. Funny thing but, when I was PR director for Newman/Haas Racing handling both Mario Andretti and Nigel Mansell -- with no assistants -- somehow there was time to visit the media center, provide that personal service, build those one-on-one relationships, and still get the drivers to hospitality for Kmart, Texaco, Ford, Dirt Devil, Energizer, Gillette and other sponsors. Any media people from that time would verify I wasn't hard to find.

I can tell you for sure that, if Mr. Chapman were still alive, he'd be face-to-face with team owners about this massive professional failure. What's obvious to me is there is a jaw-dropping lack of pride in this PR work. For too many, it's simply a by-rote exercise, the only purpose of which is to collect a paycheck.

For Mark Miles to achieve what he wants for the IndyCar series, he will have to directly address this serious problem with his team owners and sponsor managers. The IndyCar staff can't do it alone. As I said to former CART Chair Andrew Craig many years ago, the team and sponsor publicists are the front-line soldiers for the series with media on a daily basis.

So, it's not acceptable for them to be AWOL or MIA. Other leagues insist on acceptable and professional standards from their teams in all phases of business operations. IndyCar must do the same.


"The Old Gray Lady" is an often-used reference for the New York Times. I'm sorry to say it could now also be used for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

As a 35-year veteran of the Indy 500, it's been obvious to me for several Mays that budget cuts have taken a noticeable toll on the IMS grounds. After a year away, it especially struck me a few weeks ago how old, gray, and in some cases downright dingy the place looks. History and tradition are great, but those do not give ownership a pass to allow the historic facility to become a visually depressing place. Fenway Park and Wrigley Field have/are getting the upgrades they need and Yankee Stadium got to the point where it had to be replaced.

The Indiana legislature has approved a bill where the Speedway will receive a "loan" from the state for up to $5 million per year for 20 years to complete capital improvement projects. This is to be repaid through anticipated increases in income and sales tax collections at IMS and will be guaranteed by Hulman & Co. Also, IMS is to spend $2 million per year, $40 million total, over 20 years for improvements. 

Those projects need to happen ASAP and not one penny can be wasted. I saw a lot of things that have to be a higher priority than lights, for example, and I hope all involved realize the facility's physical decline contributes to the downturn in ticket sales. The Speedway, quite candidly, at this age and state of disrepair, is not guest friendly. They could start with some paint to brighten things up.


Al Speyer worked his final Indy 500 as Bridgestone/Firestone racing boss before retiring. I was glad to spend a few minutes thanking him for his personal kindness as well as all he has done for IndyCar racing. 

Racing history will record that, under Al's leadership, Firestone achieved a truly remarkable level of performance, consistency and safety. Its tires rarely made news due to problems and you can easily contrast that to what happens in NASCAR and Formula One, for example. This is why the drivers got so upset when Randy Bernard was negotiating for a new supplier. Speyer also ensured that Firestone continued a proper, professional media/PR effort and that definitely is in stark difference to NASCAR's tire company. 

A good guy with a great career and a fabulous product goes out on a very high and respected note. And that is how it should be. He deserves it.


Finally: One of the best things I've ever seen at IMS was Boston Marathon runners allowed to cross the Yard of Bricks to "finish" their race. Great idea, Doug Boles . . . One of the worst things I've ever seen at IMS was the moronic Will Buxton-Marty Snider "red pants, yellow hat" act during the non-bump Bump Day TV show. Time was when cameras would have been focused on the track to see the drivers, who got in and who went home, not a pair of egoist microphone-holding clowns.


Change can be good, which is why NHRA should pay attention to what Mark Miles is doing. If you missed the link on Twitter, here's my new CompetitionPlus.com column:
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/25318-michael-knight-change-can-be-good

[ more next Monday . . . ] 

Sunday, June 02, 2013

MARK MILES Q & A

Let me begin at the end.

The last question I asked new Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles as I was about to conclude an almost 45-minute one-on-one visit with him in his Indianapolis Motor Speedway office Friday afternoon before the Indy 500 was: Considering the many disappointments loyal fans have experienced during and after the IRL-CART split, why should they believe his leadership will be different? His answer was the most impressive thing I've heard from anyone, anywhere, in IndyCar in at least 15 years:

"Time will tell to see if it is. To that hard-core fan who has been disappointed for so long we almost have to start by saying, 'We're sorry. We owe you an apology.' Then, the very next thing will be to say, 'Let's get on with it. If you really love this sport, as our hard-core fans do, then it's time to quit looking back. It is what it is and there's not a thing we can do about that.'

"If I have an advantage at all in not being from racing, it's that I'm not going to spend a lot of time worrying about who was on which side in the past and who said what to whom. We're going to try to connect with fans. I hope I have the track record with events and sports of trying to look at the things that will matter most and be really focused on those things and being open to new talent and ideas to pursue them. We'll see if it works.

"Look, it's very tough to be successful in any business. Sports and entertainment are particularly competitive. The media landscape is like sand, it's shifting so quickly. I know how to build the kind of organization we need to build here to have a chance of being successful. We will do that. Then it's about what the right strategies are and the right partners to execute with. I think we have a really good chance."

I then told Miles I have suggested, for years, to various IndyCar execs that as a PR gesture they apologize for the damage done by the split. Fans were divided, industry jobs lost, sponsors forced elsewhere. Among those I suggested this to were Tony George and Randy Bernard. Now, finally, an IndyCar CEO has done what should have been done five years ago when reunification happened. America is a forgiving society willing to give people a second chance. That's what this series needs. That Miles knew to do this is a source of hope that things will get better.

Here's a link to my Friday Arizona Republic Q&A with Miles. Space limitations didn't allow me to use all I had. His talk of revenue sharing is the first time I've heard that idea in the context of major races. So, after reading this (including his thoughts of returning to Phoenix), please continue with Miles' comments on other subjects:

http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/20130529indycar-chief-mark-miles-talks-sports-future.html

On being viewed as IndyCar's latest "savior": "I don't think in those terms. My view is we've got to do 200 things really well and I don't see why we can't do what we have to to make ourselves a high performing organization able to execute on strategy. My focus is entirely on that and putting the optimum team together. I have zero desire to have a public profile in any particular life. I'll do what I have to if it's helpful to our business, the series and the sport.

"People apparently need to feel this sense that there's the one person that they can look to. If that's the case, they can look to me. I'm sure Derrick (Walker, new president of competition), the person on the commercial side, will be close-knit. There will be no sense that there's one superhero in the organization."

As a racing outsider -- and importantly, recruited by the non-family Hulman & Co. Board members -- his thoughts on the IndyCar show: "I absolutely love this product. The closer I get to it the more I believe there are ways to make people understand this is a sophisticated, extreme sport, that will be more attractive than it is. If you look at the history, it's makes me optimistic. We just haven't been able to get out of our own way as a sport for a long time."

On his political ability and authority to work around tradition to fit the needs of the modern sports marketing world: "I think about Wimbledon. It just exudes tradition. But if you actually know Wimbledon -- I had this privileged seat to see it develop over 20 years. The alchemy to them is the traditional outfacing brand with passionate insistence on being cutting-edge. So you have to see what they've done with their facilities over time. How they've adapted to the changing media landscape.

"Especially for the Speedway, more so than IndyCar where tradition is much less the brand, we've got to understand our tradition and history will be our brand, but we have to figure out what's inviolate about that and then feel perfectly free to innovate around that."

Mark Miles is a serious, driven, disciplined business executive. He's not looking for personal publicity as some of those before him have. To me, he appears to be the most powerful and capable non-Hulman-George family member to lead the company. I wish him good luck.

I have a few more important items in my Indy notebook and will get to those next week.

[ more next Monday . . . ]