Sunday, June 09, 2013


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 column:

[ more next Monday . . . ]