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Sunday, July 07, 2013

7th ANNIVERSARY BLOG

It's always interesting to look back into the past as a way to understand what's happening now and anticipate what the future may hold.

I've done that recently in preparation for this, the seventh anniversary of this blog.

Back on July 10, 2006 -- the first posting -- and in the immediate time afterwards, we were already pondering items such as Danica Patrick's NASCAR future and the folly that was the proposed Champ Car race in downtown Phoenix and legitimate criticism based on facts and experience vs. personal attacks from the chatroom crowd.

That non-starter Phoenix race foreshadowed things to come. Its cancellation about 100 days out with about 1,000 tickets sold with at least a $20 million loss (including that year's Las Vegas street event put on by the same group) was the final straw for Big Time Champ Car backers like Paul Newman and provided a powerful shove to Kevin Kalkhoven to take Tony George's money and combine into the IRL. It also demonstrated the financial perils for so many promoters which continue to hinder IndyCar today. As one Business of Racing insider said to me recently, "If these races were making money, they (series) wouldn't have any problem scheduling plenty of races." 

Other B or R (remember, our primary audience here remains those directly involved in the motorsports and sports marketing industry -- there are plenty of fan sites out there) topics covered here include promotions, marketing, media and public relations standards. I'm sorry to say, especially with the last two, the problems have gotten worse. But at least Gene Simmons no longer is involved.

Thinking back, analyzing the present, and pondering what's ahead, here are what I consider to be the five most important issues facing the racing sport and industry seven years into this Great Adventure of learning and information sharing:

1. Leadership: Yes, in some ways (Wall St.) the national economy is getting better -- at least for now. Brian France, Tom Compton and others led their series through the tough years starting in the fall of 2008 but the slow -- at least as measured by historical standards -- recovery demands continued forward-thinking and innovative leadership. There are more and more people who seem to believe motorsports no longer holds the inherent fascination for the American public it once did -- they say the country's love affair with the automobile has diminished -- and it's up to the industry's leaders to deal with this real or perceived issue. Brian France will always face a more skeptical community due to the accomplishments of his grandfather and father. Many eyes now are on IndyCar's Mark Miles -- whatever 2014 schedule he's able to put together (New venues? Schedule realignment? Playoffs?) will be a strong signal of how he's doing. Ed Bennett and Scott Atherton, meanwhile, will guide U.S. sports car racing into its Brave New World. The bottom line throughout the industry: There is no substitute for strong, effective, confident, inspiring leadership.

2. Making New Fans: NASCAR's maneuvering from the mid-2000s to broaden its fan base with generic cars and tradition-bending rules proved just how dangerous it can be to alienate the established hard-core fan base. But to grow and prosper, those fans must eventually be replaced, and fresh ones created. That's much easier said than done. NASCAR is trying with its aggressive five-year Industry Action Plan and social-media heavy Integrated Marketing Communications Dept. Any new ideas Miles brings to this endeavor will be crucial for IndyCar. NHRA still doesn't get the help it needs from its series sponsor (which has plenty of resources to do just that) but made an important gain recently with the successful opening of the New England market. Sports car racing has spun its wheels for decades trying to move beyond its ultra-niche audience and now will be relying on NASCAR's resources to help with the task. Too many empty seats across the racing world prove the job isn't getting done. A huge project will be improving spectator facilities so the in-person experience can compete with the comforts of home and a large-screen HD TV. Daytona has made its commitment. A run-down looking Indianapolis Motor Speedway is next up and how Miles makes the Brickyard modern without blowing-up its traditional aura might be the most difficult job anyone in motorsports confronts.

3. Who/What Is The Next Big Thing?: NHRA -- perhaps alone among the major series -- seems to have its answer: Courtney Force. She combines results with look and personality and attitude and, properly managed with some extra guidance from experts outside drag racing, there's absolutely no reason why Courtney should not be a mainstream MAJOR American sports star/personality. IndyCar thought it had it with Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti but, while they have the right last names, they still don't have the on-track results. NASCAR's gotten most of what it can out of Danica Patrick -- barring winning -- and has promoted its new Gen-6 car thus far this season. The stock car sanction's continued investment in minority driver development and its established feeder system from the K&N Pro, Trucks and Nationwide series likely will continue to suit its need for future racer-personalities like Carl Edwards.

4. Spreading the Word: Perhaps nothing has changed as much in the last seven years as communication tools. Who knew Twitter and social media in 2006? As noted above, NASCAR has invested in a pro-active capability to understand and utilize the communications revolution. The traditional mainstream media corps has diminished due to the economy, changes in consumer habits, and technology. What NASCAR is doing can't as yet be called "successful," but that company is way, far ahead of everyone else combined working this new frontier. But that doesn't mean old-fashioned methods still don't have a place. As noted here many times, when so-called "PR people" don't even bother to visit the media center, don't bother building good professional relationships with the media, and in some cases don't even know how to write a basic news release, it's a flashing red alarm. Too many appear to be too lazy or too unqualified to even know how to "pitch" a story. Why doesn't every series have a media "hot list" -- especially sports talk radio -- that can be tapped on short notice to offer driver interviews when practice/qualifying days are rained out? That's just one example. Racing is far behind entities like the NFL, which require some basic professional standards in PR and media relations from its teams. NASCAR and IndyCar absolutely must do so and PR people who really are just helmet-carriers need to have their "PR" title stripped. And those who act annoyed when asked by a journalist to arrange a driver interview, and who think E-mail is a substitute for conversation, must GO OUT THE GARAGE GATE, NEVER TO RETURN. It's especially embarrassing that some such people collect paychecks from some of the biggest teams in motorsports.

5. Standards: The changing media landscape and a decline of acceptable social values has, sadly, brought along a lower bar. Too many sports reporters, and too many of their editors, think a story about Dale Jr.'s potato chips is more important than real racing NEWS. The lazy practice of simply repeating what someone else has reported, without obtaining separate, independent, confirmation, is a terrible commonplace occurrence. Gossip and rumor seem to have more entertainment traction than actual fact. The public, the readers and watchers and listeners and audience -- the CUSTOMERS -- will have to demand better or the situation will only get worse. And we'll all be worse-off if that happens.

Thank you to all who take time to read this blog. I am grateful. Year Eight, here we come . . .


"Positives" -- my new July CompetitionPlus.com column (those who follow me on Twitter @SpinDoctor500 saw this first):


[ more next Monday . . . ]