• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, January 26, 2014

SPORTS CARS OFF AND RUNNING

I've been saying for months that combining Grand-Am and ALMS into IMSA and the headline Tudor United SportsCar Series would be messy. Sure enough, right out of the box, we saw that last Friday at Daytona in the IMSA Continental Tire Challenge. The BMW M3 that took the checkered flag first was disqualified for technical violations. That embarrassment -- BMW was title sponsor of the race! Does IMSA have enough pre-race inspectors for the car counts it faces? -- did allow the NASCAR-directed series publicists to hype Reba McEntire's son Shelby Blackstock as the winner along with Ashley Freiberg, the tour's first female overall winner. 


The Rolex 24, as usual, had its various storylines. And several of them were indeed messy. The frightening Memo Gidley-Matteo Malucelli crash -- which left Gidley with multiple serious injuries -- will get as much (if not more) mainstream media attention as the winners (which included the familiar name of Fittipaldi.) While the IMSA and Daytona safety crews apparently did well in coming to Gidley's aid, the track fire marshall struggling with a hand-held extinguisher as Kyle Marcelli's car burned was inept and had best be addressed before the stock cars come to town. And, at least as this is written, the last-lap penalty that changed the outcome in GTD was bogus and ignorant of the historical precedent of hard racing to the checkered flag. Bad deal.

UPDATE: After review, the race director's decision was overturned. It better had been to preserve credibility. It was the dictionary definition of arrogant over-officiating. Good deal -- but the thrill of victory was ruined.

The most important story out of Daytona, however, with all due respect to the Chevrolet blowout in the premier Prototype class, was probably simply that the race happened. The new era of unified sports car racing in America is officially underway. The challenge for what is essentially NASCAR sports car racing is to take the traditional sports car promotional approach of spotlighting the cars and blending it with the NASCAR tradition of building driver names. I don't expect much this year, or next, or maybe even the year after that. But by Year 4 or certainly 5, I hope the driver name recognition factor will be stronger (meaning those names can sell tickets) and that a new generation of true Prototypes will emerge. That's what needs to happen to call this united series a success.

The Richard Sherman mouth-off was instructive on so many levels. Let's start with the continuing "me" and not "team" trend among athletes in all of sports. Sherman made a great play but didn't win the NFC championship game by himself. The days of class and dignity in sports -- and society -- continue to slip away. (I'm not buying Sherman's non-apology apology.) Next, let's consider the sports announcers who said it was "great TV" and a "great soundbite" and "what people want." That attitude tells us a lot about the superficial nature of the people involved. And then there were the TV and radio show hosts who kept the topic going as a top story for days afterwards. It's all very revealing. And troubling. And, no doubt, will continue with another truly embarrassing Super Bowl Media Day.

I can accurately report to you, from personal experience, that sometimes PR people and marketers are put into such a difficult (basically no-win) situation that it's an accomplishment just to tread water. I think that was the case with Amy Konrath, who has left IndyCar after nine years, for a job near her family in Kansas City. Going back to the start of the IRL-CART split in 1996, team and series PRers, and those who need to sell sponsorships, have had to deal with so much inconsistent (and so-called) "leadership" and overall negativity that those factors must be taken into account. Amy was always cooperative and polite with me. The series PR staff was too thin already and currently has about as much publicity and media relations support as a table tennis team. The responsible new management better be hard on the throttle on this issue. Their choice to lead the department will tell us a ton. 

And there was a big blow to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as media manager Paul Kelly left after 16 years for GRand Solutions where he'll do a lot in sports car racing. Lucky IMSA. Paul was the best thing to happen to IMS PR since Bill York. Congrats, Paul, and you leave a huge void.

I sent out a Tweet on this ( @SpinDoctor500 ) but it's worth repeating here: While Jimmie Johnson was voted Driver of the Year (no surprise), not one of the 19 members of the national media panel cast a ballot for Scott Dixon. I'm on record as Dixon was the DoY in 2013 because he did the most with what he had to work with. The DoY panel vote is the latest evidence of all that troubles the IndyCar sport on so many levels. I will also say, however, it represents a failing of the voting panel and the DoY system.

Last year I noted here how TV news operations try to mask reduced in-the-field presence due to budget cuts by having reporters "report" on a story from a distant studio. I noticed a glaring example of this last week on Fox News, where a story on the controversy about the mayor of Hoboken, N.J., was told by a guy in a studio in Los Angeles! Yeah, that's real old-time shoe-leather reporting! Viewer, beware.

A salute to my alma mater, Temple University, where the journalism department is one of just a few in the country to have a code of ethics for student journalists. "A student journalist is still a journalist and needs to have a clear ethics code to follow," said assistant professor Lori Tharps, who helped write the code.

Finally, congratulations to my friend Arie Luyendyk on being elected to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. The Michigan-based Hall will be relocating to Daytona International Speedway.

[ next blog February 10 . . . ]

Sunday, January 19, 2014

TOGETHER AT LAST

I'm going to keep my fingers crossed and wish all involved well as the Tudor United SportsCar Series makes its debut this weekend with the Rolex 24 at Daytona. As a sports car racing fan going back to the Shelby Cobra and Ford GT vs. Ferrari at Le Mans and the original (and GREAT!) Trans-Am and Can-Am series (and a member of the 1990 Jaguar team that finished 1-2 at Daytona), the overdue joining together of Grand-Am and the American Le Mans Series is most welcome.

Make no mistake, this now is essentially NASCAR sports car racing. Jim France bought-out Don Panoz and much of the NASCAR philosophy -- and staff people -- are hands-on on this venture. Combining Grand-Am's lower-cost/managed competition approach with ALMS' high-tech/green way of doing things is no small task. I have disagreed with some of the new staff hirings. I especially disagree with trying to performance-match the Daytona Prototypes with the LMP2 cars, of which there were so few, I still think those owners should have been given DPs the same way Tony George gave Champ Car owners IRL-spec chassis when that merger occurred. It will be huge to watch how that plays out at Daytona, not only in terms of competitiveness, but reliability. Honestly, I have my doubts. And one thing that made all the sense in the world in Grand-Am was two easy-to-understand classes: DP and GT. In an attempt to keep car counts and manufacturer and participant involvement up, and the political waters calm, United SportsCar has adopted ALMS' many -- and too confusing -- class structure. The American public doesn't have enough interest -- or the attention span -- to follow all of that.

As I've written here before, I expect this first season to be messy in some ways. However, I am hoping things will go well, we'll see a little growth in public and media interest, and in a few years things will advance to where a new era of prototypes emerge and the number of classes condensed. If that happens, that's when I'll really get excited again about sports car racing.


The 43d Barrett-Jackson collector car auction took place during a full week of Chamber of Commerce weather (sunny, mid-70s) here in Scottsdale. The event moved into its new facility at WestWorld that spanned almost one million square feet. After years of back-and-forth between the city and B-J management, the proper new structure should keep this fabulous show in Scottsdale for many years. 


Congratulations to Windy McDonald, the longtime PA voice and publicist for Manzanita Speedway and other tracks (including Phoenix International Raceway), elected last week to the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame. My friend Dave Argabright, the great writer and author whose "American Scene" column was a must-read in National Speed Sport News, also was elected. Others include Chuck Merrill, George Nesler, Larry Beckett, Dave Blaney, Mark Kinser and Bobby Davis Jr. I'm a HoF voter. Induction ceremony will be May 31 at Marion County Fairgrounds in Knoxville, Iowa.

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, January 12, 2014

14 FOR '14

It's Barrett-Jackson week here in Scottsdale and I'll make a visit to the world's greatest collector car auction. I usually see a bunch of racers at this quite amazing annual get-together. Worth noting that B-J will be on the Fox network for the first time this Saturday.

Meanwhile, Happy New Year. Thanks for returning to this cyber outpost. Here are 14 things I recommend you do and watch for in '14:

* Go see Steve Kinser race in what he says will be his final full World of Outlaws' season. No real race fan can go without seeing sprint car's King do his thing one more time.

* If you see Dario Franchitti at an IndyCar race, say "thank you" and "congratulations" on a great career.

* Keep a close eye on any entertainment improvements from the new Gen-6 car rules package. It should be obvious from recent internal NASCAR executive changes that putting on a better show is Brian France's top priority. If the show doesn't improve, I would be looking for more internal shuffling.

* Listen to Paul Page call an IndyCar race on radio. Welcome back, Paul.

* Support a local short track or club event at least once. We all need to make sure not to overlook racing's grassroots.

* Go to an NHRA national event. Don't look down on the drag racers even if you think you're not interested. They -- especially Funny Car -- more often than not put on an eye-popping 16,000 horsepower show.

* See if the Return of the Apron at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway makes for more passing at the Brickyard 400.

*  Read Gordon Kirby's book on legendary IndyCar series team manager/chief mechanic Jim McGee. It's scheduled to launch in May.

*  The long-awaited unified sports car series deserves to be checked-out at least once, although I'm expecting a somewhat messy season due to IMSA's attempt to match performance of the prototypes and too many, too confusing, classes.

* Will the Tony Stewart-Kevin Harvick-Kurt Busch-Danica Patrick combination be a Dream Team or a nightmare?

* Formula One's new cars and turbo engines: Game-changer or more Red Bull-Sebastian Vettel domination?

* Juan Pablo Montoya's return to IndyCars: Just what Team Penske needs? Or proof that you really can't go home again?

* In its last NASCAR season, will ESPN go all-out or mail it in? Best guess: somewhere in between.

* How will NASCAR fans react to the return of the 3? A number many -- including me -- think should have been retired.


SINCE LAST POSTING: Is anything more impersonal that an E-mailed holiday greeting "card"? I typically delete every one of them, unopened. A perfect symbol for how technology (and "green" political correctness) have helped to dumb-down those vital 1-on-1 relationships that are make-or-break in business and life . . . Two companies that didn't have a merry PR holiday were Target and UPS. Given the serious nature of their issues, I'm very surprised neither CEO promptly publicly stepped forward as other CEO's have done in crisis situations. That would have been my recommendation. Target admits its sales have taken a noteable downturn and I wonder it its racing sponsorships might be used to communicate a message related to this crisis  . . .  Mark Armijo and I were honored to be included on Phoenix International Raceway's list of 50 top influencers. PIR is celebrating its 50th anniversary this season. http://www.phoenixraceway.com/Vanity-Pages/2013/Storied-Legends.aspx 


For all the good work it does, ESPN also enables what is wrong in today's sports "journalism." Around the Horn -- the worst and most embarrassing, mindless show on TV -- is a primary example. Providing a TV and radio platform for egohead Dan Le Batard is the current prime case. This self-absorbed over-rated mouth gave his Baseball Hall of Fame vote to website Deadspin as a  "protest." Let me explain what Le Batard did: He committed voter fraud. As a former Baseball Writers Association member, I applaud the organization's decision to take away his voting privilege. ESPN should sanction Le Batard for an ethics violation. Saying his vote came from the Miami Herald is just a spineless excuse.
 

I'm sure I'll use Twitter while at Barrett-Jackson so here's a reminder of how I use T: 1. As a breaking news/headline service (like when I broke the story that Marty Reid was out at ESPN); 2. As a vehicle to share thoughts on important news between blog posts; 3. To let you know of my media appearances or other activities; 4. To share links to my Arizona Republic and CompetitionPlus.com stories. @SpinDoctor500

[ more next Monday . . . ]