• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Monday, February 24, 2014

NOW WE'LL SEE

The Conventional Wisdom for years has been a winning Dale Earnhardt Jr. was what NASCAR needed to boost ticket sales and TV audiences. OK, now we'll see . . . 

ENOUGH of the Richard Petty-Danica Patrick sideshow NONSENSE. NASCAR -- NASCAR Integrated Marketing Communications -- should have shut this down last week and not allowed this to overshadow all the legitimate storylines going into its most important race of the season. The very thought of a Petty-Patrick match race is the worst idea since Randy Bernard (and certain media cheerleaders) were promoting having Alex Zanardi race in IndyCar's ill-fated Las Vegas finale a few years ago. 

Let's cut the comparisons to Bobby Riggs-Billie Jean King. Oh, I guess Riggs could have suffered a heart attack during his 1970s tennis exhibition vs. BJK. But the age factor and the risks involved in an auto race raise the safety stakes to a much higher level. And just what would it prove? Other than a ridiculous media spectacle, that is. One that would further detract from the important news of the season and JUNIOR!

Brian France, you're at the plate. Step-up, show leadership, and stop the madness.


Of course it's completely ridiculous for NHRA to (again) schedule a race opposite Daytona. What I'll say here, however, is congratulations to Paul Clayton and his new management team on a successful debut at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park (formerly Firebird International Raceway.) I was there three days covering for the Arizona Republic. There was a three-day record event crowd. I kept a list of all the things Clayton told me he'd do to improve the facility for racers and fans. As far as I could tell, he did them. Not just the repaved track, but new scoreboards (VERY visible), and timing and PA systems. There absolutely is a ton more to be done and it will be up to Gila River Indian Community to invest more. Good start. Good show.


It's NASCAR week in the Valley and I'm in the midst of 12 consecutive days of stories in the Republic. I am posting all links on Twitter ( @SpinDoctor500 ) as well as other news and observations. (See my feature on Ron Capps last Friday and Sunday notebook lead on Courtney Force.) My Phoenix International Raceway notebooks will include some comments from Rick Hendrick and Ray Evernham you might find surprising. I'll have a feature on Stewart-Haas Racing Friday and a personal record of four stories Sunday. Those will include my long story on PIR's 50-year history (bet you'll be surprised at a few things) and my traditional Q&A with Richard Petty. If you are not in the Valley to buy the paper, check out my stuff (and Mark Armijo's) on www.AzCentral.com . 


One more: My new CompetitionPlus.com column is a Q&A with Linda Vaughn. Find out how she's doing these days health-wise, and how she answers a few questions you probably haven't seen before. Here's the link:


[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, February 16, 2014

A FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE

As I've written here before, I fundamentally disagree with the concept, structure and execution of NASCAR's Integrated Marketing Communications Department. As NASCAR enters its most important week of the year, it is worth revisiting this issue.

First, anyone who knows anything about working effectively with the media knows that PR/media relations/communications should not be placed under the thumb of marketing. They are two different -- but co-equal -- functions. I had my first professional byline at age 15 and I've yet to meet a professional journalist who wants to be "sold" to by a marketer. Yes, as someone who spent more than a quarter-century in PR at some of the highest levels of motorsports, I can say it's true that in some ways a good PRer is a "salesman." In fact, I told that to Roger Penske in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage area in 1981. You might say it's a selling of ideas and of image. But don't, never ever, make a reporter feel like he/she is being "sold" to.

It would also help if NASCAR IMC would actually take the time to be aware of what local, not just national and not just non-sports, media is writing and saying. When I was out in the field doing PR, I (and others) couldn't wait for the hotel newsstand to open so we could buy the newspapers and see what the coverage was, who wrote what, how stories were played, the headlines and the photos. While it would be nice to think the NASCAR PRers would actually want to grab the paper(s) on the way to the track, if they don't want to be bothered, it's easier than ever just to read the links on Jayski. I can say from personal experience that I have mentioned stories I've written, and I've observed others do the same about their work, and the NASCAR person involved obviously didn't read it and didn't know anything about it.

For NASCAR to come into a market and not bother to follow the coverage? Inexcusable.

When I was CART's communications director, I would invite media to our championship awards banquet. I placed media tables near the front of the room. NASCAR sticks media in the back of the Wynn's ballroom.

The problem that has evolved out of the Integrated Marketing Communications business model is that those leading the department are too concerned with counting Tweets and what's "trending" and all of the other ever-changing conditions of social media and the Internet. Yes, that's important to do. But NASCAR strikes me as an organization constantly looking to throw the long touchdown pass. The quarterback can't do that without the fundamentals of blocking and tackling. And NASCAR is not doing its basic blocking and tackling. 

Here's another example: Brian France has announced sweeping rules changes for 2014, especially his "Game 7, winner-takes-all" championship format. There has been media criticism and France himself acknowledged some traditional fans won't like it. So why hasn't France been on the road, in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and at least some other early-season race markets meeting with media and fans to explain -- in person -- the what/why of what he's doing? This reminds me of when NHRA cut nitro race distances from the historic quarter-mile to 1,000 feet. It was the most dramatic change in drag racing history. Yet, NHRA simply announced it, but did nothing to go out and work to gain support among the fan base. To this day, surveys show the shorter race is cited by promoters as the biggest reason for decline in ticket sales. Even the President of the U.S. traditionally takes to the road after the State of the Union speech to sell his message and programs. Why isn't Brian France doing that? If it's arrogance, well, that's exactly what brought down Indy racing and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The failure to get out and tell NASCAR'S new story in key race markets represents a clear and serious failure of thought and deed by NASCAR Integrated Marketing Communications leaders.

I saw a story last week about how Coca-Cola wanted some specific research data and "We had to transition from a PR department to a fully-integrated marketing communications model" according to the NASCAR IMC speaker. That is not in any way a proper task for a department doing PR/media relations. It proves what I said above, that communications functions do not belong under marketing. It's a separate and co-equal department.

Or should be.

An IMC exec issued a memo last week about the relaunch of NASCAR's media site. After touting all the new goodies the site had to offer, what struck me the most was a line near the bottom. If anyone had comments or questions, the writer wrote, they should be directed to another person. Translation: Talk to my underling, don't bother me.

I knew Bill France Jr. fairly well (my interview with him, in his office, the Tuesday before the 1978 Daytona 500 remains one of my most memorable) and Jim Hunter very well. I knew Bob Latford and Joe Whitlock and Houston Lawing and the Winston pros like Bob Moore, Bob Kelly, Chris Powell and others. No, the modern technology didn't exist back then, but those were people who understood it was essential for NASCAR to keep its basic humanity in dealing with the media. In the gizmo-obsessed world of today's NASCAR Integrated Marketing Communications Department, that humanity is being lost almost daily.

Until that is reversed, I don't care how many rules changes Brian France makes, NASCAR will have trouble.



It's Phoenix International Raceway's 50th anniversary and a limited edition commemorative book -- Phoenix At 50: A Half-Century of Racing -- will be available at track merchandise locations during the Feb. 28-March 2 NASCAR weekend. After that, it can be purchased at the PIR ticket window or via Amazon.com. I wrote three stories for the book. Richard Petty wrote the foreward. 



I'll call it Arizona Speed Weeks. I'll be covering NHRA at the reborn Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park this weekend. See my stories starting Thursday in the Arizona Republic or AzCentral.com. Next week it will be NASCAR and that coverage means I'll be in the paper for 12 consecutive days starting this Thursday. And the following Saturday night, March 8, Steve Kinser will make what very likely will be his last World of Outlaws start in Arizona down in Tucson. Please check out my coverage and, especially for the latest news, my Twitter updates, @SpinDoctor500 . Thank you.

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, February 09, 2014

ARE NASCAR's BOLD MOVES THE RIGHT MOVES?

I detect a slight whiff of desperation in the air. And it's coming from the direction of Daytona Beach.

Brian France has been dropping hints for the last 18 months that he wasn't satisfied NASCAR had the right mix of competition, entertainment and management. It started at Daytona in July 2012 when the NASCAR chairman said the sport needed more "Wow" moments. He continued on from there, saying the Gen-6 car would produce more side-by-side and exciting racing. He made general comments about changes to qualifying and the Sprint Cup points system.

I'm all for strong leadershp and bold moves, which most certainly is what France has done during the off-season. How all of these changes play out -- on the track and in the marketplace -- will be of early-season interest and I'd say the single most important story of the 2014 season.

To recap: Brent Dewar, a former GM exec, was named Chief Operating Officer. In most organizations I know the COO is No. 2 on the executive management team but the NASCAR announcement said "Mike Helton continues as NASCAR President with continued oversight of all racing operations." I've written my share of these kind of news releases and that type of language raised my antenna as it signals a reduction of Helton's authority. Competition VP Robin Pemberton, the point man on the Gen-6 car, seems to have had his turf reduced with Gene Stefanyshyn in as vice president of innovation and racing development. John Darby was moved to another spot with Indy Car veteran Richard Buck the new Sprint Cup Series managing director.

France's great hopes for Gen-6 were good in that the car's visuals did more connect it to the showroom models, as the automakers wanted. But it didn't make for better racing or more "Wow" finishes. So the rules have been tinkered with and the first test of that package will be March 2 here at my home track Phoenix International Raceway. But this new package is intended primarily for the intermediate-size ovals. If the cars aren't more racier this season, what's next? I wonder if more people changes will follow. I wish NASCAR had taken aero out, emphasized more mechanical grip, and started what would be a long and challenging process to open-up its tire contract and see if someone else has better technology and engineering than Goodyear. I can think of at least two tire companies that I think would.

Revision of the manufacturers' championship system reflect the obvious concerns of Toyota and Ford as Chevrolet has absolutely dominated. NASCAR didn't do itself any good by denying the new "knockout" style of qualifying wasn't an idea adapted from what IndyCar and Formula One do. Since single-car qualifying is boring on just about every oval other than Bristol, I'm good with this -- except that a driver could set the quickest lap overall in the first session and wind up starting out of the top 10. That's tough to explain to fans.

As for the "Game 7" rule to determine the champion, well, I hate it. As I Tweeted, just imagine how the national media will hammer NASCAR if one driver wins six or eight or 10 races out of 36 but someone else is crowned "season" champion with a win or two. A blown tire or getting caught-up in somebody else's accident or hitting the wall because NASCAR didn't throw a yellow early enough when there's oil on the track is going to deny a dominant driver a championship? Ridiculous.

The expanded field (12 up to 16) comes at a time when even the NFL is looking to increase the number of playoff teams. So, OK, but the notion of "elimination" rounds was something already happening because the botton several drivers after the first three Chase races already were essentially out of it. If France had made a cut of four drivers who would run for the championship based on points in the final three races, I could have accepted that. But 35 races of work to be ruined by a blown tire? That's just unfair. That's flat-out wrong.

And, please, stop already with the World Series "Game 7" analogy. I used to cover baseball, was a member of the Baseball Writers Association, and anyone who knows anything about baseball knows there is zero legitimate comparison to the World Series and what NASCAR is now doing.

These moves are so sweeping, they seem to leave little -- if any -- wiggle room for France to tinker again. My question: What happens if these rules don't increase TV ratings, media coverage and ticket sales? Where would France go from there? Has he left himself any other serious options?

FAST LINES: Early season candidate for most useless "news" release of the year is the one about how the Global Motorsports Group car went out after six hours into the Rolex 24. The release was issued FIVE DAYS after the race . . . The performance of Michael Strahan during the Super Bowl Vince Lombardi Trophy presentation shows that these type of guys are lost without cue cards and that it's a flat-out mistake to put non-professional broadcast journalists into this role . . . Words used to mean something and cable TV news sure doesn't help uphold this standard. Time was when "Special Report" flashed on the screen, it meant a moon landing or an assassination. Now, Fox News has a "Special Report" Monday-through-Friday, and while the reporting often is good, there's very little "special" about it. "Off-the-record" is a sacred journalism ethic that means what a source says can't be published or broadcast. Yet, Fox News' Greta Van Susteren's show includes a nightly commentary section, where she wants you to know what she thinks, but it's inaccurately called "Off-the-Record" . . . And while we're talking Fox, Sunday show host Chris Wallace's egoism in having his NFL guests autograph a football on-camera while Wallace boasted that it was for his family showed just how out of touch Wallace is with his audience, most of whom can't afford Super Bowl tickets or don't have special access to get such autographs. It's not about YOU, Chris, it's about the NEWS!  Where are the standards? . . . NBC cheerleaded for China at the Summer Olympics four yeas ago, so no reason for surprise it comes right out of the gate at Sochi casting Russa and President Putin in a glowing light . . . Whatever revenue CVS will lose by discontinuing tobacco sales has been regained multiple times in free publicity and goodwill.

[ more next Monday . . . ]