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Monday, March 31, 2014

A CASE STUDY: TALK, NOT TWITTER

A few things that bother me about the dumbed-down standards of professionalism surfaced last week and I feel are legitimate to comment on here, as these examples reinforce points I have made in this blog going back to 2006.

First was the "news" that Graham Rahal and Dale Earnhardt Jr. might swap rides. It turns out this came out of a Tweet Rahal sent out after attending the NASCAR race at California's Auto Club Speedway with girlfriend Courtney Force. Let's review that: It didn't come out of a personal meeting between Rahal and Junior, it didn't come out of a conversation between their team owners, and it didn't come out of a brainstorming session by reps of mutual sponsor National Guard. It came from a Tweet! 

The obvious questions include why didn't Rahal arrange to meet Junior at the track? Surely, with the Guard as sponsor of both, it could easily have been arranged. In fact, I'd have thought the Guard would have wanted some PR photos of the two together.

I can assure you, for example, that the famous Jeff Gordon-Juan Pablo Montoya F1-NASCAR swap at Indianapolis was the result of careful behind-the-scenes planning. In other words, people were actually TALKING to each other! It didn't happen because of a Tweet! 

I'm sure not saying this isn't a good idea. Of course it is. But, to me, the whole thing smacked of an attempt to be "cool" and "hip" and generate a bunch of uninformed social media traffic. A number of years ago at Indianapolis, when Graham was driving for Newman/Haas Racing, his mother Debi asked me in the team hospitality area what I thought of how he was doing. I picked up a nearby racing magazine and showed her multiple photos of Graham at the track with his uniform top pulled down. I told her it looked sloppy, unprofessional, and was cheating multiple sponsors out of the photo ID they were paying for. Nothing happened, but the point remains valid. It doesn't matter that Graham, like father Bobby, fancied himself a Grand Prix driver and the F1 stars routinely pull-down their uniforms. That doesn't make it right or professional. Whether this might change with the Guard sponsorship, well, we will see. But I'd suggest Graham focus on his appearance -- and winning races -- before his Tweeting.

On another front, sadly but not surprisingly, some in the media picked up and ran with this "story." One self-styled "expert" wrote that this might mean Earnhardt would drive a Rahal car at Indianapolis. Well, as I wrote as recently as last week, you have to know about the Business of Racing and this was a case of more than one writer thinking they know the B of R but really don't. A hell of a lot more was needed to run with this story -- oh, I'll call them FACTS -- not just a Tweet.

As Earnhardt himself noted, a conflict exists in that he drives a Chevrolet and Rahal's IndyCar is Honda-powered. Now, according to some media "experts," this shouldn't be a problem because Chevy driver Kurt Busch is scheduled to drive an Andretti team Honda in the Indy 500. The OBVIOUS difference, of course, is that Earnhardt has ALWAYS been a Chevy driver and is far-more closely linked to that manufacturer than Busch, who has also wheeled Fords and Dodges in the Cup series. And, as Cup's yearly Most Popular Driver, Junior's public profile is WAY higher than Busch's. These are self-evident MAJOR differences, but lost on some of those who live the fantasy of being "in the know."

And on yet another front, where was NASCAR's much-hyped Integrated Marketing Communications Department when it came to announcing and explaining Denny Hamlin's sudden and somewhat mysterious last-minute absence from the Cal Cup race? It was left to J.D. Gibbs to offer a brief statement about Hamlin having vision problems from a sinus infection. (I have had several of those in my life, and while my eyes were watery and even a bit itchy, my vision was fine. Yes, I wasn't racing, but . . . ) I thought NASCAR had improved its internal medical checks and capabilities in the aftermath of Earnhardt Sr.'s death. If this was a decision made by a NASCAR medical official, and not the team, then the announcement and more detailed explanation rightly should have come directly from NASCAR. (A statement from the team later in the week said Hamlin's issue resulted from a sliver of metal in his eye, not the sinus infection.)

No disrespect to Hamlin, but the whole episode came across to my experienced eye as a situation with too many dots left unconnected. These days, that leads to suspicion, which can be VERY unfair. This forced Hamlin into an awkward news conference at Martinsville to address those rumors. I'll repeat what I wrote here several weeks ago: NASCAR IMC, too often, leaves the fundamentals of blocking and tackling undone, while trying for the long and spectacular (PR) touchdown pass. The basics should always come first. 


I wrote here before the Rolex 24 that I expected this first season of combined sports car racing to be "messy." Two races in, it sure has been, with Big Time officiating controversy at both Daytona and Sebring. Now word comes that IMSA communications director David Hart (former longtime Richard Childress Racing rep) has departed the organization after just two races. I was surprised when his hiring for this position was announced but NASCAR IMC man David Higdon really talked this up to me last fall at PIR. Two others on the United SportsCar PR staff, Nate Siebens and J.J. O'Malley, are solid professionals and I've known both for many years. Among Nate's previous jobs was with Champ Car. I first met J.J. when he was a sportswriter covering the Pocono races and later during his lengthy tenure at Watkins Glen. One thing that has bothered me in the combining of the Grand-Am and American Le Mans Series businesses was people who should have been brought in to SportsCar but were not. The most obvious example is Ed Triolo, who headed ALMS' version of IMC. I first met Ed decades ago when he was with Porsche Cars North America and we worked together in 1988 on the Porsche Indy Car project. I don't know what Ed is interested in doing, but he should be a part of SportsCar/IMSA. 


All the best to longtime good guy PR rep Denny Darnell, who has announced his retirement. Denny worked the NHRA series for many years and, more recently, represented Dodge. Thank you, Denny, a true friend to media people everywhere.

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, March 23, 2014

CHANGE CAN BE GOOD -- BUT NOT ALWAYS

Gordon Kirby's "The Way It Is" column (found at GordonKirby.com) is a must Monday read for me. I've known GK for about 35 years, mainly through his extensive coverage of the Indy Car scene for numerous publications. He's done books with the likes of Emerson Fittipaldi and Rick Mears and his new offering, with legendary team manager/chief mechanic Jim McGee, is scheduled to be launched this May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Last Monday, Gordon picked up on England's respected Motor Sport cover story calling for a revolution in Formula One. Rules, finances, business practices, structure, almost everything was put on the table in a call to return F1 to a more reasonable (from a budget standpoint) and exciting (meaning as an entertainment spectacle) endeavor. Not all of the suggestions are reasonable or even remotely doable, but it did serve to spark a healthy discussion.

One point was "Banning team PR people from circuits to encourage freedom of speech and allow personalities to flourish." Of course, I have an automatic bias against this, given my career background. No matter who is or isn't around him, I doubt famous NASCAR driver Kimi Raikkonen's personality is going to flourish. (!) 

I can assure you that, even if those labeled as "PR" were banned, someone else with another title would take charge of watching over the drivers and the press. (At Indy in the early 1990s, one of the Newman/Haas Racing mechanics said my title should be "communications engineer.") And that could be much worse. One of the biggest mistakes to have come into motorsports in recent years has been driver business managers being allowed to make media relations decisions. None that I have met, or know of, is qualified to make those calls. They don't understand the difference between what a wire service writer needs vs. a daily newspaper reporter vs. electronic media vs. magazine journalist vs. the whole confusing and ever-changing semi-mess that is social media.

Everyone, from team sponsor managers to sanctioning bodies to high-profile media, should resist this at every turn. 

One thing everyone involved in F1, including fans, would like to know is: What is the plan for the succession of power when Bernie Ecclestone is no longer running the show? When that time comes, it will be a huge issue throughout the worldwide motorsports industry. Several years ago a business contact of mine had access to some F1 business documents and I was anxious to see if anything could be learned about what the post-Bernie era would look like. However, there was nothing about that in those papers. I've also asked a few drivers well-connected to Ecclestone if they know what will happen, but again, no answer.

World events may be catching up to Ecclestone's cash grab. Civic unrest forced Bahrain to be put off for a year. How will Russia's military move on Ukraine impact the proposed Grand Prix in the former Soviet Union? F1 heads off to Malaysia this weekend under the cloud of the government's obtuse/incompetent handling of the missing jetliner mystery. There have been some clashes in Brazil related to government spending for the next Summer Olympics. 

Events of recent months, such as Izod's departure and Verizon's arrival as the IndyCar series sponsor; the messy Panther-Rahal-National Guard lawsuit; the coming together of America's two sports car groups into one, essentially NASCAR-controlled, organization; John Force losing both Castrol and Ford; the management reorganization of the Hulman family racing enterprises; NASCAR's new TV contracts and showbiz-related rules changes; the reshaping of Daytona International Speedway and plans to fix-up the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; the changing media coverage landscape (not always for the better); and many other stories have served to prove what I've been saying for years:

You can't be a good or knowledgable fan without knowing something about the Business of Racing. 

That's my interest given my own background, over a quarter-century on the biz side of the sport in just about every series and at a high level, plus my years in journalism. So that's what this blog has been about since 2006. That's what my CompetitionPlus.com column is for drag racing. That's what a lot of my Twitter activity ( @SpinDoctor500 ) is about. That's what I talk about mostly during radio interviews.

If that's useful to the industry, and to make fans more in-the-know about why behind-closed-garage-doors decisions are made, then it's a worthwhile pursuit.


I'm on the 120-person voting panel for the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, located adjacent to Talladega Superspeedway. None of this year's nominees received the required number of votes for enshrinement. A new process will be developed for 2015. 

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, March 16, 2014

OF SPONSORS AND SOUND

A laugh is good medicine during challenging times and, for me, that came from a BusinessWeek headline on the same weekend Formula One was introducing its new turbo engines:

"NASCAR's Plan to Turbocharge the Stock Car Racing Series" .

The article, quoting Lesa France Kennedy on what she sees as new positives for the stock car sport, was pretty basic and broke no new news. 

While NASCAR was waiting out the rain and trying to recapture lost magic at Bristol and United SportsCar was still trying to get its act together at Sebring and NHRA staged its first "major" of the season at the Gatornationals, the weekend's real focus was on open-wheel racing.

IndyCar announced Verizon as its new title sponsor. It had been long rumored. It's said to be multi-year and expectations are high Verizon will strongly activate its sponsorship, perhaps building on its experience sponsoring Team Penske cars. "Game changer" has become a cliche in modern America and those were the words Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles used to describe the deal. 

To be fair, the late nature of the sponsorship for 2014 means we should not expect too much in the short term. But I can absolutely, positively say this from a historical standpoint: For this title sponsorship to ultimately be successful, Verizon MUST have its own Jim Chapman or T. Wayne Robertson to provide solid guidance and strong leadership. That's what Izod, and certainly the various Coca-Cola brands which hand-off the NHRA entitlement like an unwanted step-child, did not and have not done. The sponsor needs its own person and team of professionals, not depend on the series. That's especially true of IndyCar, which is badly understaffed on a number of fronts. One thing I'll be watching for is if Verizon will do a better job of personally interacting with media than competitor Sprint does in the Cup series outside of the hard-core NASCAR regulars.

F1 debuted in Australia and, sure enough, there were negative comments about the sound produced by the new turbo engines. I bet those offering such criticisms haven't read the various fan surveys which show spectators want to be able to communicate with each other, and that's extra difficult with a background of high-pitched normally-aspirated engines. Turbo is the way to go given the current automaker needs, too, and I'm strongly in favor of it and was glad IndyCar previously took this path. 

Believe me, I enjoy the throaty roar of the non-turbos. I've been around long enough to have heard the BRM H-16 and the Ferrari V-12. But the Big Picture needs of today means turbos.

How all the new F1 rules will sort out and affect the balance of power among the teams can't be determined by one race. We saw Down Under that reliability is an issue. If it serves to mix-up the Red Bull-Vettel domination of recent years and makes the races more competitive, at least for now, that's a good thing. Especially considering F1's global TV audience declined in 2013.

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, March 09, 2014

SEEING THE 'SALUTE TO THE KING'

What I've been calling Arizona Speed Weeks concluded last Saturday night with the World of Outlaws' only scheduled event in the state. This following NHRA at Wild Horse Pass and then NASCAR at Phoenix International Raceway. The Outlaws were at Tucson International Raceway, a 3/8-mile dirt oval, for the NAPA Wildcat Shootout.

As I've said here before, anyone who considers him/herself a serious race fan needs to see an Outlaws' show this year, because it's Steve Kinser's last full season on tour. Maybe his last season, period, as Kinser admitted to me a few weeks ago. He'll decide after this season. My feature on Kinser was in last Friday's Arizona Republic. The link is on my Twitter
( @SpinDoctor500 ) or you can find it at AzCentral.com . With a large action photo of Kinser, it was good publicity for sprint car racing.

Jeff Gordon, who grew up a Big Time Kinser fan, told me at PIR he considers Steve to be one of America's 10 greatest drivers. So I made the run down to Tucson from Scottsdale to talk a bit more with Steve and witness what likely was his last Outlaws' event in Arizona. It's the "Salute to the King" tour.  I'm sure all AZ fans are proud that Steve told me the legendary, now sadly no-more, Manzanita Speedway was his "all-time favorite track."  See @Spindoctor500 for a photo. I was IROC's PR director when Steve won at Talladega in 1994.

It looked to me like a full house in the main grandstands. I chose to watch from the pit area on the backstretch, where there is a viewing mound and grandstand, as this allowed me to keep an eye on the cars and crews and drivers all night. A strong desert wind kicked-up dust about mid-way through the program, adding a night-time chill and to the drivers' challenge. Kinser won his heat and finished third in the A-Main behind Brad Sweet and Kerry Madson. With a win and second-second-third in his last three starts, Kinser is just 14 points behind Paul McMahan for the STP series championship lead. A serious Kinser run for his 21st Outlaws' crown would be one of 2014's best stories.

The Outlaws put on a great show which only makes the lack of a consistent live TV package that much more frustrating. And, as Gordon said to me at PIR: "To me, sprint car racing is one of the hardest things to do" because it's "very physical." So I left with even more respect for sprint car drivers and you should take a look, in person, if you haven't recently. 

These guys are REAL RACERS!


Congratulations to the Phoenix International Raceway team for what appeared to be a successful start to the track's 50th anniversary celebration. Fantastic to have legends like A.J. Foyt and Bobby Allison at the track. The Memory Lane exhibit behind the main grandstands was excellent, featuring Foyt's 1964 PIR-winning roadster, and Alan Kulwicki's 1988 winner Zerex Ford Thunderbird. It was well designed and executed and I understand almost 13,000 fans visited over the race weekend. And a reminder that Phoenix at 50: A Half-Century of Racing is available at Amazon.com . It's PIR's coffee-table style commemorative book. Several writers, including me, generated the copy.


A few weeks ago I wrote about my concerns with NASCAR's Integrated Marketing Communications. I received some very interesting Es from people I respect telling me of their own experiences. My experience covering the recent events at Phoenix International Raceway mostly added to my views on this subject.

NASCAR IMC had no print copies of any national series media guides at the track. Does it get any more basic than that?

As I wrote before, the impression NASCAR IMC leaves with me is that it's constantly trying to be the quarterback who throws the long, spectacular touchdown pass to win the Super Bowl. (In this case, that being nice stories in major national media outlets and in non-traditional media.) However, any good QB would tell you such a play would be impossible without the fundamentals of blocking and tackling. In my Constitutionally-protected and experienced opinion, NASCAR IMC too often doesn't do its blocking and tackling.

I told that to a senior official, who claimed not to understand the analogy.


And here's yet another example of what's going on on the front lines and in the real media world, not the gizmoed-up PR theory sold to Brian France.

On Feb. 17 I E'd a specific and detailed request to Roush Fenway Racing's Chip Farrar, listed on the NASCAR media site as the "PR" contact for Trevor Bayne. I asked for five minutes with Trevor Friday morning at PIR. There was no courtesy of a reply until the afternoon of Feb. 28, an E apparently generated only because of a heads-up from Ford's on-site rep. In his E, Farrar wanted to know what I needed with Trevor. I had explained that in my original message.


Unacceptable. Unprofessional. 


And, sadly, not uncommon.


It's NASCAR IMC's job to establish expected standards of professionalism for those working under its sanction. Ditto for sponsors and automakers -- in this case, Advocare (where's the sponsorship manager?) and Ford -- who contractually align themselves with these teams. 


[ more next Monay . . .

Monday, March 03, 2014

TRENDING LOUSY

Brian France was quoted recently that NASCAR grades each of its races. If so, until the last two restarts, Sunday's Cup event at Phoenix International Raceway was an F-  and "trending" (NASCAR Intregrated Marketing Communications is obsessed with "trending") to be the worst of the 36 Cup races held at the Arizona oval since 1988. 

As I wrote on Twitter, the Budweiser Clydesdales passed more people during pre-race ceremonies than all 43 NASCAR drivers did on Sunday.

Only two double-file restarts (yes, NASCAR put that rule in place) and Joey Logano's attempt to "go for it" bumped the final grade to an F or, at best, a D- . The entertainment was lousy and if alarm bells aren't sounding and warning lights flashing all over Daytona Beach and Charlotte today, well, . . . 

If you are so inclined, please go to AzCentral.com or Twitter ( @SpinDoctor500 ) to read all of my PIR stories. A lot more there, including that NASCAR really should return PIR's first race to an April Saturday night.

Thank you.

P.S. -- Steve Kinser likely will make his last start in Arizona this Saturday night when the World of Outlaws is in Tucson. I'll be there and will have a story on Kinser in this Friday's Arizona Republic.

[ more next Monday . . . ]