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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 . . . ]