• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, July 27, 2014

BRICKYARD BLURBS

If Jeff Gordon, who has had a fast No. 24 all season, drives as aggressively as he did Sunday (and crew eliminates pit stop errors) in becoming the first five-time winner on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval, he will win his fifth Cup championship . . . Although the new Chase elimination-round format makes predictions ridiculous, right now, consider Gordon co-favorite along with Jimmie Johnson . . . Gordon called his bold outside-line pass of Kasey Kahne on the last green "the restart of my life." You bet it was . . . Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Daytona 500 victory was supposed to give NASCAR a Big Boost. That didn't happen, at least during the Fox TV part of the season. Let's see what Gordon's Indy win does for the series and lame-duck ESPN's portion . . . To those who think noise isn't a huge part of racing's appeal, note Rick Hendrick's quote as Gordon did super-smokey burnouts: "That sounds beautiful" . . . This is what happens when a TV head makes a statement and doesn't ask a solid question: Kahne, looking at ESPN's Dave Burns like he was the biggest dumb-bleep in the world after saying Kasey needed the win to make the Chase: "No kiddin'? I know that." And Sam Flood thinks Burns should be part of the NBC NASCAR team next season? . . . I don't think you find this in any other sport (and shouldn't): TV microphone-holders calling people they are interviewing "my friend." Stop it . . . Anyone else notice the blank Nomex uniforms on Juan Pablo Montoya's crew? Now that's rare in Penske Racing history . . . Most surprisingly disappointing runs came from Brad Keselowski, Johnson and Tony Stewart . . . Advertiser Plug of the Season: Allen Bestwick predicting there would be a "blizzard of activity" for the Dairy Queen-sponsored Moment of the Race . . . Danica Patrick had a top-15 car before it broke . . . As I noted on Twitter, this is another example of why Gordon became Gordon, a winner on-and-off the track: He took off his sunglasses (he has a deal) for the first kiss-the-bricks photo and placed them on the edge of the Yard of Bricks, perfect for TV and photogs . . . Ford sure made a Big Deal out of its efforts to keep Carl Edwards when it came time for his last contract. Despite what was said in a Ford statement, I didn't get the same feeling this time around. Maybe the Blue Oval knew it was hopeless given Roush Fenway Racing's prolonged downturn. It would have been a surprise if Edwards had stayed with RFR . . . I wonder if the new IMS (and Hulman) management group can, or even is able, to put as much time and effort into trying to rebuild the 400's attendance as they are rebuilding IMS itself, the Indy 500 and the Verizon IndyCar Series.

[ more next week . . . ]

Sunday, July 20, 2014

PAST AND PRESENT

The weekend was one of those where it was impossible not to think about the past. And, in some cases, compare it with the present. One of those things was the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 first moon landing. That was a reminder of when America --and its citizens -- could do great things because it/we had the will to do great things.

Regarding IndyCar at Toronto on Saturday, the non-starter of a weekend doubleheader; yes, safety is paramount, so I don't want to hear any lectures about that. But I vividly remember how CART drivers raced in a steady and heavy rain -- in front of absolutely full grandstands -- at Toronto in 1990. I remember this because, as the storm intensified, race control asked teams to ask their drivers if the race should be ended. I was working with Newman/Haas at the time and quickly calculated that Michael Andretti would only lose a few points to Al Unser Jr. in the PPG Cup standings if it was red/checkered. Team manager Ed Nathman radioed that to Michael and he said, yes, stop. And it was, with Jr. winning and Michael second. The point here is there was a race and the fans filled Exhibition Place. Quite a contrast to Saturday, including the empty seats at a venue now with a reduced spectator capacity.

There probably will be some talk now about more two-races-on-one-day. I was with CART when we did that at Atlanta in 1981, with Rick Mears winning both ends. But if there are going to be twin bills I'm sure IndyCar and promoters will want to stay with the Saturday-Sunday format now in place. Better for publicity -- and ticket sales.

Here's something Formula One has right: The cars roll promptly after a 30-minute pre-race show. IndyCar's producers, apparently overly influenced by the ridiculously long NASCAR pre-race shows, need to follow F1's example. Currently the pre-race has too much wasted time with meaningless track drives and driver features that can be so stupid as to be painful to watch. Come on the air, report any breaking news or controversy, set the grid, interview the pole winner, review the race basics, let the experts talk like experts for a couple of minutes, and then get on with it. A half-hour is enough. Please don't tell me these dumb driver features are helping to make new fans. Where is the evidence of that? And when -- WHEN? -- will production executives insist that pit reporters actually ask meaningful questions? In some cases, any questions, rather than making a statement and then sticking the microphone into someone else's face.  

Speaking of trying to make new fans, the Saturday embarrassment surely did not turn any casual viewers into people who wanted to watch for long. Delays, Briscoe in the tires on the pace lap, Power spinning coming toward a (non) green flag, more delays, talk about if rules allowed teams to work on their cars or not, more delays, well, you get my point. Sunday came with disagreement on how the starting lineup should be set and a lap one caution. Sure as hell not impressive for a series that promotes its drivers' talents on diverse courses. I doubt many/any casual watchers came back to see the actual quality racing that went on later.

(By the way, as to branding and event identification, how much more out-of-touch can golf's Royal & Ancient be in insisting that the British Open be called "The Open Championship"? Where is "The Open Championship"? Can you imagine F1 allowing the British Grand Prix to be called "The Grand Prix"? No. Arrogant and dumb is this.)

Finally, there were memories that came with the sad news of the passings of James Garner and Gary Lee.

I met and interviewed Garner (we even did a little socializing) when he drove the Indy 500 pace car. That was a great promotion with the Hurst Olds orchestrated by the late Hurst PR VP Jack Duffy and, of course, Linda Vaughn was a big part of it. Garner will also always be respected by racers and race fans for his starring role in Grand Prix, the best-ever Hollywood motorsports-theme movie. 

Many fans remember Lee for his pit reporting on the ESPN "Thunder" shows. But I think of his work in the pits at CART, when ESPN began covering those races at Milwaukee in June 1981. I was CART's communications director at the time and had done the deal with ESPN. Bob Jenkins and Larry Nuber were the other members of the on-air team. CART had a series of pit fires then and Gary interviewed me when we had one at Milwaukee.


Regarding news here last week of honors earned in the 2013 International Automotive Media Awards: Due to a misunderstanding on my part, I didn't realize until a few days ago that my CompetitionPlus.com column also won a gold medal for commentary series. Thanks again to the readers and all involved.

[ more next week . . . ]

Sunday, July 13, 2014

RTA ISN'T CART BECAUSE NASCAR ISN'T USAC

NASCAR's real reaction to last week's Race Team Alliance announcement was easy to see to those with experienced eyes. And who really know something about the Business of Racing.

One thing that surely stung in Daytona Beach was this news came just a couple of days after Brian France's upbeat mid-season press conference. Ouch!

The first clue came in NASCAR's statement regarding the new business collaboration of nine multi-car Sprint Cup teams. In my PR career I've seen what happens when people are caught flat-footed and the sanction essentially was in this case. One signal was the brief statement was attributed to the Chief (Non) Communications Officer (and architect of the dehumanizing Integrated Marketing Communications department.) Here's an industry truth: When a statement is attributed to a spokesman (no matter his title), not a principal, that means the bosses want to keep several arm-lengths away from the issue. (Mike Helton talking at New Hampshire Motor Speedway  -- noteably in front of the NASCAR hauler, not the higher-profile and more formal setting of the media center -- doesn't change that. It was just a repeat using a voice instead of a piece of paper/ Internet space. It was a PR/political necessity. Silence, in this case, would not have been golden. It would have shown a tin ear.) And the wording yielded further insights about the sanction's stance which then, tellingly, took a defensive tone. I'll reprint the statement here but please note the bold inclusions are added by me for emphasis:


“We are aware of the alliance concept the team owners have announced, but have very few specifics on its structure or purpose. It is apparently still in development and we’re still learning about the details so it would be inappropriate to comment right now. NASCAR’s mission, as it has always been, is to create a fair playing field where anyone can come and compete. Our job is to support and strengthen all of the teams, large and small, across all of our series and we’ll continue to do that. NASCAR is a unique community with hundreds of stakeholders. They all have a voice and always will.”

You bet. Those sentences are not that much far removed from those issued by USAC in 1979 when team owners under the CART banner started their own series. But the RTA is no CART, despite what you might have read/heard from some media who pretend to understand how racing business and politics work, and I'll explain more here shortly.

The second clue came from NASCAR.com. In case you don't know it, that site's editorial content is now under NASCAR's direction, not Turner's. NASCAR.com provided no story on this breaking news, just a posting of the PR statement. That says a lot, just as, in a different context, did the lack of on-site coverage of Kurt Busch's Indianapolis 500 effort. 

Let me assure you RTA is about -- surprise! -- money. Let me also assure you RTA is not going to be CART because NASCAR isn't USAC.

Politics makes strange bedfellows. We saw that with Bruton Smith, who has had his own issues with the sanction, stating at New Hamp that he's "shoulder-to-shouder" with NASCAR as it pertains to the RTA. Translation: Smith is worried his cut of the TV money will be reduced.

So, as I posted on Twitter ( @SpinDoctor500 ) last week, have no doubt the RTA is about money. As in taking more in and sending less out. As NASCAR's new TV deals with Fox and NBC start next year, reportedly worth more than $8 billion during its span, I guarantee you Hendrick, Childress, Gibbs, Roush, Penske, Petty, Stewart-Haas, Ganassi and Waltrip want a higher percentage of the distribution. I can assure you they know the Formula One team owners pounded on Bernie Ecclestone for more of the worldwide TV income. One way you'll be able to tell if NASCAR honestly is nervous about the RTA is if it reduces its own 10 percent slice of the TV dough pie. I doubt it. And with ISC having committed up to $400 million to "re-image" Daytona International Speedway, with ISC, Smith's Speedway Motorsports and Dover all being public companies that have to answer to analysts and shareholders and which already have taken a significant hit on ticket sales revenue in recent years, you can see why that collective will resist having its percentage reduced. Please note this huge difference: The track companies are public companies; the race teams are private companies.

The RTA has referred to trying to leverage its collective business to get a better group rate on hotel rooms, travel and insurance. Watch for this: If RTA negotiates such contracts, will it give NASCAR a taste of it just for political sake, or in some cases could these be in conflict with NASCAR's own "official" partners or even will NASCAR claim what RTA has done has damaged its ability to negotiate such "official" deals?

A few dollars saved on hotels or whatever, added up over a full season, still would only count as a relatively small reduction in owner costs. But with the value of sponsorship teams have been able to obtain or keep way, Way, WAY down from the pre-2008 Wall St. crash highs, any CEO or COO or CFO will say any saving helps. Believe me, they'll take it.

There are plenty of other issues to concern the Big Time owners. NASCAR continues to fiddle with the cars and bodywork and now is talking about horsepower reductions. All of this, in Brian France's continued push to attain side-by-side racing, has come with a price tag. As I also put on Twitter last week, RTA is guaranteed to re-ignite talk about franchising. It's worth remembering that franchises were once part of the CART business model, which, at least on paper, established some value on team ownership. It was one of the few good biz moves in that era of CART. Franchise owners got more prize money and could sell the asset of the franchise if they so wished. Cup team owners have none of this.

With all of that said, and despite what some "experts" have reported, RTA is no CART because NASCAR sure ain't no USAC. I was around in that era, first as a Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter, and then as CART's first communications director, and then as a sponsor/team representative. USAC in the late 1970s was a weak organization. It didn't have strong leadership, it lacked financial resources (for example, it was only getting around to owning its own headquarters building) for the necessary level of marketing and public relations, it didn't have a vision, and it suffered the terrible loss of key officials in the 1978 airplane crash. It lacked a Big Picture business plan. It's Board of Directors, which included car owners from the sprint, midget and even stock car divisions, made rules and other decisions which directly impacted the Indy Car team owners, and they (understandable to me) didn't like it. Dan Gurney's famous "White Paper" created the spark that eventually led to (the first) CART-USAC split.

NASCAR, obviously, has the France family in firm charge. All of the other things that were negatives for USAC don't apply here. And, NASCAR has that $8 billion-plus backing-it-up going forward. (I would assume, though, that those TV contracts specify a certain number of cars and probably some other items like X number of the top X drivers/teams in points to be in the field. When I did CART's first TV contract with ESPN for the 1981 season, for example, we had to guarantee a minimum of 18 cars. So that does, at least in theory, give the RTA some leverage.) I can also guarantee you Roger Penske has no interest in creating a new sanctioning body and will/would warn others again it. Recall that Penske, as CART's co-founder, eventually left that series for the IRL.

Here's a sort of Bottom Line, at least for now: How Big a Deal the RTA really turns out to be will be up to the RTA's Big 9, not NASCAR. Will they "ask" NASCAR for things, or will they "demand"??? 

But, as Jimmie Johnson (who didn't mention driver contracts when talking about reducing costs) admitted when asked about a driver's organization during his media availability at New Hamp (bold emphasis mine), “That opportunity is definitely there.  I don’t know where others stand and feel with it.  I haven’t put any thought into it myself.  I guess in some ways Pandora’s Box has been opened with this topic and discussion.  We will see where it leads."

Will the RTA ultimately be Pandora's Box or the toy surprise inside a box of deliciously sweet  Cracker Jacks? The answer to that question will tell you if the news value of this story is LeBron returning to Cleveland, or Joe going to Kokomo.



This will be the last "off" weekend of the Sprint Cup season. So I'll use that opportunity to assess the impact of NASCAR's new "win-and-your-in" Chase system in this Sunday's (July 20) Arizona Republic ( www.AzCentral.com ). Part 2 will be Monday (21st). 



Those on Twitter @SpinDoctor500 saw this first: Of summer, baseball and drag racing -- My first CompetitionPlus.com column in more than three months:
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/28643-michael-knight-the-boys-and-girls-of-summer-kinda-sorta


Good news is always welcome. I recently was notified of three honors earned in the 2013 International Automotive Media Awards. All three stories appeared in the Arizona Republic.  My in-depth exclusive on Mark Martin's stepping-away from driving took the gold medal in the newspaper news category. It also won the overall "Best of" in the newspaper category. That's the second time in three years I've got a "Best of," the other being in 2011 in the Internet commentary competition for the much-discussed "Untenable" blog. Also: My Q&A with Danica Patrick got a silver medal in the interview category. My feature on A.J. Foyt got a silver in the personality profile category. Thanks to all, especially you, the readers, who help make such things happen -- and meaningful.

more next Monday . . . ]

Monday, July 07, 2014

THE 8th ANNIVERSARY BLOG

Image and reputation mean everything in life and in business. Properly developed, and earned over time, these will lead to something even more important: Trust.

I've come to realize this during my over four decades of professional experience in PR and journalism. I know a lot of people think PR is just about getting publicity for a driver, team, sponsor, series or track. (Actually, too many of the current generation of so-called "PR" people conduct themselves such that they see their job as to carry the driver's helmet and automatically say "NO" to interview requests -- or not even bother to reply.) But there's much more to it than that. As I've occasionally revealed here, and even in my CompetitionPlus.com column (October 2011), sometimes the best work I've done has been to keep a client's name out of the press. Or otherwise act to protect the client's image and reputation. And help them keep the public's trust. 

(The old saying about "any publicity is good publicity" is uttered by people who don't know anything about real-world PR.)

It's no secret the public's trust in many of our national institutions -- especially government -- has been eroded. To me, it's a clear warning signal of a society trending downward. It's also no secret that social media, including Twitter and Facebook, are powerful tools that gives the average person -- not just the media elites -- a way to communicate their experiences and opinions with the potential of a virtually universal audience. Today, that means image and reputation and trust can be destroyed with a few keystrokes and clicks. Think about that. But it's surprising to me how many Big Business entities are dismissive of social media's power to do that.

(Let's also acknowledge how social media can be abused. Fake "news" is one way. The other day I read a post and, because that anonymous writer didn't like the bad news delivered by a professional journalist  -- confirmed by others -- he/she launched into a personal attack including calling the journalist a "hack." Before that came a post from someone claiming to have written the Arizona Republic's football writer (yes, FOOTBALL writer; man, does that make a lot of sense!) complaining about no racing coverage. I guess this guy hasn't picked up a paper in the last seven years! Pretty soon I'm going to be in favor of deploying drones equipped with HD cameras and using facial-recognition technology to surveil people like this and expose them to the public ridicule they so richly deserve.)

As I've considered the best way to approach this, the eighth anniversary of this blog, I've decided to write about image and reputation and trust. And I'll do so from personal experience, not because I want sympathy or to inflame anyone, but as a continuation of the mutual learning journey I've set forth as this blog's goal from the beginning of what I referred to as "The Great Adventure" back on July 10, 2006. 

Here are three telling case studies. This is the kind of stuff other people won't tell you. But I will.

Toyota's image and reputation for quality ended with me when I was sold a lemon of a Lexus that had multiple factory recalls. Many excuses followed. I no longer trust the product.

I bought that Lexus from a dealership owned by Roger Penske. (And, no, I didn't ask for or get any "deal.") For obvious reasons, I expected the highest standards of customer service. That's the very foundation of the Penske business model -- and empire. It was not the dealership's fault the car needed to be recalled so many times. But all those service visits let me see the soft underside of the operation. One time, they could not find the electronic ignition fob (they asked me if I had it -- that made sense since I was standing there waiting for the car!) and I was left waiting in summer Arizona temperatures for 30 minutes. Another time, the service rep forgot to call me to say my car was ready. Worst yet was when there was a theft of personal property from the car while in the Penske dealership's possession. (Very tellingly, when I told the cracker-jack Penske Racing PR leader this had happened, his response was to basically shrug his shoulders.) This dealership is no longer part of the Penske Automotive Group. Interestingly enough, I've observed the quality of customer service has improved. 

Most importantly for me has been the betrayal of The Mayo Clinic. I now refer to this as The Mayo Myth.

For privacy reasons, I'll skip a lot of specifics, but you'll get the point. Although I was in the Mayo system for about 15 years (and, even though Mayo services weren't covered by my insurance, I paid out-of-pocket for what I thought was the best-possible care), late last year when I called to make a routine appointment I was scheduled not with my primary care physician, but with a nurse practioner. I was given no prior notice of this change. Alarm Bell 1. When I asked about seeing my primary doctor, I was told the next available appointment was five months away. Alarm Bell 2.

The NP failed to order a test I had specifically requested -- which I noticed when I reviewed my tests results via an online portal. Alarm Bell 3.  Upon receiving Mayo's bill for these tests, I discovered they could have been done elsewhere for about 10 times less. There is no evidence Mayo did it better -- certainly not 10 times better. Alarm Bell 4. When I reviewed my medical notes via the portal, I found several factual errors. Alarm Bell 5. One of which was referring to pain as being in my left leg. Actually, it's in my right leg. Alarm Bell 6. I guess I should be thankful Mayo didn't do surgery because they might have cut on the wrong leg!

Another thing I learned was, at least in my case, if you don't act to help Mayo maximize it's own revenues, there is a secondary (and undisclosed) level of care. That's apparently what happened to me. Alarm Bell 7.  Mayo still has not communicated to me the results of a follow-up test done in March. Alarm Bell 8. When I began expressing my concern to Mayo about these various issues, well, I guess it's just coincidence, but I could no longer access my own medical records via the portal. Alarm Bell 9. Mayo claims the problem is not on their end, but with my computer, and suggested I call an IT service. As to the inaccurate medical notes, Mayo said I'd need to fill out a form to possibly get this corrected. (Don't lecture me about federal law.) In other words, Mayo expects me to use my own valuable time to fix its screw-ups. Alarm Bells 10 and 11.

By the time I finally got a call from my actual primary care doctor, it was overdue. Alarm Bell 12. I had already taken action to directly obtain my test results and promptly arrange necessary treatment outside of the Mayo system.

The person assigned to conduct Mayo's internal review conveniently skipped over the fact that that March test result was never communicated to me. This guy, who by the way is one of those who doesn't seem to understand how social media can impact image and reputation and trust, who doesn't seem to do his homework, and who doesn't know a Damn Thing about customer service (and I always tell medical people I'm a customer, not a patient), made the situation worse. Which was the worst thing he could have done. His one written communication to me came from a secretary. For the record, his name is Jon Nordrum, and in my experience he's an absolute example of the sort of arrogance that has diminished many an American institution, such as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Alarm Bells 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17.

Oh, by the way, I continue to receive solicitations for financial contributions from Mayo. Alarm Bell 18.

And also, by the way, I possess documentation to verify all of the above, including printed copies of the inaccurate medical notes.

I know many others have benefitted well from treatment bought -- emphasis on bought and paid for -- from the Mayo system. I am glad for those who have had that experience.

All I can do is share my experience. And that has led me to unmask the The Mayo Myth regarding image, reputation and trust.

Sadly -- terribly -- it's a reflection of our greater society and nation. So my bottom-line message in this eighth anniversary blog is simple:

Buyer Beware.

That's the way it REALLY is. The need to look past image and reputation to determine if trust is justified has never been more real. 

[ more next week . . . ]