• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, October 26, 2014

NASCAR's WORRY; KENSETH's IMAGE CHANGE

Now that NASCAR is deep into its new Chase, and as we see winless Ryan Newman unspectacular-but-steady and Matt Kenseth hanging-in-there (both would advance to the Homestead finale as of now), it's time for me to repeat what I said long ago:

If this "elimination" system produces a champion who went the entire 36-race season without a victory, NASCAR will get ripped Big Time in the national media, and there will be a whole lot of unsatisfied fans. At a minimum.

However, if Kevin Harvick is to be believed, the NASCAR suits need not worry about a second Cup for Kenseth. After their wreck and beating-and-banging Sunday at Martinsville, Harvick said:
“Yeah, he (Kenseth) won’t win this championship.  If we don’t, he won’t.” 
Kenseth has been one of racing's most uncontroversial drivers his entire NASCAR career. Man, has that changed in the last three weeks! Kinda late in life to be changing his image!

On the Business of Racing front, NASCAR and baseball are alike in two respects. Both the Chase and World Series TV numbers have been down. And both sports have long-term TV contracts, worth billions, to keep them secure.

News from Wall St. last week worth noting: Both Coca-Cola and McDonald's, two important NASCAR sponsors, reported bad quarterly results. Stock analysts immediately began predicting management changes. One CNBC head said it could be 20 years before he'd buy Coke stock! McDonald's year-to-year same-store sales and overall numbers have been downsliding for quite a while and the company hasn't been able to successfully launch a new product or shake its "unhealthy" image. In an unfortunate bit of timing (or maybe it was intentional), this was the week CBS' Sunday Morning show chose to run its soft and fuzzy Politically Correct feature on McD's CEO. 

[ announcement of recipient of 2014 Jim Chapman Award for excellence in motorsports PR here Sunday, Nov. 2; also @SpinDoctor500 ]

Sunday, October 19, 2014

UPSETS

The NASCAR Talking Points compare the new Chase format to that of the NCAA basketball tournament. Of course, a key aspect of that incredibly popular tourney is upsets, as smaller, less famous names beat the Big Guys.

In that sense, I guess you could say there is a comparison. Ticket-sellers/TV draws Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch are out after Talladega. (They won't admit it, but I bet the NASCAR Powers-That-Be and the next four race promoters are disappointed.)  Also Kasey Kahne. I was glad to see Jimmie and Junior race so aggressively, but typical 'Dega, they plummeted at the end. It was the second week in-a-row Johnson's finishing position was surprising as he was in position for a top-5, at least. Powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports has had many great days but this time lost three of its four Chase drivers. Only Jeff Gordon, who might have driven the most conservative race of his career, advances -- and by just three points. Busch and Junior were the only Chase contenders eliminated due to a crash and I am glad there weren't more.

The Talladega TV ratings will be a key indicator of how the elimination-style Chase is catching on -- or not -- with the public. Just the 'Dega name and reputation for wild racing and The Big One can attract casual viewers, and those who did so saw Junior leading a lot, and Danica Patrick up-front in the closing laps. Add those elements to the G-W-C finish and it's reasonable to think NASCAR might get a bump this week. If not, well . . . 

I doubt many Chase brackets included the Toyota drivers advancing, and even if one did, the logical pick would have been Busch. So Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin moving on can be called an upset. Maybe Ryan Newman, too, who is winless in his first season with Richard Childress. 

I wrote on Twitter (@SpinDoctor500) before the Chase started that this format would favor those who have shown speed all season, since winning is so important. Using that logic, I said Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick and Gordon would be the Final Four. We'll see, but for the next three weeks, they are part of the Elite Eight.


A P.S. to last week's posting: I made two obvious omissions when writing about people who don't have the luxury of "I don't want to." One is my friend Bob Margolis, whose own fierce determination to fight back from multiple health issues is wonderous. The other is my friend Alex Zanardi. I'm not sure it's possible to put together adequate words to describe what Alex has accomplished. Truly, absolutely, an inspiration to me and I'm sure millions worldwide. Thanks to both.

[ more next week . . . ]

Sunday, October 12, 2014

'I DON'T WANT TO' HEAR THIS

I suspect I'm not the only one who reaches a certain stage in life where something you've seen or heard or read or been told and tolerated for years suddenly reaches the point where you just have to say: ENOUGH!

It finally struck me recently how often I've read or heard or been told this year: "I don't want to." Variations include "I don't want to be bothered," "I'm not motivated enough, "It's too much hassle," and so forth. I clearly make a distinction between this from the legitimate "I can't" with accompanying valid reason.

Well, some of us -- me included -- don't have the luxury to "don't want to" even once in 365 days.  That's not a complaint or a request for sympathy, just a statement of fact. (Understanding, consideration and respect for the situation is different and appreciated.) But what has hit home with me is that I cannot tolerate this whining any longer. The more I am exposed to this attitude, the more I find it can deflate me personally, given my own situation. That is, if I allow it to. And I'm not going to allow it to any more because I'm just going to reject it by tuning-it-out as much as humanly possible. And that's for my own good.

On the business front, I don't know if Brian France's elimination-format Chase, or Mark Miles' start-end sooner IndyCar season, or Daytona's $400 million "re-imagining" rebuild, just to name a few examples, will be successful. But at least they are trying to move forward. I don't think it was an option for anyone involved on those fronts to sit in a Board of Directors meeting and say, "I don't want to."

I doubt very many people blessed with wealth, health, happiness and family who could very easily say "don't want to" to virtually anything, actually do that. Maybe spoiled-brat trust-fund kids, but that's about it.

And while different people have different situations, and while I usually don't mention this sort of thing because I deeply believe in personal privacy, I doubt Fox Sports' Steve Byrnes or NASCAR.com's Holly Cain have the luxury of "don't want it." Both of their battles with cancer are public knowledge. I know Steve and Holly, they are solid professionals, and valued guests on my old radio show. I'm certainly not the world's best pray-er but I am for them and others not in public view dealing with what they must deal with.

Back in June, I was in a medical facility, prepping for some fun. There was a woman, I'm guessing 10 years younger than I am, in another prep area. She kept repeating the "don't want to" line as a nurse and tech attempted to do what was necessary. I feel for this woman's plight but "don't want to" sure wasn't going to help her get better.

Fighting off the negative emotions (and that is very different from the informed/experienced criticisms sometimes published here), putting energy into positive actions, is the only way to overcome life's Big Time challenges. Part of that, for me anyway, is to stay-in-the-game to the extent reasonably possible. This could easily have been the year when I ended my various projects, including writing, or looked to turn over the Jim Chapman Award for excellence in motorsports public relations to someone else. That would have been the easy thing for me to do, and possibly, the wisest. But that, at least for me, would have been to give up. It's healthy -- if sometimes a strain -- for me to remain engaged, active, informed, mind-and-body making the effort. It's healthy for me to take on challenges, as best I can, even when I come up short of what I expect of myself. And, perhaps above all, it's a matter of pride, satisfaction, accomplishment, responsibility and self-respect.

There's a famous line from Apollo 13 as NASA's Mission Control team works to get the three astronauts on a crippled spacecraft home alive: "Failure is not an option."

In my real-world life, "I don't want to" is not an option. And something I'm not going to deal with  any longer. Not argue about, just not take in, lest I be mentally brought down in its wake.

[ more next week . . . ]    


Sunday, October 05, 2014

WORD WISE

Regular readers know I am increasingly troubled by what passes for public/media relations these days. That's especially true of the conjured-up theory brought to reality and known as NASCAR Integrated Marketing Communications, where the human relationships (and success) fostered by Bill France Sr. (I knew him slightly), Bill France Jr. and Jim Hunter (both I had extensive dealings with as a journalist, sponsor rep and series official) have been flushed for the sake of marketing opportunities and corporate partnership contrivance.

So it was sad, but not surprising, when last week's news of Ben Blake's death brought not a word of official comment from the stock car sanction (at least, none that I saw) that so greatly benefitted from Blake's healthy journalistic skepticism and wonderful writing skill. I think that's likely because the leaders of IMC have no personal or institutional knowledge of Ben's insightful and important coverage over the decades -- and are so busy counting Tweets and tracking what's Trending so as not to be bothered to learn about Blake's powerful contributions in growing and better educating the NASCAR public. It's yet another example of the humanity being sucked out of the sport and industry and I guarantee you 100 percent the consequences will ultimately be unhappy ones. There will be no reason for Brian France to scratch his head in upcoming years, wondering Why the Bad?, because what's on the horizon if the current dehumanizing road remains traveled is clear right here and now.

Journalism is changing, too, and in many ways that's not a good thing, either. There's too much personalization in the reporting, too much emphasis on getting-it-first rather than getting-it-right,  not enough shoe-leather digging. There are exceptions, of course, but that group is steadily declining.

I knew Ben best, and I'm sure many readers did, via his work in Racer magazine and Speedvision (Speed) .com. He had a natural gift to be able to quickly see past the superficial hype of most stories and concentrate on the underlying substance. For example, we sat in the media center at California Speedway the morning of a Cup race, and Ben was telling me why he questioned the long-term success of NASCAR at that track. This was years before ticket sales fell dramatically. Then we got to talking about the then-new idea of a NASCAR Hall of Fame. Ben was wondering why it was needed, how the concept seemingly came out of nowhere overnight, and that while Charlotte was the logical home there were already plenty of museums and shop tours to suck-up that available pool of fan money. He turned out to be right on both counts.

Another time I came upon him in the garage area at Daytona, a few days before the 500. NASCAR used to post bulletins on the side of its hauler and Ben was looking over the various documents. Something about the distribution of TV money didn't seem right to him. I don't think a big story ever came out of it but the point is Ben was doing his homework and checking out information that was there for any reporter to see, only he was one of the few (maybe the only one) to actually bother. 

Ben wasn't always right. He was deeply affected by Dale Earnhardt's death (Ben wrote Earnhardt's only authorized bio) and told me (and others) he thought it might lead to the end of NASCAR. Just the opposite, NASCAR went on an unprecedented growth run, which in many ways amazed Blake. He was anything but politically correct and would chastize fans who swallowed the NASCAR line whole by referring to them as "goobers."  He took heat for that, as he did for his regular appearances on the Pit Bull panel show, which was canceled for being too politically incorrect (or so many believe.)

While Ben was best known for his NASCAR coverage, he was wise about other series, too. I have a great memory of a detailed conversation with him over the fate of CART/Champ Car while enjoying a Ruth's Chris steak in Las Vegas the night before a Cup race.

Blake's passing sadly adds to the list of real old-school journalists we've lost, which includes the likes of Shav Glick, Gerald Martin, Roger Jaynes, Bill Simmons, Joe Dowdall, Beth Tuschak, David Poole, Leon Mandel and Chris Economaki. Yes, each had his/her own style and approach, but all knew how to get at a story and tell it. Al Pearce, thankfully, continues as one of the few of the old-guard still pounding out great -- and meaningful -- copy.

As I wrote on Twitter, NASCAR, its fans, and those who appreciate wonderful writing are poorer today.

Thanks, Ben, for telling it like it was. There are still some of us around who realize how important, and how good, that was for the NASCAR industry. Even though the Powers-That-Be probably didn't/don't understand that. God Bless.


The first Big Test of NASCAR's revamped Chase system produced mixed Business of Racing results. The initial "elimination" event drew a smaller ESPN TV audience than the year before -- Bad News. But at-track attendance at Dover was up. Yet, track President Denis McGlynn told my friend Bill Fleischman of the Philadelphia Daily News he's considering removing more grandstands after the big overbuild of the boom times. A few of McGlynn's quotes were quite revealing. Such as:  "It rubs against the grain to take down sections, but if people are taking shots at us (for smaller crowds) it has to be done." In other words, perception matters. And then there was this: "The race probably didn't live up to its pre-race billing . . ."  That is, NASCAR's hype about super-aggressive driving by those trying to remain in title contention. 


[ more next week . . . ]