• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

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 . . . ]