Sunday, January 25, 2015

IMSA's SELF-INFLICTED MEDIA WOUNDS (and Jeff Gordon is No. 1 on This Week's Power Players List)

Week two of my new Power Players list is below. There will be plenty of time for thoughts on Jeff Gordon (some current NASCAR TV announcers can officially start to feel nervous about being replaced) as the season progresses. But first . . .

The challenges in elevating the status of sports car racing in America are enormous. I've been around long enough to remember the 1970s when IMSA was bolstered by John Bishop's leadership, a small but largely solid staff, the support of Bill France Sr., and the terrific backing of R.J. Reynolds' sports marketing group and Camel's title sponsorship. There was some excellent racing and some good times, too.

I predicted the first year of the combined ALMS/Grand-Am series would be difficult and it certainly was. Whatever goodwill was created by unifying sports car racing quickly fell to self-inflicted wounds, including inept officiating and a variety of organizational errors. Season two of the Tudor watches (not even remotely bringing an RJR-esque effort to the task)-entitled series opened last weekend with the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway, won by Scott Dixon, Kyle Larson, Tony Kanaan and Jamie McMurray.

Even though this is a series strongly influenced by NASCAR's philosophy and people, one of the largest hurdles to be overcome is achieving consistent season-long media coverage that goes beyond the motorsports websites. Putting the leadership together to make a real go at this goal was one of those bad mis-steps of 2014. And, I'm sorry to say, IMSA itself is responsible for another self-inflicted wound on the media front as the 2015 tour hits the road.

This may appear to be a real "inside baseball" thing, but remember, this blog is written primarily for those within the industry. As ridiculous as this may seem, it is a true fact: IMSA has made it more burdensome for legitimate media to obtain a season-long "hard card" credential than it is to get a credential for the World Series or Super Bowl.

Think about the incredible stupidity of that for a minute . . . 

Again this year, to obtain that pass, media must fill-out an overly long series of forms, at least compared to other series. If you choose to print the forms IMSA sends by E-mail, you MUST print it in COLOR.  (!) Perhaps worst of all, media have to get an IMSA license, making each journalist an "official member" of the sanctioning body. That is crap and completely inappropriate and unethical.

I am reliably told all of this bureauracy has been mandated by insurance risk assessors. Are we to believe there is more risk in IMSA than in NASCAR, IndyCar or NHRA, all of which have a much simplier credential process? If they need to reduce risk, here's a suggestion: Stop allowing TV announcers and cameramen onto "hot" pit roads. There's no other major U.S. series doing that, and I don't care what the TV types say, it's not necessary for a quality production. Or good reporting. Jamie Howe proved she couldn't get it right even with access to pit road, wrongly reporting a driver change at an ALMS Mosport event some years ago, even though she was standing right in front of the car! 

When journalists cover baseball or football or basketball or hockey or golf or tennis or horse racing or track and field or skiing or boxing or whatever, they do not become a member of the ruling organization. I am especially surprised -- and very disappointed -- that series President Scott Atherton, who began his career as a Domino's Pizza marketer in CART and then issued media credentials as a racetrack manager, doesn't know better and didn't put a stop to this obvious mistake. This is the reason I declined the opportunity to be issued an IMSA credential this season. Call it a One Man Protest if you wish, but PR and Media Relations 101 tells me my position is the right one, and IMSA/Atherton's is flat-out wrong. Hey, Scott: Stop The Madness!

Roger Penske (Atherton's old boss) told me decades ago that self-inflicted wounds are the most painful, because they can be avoided. As a sports car fan, and member of the Jaguar team that finished 1-2 in the 1990 Daytona 24, I am going to hope this isn't a sign of another troublesome IMSA season. But I'm not confident.

And, finally, also on the IMSA media front, the opening two hours of the Rolex 24 on Fox broadcast network were highly unsatisfying. Bob Varsha not calling the action? Justin Bell -- who is to sports car racing what Rutledge Wood is to NASCAR and Will Buxton is to Formula One (hint: that's not a positive) -- instead of Tommy Kendall? (Dorsey Schroeder was definitely missed.) Later, on cable, the horrendously bad Howe back on pit road? The whole production struck me to be in line with what I've observed as a bad recent stretch across all the Fox networks. (Last week on Fox News, Chris Wallace wined about not being invited to an off-the-record pre-State of the Union White House media lunch while Shep Smith, who was there, lamented about not sampling the wine. As if any viewer gave a bleep. Talk about egomania and being out-of-touch with the audience!) It all doesn't bode well for the rest of the IMSA TV season, unless the production "Big Thinkers" get their act together before Sebring. But two precious hours on over-the-air network TV resulted in Opportunity Lost.

POWER PLAYERS: The 10 most influential people in the Business and Politics of Motorsports for the week of January 25, as selected by long-time journalist/publicist and industry insider Michael Knight.

  1. Jeff Gordon -- Along with Bill France Sr. and Jr., Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, one of the five most consequential figures in NASCAR history, because he crossed-over from sports to the popular mainstream culture -- Saturday Night Live, Live with Regis and Kelly, etc. -- a major player in NASCAR's rocket-ride growth period and beyond.

  2. Chip Ganassi -- Record sixth Rolex 24 victory in 12 tries -- any baseball player would like to have that .500 batting average -- now aims for co-winner Kyle Larson's first Sprint Cup victory and securing move-of-the-race driver Sage Karam a full-time IndyCar ride.

  3. Jim Utter -- The Charlotte Observer's motorsports writer is key in shaping opinion in NASCAR's hub, is a new Hall of Fame voter, and will be prominent in this week's annual Media Tour.

  4. Ross Tannenbaum -- President of Fanatics Authentic does 10-year deal with NASCAR and major teams to be primary retailer at all Sprint Cup series events that will evolve into a climate-controlled superstore retail center (phasing out trailers) for all merchandise. 

  5. Scott Dixon -- Underappreciated due to IndyCar's popularity decline and his low-key personality, but leader of the Rolex 24 winning driver lineup is arguably American motorsports' most relentless driver, setting an example for racers everywhere to follow. 

  6. Jamie Allison -- Ford racing director's brand-important EcoBoost engine shows speed, efficiency and reliability to finish first in the Rolex 24 with Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray, a very Big Win for the Blue Oval.

  7. Tino Belli -- IndyCar's aerodynamic development director begins initial inspection of bodywork kits submitted by Chevrolet and Honda after homologation deadline.

  8. John Force -- Team successfully tests near Phoenix and he responds to controversy about the Chevrolet Camaro Funny Car bodywork he'll run this season -- and reveals daughter Ashley is contracted as emergency backup driver for not only her dad, but also sisters Courtney and Brittany and brother-in-law Robert Hight -- in my exclusives (also on Twitter @SpinDoctor500). 

  9. Ben Geisler -- World of Outlaws' chief marketing officer spearheads search for new title sponsor to replace STP with 90-race sprint car season opening  Feb. 13 at Volusia Speedway Park in Florida. 

10. Winston Kelley -- Executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame rolls out red carpet for new HoF class, including Bill Elliott, and that positive regional and national publicity might give the financially-troubled facility a much-needed bounce. 

[ new list and more next week . . . ]