Tuesday, July 31, 2007

MISing In Action

Unless an Army General travels from West Point to Michigan International Speedway soon and teaches Roger Curtis how to execute an about-face, Sunday's Firestone 400 will end a 40-year run of Indy-type racing at the two-mile Irish Hills superspeedway.

How sad. But not surprising.

When he announced the Indy Racing League would debut in 1996, Tony George repeatedly cited, as a key reason, the need to protect the American oval-track traditions of this form of the sport. The clear message was CART's expansion to road and street courses, and international venues, endanged the historical underpinnings of Indy-style racing. As recently as March 2006, at Homestead-Miami Speedway, series competition president Brian Barnhart said: "The pursuit of the ultimate achievement in motorsports, victory at the Indianapolis 500, has allowed us to preserve and nurture the heritage of Indy-style oval-track racing."

Curtis, MIS' president, confirmed the other week that George's tour won't be back in 2008 due to a dispute over an acceptable date. Series' reps said they were "surprised." Add MIS to a list already including the California, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Charlotte, Dover, Gateway and New Hampshire ovals (plus shuttered Walt Disney World, Nazareth and Pike's Peak) that have come-and-gone during the IRL era. Not that anyone should consider that a trend, or reversal of fortune, or left-hand turn away from the series' founding concept.

Upon receiving the word about his "home" track, Tim Wohlford of AutoRacing1.com, asked me to comment. That brought back a lot of memories.

My own involvement with MIS began when I became CART's first communications director in November 1980. In early 1981, we had a Board of Directors meeting in Houston. Roger Penske, who then owned MIS, proposed to the Board that the July race be changed from 200 to 500 miles. I remember that made for some wide eyes! There were questions if the drivers and cars would hold-up for 500 miles at those speeds on the banking. Roger said it was important for CART to have its own 500 (I agreed), since Ontario Motor Speedway had closed. Wally Dallenbach was the chief steward and, after thinking about it for several minutes, said he thought it could be done. The Board approved and we all went to work.

NBC agreed to televise the event "live," start-to-finish. That was huge because it would be the first time an Indy Car 500 would be shown "live" green-to-checkers. Unfortunately, the race was rained out, and we had to try again the next Saturday. There was a big pit fire and I vividly remember Joe Dowdall, the late, great Detroit News writer, shouting to reporters to get away from the press box window because he was afraid the glass would blow out! Fortunately, it didn't. Pancho Carter won although there was some controversy if he had received an illegal push start out of the pits.

That first 500 seemed to foreshadow the controversies which followed over the years. For example, Mario Andretti edged Tom Sneva in 1984, and Sneva complained about dangerous blocking. There was no SAFER barrier back then and so most accidents at those speeds resulted in heavy impact. A.J. Foyt, Gordon Johncock and Derek Daly were severely injured. Al Unser Jr. and Chip Ganassi had a spectacular tangle in '84 and it was very lucky they came out pretty much OK. Goodyear decided to introduce radial tires for the 1985 race, but after a few mysterious crashes during practice, everything was put off a week so a supply of bias-ply tires could be made. While this decision was being debated, Mario told the press he'd drive no matter what, while Emerson Fittipaldi said he would not. Ironically, Emmo got his first CART victory, but Mario had a right-rear hub failure in the closing laps while running third and was hospitalized with a hip injury. He couldn't drive the next weekend in Elkhart Lake, the first time he ever had to miss a race due to injury! It's a historical fact that the great careers of Fittipaldi and Danny Sullivan (hurt in accidents) and Rick Mears (DNF due to earlier wrist injury) ended at Michigan.

There was a lot of worry about speed in 1987. Not many people know or remember this, but a few months before the race, a loop was built at the exit of turn two. The idea was the drivers would have to brake, go through the horseshoe, and then accelerate down the backstretch. The loop was never used, though, because of concern about a lot of gearbox failures and, to be honest, fears the fans would not like it.

High speed was again a big topic of discussion in 1989. It's a cliche among drivers to say they are "looking forward" to any race, but truthfully, not many felt that way heading to MIS. Michael Andretti publicly expressed his worries. As it turned out, Michael spun on pit road, got two black-flag penalties, and still won! (I was the Newman/Haas PR director so that's me, to Michael's right, directing the victory lane photo session.) Nigel Mansell, accustomed to FIA-standard smooth tracks in Formula One, couldn't believe how bumpy the surface was when he arrived for practice in 1993. Of course, that was a constant problem, because of the effects of winter and CART veterans had come to accept it as reality. Nigel went on to win that race in his historic PPG Cup championship season. The Hanford Device era -- a big wing that created a huge draft effect -- started in 1998 and those were some of the most breathtaking shows ever. Sadly, I remember that '98 race also for the spectator fatalities, when a wheel got into the grandstands.

The watershed event at MIS was the 1996 U.S. 500, when the CART owners decided to run head-to-head against the Indy 500. That was the defining day in modern American open-wheel history and divided not only series vs. series, but fan against fan. Public interest in all of U.S. open-wheel racing has never been the same. I remember telling Pat Patrick, Derrick Walker, Carl Haas, Steve Horne, Ganassi and others -- including Andrew Craig -- that if they were going to take on an American Institution then they better make a five-year commitment to it and be prepared to approve a budget for an all-out promotional and marketing effort. My opinion was they were not going to accomplish their goal with a one-time try. It didn't happen. The race was close to being sold out but CART never ran directly opposite Indy again.

The IRL had some good Michigan 400s, especially in 2003, when Alex Barron edged Sam Hornish. The track will always have a place in the sport's history as it showcased Indy Car racing at its most exciting, and unfortunately, in decline. Tim Wohlford kindly concluded his report thusly:

"Again, Michael Knight summed it up best: 'I'm sure the news of no-more-MIS will leave those fans who bought into Tony George's original concept for the IRL, which was to protect the Indy series' oval-track heritage, with an increased sense of disenfranchisement. I don't blame them.' "
FAST LINES: National Speed Sport News (I've been a continuous subscriber since about 1970) has completely redesigned its website. There now are daily news updates and blogs. I like that I can download the current issue as a PDF file first thing Wednesday morning. Check it out at http://www.nationalspeedsportnews.com/. . . After days of intense media attention and a true sense of national disgust about charges made against Michael Vick in a federal indictment, I was disappointed with Krista Voda's poor choice of words on the opening of SPEED's Truck telecast from Indy: "The Truck Series' big dogs are ready to fight" . . . I hope this wasn't a signal of false hype to come the rest of the season. Brent Musburger during the Allstate 400: "There's not a seat to be had" (even a casual glance revealed thousands of empty seats). To which Suzy Kolber replied: "That's for sure." Meanwhile, Rusty Wallace, gushing over Juan Montoya's runner-up finish, claimed the 2000 Indy 500 winner had "never run at this racetrack in his life" . . . Broadcast and print reporters AGAIN proved they don't know how to correctly cover Business of Racing issues. There is an important difference between a MERGER and a PARTNERSHIP. DEI-Ginn is a merger. Yates-Newman/Haas/Lanigan is a partnership. The words are not interchangeable! This was inaccurately reported on ESPN's various outlets for days and in countless print/web stories. Where are the producers and editors whose job it is to provide accuracy and oversight? . . . Last week I commented on Scott Atherton's interview on the ALMS site. Also therein it was revealed the series' current TV agreement expires after this season. Maybe it's just me, but I got the impression renewal with SPEED wasn't as automatic as one might have thought . . . Latest Champ Car TV gimmick: Title contender Robert Doornbos suddenly is "Bobby." What's next? "Sam" Bourdais? . . . By the way, just how much money did Team Australia win along with the Canadian Triple Crown trophy? The announcers made it sound like $1 million, but I never heard any amount mentioned. Hmmm . . . Good Move: John Kernan added to the ESPN2 NHRA crew as a third pit reporter for the rest of the season . . . Another Good Move: Aric Almirola getting away from Joe Gibbs Racing, as suggested here, in the wake of the Milwaukee Mile fiasco. The opportunity to understudy Mark Martin in the merged DEI-Ginn team is priceless. Almirola and his advisors now must ensure Aric gets guidance from an experienced PR professional -- he showed at Milwaukee he needs it -- even if the driver has to open up his own wallet . . . This was announced to AARWBA members a few weeks ago, but ESPN will be a co-host of the reception prior to the 38th annual All-America Team dinner. That's Saturday, January 12, at the Indianapolis Hyatt. I'm chairing the event for the fourth consecutive time . . . Tim Wohlford of AutoRacing1.com has a new blog: http://localgadfly.blogspot.com/.
For those of us of a certain vintage, Doug Wolfgang is an unforgettable racer, and an enduring legend. It's an understatement to say he was a compelling figure behind the wheel of a winged sprint car. If you don't know Doug's story, you should, as it ranges from five Knoxville Nationals wins to a terrible fire in 1992. Dave Argabright, whose "American Scene" column in National Speed Sport News combines excellent writing with common sense, has written Wolfgang's saga in the new book Lone Wolf. Since it's scheduled to be released tomorrow, I haven't read LW yet, but knowing and respecting Dave I have no doubt it's a "must." Last year, Dave teamed with Chris Economaki to record Let 'Em All Go!, Chris' long-awaited book. Call 317-631-0437 to order or visit http://daveargabright.com/ . Dave will again be a pit reporter for SPEED's "live" coverage of the Knoxville Nationals, the World of Outlaws' premier event, Saturday night, August 11.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


I confess: When it comes to motorsports, I have a bit of a pro-ESPN mindset. I guess I feel like I played a (very) minor role in the network's racing history.

It was a small story, deep inside the pages of the Wall Street Journal in the late 1970s, that first made me realize ESPN could be big. The article revealed that Budweiser had agreed to become the network's initial major advertiser. I remember wondering if racing could find a place at this cable TV upstart, but I was thinking more USAC sprints, not Nextel Cup.

In December 1980, a little over a month after becoming CART's original director of communications, I traveled to ESPN's New York City offices to see what we might do together. This was the era where its programming was filled with Australian rules football, but I could offer Johnny Rutherford, Al and Bobby Unser, Rick Mears and (sometimes) Mario Andretti. (Rutherford was being honored as Driver of the Year that week and I invited a SportsCenter crew to the 21 Club to interview him.) A few months of back-and-forth resulted in CART Chairman John Frasco signing a deal.

So, in June 1981, we met up at the Milwaukee Mile for what would become ESPN's debut "live" race telecast. Bob Jenkins was the anchor, joined in the booth by Larry Nuber. Gary Lee went solo in the pits. Terry Lingner produced and Mike Wells directed. Throughout the weekend I was explaining to drivers, owners and chief mechanics what was happening and requesting their cooperation. I introduced the group at the pre-race drivers' meeting, and one driver came up to me and asked, "What's ESPN?" It was an eventful day -- I did my first-ever TV interview with Gary to explain there were no serious injuries after a pit fire -- while Mike Mosley came from the back of the field to win the 150 in Dan Gurney's Pepsi Challenger Eagle stock-block Chevy.

Everyone came away pleased and a long-term relationship was born. Jenkins became one of my most reliable friends. I got to know a lot of ESPN folk. Occasionally, when they were understaffed, I helped out as a spotter/scorer in the booth and even worked in the production truck during a NASCAR race. I'll admit to "leaking" several stories which ESPN broke on SportsCenter, SpeedWeek or during races. I got Michael Andretti to tape an "In Your Face" promo for them and twice brought Nigel Mansell, and later, Jimmy Vasser, to the ESPY awards. When SC did a long feature on "Mansell Mania" that aired the Friday before the 1993 Indy 500, they used a sound bite from me -- "This is what it must have been like when Elvis was King" -- at the top of the show. (Mysteriously, I received an Elvis postcard thanking me for the plug.) Dan Patrick asked, if he came to Indy, could I have Nigel sit for an extended "Sunday Night Conversation" segment? I set it up, but Dan had to bow-out at the last minute, so Paul Page stepped-in. I arranged for Vasser and Joe Montana to tape the opening for RPM2Night when it went on the air in 1996 and put many drivers on the show. When Gil de Ferran and his family flew on the Goodyear blimp, I invited Marlo Klain and her RPM crew to share the adventure. I've long respected founding RPM producer Shawn Murphy and am grateful for the compliments he's steered my way. Paul Page has been generous with his time and advice. When Joe Amato retired and hired Darrell Russell to replace him, I gave the news to Jack Arute, who had it before anyone else -- and the first "live" interviews with Joe and Darrell -- on ESPN Radio. Former ESPN executive VP and ABC Sports president Howard Katz kindly recommended me for a job with the National Hockey League. Over 10 years ago a producer gave me a real nice ESPN jacket as a "thank you." I still have it.

Considering this history, you'll understand when I say I'm anxious for ESPN's return to NASCAR Nextel Cup racing with this weekend's Allstate 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Especially coming off six weeks of TNT. Depending on if one wants to be charitable or critical, that presentation was either "disappointing" or "dismal." If the TNT suits bring that same lot back in '08, the only explanation will be their standard of excellence is Xanadu.)

Indy is the network's initial Cup telecast since the end of the 2000 season. No one would argue ESPN's first turn at bringing NASCAR to the nation was key in building the stock car sport's popularity. Given what we've seen since, it's increasingly obvious some exec should have busted butt to keep that original announce team of Jenkins, Benny Parsons, Ned Jarrett, Jerry Punch, Bill Weber and John Kernan intact. Their chemistry was better than DuPont's.

It tells us plenty about the financial investment ESPN has made in the NASCAR property that arrangements were made to shift Indy's date one week forward so the Brickyard would be the network's Cup curtain-raiser. History tells us the ESPN brass doesn't hurt for confidence, so there's nothing like debuting on a huge stage. (Sunday, 1 p.m., EDT.)

ESPN and ABC will have "live" coverage of the final 17 Cup events, with all 10 Chase races on ABC. (Every second of every program will be HD.) Since Indy is the start, I say it's silly (and unfair) to speed into critiques. It is no secret, however, ESPN's Busch Series and studio shows have struggled for cohesiveness and identity. This group is still looking for the Jenkins- Parsons- Jarrett et al formula. It remains to be seen if they find it.

I'm happy that Jerry Punch, who has always been nice to me, had his loyalty rewarded with the anchor chair. Mike Massaro, too. I've liked Rusty Wallace since the day I met him in 1980 and hiring his outgoing personality and marque name sure made sense. Going back to SPEED's original Inside Winston Cup, I've always rated Allen Bestwick as a very good studio host, but I fear he is miscast as a pit reporter. On ESPN's weekday and pre-race programs, Shannon Spake has emerged from the wreckage of SPEED's wretched NASCAR Nation as a solid, straightforward reporter. (As rare these days as three seconds of silence from Michael Waltrip. I suggest Shannon replace the unbelievably amateurish Brienne Pedigo on IndyCar telecasts.)

As for NASCAR Now and NASCAR Countdown, well, Toyota has performed better. Considering ESPN's long and deserved reputation for outstanding studio shows focused on virtually every sport for which it is a rights-holder, this has been a shocker to me. I still don't understand Brad Daugherty's role. As for "insiders" who also contribute to ESPN.com: We have a columnist who, relatively speaking, discovered NASCAR 10 minutes ago. Another's coverage resume for most of this decade is sketchy, too.

Brent Musburger is listed as overall host from Indianapolis. Suzy Kolber is set to become Countdown host. These assignments have been knocked elsewhere because the two are not racers. I doubt Musburger's tasks will take him much beyond lending his "big event" presence. I've never met Kolber but I don't think I've ever seen her be anything but completely professional on everything from the NFL to figure skating. And I definitely want to give ESPN's PR department credit for this: Musburger and Kolber were announced well in advance, as opposed to Fox, which didn't reveal the participation of non-racers Chris Myers and Jeannie Zelasko until the very eve of its 2001 Daytona 500 coverage.

As I am certain management spent months putting together its NASCAR team, I admit to being surprised there have been issues. I say let's see how it goes from this weekend until the checkered flag flies Nov. 18 at the Ford 400. I am confident of this: ESPN has no more important property than Monday Night Football, and after one season, changes have been made in the booth and the presentation of support programs. I'm pretty sure that -- if necessary -- NASCAR will be no different.The Business of Racing Is Business. Recent News Has Again Proven the Vast Majority of Producers, Editors and Racing Journalists Don't Understand That Essential Truth.

On Fox and SPEED, ESPN and TNT, and just about every radio show, website, newspaper and magazine in-between, we heard and read that it was a given Budweiser would go with Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Hendrick Motorsports. An ESPN.com writer wrote: "Budweiser is going where Earnhardt goes, unless Bud execs want to give up the best marketing tool in company history." I'm sure those within Anheuser-Busch's sports marketing department -- one of the most respected in the world -- wish all decisions could be made based on such simplistic thinking. P.S. -- Ever heard of the Clydesdales?

Meanwhile, recently, the media business pretenders have also told us: The Ginn Racing meltdown is a "surprise" (sure, without questioning the viability of running without sponsorship, plus a document search would have revealed a useful paper trail); that Formula One "must" be in the U.S. (such baying at the moon shows reporters have no clue how Bernie Ecclestone operates); that the IndyCar Series will be "fine" if Sam Hornish switches to NASCAR (you betcha!); and that Champ Car street races are "successful" (based on what set of criteria?), Tony Cotman's appointment to a front-office management position was a "good move" (maybe, but what are Cotman's business credentials?), and the head-shaking suggestion that Andrew Craig shouldn't have been ousted and it "might have come in handy" to have him around still today (the groundwork for CART's decline, and many of its current-day woes, can be traced directly back to Craig's arrogant regime.)

The Biz of Racing is a speciality beat. The time has long past for media decision-makers to treat it as such. If, for no other reason, than to preserve credibility. And avoid embarrassment. I first met Scott Atherton in the mid-1980s when he was with Domino's Pizza and involved in the company's CART team sponsorship. He moved on to work for Roger Penske, and ran California Speedway for Penske, before taking charge of the American Le Mans Series and other Don Panoz motorsports businesses. I've always liked and respected Scott, which is why I found comments he made last week so disappointing. Before Mid-Ohio, a Q&A with Scott was posted on the ALMS site, http://americanlemans.com/ . What follows is taken directly from that interview.

Q: "Brian France recently took the position that NASCAR had to continue its leadership role in developing alternative fuel strategies. With that initiative being such an integral part of the American Le Mans Series, what was your initial reaction?"

A: "Honestly, I can't imagine where they are coming up with these ideas. Charging into the 70s with the introduction of unleaded fuel this year, still running through carburetors is humorous in a certain sense but maddening in another. The American Le Mans Series has always prided itself on being truly on the cutting edge and being very proactive and innovative in embracing technology and allowing manufacturers to bring new technology to the race track on its way to their production examples. To think that NASCAR has even the slightest connection to that is frankly laughable.

"There is really no future in engaging a war of words, but our actions speak much louder than those words. We are the only series in the world that has an ethanol-enriched gasoline blend and the only series in North America that features a diesel-powered race car -- clean diesel, 100 percent sulfur-free. These are true examples of alternative fuels, true examples of cutting-edge technology and true examples of manufacturers developing tomorrow's practical road-car technology today. There's no one else that's doing a better job. Brian has a unique perspective on this. But the proof is in the facts, not the hyperbole."

Atherton was right: There was no point in engaging in a war of words with the chairman of the country's most successful and popular racing enterprise. I would have expected Scott to remember this lesson from his Penske days. Yes, we all understand the France family controls the rival Rolex Sports Car Series. And, yes, the timing of these remarks was especially inappropriate given the personal losses the France family has endured the last six weeks.

I would describe these quotes as an unfortunate misjudgment.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


MY CHOICE: For those who have asked, this is my No. 1 all-time favorite PR creation -- Mario (left) and Michael Andretti with a koala in the cockpit of their Kmart Lola before CART's first race in Australia in 1991. Associated Press moved this image, in color, on its worldwide wire. The above was published in the Detroit News -- Kmart's hometown newspaper. How did I make it happen? Read below.

I've been blogging in this spec of cyberspace for one year. As promised in the first post, I've attempted to make it "The Great Adventure" (that's what Paul Newman called Nigel Mansell's foray into American open-wheel racing) for all curious enough to click on and check it out.

And, for me, too.

In my journalism/public relations career, I've had the opportunity to meet and observe and deal with and learn from some very talented PR people. I want to mention a few names: Bill Dredge (Andy Granatelli's right-hand man during STP's glory days), Dave Blackmer (who worked with Granatelli and Dredge), Dan Luginbuhl (one of Roger Penske's key people for decades), Jack Duffy (Linda Vaughn's boss at Hurst), Bill Marvel (Pocono Raceway and USAC), Rod Campbell (long-time guider of Ford's racing PR), Ernie Saxton (man-of-many East Coast clients), Bob Latford (a NASCAR and track and sponsor publicist, stock car historian, and designer of the original Winston Cup points system) and Jim Hunter (NASCAR's VP for corporate communications). Ed Triolo, Trevor Hoskins, Bob Thomas, Mike Rubin, Susan Arnold, Bill York, Joe Whitlock, Dick Stahler, Dick Ralstin, Ray Marquette, Jep Cadou, Bill Hill, Jack Martin, Deke Houlgate, Dick Williford, Jan Shaffer, Alexis Leras, Jim Freeman, Bob Kelly, Bob Moore, Bill Broderick, Bob Russo, Barry Bronson, Bob Carlson, Kevin Kennedy, Earl Fannin, Drew Brown and Dan Layton were among the kind or helpful or had tips or set a good example along the way. (No doubt there were others and I apologize for the oversight.) Of course, the list will forever be topped by my great friend and one of history's greatest professionals and gentlemen, Jim Chapman. (If you haven't done so, it's worth reading my Dec. 12, 2006 blog about Mr. Chapman.)

Ron McQueeney, photography director at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, has kindly said to me several times that I should "teach a class" in motorsports PR. I think that's because I've long understood how important the traditional post-Indy 500 qualifying photo session is to sponsors. I tried to work closely with Ron and his staff to "direct" the different photos so the driver and crew were looking the right way and presented a professional appearance. I never considered it part of my job to be IN the photo, but rather, to make sure those who were looked good. I have enjoyed the opportunity, from time-to-time, to speak about the job and my experiences in front of various groups. Always, the best part has been the Q&A, and the one-on-one conversations that follow. That's when I have been able to learn, too.

Other readers have asked that, at least occasionally, I share some of my own stories from the PR front lines. One year seems like a good time to do so.

I passionately believe it's always necessary to do the basics first, and well, before attempting anything fancy. It never would have occurred to Mr. Chapman, or others listed above, not to return a phone call or respond to a written message. Talk about basics . . . these days, far too often, so-called "PR people" don't even have the common courtesy or good business sense to call back or answer an E-mail. How they are deemed qualified to be hired, or retained, tells us a lot about the judgment of those responsible at teams, tracks, sponsors and sanctions.

It was extremely satisfying to me, personally, when Mike Harris of the AP told me a few months ago over dinner he thought I did my best-ever work juggling the demands of the U.S. and international media during "Mansell Mania" in 1993 and 1994. When reigning world champion Mansell came to CART, it was motorsports' first-and-only 24-hour news cycle. Every morning I'd awaken to find faxes from media outlets around the world requesting interviews, quotes, news, photos, video and everything else you can imagine -- and comment about crazy rumors.

But I have always loved the creative side of PR. I've pulled off my share of "stunts" over the years and, occasionally, I'm asked to reveal my favorite. OK. Here it is and the story-behind-the-story:

At an end-of-1990-season meeting with Newman/Haas sponsors (I did the team PR), an issue became obvious to me that eventually would blow-up on CART as it lusted after internationalism. That being companies paying sponsorship with U.S. marketing budgets who didn't care about the series' desire for foreign intrigue. A Kmart senior VP expressed doubt the 1991 season opener, in Surfers Paradise, Queensland, Australia, would attract much coverage in the American media. Let's just say I got her point.

So, the task at hand was to put something in front of U.S. editors that would interest them in a CART race Down Under. A photo-op with a koala seemed obvious. Except, my twist was, I wanted to place the koala in the cockpit of a Kmart/Havoline Lola. How to make that happen?

Someone at Kmart knew someone in Brisbane. (I didn't ask the promoter in Surfers because I wanted an exclusive for Newman/Haas, not something available to going-to-Australia-will-be-a-paid-for-vacation PRers at other teams.) That was a start. She located an animal preserve about 30 miles from Surfers. I got to serious talking (faxing) with officials there 60 days before the race. It turned out Australia considered koalas to be "protected" (but not "endangered") and that created room to discuss my desire to bring a koala to the track. The negotiation came down to this: For a $1,000 (U.S.) donation to the preserve, and publicity recognition, the equivalent of a game warden would bring a koala to us for one hour. One condition: No race engines could be running, because that noise likely would frighten the marsupial. It was made clear to me this was a deal-breaker and the warden could withdraw the koala at any time he thought it might be scared.

That meant doing the photo-op on Thursday. Fine, as crews would be setting up, driver interviews were planned in the media center, so plenty of photogs would be on-site. My friend Kirk Russell, then CART's technical director, did me a favor and agreed to tell teams they couldn't warm-up engines for that hour. Upon my arrival in Surfers, however, I encountered an unexpected issue: The park had to get a permission waiver from the government. I did not receive the final "GO!" until 6 p.m. the night before. I told Mario and Michael Andretti what we were going to do and asked them to wear their uniforms. The N/H crew guys loved it and stuffed padding into the cockpit first thing Thursday a.m.

Gathering up photographers for the "photo call" wasn't too difficult, as many newspapers treated the inaugural race as a big deal. But, remember, my priority wasn't coverage in Australia, it was getting news that the Andrettis were racing Down Under back to America. So, before I traveled, I got the name of Associated Press photographer Steve Holland, and contacted him. He wanted an "exclusive" -- and I didn't blame him -- but that wasn't possible as the car would be on pit road and I needed ESPN to record it, too. (I arranged for Steve to have some special access to the team later that weekend.) It quickly became obvious to me Steve was a good guy and would work with me, so I was honest with him. I admitted flat-out what I was trying to make happen: A great photo, capturing the famous Andrettis, our Indy Car, the public's love of animals, and, yes, sponsor ID. I mapped out the logistics with Steve in advance and his shooting location was blocked off.

The warden arrived on time, with Dawn, a 2-year-old female koala. Almost as if on cue, as soon as we gently placed Dawn in the car, she put her paws on the steering wheel (!) then turned toward the group of more than three dozen still and video cameramen. With Mario and Michael looking on, Steve captured the image you see above. Within two hours, it moved in color on AP's worldwide wire.(At least a half-dozen representatives of other teams, who had spent the week on the beach or golf course, came over and asked me if they could "borrow" Dawn for their own photos. (!) You betcha!)

Video of Dawn and the Andrettis aired on SportsCenter and the ESPN race telecast and on stations and in papers across Australia. A service produced clips from around the world. But it was Mission Accomplished when the Detroit News -- Kmart's hometown paper -- published the picture. Somone at Kmart faxed it to my hotel. Later, I received a letter of congratulations from the same Kmart VP who got me plotting this in the first place. Before saying thanks and G'day to Dawn, I held her, and that framed photo is near me now. That was the best $1,000 I ever spent. And my most satisfying bit of Creative PR.
This seems the right occasion to go on-the-record about a few things I believe deeply:

1. Jim Chapman should be in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Hall of Fame. Mari Hulman George and Tony George know why. Please, make it happen.

2. American's attitudes about their sports and athletes underwent a fundamental change after Sept. 11, 2001. In international competition, we are interested in -- and cheer for -- those who are from the U.S. The TV ratings of international sporting events in the last six years, including the Olympics, proves this to be true. When the Americans don't do well, we don't watch. I keep wondering why management of the Indy Racing League, Champ Car and the domestic sports car series can't figure this out.

3. There is never -- NEVER -- a valid excuse for a telephone call not to be returned or an E-mail not to be answered. Personally, I've had it, especially when I'm attempting to make contact on behalf of the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association. (AARWBA is the country's oldest and largest organization of motorsports media professionals.) It's getting very close to the time when names will be named. I'll say this to those who will be embarrassed: Too bad. It's your own fault.

4. Standards across the board -- on TV, radio and the various forms of old-fashioned and new-fangled print journalism -- have declined. If anything, it has dropped even more among so-called "PR people." Also, sponsor "managers," who are employed to look out for the best interests of their company, and yet allow the ID on the driver's uniform they paid for get covered by a towel or wreath and thus aren't exposed on TV and in photos. Well-organized sponsor managers I worked with, such as Jim Melvin and Ron Winter, NEVER would have put up with such theft. (And that's exactly what it is.) I'll resist this trend and speak out against it until I'm gone.

5. It is equally as appropriate to write or call to say "THANK YOU" as it is to complain. I'd say, though, the former happens once or twice for every 98 or 99 of the latter.
Did Champ Car try a new way to attract TV viewers Sunday? CC's Toronto event on ESPN was up against Formula One's British Grand Prix on Fox. In the opening minutes -- for no reason related to what was happening at Toronto -- CC anchor Rick Benjamin revealed Kimi Raikkonen as winner of the tape-delayed GP, and a results graphic was put on the screen. It was as if to say: Here's who won F1, don't switch channels. Since the series buys the airtime and pays the production company, who made this decision? Champ Car management? The producer? The network? Are they willing to try anything to jump-start those awful .2 ratings? If someone happens to mention this to Bernie Ecclestone, I have a powerful feeling he'll call it dirty pool.
Californians Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty have won three consecutive Rolex Series sports car events, four this season, and are in the championship hunt. Memo to sponsor Gainsco, team owner Bob Stallings, engine manufacturer Pontiac, and the Grand-Am organization: Potentially, you've got lightning-in-a-bottle, a rare opportunity to go out and grab the attention of the national media with the success of two young Americans -- one the son of a legendary U.S. racer. What are you doing to take advantage of the situation? (I don't mean an extra interview on SPEED.) Please, don't let this chance pass you by . . .

[ NO blog next week . . . please check back here Tuesday, July 24 ]

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


Dario Franchitti, as one might expect of the current Indianapolis 500 winner, was on PR tour last week in advance of the IRL's Saturday night race in Richmond, Va. Franchitti visited the Washington studio of ESPN's popular Pardon The Interruption show for what is called the "Five Good Minutes" segment. Definitely a good opportunity.

Up front knowledge for you: I've known Dario since he came to CART in 1997 with the late Carl Hogan's team. Two years later, in the paddock at Belle Isle after the Detroit Grand Prix news day, my friend (and then Dario's teammate) Paul Tracy instigated a conversation about the media's interest in Franchitti's dating relationshp with Ashley Judd, just then hitting the celebrity press. I felt awkward because Dario wasn't my client and personal-is-personal, but then he asked me, "What do you think?", so I offered a few brief words of counsel and let it go. My experience has been, you can't help but like Dario, so I was pleased for his Indy victory.

At PTI, Dario's shirt had the logos of his sponsors, so he didn't mention them. OK (a harmless plug for Canadian Club and Honda wouldn't have caused him to break a sweat, though.) What raised my antenna, however, was no one ever spoke a single word about the Richmond race! Wasn't that a big point in setting up the interview in the first place, to help sell tickets, and try to attract some PTI viewers to ESPN for the race coverage? (Those who did watch saw Dario win what was a parade, despite Marty Reid calling Richmond, "The Action Track.")

Did anyone ask -- or remind -- Dario to do this? More evidence for all of those who shake their heads at the discount-store quality of PR within the IndyCar series and its teams. Those unsold tickets and 1.1 network/.6 cable TV ratings don't happen by accident.
I guess Kevin Kalkhoven was happy after last Sunday's Champ Car return to Canada's Mont-Tremblant. Neither of Kevin's PKV drivers won, but the famed Robert Doornbos did, for Paul Stoddard's Minardi team. Yes, that's the same Stoddard who used to field the wanker-of-all-wanker Formula One teams, but found his way to Champ Car, in a deal that amazingly included his two-seat F1 ride-along vehicles replacing Ford's pace car program. Kalkhoven welcomed Stoddard by saying something to the effect that Paul "is more our kind of guy than Roger Penske." I'm certain we'll hear what a "great story" Minardi is, but the signal to the public and corporate community is this: Standards in our series sure aren't what they used to be. It is stunning to think that Minardi now is tied for the championship lead with Newman/Haas/Lanigan -- the team that in 1993 was able to attract reigning world champion Nigel Mansell to CART -- because the series was THAT strong. (I did the team PR during "Mansell Mania" -- motorsports' first-and-only 24-hour news cycle.)

So this is what Champ Car has devolved into in less than 15 years: Mansell to Minardi.

Over at Richmond,
Sam Hornish again dropped big hints he's bound for NASCAR. The IRL's reaction? Hornish was quoted this way: "The League hasn't said two words to me about it. You feel like they don't need you sometimes. They've got their stars. That's another reason why you might want to do something else."

Hello, Terry Angstadt? Anyone home?

I can't help but wonder if this will be yet another case where a League official will respond post-bad news with a weak: "There's nothing we can do." I've heard that excuse from more IRLfolk more times than Ashley Judd shows up on TV. They should be embarrassed saying those words . . . but don't seem to be.
It's quite a feat to make Paris Hilton look insightful, but that's pretty much what Larry King did last week on CNN -- perhaps the WORST talk-show interview of the TV age. CNN reached an all-time low promoting this appearance, including an on-screen countdown clock leading up to King's program. I know CNN is desperate to reclaim its ratings throne from Fox News Channel . . . and it showed . . . it's a sad commentary on our celebrity-driven society that so many watched. Of course, to CNN and King, that justifies everything.

(Disclosure: When I did the PR for Mario Andretti's retirement tour in 1994, Mario was booked on King's show to promote his book. The interview was canceled at the last minute. Why? The O.J. Simpson trial was in full throat, and that afternoon, the infamous Judge Ito threatened to remove "live" TV cameras from the courtroom! King's producers decided THAT deserved a full hour of discussion.)

Getting back to desperation, that of ABC/ESPN/IRL shows, too, with continued "promotion" of the very minor Danica Patrick-Dan Wheldon Milwaukee incident. Sad. Very, very sad.

(One more thing about Paris' coverage. I was stunned to hear a marketing "expert" say her saga represented an "opportunity to rebrand" the Hilton name. (!) I would think Hilton hotels would offer all its preferred customers a free room as an apology to loyal customers for turning the once-proud name into a national joke.)
FAST LINES: SPEED's Tradin' Paint last Saturday continued the trend of producers booking guests on the basis of perceived prestige, not actual knowledge. The media panelist who joined Kyle Petty works for a national newspaper, which of course made him qualified to be on TV, and oh-so-uninsightful. The issue of Aric Almirola getting yanked for Denny Hamlin by Joe Gibbs Racing at Milwaukee drew a cutting edge "nobody wins" comment (Petty countered: "I don't like it") and we learned the Roush Fenway partnership is "huge." Wow! . . . It tells you everything you need to know about Champ Car and its chosen production company when a pit reporter from ESPN said this Sunday: "Graham Rahal, of the United States . . . " . . . I'm not a golfer, but here's the Quote of the Week, courtesy of off-the-tracks Michelle Wie at the women's U.S. Open: "It's just a very fine line between shooting 69 and shooting what I shot today." Wie shot 82!
Speaking of embarrassing interviews, Ohio Senator George Voinovich had one of the most on Sean Hannity's national radio show last week. (In 1981, when I was CART's communications director, I worked with then-Cleveland Mayor Voinovich and City Council on the creation of the series' first-ever temporary course event. Funny, I never saw Jim Freudenberg there.) Voinovich, a Republican, took to the airwaves to explain (well, he never did explain) his position on the hotly-debated immigration bill. Within three minutes, the Senator: 1) Appeared to not realize he was on-the-air; 2) Appeared not to know anything about the Fairness Doctrine; 3) Got the results wrong on an amendment vote. Responding to grassroots opposition to the legislation broadcast loud-and-clear on conversative talk radio, Voinovich arrogantly proclaimed he would not be "intimidated" by the public response, citing his "40 years in the business (politics)." Unhappy that Hannity continued to press him for a specific answer on how he would vote, Voinovich hung up!

I would like to have been present for the "conversation" I'm certain the good senator had with his press secretary immediately thereafter. (!)
Welcome to Big Time Auto Racing, Paul Corliss, Phoenix International Raceway's new communications director. Corliss spent five years with the NFL's New Orleans Saints as community affairs and business PR director. He worked on a multi-state outreach program for the team in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

[ more next Tuesday, the one year anniversary of this blog . . . ]