Sunday, September 26, 2010


I know this will be news to all but a sliver of the American sporting public, but the IndyCar season sunsets this Saturday afternoon at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It's been yet another year where off-the-track action drew more attention than who won the Indianapolis 500 or the most races.

I credit new CEO Randy Bernard for his ideas, energy and most especially his outreach. It's quite possible Bernard sought out the views of more people this season than Frasco, Caponigro, Stokkan, Craig, Heitzler, Johnson, Hauer, Long, Mehl and George did in the last 30 years. That was the smart thing to do, since, as Randy admitted, he had never been to an IC race before taking this job. I'm sure he learned a lot. One thing I really hope he started to get a handle on: Who has something useful to say; and who can't be trusted. Who has experience and accomplishments to offer an informed opinion; and who just has a big mouth.

Now, as he gets ready for his first "off-season," I urge Bernard to tackle, head-first, his series' most serious problem. One that, if it can begin to be fixed, would help cure IC's other woes such as sponsorship and TV ratings.

That problem: Beyond Danica, no one outside the shrinking hard-core fans KNOWS or CARES ABOUT any of the drivers.

That's how the IC series can and must grow -- by real EMOTIONAL CONNECTION, PRO-or-CON PASSION -- from the non-chatroomers.

Giving everyone every benefit of the doubt, there are maybe four drivers currently known by anyone other than base fans: Danica, Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan. If Will Power captures the championship this season, and the series tries to book him for interviews, I bet more than a few producers would think it's a prank -- "An interview with 'Will Power?' Yeah, sure, that's a good one!"

A few weeks ago, I posted here a series of suggestions to improve the Versus production. One was to quickly open each show with a The McLaughlin Group-type debating panel. That's necessary to try to draw in viewers because Briscoe, Matos, Meira, Moraes, Mutoh, Viso, Lloyd, Sato, etc. are so obscure more people could probably name the secretary of labor or the Green Bay Packers' special teams coach. Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon are Indianapolis 500 winners -- try that word association game on Jeopardy.

I know Izod has been applauded for its promotions, and I know the theme of its commercials has been "Race to the Party," but I'm at a loss to understand how showing Kanaan riding a watercraft or Wheldon riding in a helicopter helps make new fans. And, speaking of fans -- drag racing fans -- every time I've been around them this year, they say they are offended by the Izod tagline about "The Fastest Drivers/The Fastest Race in the World." Guess no one bothered to take a look at NHRA Top Fuel and Funny Car top-end speeds. This, two years after the series insulted the straight-line sport's followers by leading its Japan race news release with the false statement that Danica became "the first female to win a major auto racing event."

Let me say, Izod and the IC series are in no position to offend anyone. (And it was a mistake on the Versus' Japan show to knock other series for having "manufactured" championships. Who sells more tickets? Has higher TV ratings? Big-time sponsors?)

One thing that's obvious to me and should have been the first thing on the agenda a year ago: Izod needs a Jim Chapman.

I'll say again -- the Versus' production philosophy is fundamentally flawed and does nothing to attract fresh eyeballs and there aren't enough core fans left to generate the audience numbers sponsors require. One essential element of any successful TV presentation is CREDIBILITY. For the Versus announcers to discuss the 2011 schedule, as they did during the Japan show, and fail to mention the loss of four ISC tracks only served to reinforce the perception that it's a place where seldom is heard a discouraging word about the series. The "we, us, our" commentary fits right in with the Indiana mindset where news broadcasters talk about the Colts and Pacers in the same homer way. Impossible to imagine Bob Costas calling a baseball game, or Al Michaels a football game, that way. And, I'm sure it helped sell Homestead tickets to waste time on a feature on the IRL's bouncer, who should have received an internal reprimand. And, Jack Arute saying Danica's victory "seems just like yesterday" was intellectually insulting when the REAL story was she hadn't won again in TWO-AND-A-HALF YEARS! Yesterday, indeed . . .

I repeat -- credibility.

IC on Vs. needs a "Once Upon a Time" storyteller, a person capable of revealing the HUMAN drama, totally separate from the blacks vs. reds/push-to-pass/fuel strategy/half-turn of front wing techno talk. IC needs to be presented from the first second it goes on TV as an ADVENTURE, not an Ambien.

Meanwhile, to further advance this imperative, the series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway PR staffs must promptly set out for a winter of meaningful relationship building. I wonder how many of them even know that there was a time when the Speedway's off-season media party would be attended by representatives of the New York Times and Los Angeles Times? Ponder that the next time you look around the vast empty spaces in the media center.

But, with the bean counters and numbers crunchers in charge, and PR foolishly being retooled into a marketing function (a fundamental misunderstanding of how to deal with journalists), most of those relationships have been lost. Or destroyed by arrogance. No doubt the local media cheerleaders, looking to protect their preferred credential status, told the media center manager last May that the system was working just fine. Any honest research into the views of those outside the Indiana borders would reveal a much different landscape. It's quite something that, at a time when IMS management has finally realized it needs to advertise and market outside of the Hoosier state to fill its massive grandstands, relationships with a big section of the non-Indiana media are nearing a state of near-evaporation heading into the 100th anniversary of The Greatest Spectacle.

So, once that checkered flag waves this Saturday, there's tons of work to be done. The Delta Wing was considered too bold a move. I hope doing what must be done to fix these other problems won't be thought of the same way.

Back in the days of the Winston Million, eligible drivers were ID'd for fans with a special bright decal on the windshield. I'm VERY surprised NASCAR doesn't ID the Chase drivers in some similar way. And, to take the idea a step further . . . I think Start-and-Park entries should be required to notify NASCAR of their "status" in advance and run a marking making their intension NOT TO RACE visible to the public.

How self-absorbed are too many media types, especially in the cable TV/Internet age? Too many to count. After Delaware's Republican senate candidate, Christine O'Donnell, canceled scheduled interviews on Fox News Sunday and Face the Nation, Bill O'Reilly offered this as one reason why that was a mistake: "The media were looking forward to it." Now, as someone who has spent a few minutes booking interviews, I agree it's not nice to cancel. But not because "the media were looking forward to it." It's about the VOTERS of Delaware, not the MEDIA!

My personal all-time favorite example of this: The Los Angeles Times' long-time Washington bureau chief, the late Jack Nelson, bitterly complained on a PBS show after President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. Nelson's beef? That D.C. reporters felt "cheated" out of the chance to cover a Nixon trial. The mindset this revealed: It wasn't about what was BEST for the COUNTRY. It was about what was BEST for the MEDIA. (!)

(If you missed it, go back and read my Aug. 29 posting.)

Throw the bums out! Why is that the No. 1 rallying cry among voters? Look no further than last Friday's Congressional subcommittee hearing in which Stephen Colbert was invited by chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (Democrat of California) to testify on immigration issues. (What? !) He testified as his TV character, not as a concerned citizen. With the U.S. in deeply troubled times and the approval rating of Congress somewhere south of Antarctica, Colbert was allowed to turn the institution into a laughing stock. Talk about the dumming-down of America! Fox Business News reported the average Congressional hearing costs taxpapers about $100,000 an hour. An obviously out-of-touch-with-reality Lofgren should be sanctioned by the full Congress for bringing disgrace to the body, and then she should be bounced out of office by voters in November. But what I want to know is: Why didn't Republican committee members get up and walk out?

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, September 19, 2010


It would be nice to say the Chase got the kind of Saturn V launch the sport this format was created to challenge, the NFL, had for the start of its season. (Just look at football's TV ratings.)

Sorry, but that would not be true.

We're told changes are coming to NASCAR's playoff format, but this we already can say for sure: The air has gone out of the balloon as far as the pre-Chase hypefest is concerned. Last week's gathering of the 12 championship contenders in New York City resulted in the least amount of media buzz since this tradition began in 2004. It's not NASCAR's fault the Letterman show wasn't in production last week, for example, but the overall results did not justify the time, effort or resources expended and was yet another fast-blinking yellow light for the sanction's new (as yet unnamed) Chief Communications Officer (see last week's blog) and his/her team.

Two years ago, as a cost-cutting move, NASCAR and the Chase tracks did away with individual media gatherings in those 10 locales -- the highlight of which was a satellite TV interview with three drivers. I said at the time this was a mistake because it erased the valuable opportunity for one-on-one relationship building with journalists. Last season, a webcast was put into place, with the explanation it would make things more convenient for reporters. Unless I missed something, even that went by the board this time around.

The 2010 Chase "kickoff" was more than a disappointment. It was a near dud. (If I didn't know better I'd think this was an IndyCar production.) Requiring the Chasers to come to New York so they could be interviewed on Sirius radio? Please . . . That, given a good cell phone connection, was doable from anywhere. (Ask Paul Tracy his location when I made him do a live radio talk at CART's 1995 Cleveland Grand Prix.)

With Most Popular Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of Chase contention -- again -- and not much drama surrounding the final positions, there simply wasn't much chatter to help build interest (let alone excitement) going into New Hampshire. Jim Utter wrote about all of this well the other day and I'll just provide the link here because I agree with him:

Every last detail of Drum-Beating-for-the-Chase needs to have a good, long, hard, HONEST, comprehensive rethink. Another example: Ryan Newman has been assigned to go to Phoenix in a couple of weeks to publicize PIR's November race. No disrespect to Newman, who did win at the Arizona oval earlier this season, but HE's NOT IN THE CHASE AND THE EVENT IS ROUTINELY HYPED AS BEING THE "CHASE SEMIFINAL." Someone please tell me how tasking a non-Chase driver to promote the Chase semifinal makes any sense? While such decisions are made well-in-advance, for scheduling purposes, NASCAR MUST be more nimble when it becomes obvious which drivers are going to be in-or-out of the playoffs.

Since NASCAR is about to completely recast its communications operation, here's a thought: Use the example of your own Fan Council, and create a professional PR Advisory Panel. Be sure to have a meaningful representation from outside the Cup garage area. If you wonder why I say that, well, ponder this: I've been contributing to the Arizona Republic's racing coverage since the fall of 2007, but it was only recently that two of the participating automakers' publicists got around to putting me on their news release distribution list. (!) I've said for years one of the biggest errors committed by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and it's soon-to-no-longer-be-called-IRL was an "Indiana only" mindset in terms of ideas-generating hires. NASCAR's new CCO, very likely to come from outside the sport, will certainly need to listen to the garage insiders -- but balance that against the concepts of those who actually can see the landscape beyond whatever speedway is being occupied on any given weekend.

And, if NASCAR would benefit from such a PR Advisory Panel, just imagine how badly IMS, IRL, NHRA, ALMS and Grand-Am needs such a group.

I mentioned above, and did so last week, and have done so many times, the absolute golden value of true one-on-one-relationship building. Well, I've finally gotten around to something I've wanted to do for awhile -- read President Ronald Reagan's The Reagan Diaries -- and historian/editor Douglas Brinkley notes this in his introduction (bold emphasis mine):

"While Reagan was always guarded in his attitude toward the Soviets, he believed that progress would be made if he could communicate directly with them -- by letter, telephone, or in person. And he was right."

Please note, all who think pressing "send" on the keyboard or putting 140 characters on Twitter constitutes legitimate relationship building.

I'm always glad when someone tweaks one of the media elites, and it happened last week to Bill O'Reilly. During his opening "Talking Points Memo," O'Reilly said it would not be "prudent" for him to comment on the bizarre dustup created when Fox News Channel (and George W. Bush political strategist) Karl Rove dumped all-over Delaware senate primary winner (and Tea Party favorite) Christine O'Donnell. O'Reilly's first guest was none other than O'Donnell supporter Sarah Palin, who said of course it wouldn't be "prudent" for her to comment -- "but I'll do it anyway."

Meanwhile, over at last-place CBS Evening News, Katie Couric was smiling as she read the results of a CBS poll that claimed people believe Gov. Palin is more interested in promoting herself than in serving the country. Here's the poll I'd like to see CBS commission: Do you think Couric is more interested in being a serious journalist, or more interested in being a rich celebrity?

On the flap regarding the female TV reporter and the New York Jets: It says here that, while there's never an excuse for bad behavior, the NFL itself shares in the responsibility. If the League had shut-down the outrageous nonsense that has long gone on at Super Bowl Media Day, and insisted on proper and professional conduct by both its players and media types, this latest incident might not have happened because there wouldn't have been an atmosphere for it. The NFL itself has been an enabler of such behavior.

Here's a link to my September "Drags, Dollars & Sense" column on -- "NHRA did what it had to do":

RIP, the press release?

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, September 12, 2010


NASCAR recently announced a major overhaul of its communications and public relations functions, following what was described as a comprehensive industry-wide review. Several people have kindly asked my opinion about the changes-to-come.

My view is we'll have to see how the new "Integrated Marketing Communications" department actually functions. I won't go through the layout of what NASCAR is going to do. I have said for years it is a basic mistake to place together, for the purposes of an organizational chart, communications/PR and marketing. I certainly understand how both can trade-off benefits, one to the other, but I can tell you this for sure: No journalist wants to think he/she is being "marketed to" or "sold." To have a PR rep, who is under the control of marketing, dealing with media is a fundamental misunderstanding of that constituency group.

The truth, of course, is different from the perception. More than 25 years ago, when I was CART's communications director, I was talking with Roger Penske in Gasoline Alley at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway about business details of an upcoming CART-promoted race. Thinking in terms of ticket and corporate sales, Roger said to me: "Now we'll see how good a salesman you are." Respectfully, I answered by telling Roger that in working with the media and other influential opinion-shapers, I already was a salesman. "A salesman of image and ideas," is the way I phrased it.

NASCAR says the department will be led by a "Chief Communications Officer (CCO) who will become part of the senior leadership team, reporting directly to NASCAR Chief Marketing Officer Steve Phelps, with a direct line to Brian France." I get it that the CCO title is trendy, but it's one with peril. I bet I can tell you in whose direction the fingers will be pointed the first time an out-of-the-loop promoter, owner, driver or sponsor manager complains about a "lack of communications."

Here's what I passionately believe is the most important thing:

I hope that the new CCO will know enough and care sufficiently to not operate solely behind Facebook, Twitter, IM and Email. What the modern NASCAR culture lacks is one-on-one relationships. NASCAR, itself, was built by classic drum-beating publicists like Jim Hunter (who will become VP of Special Projects), Bob Latford, Joe Whitlock, Big Tim Sullivan, Houston Lawing and others (and, in the Winston days, by the RJR staff) who would drive to towns nearby the races on goodwill missions. They'd go visit the newspaper, radio and TV offices. They knew the names of the sports editor’s children, the sports director’s wife, and -- yes -- the local media’s adult beverage of choice. The upcoming race was talked-up, news releases handed-out, and ultra-valuable personal relationships built.

When’s the last time anyone followed in that proud NASCAR tradition? Way-too-often these days, too many PR people think "one-on-one communications" is 140 characters on Twitter. WRONG! No social network in the universe can replace the essential human touch of a smile, a handshake, a look in the eye, a "Thank You."

New Mr. or Ms CCO, please, please, please, remember-- above all else -- the Human Touch.

Beyond that, since NASCAR is using executive recruiting firms, I'll tell a personal story about my experience with a search company.

In the fall of 1992, I received an unexpected call from a New York City-based "searcher," looking to fill the VP-Communications opening at the National Hockey League. I was with Newman/Haas Racing at the time but came to learn that senior-level people at a couple of prestigious media organizations had mentioned me as a good candidate. (I had been a member of the Hockey Writers Association while assistant sports editor at the Philadelphia Daily News.)

While many key specifics of the job were as yet unrevealed to me, I had an interest. Rather than simply submitting the usual paper resume, however, I also provided a video resume. That was outside-the-box thinking at the time. The video, less than 10 minutes in length, showcased some of my PR "greatest hits" and kind testimonials from Paul Newman, Al Unser Jr., Mario Andretti and several prominent journalists. A brief segment showed how, at the 1989 Indianapolis 500, I had arranged with the advance team for Vice President Dan Quayle and his family to receive personalized team jackets, and that the Vice President wore his during an ABC-TV interview.

Before my meeting with the recruiter, I called her office to confirm receipt of my materials. When we met at the St. Louis airport Ambassadors Club, after several minutes of polite conversation, I showed her a file I had brought with hard-copy evidence to further support what had been on the video, including a photo of VP Quayle in his jacket and an AP shot of Mrs. Quayle with Mario -- with a crewmember carefully positioned for maximum visibility of the Kmart/Texaco Havoline ID on his shirt. I was surprised to observe something of a blank look. So, I asked if she had watched the video, and was kind of shocked when she said no, and really shocked by the reasoning: "No one else sent a video, so I didn't think it was fair to the other candidates to look at yours."

So, instead of being credited for my extra effort, I was penalized by the search-firm rep, on the basis others hadn't thought of, or maybe were too lazy, to do what I had done.

The process didn't advance much beyond that meeting. (As it turned out, I wound-up managing Mansell Mania the next year, and learned more during that PPG Cup championship season with Nigel than I had at any other time in my career.) A few months later, however, I received another call from the same search firm, only this time it was from one of the partners. He asked me about my experience with his recruiter. I told him about the video and expressed disappointment that his person had not even looked at it. Well, to make a long-story-short, he said he was investigating because a few other candidates had complained, and he offered me an apology. He ended the conversation by letting me know the person I had dealt with was no longer at the firm -- she had left for a job in the personnel office at the Clinton White House.

So, I guess that's why my outreach to a Republican Vice President of the United States didn't impress her!

I couldn't help but remember the above some time later, when a former bar bouncer -- hired as a Clinton White House personnel office security director -- was discovered to have collected the FBI files of hundreds of Republicans.


FAST LINES: Congratulations to retired Charlotte Observer writer Tom Higgins on being elected to the National Motorsports Press Association's (I'm a member) Hall of Fame . . . Rare good judgment by elected officials: Oklahoma City City Council voting down public funds for an ALMS street race, which the promoter had ridiculously claimed would bring Final Four-level economic benefits . . . Let's just say it -- Any media outlet who interviews white trash Levi Johnston has an agenda of trying to embarrass Sarah Palin. I saw a report that the CBS morning show has had him on SIX times. And, according to USA Today, Johnston was one of the "stars" (the paper's description) at Entertainment Tonight's Emmy party, which tells you all you need to know about ET . . . USA Today hasn't had a motorsports special section for several years now, but last week published a 12 pager for the start of the NFL season. Seven of those pages were full-page ads.

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Monday, September 06, 2010


Once Upon a Time . . .

Those famous four words represent the most important change Indy Racing League CEO Randy Bernard must insist on if the Versus TV ratings are to be anything other than an iron boat anchor chained to the collective ankle of his series, its corporate partners, and team owners.

Let me put it another way: What you need, Randy, is a STORYTELLER.

That is, to my semi-trained eyes and ears, the most obvious problem with how Versus presents the Izod IndyCar Series. It's also the most fixable.

Before further explanation, let me establish my bona fides for opining on this subject.

In December 1980 -- one month after becoming CART's first communications director -- I was in New York City to meet with ESPN. Those talks led to the first TV deal between the two, with a debut at the Milwaukee Mile the following June, which happened to be ESPN's first live major race production. It also so happened Bob Jenkins called the action and Terry Lingner produced the show -- now both working the Versus events. In subsequent years, I had a few chances to help Bob out in the broadcast booth and once even faked my way through as an in-truck pit producer for a Lingner-produced ESPN NASCAR race at Michigan. Before the 1983 season, I was the second end of CART Chairman John Frasco's pre-determined good cop/bad cop act in negotiations with NBC for exclusive rights to all CART events -- which were sold for $1 million. As a PR rep, I dare say I spent more serious time in TV compounds and production trailers than anyone in a similar position, offering stats, story lines, feature ideas and soaking in a sense of what the announcers and production people were thinking and what they needed.

With that said, I'll go on.

Versus' basic production philosophy is to offer straight race coverage. It's the opposite of NASCAR on Fox, the home of Digger, the Hollywood Hotel, Slice of Pizzi, and Boogity, Boogity, Boogity. So, on paper, I have to applaud the approach.

Except, given the cold-hard realities of today's IndyCar series, it's fundamentally flawed. If, using Bernard's own estimate, the ICS hadn't lost 15-20 million fans in the IRL-CART/Champ Car debacle, a down-the-middle, gimmick-less production might work. The sad truth is there are no longer enough hard-core IndyCar fans to allow for such production purity.

To remain relevant and viable as a corporate sports marketing vehicle, the series desperately needs to attract new viewers. To do that, it needs to be more appealing, to draw-in those now obviously not tuning-in or clicking away as soon as the vanilla pre-show starts.

How? Storytelling! IndyCar is a vibrant sport that demands to be presented in bright colors, not the grayscale it's currently getting.

The by-rote droning-on about points and black vs. red tires and fuel strategy mixed in with all-too-predictable interviews isn't getting the required results (read that: ratings). For way-too-long the commentary has emphasized tire choice and half-a-turn of front wing (boring to all but the true believers) over the human drama. A perfect example came at Chicagoland, where by-far the most compelling story -- a Sarah Fisher crewmember battling ALS -- wasn't mentioned until about 30 minutes in. (Those potential new viewers were long gone.)

Bernard seems willing to consider innovations, so here's how I'd open each show: With a The McLaughlin Group style pundits panel, quickly debating the 2-3 most important (and lively) issues of the day. (To present a real image of credibility, the panelists should not be dressed in Izod series shirts.) Making this format work would require a strong moderator, one able to keep control, and cleanly move from topic-to-topic. I'd then get into the more-standard elements, then cut back to the panel for their pre-green flag comments. Depending on race length and oval vs. road course, it might be possible during long yellow (and certainly red) periods to return to the Group. And, we'd want to hear their post-race ravings.

(By the way, when the Versus contract was first announced, I made the above suggestion to the previous IndyCar management regime. I told them they didn't have enough money to buy enough ads, and not enough paper to print enough press releases, to attract casual fans to a somewhat obscure network. I warned them the biggest challenge was to build an audience via word-of-mouth "water-cooler talk.")

Knowing HOW to phrase questions that can bring out a driver's personality and deepest emotions is a pit-reporter skill that perhaps ended with Chris Economaki. But Bernard and Versus must find a way to do it. Dan Wheldon was interviewed after Kentucky and the former Indy 500 winner and contender to win the two most recent races dropped clues -- not once, but twice -- that he wouldn't be returning to the Panther team in 2011. Bernard and Versus must have a non-tin ear to actually listen to the answers, understand the news value, and ask the journalistically-sound follow-up questions. "Dan, are you saying you won't be with Panther next season? Was that your decision or the team's? What reason did they give you? Who will you be driving for in 2011? Who is going to replace you at Panther?"

When Takuma Sato wrecked on the opening lap, a booth announcer wondered how many crashes the KV team had endured this season. That stat should have been at his fingertips. That showed a lack of preparation. It's certainly been written about in the press. How about an interview with Jimmy Vasser and Kevin Kalkhoven and asking them to total-up the collective bill? Especially in this economy, THAT would have been informative!

It would have been fascinating Storytelling.

IndyCar and Versus must have a production capability with enough awareness, and sufficient skill, to recognize the stories as they unfold -- and then tell them. Continuing into 2011 with the production status quo clearly is not an acceptable business option.

How to fix the IRL on Versus? A good place to start that saga would be to recall four telling words:

Once Upon a Time . . .

I've made my feelings known -- several times -- in this bit of cyberspace about the perils of social media and the modern media too-often not doing the Journalism 101 basics like fact checking. Then, last week, came word that Washington Post columnist Mike Wise had sent out on Twitter what he knew to be false information. Wise was making a point that lots of other reporters would repeat this "news" without bothering to verify it themselves. Sure enough, that is what happened.

It was, however, a classic case of the end not justifying the means. Even though Wise said he pulled the prank in connection with his radio show, he used a Post Twitter account. The Post put a one-month suspension on Wise, who apologized, and admitted his error of judgment.

I take three lessons from this: 1) Wise should have been wise enough to recognize the hoax would ultimately cost him precious credibility; 2) Wise should have been wise enough to recognize that his media buddies -- having been exposed for laziness and lack of standards -- would turn on him like Lewis Hamilton throttling through a hairpin corner; 3) Just because it's Twitter, that does not provide absolution from straying from traditional journalism standards.

Also of note: The Associated Press issued new guidelines on sources, instructing staff to "provide attribution whether the other organization is a newspaper, website, broadcaster or blog; whether or not it's U.S. based; and whether or not it's an AP member or subscriber."

Good move, although one might have reasonably thought such attribution would be automatic.

[ more next Monday . . . ]