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 . . . ]