Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Every meaningful story of the racing year had a strong Business of Racing component. So that's how I'll conclude this blog for 2011.
I say this with respect: Even Dan Wheldon's fatal accident had profound BoR ramifications. The image of the series as a good corporate advertising and marketing place certainly being one. Randy Bernard's decision-making and leadership was another ("Untenable," Oct. 26.) And the future of the series' historical foundation on ovals.
That was probably the most important racing biz story of the year: The IndyCar financial failures at Milwaukee, New Hampshire and Kentucky were so obvious and embarrassing that even the media "experts" who had been promoting Bernard to do these deals had to admit it might not be the way to go. How this might further erode the fan base, already complaining about too many road/street courses, will play out in 2012.
The opening three weekends of the NASCAR season gave Sprint Cup a strong launch: Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the Daytona 500 pole, fresh-faced good-kid Trevor Bayne's improbable and popular D500 win, and Jeff Gordon ending a long winless streak with a Phoenix victory certainly created momentum. Add in five first-time winners (including Regan Smith at Darlington), flashes of more-competitiveness from Junior, revamped points system, Tony Stewart's Chase charge and a Homestead finale for the ages -- a tie! -- ended a successful season for NASCAR. The TV numbers were up, including in key demos. NASCAR's overall PR operation was retooled -- results to be determined. Sprint renewed its Cup deal through 2016.
On the other side, the Nationwide and Truck series clearly struggled, especially with team sponsorships. Kevin and DeLana Harvick decided to pack-in their team -- a blow to the dreams of making it Big of grass-roots racers everywhere. Roush Fenway perhaps took the biggest hit, with the redirection of the UPS and Crown Royal sponsorships. As I write, Matt Kenseth has no backing for 2012, and the exact plans for Bayne and Nationwide titlist Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are unclear.
Tracks like Dover, Michigan, California and Atlanta had a major inventory of unsold seats. Phoenix announced two grandstand sellouts for Cup. Nashville went away but, apparently, Gateway is coming back. Circuit of the Americas turned out to be a Texas-sized soap opera. Baltimore attracted a lot of people but lost a ton of money.
M&M's pulled off the power move of the year by pulling its ID off Kyle Busch's car for the last two Cup races. Controversial Kyle managed to keep his job with Joe Gibbs -- brother Kurt didn't with Roger Penske.
Red Bull shut its team doors. Roush and Richard Childress will go down a Cup car in the new year.
In drag racing, Kenny Bernstein's retirement from team ownership was not only a huge story, it was a somewhat perplexing one. He left two years of his lucrative Copart.com sponsorship on the table at a time when most everyone else is scratching for scraps. Kenny sent me a letter afterwards and wrote, "It's time to sit back, relax, and enjoy life!"
Ashley Force Hood -- as popular in drag racing as Sarah Palin at a Tea Party rally -- sat out the season in favor of motherhood and looks to do the same in '12. Track ticket sellers felt her absence. After two consecutive Top Fuel championships, the mysterious Al-Anabi Super Team went into the holidays looking a mess -- Del Worsham "retired" and Larry Dixon was "released."
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosted a successful 100th anniversary 500 -- complete with unbelievable finish -- but to what effect remains to be seen. Nationwide and Grand-Am debut on Brickyard (now Crown Royal) weekend next year. The series tried to spice-up the show with double-wide restarts and the Texas doubleheader with a draw for starting spots in race two. Las Vegas, well . . .
Grand-Am gained a little media notice by placing a bounty on dominant Scott Pruett-Memo Rojas. No matter, they won another championship. The 50th anniversary Rolex 24 comes in January, with important new bodystyles (Corvette!) that a lot of people are counting on to generate more interest from the sports car fan crowd -- such as it is.
ALMS continued to push its "green" platform but -- at least indirectly -- was hurt by the bad Solyndra headlines and various controversies about the viability of such technology. Chevy's Volt is a sales flop, took another smack with recent stories about possible problems with battery fires, and CNBC Wall St. guru Jim Creamer last week called the Volt "a failure." None of that helps ALMS sell what it is trying to sell to the highly fragmented fan base. And then there are the political wranglings over rules with the ACO in France.
The World of Outlaws again provided the most consistent entertainment value and good stories -- Joey Saldana's winning comeback from serious injuries should not be forgotten -- but the lack of a consistent TV package means too many people don't know. No "live" TV for the Knoxville Nationals is simply unacceptable.
The media world got upside-down, too. The fabled print edition of National Speed Sport News folded. Excellent journalists like Dustin Long, on the NASCAR beat, had their jobs eliminated. Too many people got their "news" from anonymous chatroom rumors and Twitter.
My friend Gordon Kirby wrote a few very important sentences the other week and I want to share them here. Reviewing NASCAR's sensational season finale and positive year, GK published:
"Meanwhile the rest of the sport cries out for leadership. It's sad that in the second century of the sport's history amid a new technology boom American auto racing is so rudderless. So many old-time fans have lost their interest in today's racing and shake their heads over the disturbing similarities between our governing classes in Washington and so much of American auto racing."
In conclusion, what continued to bother me the most was the overall lowering of standards. It seems almost impossible to have a honest difference of opinion -- what results is anonymous personal attacks on the chatrooms. Media too often no longer seek-out all sides of a story. Too many people -- especially so-called "public relations" people -- don't bother to build one-on-one relationships with the media -- or even talk to them.
At the November NASCAR weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, Ford's on-site rep sat a few feet away from our Arizona Republic work area -- with a direct line-of-sight to see reps from the other three manufacturers over there talking with us -- and never moved from his seat to speak a word. (Sadly, this is all-too typical.) I guess Ford isn't interested in major-market publicity or selling vehicles in Arizona -- that's the impression this kind of PR indifference leaves. In February, Goodyear racing boss Stu Grant told me the tiremaker liked "technology transfer" stories (this in the context of developing a new tire for the repaved/reconfigured Phoenix oval) but whatever racing PR capability he thinks Goodyear has did nothing to follow-up and left an oh-so-bad impression. Made it seem like Goodyear wasn't confident it could produce a good tire for the new PIR. Oh, for the days of Dick Ralston, Phil Holmer, Dave Hendrich, Bill King and Carole Swartz -- Goodyear actually CARED about good media relationships in those days.
What possibly could be more basic than for a "PR" person to talk with media people?
It's too easy to push "send" when what's really needed is a phone call. It's become a very bad, but increasingly accepted, habit in American business to put into an E-mail what properly should be said in person or on the phone.
PR giants like Jim Chapman, Jack Duffy, Bill Dredge and Ralston would be aghast by what passes as "acceptable" these days. No surprise to me committee members selected old-school guy and class act Bill York as winner of the 2011 Jim Chapman Award for Excellence in Motorsports PR.
It's a Crisis of Communications within the industry -- and within our society -- and we all suffer for it. One hundred and 40 characters on Twitter is NOT how to establish and maintain a proper professional relationship. There's a right way and a wrong way of doing things and, these days and in this past year, way-way-way too many people were doing it the wrong way. I think, because it was "easier."
Going forward, I am convinced the consequences of this C of C will be profound. How can any series, any sport, any industry, any society, any culture, any country, be successful when people don't understand how important it is to talk to one another?
The Men of the Year:
Thanks to each one of you who takes time to read what I write here. Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Happy New Year.
[ more in January, or as news developments warrant . . . ]
Sunday, December 04, 2011
Tony Stewart was there to take his bows, of course, as series champion. History will record Stewart's accomplishment of taking Gene Haas' doormat team to the title in only three years as one of stock car racing's great accomplishments. A quick Google search will reveal how most of the "experts" called Stewart's decision to leave Joe Gibbs' team a mistake, with one of the ESPN bright lights predicting Stewart would never again make the Chase.
It was obvious to me, and I'm sure everyone else, that Stewart was not going to let anything take away from his personal satisfaction and the joy he shared with his team. It was awkward, though, with outgoing crew chief Darian Grubb sharing the spotlight -- especially after Grubb's emotional speech at Thursday's NMPA Myers Brothers awards luncheon at the Bellagio. He nearly broke down a few times and got a standing ovation afterwards.
A little while later, in a one-on-one interview, I asked Stewart if that had been hard for him to watch. Of course, Tony will forever be regarded as one of America's great true racers, and I know from many of the great drivers I've worked with, separating emotion from the competition is a common quality. "It was an emotional scene," Stewart admitted. Stewart said the tough part is he tries to treat his team members as family but stepping away from the emotion to make the best decision for the overall organization is what he had to do. Remember, Stewart let competition director Bobby Hutchins go last summer, too.
Oh, for the record, I asked Stewart if Homestead was his best win of the year, if his first career World of Outlaws victory was the second. He came out with a big smile and said, "You are right on the money with that."
Las Vegas seems to bring out a happier side of the drivers and Jimmie Johnson said he thought the atmosphere and fun fan activities allowed the drivers to get to know each other a little better on a personal level. That's a good thing. I have to say, though, that there was no doubt to me the two guys who were glad when it all was over with were Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin. The format is for a group media avail with the top 10 drivers after the Thursday luncheon. Friday, after the drivers come off stage in the Wynn ballroom, they are brought to a photo and interview area. Carl and Denny both were gracious but their body language and facial expressions were more revealing than their words. It's quite understandable Edwards would have had enough after losing out on the epic Cup tie-breaker race, while Hamlin's disappointing campaign after being touted as a pre-season title contender was one of the year's more important stories. Friday night, after he finished his last interview, Hamlin turned to a NASCAR PR rep and asked, "Is my season finally over now?" I sympathized and told him I hope he enjoys spending the winter months here in my home area of the Valley of the Sun.
NASCAR itself deserved to join Stewart in taking a bow. The Cup season started with the boffo triple of Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the Daytona 500 pole, Trevor Bayne as the stunning and popular winner of the Great American Race, and Jeff Gordon ending a long winless streak the following week at Phoenix. There were five first-time winners, TV ratings were up, there were some upticks in the key demos, a fantasic finale at Homestead, and Friday night's black-tie gala (with Reba McEntire providing the Big Name entertainment) wrapped with official announcement of Sprint extending its Cup series sponsorship until 2016. (In a classy move, NASCAR remembered Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon during the ceremony.)
Yes, given the economy, there are still attendance issues at tracks like Indianapolis, Michigan, Dover and elsewhere (Phoenix had two announced grandstand sell-outs), and teams -- including Roush Fenway -- continue to struggle for sponsorship. (I asked Matt Kenseth if his No. 17 had anything yet; he said no.) NASCAR President Mike Helton said to me, "We still have work to do."
But no fair-minded observer of the American racing scene can do anything but give NASCAR and it's Cup season the credit it deserves for moving in a positive direction in 2011.
What were the top 10 business and political stories of the year in drag racing? Here's my list in my December "Drags, Dollars & Sense" column on CompetitionPlus.com:
[ I'll wrap-up the year here next week . . . ]
Sunday, November 27, 2011
So, allow me to leave it this way: Without any question, "Untenable" produced more response than anything I've ever written. (For the record, that goes back to the late 1960s.) As expected, some elements of the chatroom crowd personally attacked me, and posted anonymous (of course) FALSE "facts" about my career and supposed IRL vs. CART political leanings. Far more importantly to me, however, were the truly amazing comments and insights provided by some of the most significant players in the Business of Racing industry -- including very well-known participants from within the IndyCar series. Not one of these Big Names -- not one -- said they disagreed with a single word. One described the IC series as being "derailed" and "not sure if it can be put back on its tracks." Another told me, "Even you don't know how bad it is."
Oh -- these thoughts came from people routinely praised by chatroomers.
As I explained back then, I carefully considered every word -- "Untenable" was chosen with great care for literal accuracy -- and I will say here I continue to stand by every word.
Now, here's a follow-up: Straight reporting as done by me Sunday, Nov. 13 before the NASCAR Sprint Cup event at Phoenix International Raceway. After Sam Hornish Jr.'s Nationwide series win the day before, I asked Roger Penske to give me some one-on-one interview time the next morning. Following the mandatory pre-race driver/crew chief meeting, Penske invited me into his motorcoach, and we sat down in his private meeting area in the back.
Since I had listed Penske as a possible bidder for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway if the Hulman-George family put it up for sale, I asked Roger point-blank if he would do so. I reminded him that, way back in my Philadelphia newspaper days, Penske had been quoted as saying he'd like to make an offer should such an opportunity present itself. And, of course, Penske once did have a racetrack business as part of his overall enterprises, including Michigan International Speedway, California Speedway and Nazareth Speedway. Here is Penske's answer to my question about IMS:
"No -- we're out of the racetrack business. I've got so much commitment to my own businesses. It's not something that I would be interested in. It's going to take a big number (price) and someone who's in the entertainment business would be better off with that type of an asset."
Anything -- ANYTHING -- Dave Argabright writes is worth reading. I oh-so-miss his "American Scene" column in the now-gone print edition of National Speed Sport News. I've just gotten Dave's latest book, Sprint Car Salvation, which is something different from him. It's based on 1970s USAC sprint car racing from a fictional serial that was in Sprint Car & Midget Magazine about a half-dozen years ago. I plan to get started on this later this week but for more information on the 240-pager ($24.95) go to http://AmericanScenePress.com .
I'll be in Las Vegas for the concluding events of NASCAR's Champions Week, including the NMPA Myers Brothers award luncheon, media activities, and Friday night's Sprint Cup awards banquet. Please come back here next Monday for some news and observations . . .
Sunday, November 20, 2011
The reality of the modern media environment is plenty of people will say it's a bigger story that Jimmie Johnson didn't win his sixth consecutive Sprint Cup than Tony Stewart becoming the new NASCAR champion.
There's some merit, and some unfairness, in that. From a PR perspective and the standpoint of the Cup winning sponsors, I would definitely consider countering it with some interview one-liners and a humorous TV commercial playing off the end of Johnson's reign. Humor -- used correctly -- has become a well established way of deflecting a controversy or making a key point.
Ronald Reagan did it brilliantly: Watch this YouTube clip of the way Reagan took care of the issue of his age during a 1984 debate with Walter Mondale. It's a classic and proves my point exactly.
If and when all the Jimmie talk gets underneath the skin of the new NASCAR championship collective, "well," they might try this famous line from Reagan's 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter.
Let's just say it -- and NASCAR critics, give credit where it is due: The new championship points system worked. And Tony Stewart -- in an A.J. Foyt-esque drive -- and Carl Edwards produced a championship race for the ages. Congratulations.
Kenny Bernstein's retirement from racing must be noted here. I've known Kenny going back to the early 1980s and spent some quality time with him just a few weeks ago when NHRA was here in the Phoenix area. Kenny will forever be remembered as "First to 300 mph" but long-ago earned his reputation as one of racing's great business people. When he's inducted next spring into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Ala., (I voted for him) that demands to be recognized along with all his winning, six NHRA championships, and, as an owner, Indy 500 pole plus NASCAR and Indy Car series wins.
Kenny knew how to deliver Return on Investment for sponsors. One thing he always did was send a thank you letter to journalists for their coverage -- I've received several. NHRA President Tom Compton said this about Bernstein's career and he's completely correct:
“He paved the way for team sponsorship in NHRA and showed others how to not only win on the track, but how to service team sponsors and develop long-lasting business relationships."
There's more to the story and I'll get into that in my December "Drags, Dollars & Sense" column on CompetitonPlus.com . For now: Kenny helped make racing, as a sport and as an industry, what it is in America. My congratulations, thanks, and best wishes to Kenny and wife Sheryl.
[ more next week . . . ]
Sunday, November 13, 2011
Monday -- New PIR exceeds expectations
Monday notebook -- (Kyle and Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, etc.)
Sunday -- Q&A with Kevin Harvick
Sunday notebook -- (Mike Helton, Adrian Fernandez, etc.)
Sunday -- Hornish wins first NASCAR race
Saturday -- Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs
Saturday notebook -- (Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, etc.)
Friday notebook -- (Trevor Bayne, etc.)
[ more next Monday . . . ]
Wednesday, November 09, 2011
As promised, I've posted on YouTube the video of Jeff Gordon taking me, Mark Armijo and Chris van der Beeck around the new Phoenix International Raceway layout. This happened during the Sprint Cup test at PIR last month. Click this link to watch:
Mark and I will be covering PIR for the Arizona Republic all weekend. Please check out the newspaper or read us on http://azcentral.com/ . I'll have notebooks every day plus the Nationwide race story in Sunday's paper and my traditional newsmaker Q&A.
Thursday notebook -- (Jeff Gordon's lap of the new PIR)
Thursday -- Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch
Wednesday notebook -- (Track preparation; Danica says no reality show) http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2011/11/08/20111108nascar-pir-track-grooves-repaved.html
I guested Wednesday on my friend Larry Henry's Pit Pass USA show. Here's an audio link and I'm on right at the start:
Yes, I'm thinking NASCAR, but here's a link to my November "Drags, Dollars & Sense" column on CompetitionPlus.com. It's about the pressure on Courtney Force and others to "move the needle" for NHRA:
[ more next Monday . . . ]
Monday, November 07, 2011
Bill York, whose half-century of work in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway media center earned him the respect and friendship of journalists from around the world, today was announced as winner of the 2011 Jim Chapman Award for excellence in motorsports public relations.
The Chapman Award is considered by many in the industry as the highest honor in racing public relations. It is named in memory of Chapman, the legendary PR executive and innovator, who worked with Babe Ruth and was named Indy Car racing’s “most influential man” of the 1980s. Chapman died in 1996 at age 80.
The announcement was made by Michael Knight, chairman of the selection committee, and one of Chapman’s closest friends. The award is determined by vote of media members, most of whom knew Chapman, and is authorized by the Chapman family. PR representatives from all forms of motorsports are eligible for consideration.
“It is impossible to think of anyone more deserving,” said Knight, the longtime journalist/publicist and award rights-holder. “Bill York is more than one of Jim’s countless friends and admirers. Bill’s professionalism is in the example and spirit of Jim Chapman’s.
“Bill, like Jim before him, believes in the ‘old-school’ approach to working with the media – that it is essential to build one-on-one relationships with journalists. That’s too often missing today, when far too many PR representatives think an E-mail or text message constitutes ‘relationship-building.’ Jim was a true ‘people person’ and knew nothing could replace a handshake, a face-to-face conversation, or the sound of another person’s voice.
“Over many decades, Bill has shown he understands the value of actually talking to people and getting to know them, and that having those professional relationships best serve clients in good times -- and bad.”
York began working in the Indianapolis 500 press room in 1958. As a popular goodwill ambassador with journalists, York filled many roles, including gathering statistics and managing the media center through 2008. He was instrumental in creating the Stark & Wetzel Indy 500 Rookie of the Year award. He served as a Speedway media liaison last May.
York has earned many auto racing honors, including the 2010 Bob Russo Founders Award for lifelong contributions to the sport. He’s also worked in the NBA Indianapolis Pacers and NFL Indianapolis Colts media rooms. The Pacers’ media center is named in his honor.
Chapman (left) started as sports editor or managing editor of several Southern newspapers before joining the New York Times. He served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II. He entered the PR business in 1946, as regional PR director for Ford Motor Co. in Detroit.
Soon thereafter, Chapman hired Ruth as consultant to the automaker’s sponsorship of American Legion Junior Baseball. They traveled together for more than two years for personal appearances and became close friends. Chapman was one of only three friends at Ruth’s bedside when he died in August 1948.
In 1950, Chapman left Ford to start his own PR firm. One of his first clients was Avis founder Warren Avis. Chapman devoted much of his time to financial PR, which he once called his “favorite form of PR,” and helped companies get recognition among analysts and even gain admission to the New York and American stock exchanges.
Chapman’s first venture into motorsports was in 1951, when he joined with NASCAR founder Bill France to promote the Motor City 250. The race was part of Detroit’s 250th birthday celebration, a Chapman client. In 1967, Chapman entered Indy Car racing with client Ozzie Olson’s Olsonite sponsorship of Dan Gurney’s team, which later featured Bobby Unser as driver.
“Jim was one of the most innovative and imaginative PR men ever to grace a pit lane,” said Gurney. “Jim practically invented most of what is now considered routine sponsor PR work. He was the first, as far as I know, who thought of putting up a sponsor hospitality tent alongside a racetrack (at the old Riverside International Raceway), filling it with extravagant race car ice-sculptures, beautiful food and beautiful people from the business, sports and movie industries. He started an ‘open house’ tradition in Ozzie’s hotel suite in Indianapolis, where journalists could rub shoulders with John Wayne or (astronaut) Scott Carpenter.”
Chapman also coordinated Olsonite’s sponsorship of the Driver of the Year award, orchestrating an annual luncheon at New York City’s famed ‘21’ Club.
Chapman’s greatest professional acclaim came from 1981-1992, as director of CART series sponsor PPG Industries’ program. Chapman was instrumental in raising PPG’s prize fund from $250,000 to more than $3.75 million at the time of his retirement in February 1993. The all-female PPG Pace Car Driving Team was another Chapman innovation, as were the PPG Editor’s Days, when he brought business and feature writers to the tracks for lunch, pace car rides, and driver interviews.
Indy Car Racing magazine named Chapman the sports’ “most influential” man of the 1980s, saying he turned “a public relations assignment into an art form.” After his retirement, Chapman continued to consult PPG, and agreed to Mario Andretti’s personal request that he serve as honorary chairman of Andretti’s “Arrivederci, Mario” farewell tour in 1994.
“The true honor of this award is not the plaque,” said Knight. “The true honor is having your name forever associated with that of the great James P. Chapman.”
York will officially receive the 2011 Jim Chapman Award January 8, 2012, at the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association’s All-America team dinner in Indianapolis. Broadcaster Paul Page, a longtime Chapman friend and a member of the award selection committee, will make the presentation.
PREVIOUS JIM CHAPMAN AWARD HONOREES:
1991 – Michael Knight
1992 – Tom Blattler
1993-94 – Deke Houlgate and Hank Ives
1995 – Kathi Lauterbach
1996 – Marc Spiegel
1997 – Mike Zizzo
1998 – Tamy Valkosky
1999 -- Carol Wilkins
2000-2003 – (Award not presented)
2004 – Doug Stokes
2005 – Susan Arnold
2006 – Kevin Kennedy
2007 – Dave Densmore and Bob Carlson
2008 – Judy Stropus
2009 – (Award not presented)
2010 -- Jim Hunter
It's NASCAR week in the Valley of the Sun. Below is a link to my Sunday Arizona Republic story on Jeff Gordon. Mark Armijo and I will have coverage all this week, starting Tuesday.
This Wednesday (Nov. 9) I'm going to post on YouTube the video of our ride around the new PIR with Jeff Gordon, so check back here then to watch that.
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Last May, not long before the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500, someone who has had extremely close ties with Indy 500 racing for many decades -- in fact, I'd say this person has in large part devoted his/her life to Indy -- said something to me that I found powerful at the time and even more so now. No, I will not reveal the person's identity, because I am certain to do so would cost him/her a job.
In sharing thoughts on IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard's decisions on several matters, most especially double-wide restarts, this person said to me:
"The problem is Randy has never had to sit down with the family of a driver who has just been killed in a race."
That time came for Bernard the evening of Sunday, Oct. 16, with the family of two-time Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon.
Wheldon, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, willingly accepted the risks of racing at Las Vegas at speeds around 225 mph. The following, however, are unalterable facts.
It was Randy Bernard who decided IndyCar needed a big end-of-season Showbiz Spectacular, even though it was questionable any positive momentum would last some five months into the start of the 2012 schedule. It was Bernard who decided the site would be Las Vegas, where he had business contacts from his days as head of Pro Bull Riders. It was Bernard who decided to lease Las Vegas Motor Speedway -- an oval Dario Franchitti, the only series champion Bernard has ever known, judged "not suitable" for Indy Cars of the configuration raced Oct. 16. It was Bernard who self-promoted the event. It was Bernard who decided to post a $5 million bonus for any non-IC regular who could win. It was Bernard who wanted Alex Zanardi, who lost his legs in a crash and almost bled-to-death, to drive a high-horsepower open-wheel car for the first time in competition at high speeds since 2001 -- an invitation that legitimately can be described as irresponsible and exploitive. (Thank God wiser heads prevailed.) It was Bernard who decided, when there were no non-IC takers, to make Wheldon eligible. It was Bernard who decided to allow 34 cars to take the green flag -- one more car than in the Indy 500, at roughly the same lap speeds, on a track one mile shorter in length -- thus assuring the pack would be tightly compressed. It was Bernard who decided Wheldon would start last. And, no matter what good intentions were involved, Bernard's five-lap salute with playing of Amazing Grace only added to the Roman Coliseum visual and atmospheric spectacle of the whole, sad, event.
All of this in a season full of safety-related decisions that were a big and legitimate issue within Bernard's series. Examples: Driver concerns about making the Indy 500 the oval debut of the two-wide restart rule. Restarting a race in the rain on the New Hampshire oval. Starting a race with an emergency vehicle on-course at Baltimore. Drawing for starting positions for the second half of the Texas doubleheader.
This is not finger-pointing. This is a listing of the facts. As is this: With only two years of motorsports experience, Bernard was not in a position to properly judge the safety of his decisions. Entertainment-based decisions, yes. Safety, no. That does not mean he's responsible for Wheldon's death -- keep reading -- there are a lot of factors here.
Last week, I spoke with a senior representative of one of IndyCar's most important corporate participants. I asked what the company's response would be if Bernard again asked for increased support for another self-promoted IndyCar showbiz spectacular. I was told the answer would be a polite, but VERY firm, "No."
I ask you: How can Bernard now walk into any corporate office and try to sell sponsorship for his next big showbiz idea? At least, not to anyone who has done a minimum amount of due diligence.
There's no doubt Bernard injected much personal enthusiasm and energy into the series. In fact, I've often thought one mistake he made was trying to do too much himself -- but that, in fairness, was partly a function of the mess he inherited.
Now, however, Randy Bernard's position as CEO of the IndyCar organization is no longer tenable. I think he will be successful in other enterprises, but not IndyCar, and probably, not any type of motorsports.
Also untenable, going forward, is Brian Barnhart's job as the series' competition boss. Barnhart has shown himself to be like a bad baseball umpire: He calls a pitch six inches off the plate a strike for the pitcher of one team, but a ball for the other. Late season, Bernard defended the embattled Barnhart, and said the problem was a poorly written rulebook. That conveniently overlooked the fact that Barnhart himself is the rulebook's main author. Sadly, Barnhart actually came out of the Vegas disaster with a leg to stand on, as he's been opposed to Bernard's spice-up-the-show rules, including two-wide restarts. No matter -- his credibility has eroded, the confidence of the competitors destroyed, his position is no longer tenable.
Also untenable, going forward as it has been in the past, are the so-called public/media relations departments at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the series. If there was any doubt -- and, to experienced PR professionals, there wasn't -- it was erased in the week after Wheldon's death.
I was writing formal crisis communications plans for CART teams and sponsors some quarter-century ago. If IndyCar even had one, it wasn't worth the computer file it was stored on. Failing PR 101, IndyCar followed a submarine commander's "Run Silent, Run Deep" approach at exactly the time a reassuring, comforting voice was needed. There was only a written statement -- that had to be corrected due to a factual error. As I've explained here before, the IMS Corp. PR (I combine here both the track and the series) mentality has focused on the Indiana media cheerleaders, at a loss of good, solid, professional relationships with the national media. As Jim Chapman (and others) knew, having such one-on-one relationships is nice in good times -- but ESSENTIAL in bad times. The IMS Corp. PR Department hasn't bothered to develop such relationships -- and the negative coverage reflected that fact.
Also untenable, going forward, is the position of certain segments of the Indianapolis-region news media. The lack of critical (by which I mean bothering to cover all sides of the issues) reporting and informed analysis of Bernard's moves has been clear all along and even more so in the Vegas aftermath. It was just journalistically sad to see some who cheerleaded Bernard the whole year immediately say after Wheldon's death that racing on 1.5-mile ovals is "too dangerous." That was nothing more than "journalistic" butt-covering. Certainly one of Bernard's achievements has been to co-opt some of his series' media critics and others, including some in the NASCAR media community, who were charmed by his attention and wrote favorably, in part out of a desire to tweak the Powers-That-Be in NASCAR.
But where was the reporting to verify Bernard's statements? The best example of which was Bernard's on-going talk of opening the 2012 season at Phoenix International Raceway. To the best of my knowledge, I was the only one to actually interview Bernard, PIR President Bryan Sperber, and ISC President John Saunders on this subject. There was no chance it was going to happen -- it would be the kind of financial failure experienced at Milwaukee and Loudon. Those who have been compromised with track and series PA and broadcast jobs simply can't be relied on for balanced reporting in their other media outlets -- that has been shown repeatedly.
And, finally: Also untenable, going forward, is the Hulman-George family's ownership of the Speedway and the series.
I find it sad I have to write that. But that is my experienced, professional, analysis. Tony Hulman literally saved the I500 and, thus, the overall series with his purchase of IMS and work to elevate it to an American sporting institution. He was a strong leader. When the AAA withdrew from racing, Mr. Hulman was key in the founding of USAC, to govern a series. This, however, is true: The family's leadership after Tony's death has never reached his level. Tony George was put in charge at a relatively young age. He was smart to bring NASCAR to the Brickyard, gave Formula One an honest try, improved facilities, but bled the family's bank accounts with the ill-conceived and arrogant creation of the IRL (supposedly an all-oval series for the benefit of American drivers.) His sisters finally had enough and pulled off a family coup, which ultimately led to Bernard's hiring.
Randy came in as the sisters' man. How do they now, with credibility, go out and find another leader? No doubt they would have been happy to sell-off the series years ago, but who would want to buy it? Not without its most significant asset -- the Speedway itself. Honestly, it wouldn't make biz sense for the H-Gs to dump the series off to someone else, which would only put them back in the pre-IRL mode of having to deal with an independently owned and managed series (CART).
Yes, I know, Mari George has said (reported to have said) she won't sell the track, that it's for her grandchildren. The names most often mentioned of the next generation to run the place are Jarrod Krisiloff, Tony George Jr. and even Jesika Gunter. None are close to being ready -- remember Tony George was given the authority at age 29. And, even if they turn out to be the greatest businesspeople since retired GE CEO Jack Welch, the Speedway, the series, and the sport cannot wait for them. Their family business is in deep crisis -- there is no luxury of time.
There are simply too many problems to be solved, too many conflicting staff relationships to untangle, too much politics to be sorted out, too little credibility, too little leadership, not the correct "Vision." Whatever IndyCar will be in the future, it will have to be vastly different from what it is today, and those crucial and most difficult decisions can only be made now by new ownership, unburdened with its past choices and relationships. The roots of the problems run too deep to be fixed by those who did the planting in the first place.
Some potential bidders are obvious: International Speedway Corp., Speedway Motorsports Inc., Roger Penske (who I assume would unload the series and sign a very long-term contract of cooperation binding the Speedway to the series), John Menard, and an investment group including Tony George. There are other possibilities: The Walt Disney Co. (ESPN), some form of state of Indiana-private sector partnership, the group that owns Formula One's commercial rights, one of the private equity firms interested in sports/entertainment, maybe even Donald J. Trump.
The merits of those, or other, bidders can be debated later. For now, of this, I am certain:
Tony Hulman showed great leadership in buying the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mari Hulman George now must show leadership of equal greatness, and realize her family's time has passed. And I say that with true respect.
I see no other way. The situation is untenable.
[ more Nov. 7, when I'll announce the recepient of the 2011 Jim Chapman Award for Excellence in Motorsports Public Relations . . . ]
Sunday, October 23, 2011
I thought of that last week in reading the grotesquely inappropriate chatroom post by a so-called "fan" of Indy Car racing after Dan Wheldon's death. The poster, blissfully anonymous and thus immune from the direct scorn he/she justly deserves, noted a National Public Radio segment about Wheldon's accident. I quote from the post:
"A story about IndyCar would not be on NPR if not for Dan. I'm of the opinion that any publicity is good publicity. I think this is Dan's last gift to a sport he loved. After the Interview I just said, thanks Dan. "
That's sick. Almost enough to make you vomit. This is what your liberal and union-protected American educational system has wrought -- and makes me afraid Buchanan might be right; our nation might not endure because of people like this.
Unlike the chatrooms, this blog carries my name. If this "fan" is man enough to reveal his true identity, my contact info is easily available. If not, I've finally thought of a legitimate purpose for the bouncer the series employs: Investigate and learn the real identity of this "fan" -- then make sure he/she is permanently banned from all your races.
For the record, here's a re-link to what people who actually know anything about publicity know: http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/19210-drags-dollars-a-sense-not-all-ink-is-good-ink
The information below was provided by the IndyCar series:
The Dan Wheldon Family Trust Fund has been established for the financial security of Wheldon's family. The public can make contributions to the Dan Wheldon Family Trust Fund starting Wednesday, Oct. 19 at the following address:
Fifth Third Private Bank
Attn: Dan Wheldon Family Trust
251 North Illinois St.
Indianapolis, IN 46204
This also deserves to be reported: Longtime Associated Press photographer Ed Reinke died last week. He had been hospitalized since Oct. 2, when he fell and suffered a head injury while covering the IndyCar race at Kentucky Speedway.
I find it necessary to post this blog before the conclusion of the public memorial service for Wheldon Sunday afternoon in Indianapolis. Out of respect, I will stop on this subject now. That will change in the next few days -- before next Monday -- when enough time will have passed to have shown proper respect, let emotions cool, and add much-needed context.
************************************************************************** This was the blog I had ready to post last week until I learned of Wheldon's death:
I had NHRA on my mind last week, which certainly was not a bad thing.
I was out at Firebird International Raceway to cover the Arizona Nationals. Mark Armijo joined me in the writing for the Arizona Republic. Here are links to some of my stories and I especially point you to my now-traditional Q&A, this one with legends Don Garlits and Shirley Muldowney:
Friday notebook (Mike Neff, Matt Hagan, etc.):
Saturday notebook (Tony Schumacher, future of Firebird track, etc.):
Sunday notebook (Force Hood unlikely to race in 2012, NHRA's new drug testing policy):
Sunday Q&A with Don Garlits and Shirley Muldowney:
Monday notebook (Pro Stock, bike winners, etc.):
Nitro fumes and the feel of 16,000 horsepower under my feet as Top Fuel and Funny Cars thundered away from the starting line dulled my senses, at least in terms of paying as much attention as usual to other series. Sorry, NASCAR and Bernie. I even had to beg-off my usual post-Formula One segment on SiriusXM but, as Arnold famously said, "I'll be back."
There's one constant for me when it comes to drag racing: I had more fun, interesting and informative conversations last weekend than happens yearly in all other series combined. I've said it before and I'll say it again: NHRA's Full Throttle series is under-covered by the mainstream national media. The so-called and self-thinking "Big Time" columnists who look down on drag racing as too blue-collar for their tastes, and thus have never bothered to talk with the likes of John Force, Kenny Bernstein, Jack Beckman, Antron Brown, Ron Capps, Tony Schumacher, Melanie Troxel, Bob Tasca III, et al do their readers a journalistic disservice.
There's a much more friendly atmosphere -- and, generally, more cooperation from PR reps -- than I find anywhere else. (There are always exceptions, of course, like the PRer who answered my E-mail of a week earlier late Thursday afternoon, and asked if I was coming out to the track. Nothing like knowing who-is-doing-what, media-wise, in the race market!)
Friday afternoon, I sat with John Force in his trackside motorcoach with his daughters Ashley and Courtney as he held his new grandson, Jacob John. Try doing that in NASCAR. The lesson to be learned is NHRA drivers (and publicists) know their sponsors want and NEED the publicity, and they are willing to work for it!
And, it's always nice to break some news as I did with the story on NHRA's upcoming new drug testing policy, which I had in the Republic and a more extension version on CompetitionPlus.com.
Yes, sure, I'll get back into the Chase and the rest of the F1 season. But the people of the NHRA pits provided a welcome "vacation." Thank you.
Dollar General officially announced its extensive 2012 NASCAR sponsorship, upping its ante to include part-time sponsorship of Joey Logano in Sprint Cup. Of its decision to drop IndyCar, DG CEO Rick Dreiling said: "Being in victory lane at Kentucky with Sarah Fisher Racing was wonderful, but our customer base leans toward NASCAR. Our demographic is middle America. A lot of our customers have cars, they work on their cars, and they can relate to these guys. They have a passion for car racing." What say you, Randy Bernard and Terry Angstadt?
FAST LINES: Special thanks to NHRA's super-hard-working Anthony Vestal for his extra help to me at Firebird . . . Read all the details on CompetitionPlus.com, but the NHRA's handling of Don Schumacher Racing's Top Fuel shield design was a credibility-and-PR fiasco . . . If Jimmie Johnson doesn't win his sixth straight Sprint Cup, remember the infamous Sports Illustrated cover jinx. JJ was on the cover last week. To be honest though, I would have put Al Davis -- a profoundly historic figure in America's most popular sport, the NFL -- on the cover . . . Sign of the times -- Matt Kenseth in victory lane at Charlotte admitting his team has no sponsors for next season . . . ALMS was quick to issue a release explaining a conflict with Le Mans testing meant Grand-Am gets to join IndyCar at Belle Isle next June. Not so fast -- unless Penske gets the deal to run Porsche's upcoming factory prototype program, he's got more to gain by scheduling Grand-Am -- remember, it's owned by the NASCAR holding company . . . I'm definitely not a member of the Grassy Knoll crowd, but seeing Danica Patrick listed as the fastest during Thursday practice for IndyCar's self-promoted Las Vegas race reminded me of the years when Ferrari didn't have a competitive car, but somehow would always be fastest on the opening day of practice for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.
[ more in a few days . . . ]
Sunday, October 16, 2011
Sunday, October 09, 2011
I promised last week that this week I'd explain why I wasn't trying to be fast when I drove a Richard Petty Driving Experience stock car at Phoenix International Raceway on Sept. 30. As I indicated, I had a reason to want to take-in a wider perspective of the repaved and reconfigured track instead of trying to focus-in on speed.
That was because I knew, before the start of the two-day Sprint Cup test at PIR last Tuesday, Jeff Gordon would be taking us for a ride.
For example, as we went down the back straight for the first time, I asked Jeff to look left and note that SAFER barrier is positioned all the way down the inside wall -- something I had noticed when I drove the Petty car.
As I did when Trevor Bayne took us for a thrill ride before last February's Cup race at PIR, I videotaped the Jeff ride from the backseat of a Camaro using my BlackBerry. Due to space limitations in the Arizona Republic -- including the surprising Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League playoffs -- I have to wait until race week of the Nov. 13 Kobalt Tools 500k to write about Jeff's Lap of the New PIR. Sorry, but to protect that story, I'll have to delay posting the video. I do plan to put it on YouTube race week and will let you know here when it's available.
Meanwhile, here are some links to my recent AZR stories:
Thursday -- PIR test (Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch):
Friday -- Arizona to host two wild-card races:
FAST LINES: PIR's communications director, Paul Corliss, will leave right after the Nov. 13 Cup race to join the national basketball retired players' association. He'll be based for a few months in New York, then relocate to Chicago. Paul has been a tremendous help to me in covering the PIR races since 2007 for the Arizona Republic. No replacement yet . . . Isn't it interesting how it only took Speed Channel a couple of weeks to figure-out a format for Ray Evernham to shine but ESPN couldn't do that over several years?
Mark Armijo and I will be covering this weekend's NHRA Arizona Nationals at Firebird International Raceway. Please check out our stories in the Arizona Republic or at http://AzCentral.com . I'll have an event preview Tuesday and notebooks Friday-through-Monday. Look for my Q&A with legends Don Garlits and Shirley Muldowney on Sunday, Oct. 16.
[ more Blogging the Chase next Monday . . . ]
Sunday, October 02, 2011
It was "Boys, have at it" last Friday at Phoenix International Raceway.
Arizona Republic Sports Editor Mark Faller, Page 2 columnist Bob Young and Chris van der Beeck, who coordinates the racing coverage, and I were out at PIR to drive Richard Petty Driving Experience stock cars on the newly repaved and reconfigured oval. Bob really got with the driving program and here's a link to his Sunday column.
We all had our pictures taken with a famous No. 43 in victory lane before getting out on the track. I'll skip the details here, but will say the Petty Experience crew was extremely professional and helpful, and I'd certainly recommend you give it a go if the opportunity ever is there. I drove a No. 9 Dodge Charger for eight laps.
I asked to go last because my objective was different from the typical student -- for reasons I'll explain here next week. I've had the chance to drive a Corvette at the Bob Bondurant school and even a Formula Ford on the Pocono road course (in the wet!). I've never had any thoughts of being a driver, especially after my misadventure in a media snowmobile race many years ago. I got to bumping on some ruts, ran into the guy ahead of me, and flipped. I landed on my shoulder and had my arm in a sling for one week!
Instead of having to narrow-focus on my line and driving and speed, I wanted to broaden my perspective to observe and experience the PIR changes. Especially the slight banking, increased radius, and especially the dogleg. That's now a real turn -- no more short-cutting. Again, I had a good reason for wanting to take this approach and if you read me here next week, you'll understand. Meanwhile, I wasn't fast and will admit I missed getting into third gear on my first try, but I didn't crash or spin or hit the wall and got my "graduation" certificate.
One other thing I came away with was this was a great example of relationship-building and can only be a positive for PIR coverage down the road. Others should take note.
You don't have to be a drag racing fan to maybe find my October "Drags, Dollars & Sense" column on CompetitionPlus.com interesting/useful. No, not all publicity is good publicity. Here's the link:
FAST LINES: Katie Kenseth's injuries last week while practicing for a charity race just reinforces what I've said for some time -- these sorts of events are a bad idea. I notice those old-timer events have abruptly stopped in the aftermath of Larry Pearson's injuries at Bristol the other year . . . Sorry, NASCAR's new Integrated Marketing Communications department, but this was just too much: The 2012 schedule was released month-by-month, at five-minute intervals, on Twitter. News is news, not a game . . . This is how PR people lose credibility: The post-Kentucky news release from HVM Racing didn't mention that Simona de Silvestro spun in the pits and hit a member of E.J. Viso's crew. What? Did this PR-she think no one noticed? . . . NASCAR's two-day Cup test at PIR is Tuesday and Wednesday. Mark Armijo will have a story in the Republic Wednesday, and I'll be in the paper Thursday and Friday and also will have an NHRA-at-Firebird story next Sunday. Please check us out at http://azcentral.com/ .
[ more Blogging the Chase next week . . . ]
Sunday, September 25, 2011
Reed Hastings, co-founder and CEO of Netflix, used a blog to post an extraordinary apology to his customers. To briefly recap the situation, Netflix announced some weeks ago that it would split its movies-by-DVD and movies-via-streaming video into two separate companies. Some customers were going to be hit with big price increases. Well, the market -- meaning the customers --spoke, pushing back, and Netflix had to pull reverse.
In part, Hastings wrote, it was a failure to communicate:
"In hindsight, I slid into arrogance based upon past success. We have done very well for a long time by steadily improving our service, without doing much CEO communication. Inside Netflix I say, 'Actions speak louder than words,' and we should just keep improving our service. But now I see that given the huge changes we have been recently making, I should have personally given a full justification to our members of why we are separating DVD and streaming, and charging for both. It wouldn’t have changed the price increase, but it would have been the right thing to do."
"I want to acknowledge and thank our many members that stuck with us, and to apologize again to those members, both current and former, who felt we treated them thoughtlessly.
(We) will work hard to regain your trust. We know it will not be overnight. Actions speak louder than words. But words help people to understand actions."
This wasn't exactly a repeat of the 1985 "New Coke" fiasco. But there's a useful lesson here for motorsports' executives.
Hastings' quote that he "slid into arrogance based upon past success" smacks of what has gone on at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for decades. And directly led to the steep decline of a great American sporting institution and its open-wheel series. NASCAR started to steer into this ditch a few years ago, attempting to expand the fan base, with unappealing Car of Tomorrow rear wings and vanilla driver code-of-conduct policies that turned-off traditionalists. Of course, my latest favorite example comes from Formula One, and the scheduling of next year's U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, Tex., on the same day NASCAR's Chase ends in Homestead, Fla. To whatever extent Bernie Ecclestone and the F1 Powers-That-Be consider the American public and media their "customers," this is an act of arrogance and stupidity.
Unknowingly, Netflix did the racing industry a service with this reminder. At least, it did for those who bother to pay attention and think about it.
Is Jimmie Johnson's historic run of five consecutive Sprint Cups in danger of ending? You bet. He's 10th after two Chase events, 29 points behind no-wins-in-the-regular-season-but-2-for-2 in the Chase Tony Stewart. Johnson's won six times at Dover, second only to Richard Petty's and Bobby Allison's seven, so this Sunday has all the looks of a "must" for Johnson. As for his Hendrick teammate, Jeff Gordon, this has been a legit "comeback" season but like the Brickyard, Bristol, Richmond and some others, New Hampshire sure seemed like one that got away.
When Tony Stewart said this in New Hampshire's victory lane -- "We got rid of some dead weight earlier this week. So, it made it a lot easier. It’s been a big weight lifted off our shoulders. Just sometimes you have to make adjustments in your life and we did that and it has definitely helped this weekend, for sure" -- why didn't ESPN's Vince Welch ask him to explain? It was an obvious follow-up question and the need to do that is taught in Journalism 101. TV viewers everywhere were left confused and frustrated. Print reporters did ask and Tony refused to answer -- bogus, since he's the one who first brought it up.
FAST LINES: As written here last week, retired Chicago Tribune sportswriter/columnist Bob Markus' new book, I'll Play These, is a MUST read if you love great writing and storytelling from what many consider the Golden Age of sports (including auto racing). In addition to the information I listed, you can also order the book directly from Bob at email@example.com . I recommend you do just that . . . The infield road course at Michigan International Speedway is being repaved for the first time -- ever. While the official word is this is for industry testing, I can't help but wonder if a Grand-Am event will find its way onto the MIS calendar. It's going to happen at Kansas Speedway, also owned by ICS. (Yes, I know, it's part of the casino project). Remember, NASCAR's holding company also owns the G-A series . . . Great move by Speed to add Ray Evernham as an analyst. He should have been in the booth right from the start when ESPN regained the NASCAR rights . . . IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard said in Sunday's Indianapolis Star that "It's the hatred that I don't like" regarding criticism of the series. I agree. But this is a problem since one of Bernard's top advisors, Robin Miller, has been saying for years that "hate is good" . . . Congratulations to Kenny Bernstein and John Force, who along with Richard Childress, have been elected to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega. I'm a Hall voter. All three were on my list of 20 nominees and final ballot of five.
[ more Blogging the Chase next week . . . ]
Sunday, September 18, 2011
The Media Chase was on last week. NASCAR, as I suggested a year ago, didn't take all 12 drivers to New York City (Jeff Gordon got that assignment -- smart move) but scattered them around the country for the benefit of all Chase tracks. Brad Keselowski was in Phoenix pre-Chicagoland. Here's a link to my Brad story in the Arizona Republic:
I think this was a more effective utilization of the Chase drivers. NASCAR has had a useful uptick in its TV numbers this season and it's a MUST that continue through the quasi-playoffs -- despite the rain delay at Chicagoland. Some very smart money people fear the country is close to a double-dip recession and, true or not, the warning signals in the NASCAR economy are obvious. The Truck series, which has become a Toyota-Chevrolet circuit, is not healthy and the deeply troubling decision by Kevin and DeLana Harvick to discontinue their championship team is a blow to the series and Chevy. Of course, champion Todd Bodine's Tundra got parked earlier this year due to lack of sponsorship.
Take a look at the number of unsponsored cars in Nationwide. All Business of Racing eyes are on Roush Fenway and the future of Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in Nationwide -- both have driven blank cars for much of this year -- while in Cup, Carl Edwards' program isn't fully funded and no corporate deal has been confirmed for David Ragan or Matt Kenseth.
Meanwhile, important sponsors Bank of America and Pepsico had management shakeups and/or big layoffs last week.
Very worrisome . . .
So the bottom is: In dispatching 12 drivers around the country, NASCAR was doing more than Chasing the Media. It was Chasing Money.
For decades, Bob Markus was a sportswriter and columnist for the Chicago Tribune, covering major events around the world. Luckily for many of us, Bob liked auto racing. If you weren't a regular reader in Bob's time, I have good news. He has just published a book, I'll Play These, which not only reprints many of his great writings but also provides additional behind-the-scenes details and context.
From the PR side, I always enjoyed working with Bob -- a true pro, nice guy and class act. In 1988, when I did PR for the Porsche factory CART team, I invited Bob to join our crew at the Indy 500. For three weeks, Bob was in the pits and the garage, taking on various tasks, and writing almost daily accounts for the Tribune. Thanks to the cooperation of Al Holbert, Bob had total access. It was a journalistic and PR triumph. Bob has included most of those stories in his book. It was very, very rewarding to read that Bob considers this "the most fun assignment I ever had."
If you like sports -- and love great writing -- get I'll Play These. It's available at http://www.xlibris.com or call 888-795-4274.
Here's a link to my September "Drags, Dollars & Sense" column on CompetitionPlus.com. Some Business of Drag Racing things for you to think about during the Countdown:
FAST LINES: There's a new addition to Mario Andretti's massive trophy case -- a chunk of the old Phoenix International Raceway start/finish line. I UPSed it to him last week. Mario said he'll display it right next to his 1993 PIR winner's trophy -- his last career victory . . . Read what I wrote last week about the Associated Press and then consider this: The wire service ran ANOTHER nothing-new Danica story last week. Ridiculous . . . Incredible -- Simona De Silvestro's team actually used the Nuclear Clean Air Energy car name in Japan . . . If you saw all the photo coverage Donald Trump received the other day for accepting gold bars instead of cash from a business tenant, then go look at the very last item in my September CP.com column, link above.
[ more Blogging the Chase next week . . . ]
Sunday, September 11, 2011
THANKS, RON: After 40 years with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, photo director Ron McQueeney (right) will retire Sept. 30. His last day in the office was last Friday. Over decades at IMS, Ron was a big help to me, providing guidance when needed and cooperation when needed even more. No, we didn't always agree -- but that was business, nothing personal. Ron says he'll be back helping out at IMS next season. I sure help so.
I talked about this with Rick Benjamin Sunday morning on the post-Italian Grand Prix The Checkered Flag show on Sirius XM 94/208. To me, it's important enough to write about here, too.
The 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on the U.S. means there is another 10-year anniversary for racing fans to remember: Alex Zanardi's terrible crash in the Champ Car race in Germany just a few days later. In a heroic triumph of skill by the medical team, and of the human spirit, Zanardi survived and remains an inspirational figure throughout the motorsports world. And, certainly, to me, as someone who worked with him in the CART series for a few years.
What I remember the most -- and what makes me profoundly angry to this day, to this moment as I write this -- is that this was a race that should never have happened.
While the rest of the America-based sports community paused in respect for the dead and the affected, Champ Car raced on. In one of the most pathetic PR statements ever issued, the in-over-his-head CC spokesman of that time told the media the group wished it had known NASCAR had postponed its race before making their own decision. (That's leadership!) Of course, it wasn't just NASCAR that did the right thing. NHRA, IRL, NFL, college football, baseball, right down the line, they stayed on the sidelines that following weekend.
The explanations offered by then-Champ Car leader Joe Heitzler and his minions were and are nothing more than butt-covering excuses. Anyone who knows anything about PR and dealing with public opinion knows that, if you want to maintain your own credibility, never defend the indefensible. Heitzler and Champ Car decided a trival auto race was more important than respecting the raw emotions of its home-country people -- and customers.
Many people think Tony George's decision to create the IRL was the worst decision in modern motorsports history. No, it was the SECOND worst. The grotesque decision by Champ Car to race in the aftermath of Sept. 11 was, by far, the worst decision in modern motorsports history. At the moment the green flag waved, the Champ Car organization lost all moral legitimacy and no longer deserved the respect or support of American racing fans. As reported in this space a few weeks ago, Heitzler had the nerve to speak recently about ethics in sports.
I know this: If Bill France Sr. or Junior, or Tony Hulman, had been in charge, they would have known to place the feelings of the Germans second, and the Americans, first.
If I had been a manager in charge of sponsorship of a team at that time, I would have urged the race to be canceled. If that didn't happen, I would have asked my team owner to withdraw. If that didn't happen, I would have ordered all corporate ID to be removed from cars and uniforms. Then, I would have ended all involvement with the series ASAP. History does show that, a few months later, Heitzler was booted from his job and the series' co-founder, Roger Penske, shifted his team out of Champ Car and to the IRL. (For many reasons.)
Alex Zanardi --yes, he knew the risks -- was critically injured in a race that never should have happened. My anger flared anew this year when another executive in another series -- Randy Bernard of IndyCar -- publicly said he wanted Zanardi to race in the $5 million Las Vegas challenge. His advisors/cheerleaders in the media applauded. As I wrote here during the summer, that was exploitive, seeking some cheap thrills, quick headlines, and a few dollars in ticket sales. Thank God common decency and common sense prevailed elsewhere, and Zanardi won't race.
The 10-year anniversary of the worst decision in modern racing history was followed by another horrid one. Both times, Zanardi was, in a sense, the victim of executive insensitivity. (To put it as politely as possible.) On this occasion, all involved should be very, very, ashamed.
For the three decades he worked as Associated Press' motorsports writer, Mike Harris would make sure the local AP writer covering an event Mike wasn't attending was up-to-speed and would offer some story ideas. Apparently, no one is paying attention at AP these days, because the wire service for the last few years has been spitting out the same-old non-news Danica Patrick features every week or every other week. It happened again last week pre-Richmond. This is more than about staff reductions. How long would it take to check, via search engine, what's been on the wire recently and if there is any real "news" in what is being offered? Mark this kind of inattention to detail as one (of many) reasons why survey after survey shows the public does not trust or respect the media the way it once did.
I guested on Larry Henry's Pit Pass USA show last week. We spent about 20 minutes talking the Business of Racing, mainly NASCAR and IndyCar. I'll admit, I jammed-in too many points in each answer. But if you are interested in a very candid assessment of the B of R, please give this a listen -- it starts at about 2:50.
[ Blogging the Chase begins next Monday . . . ]
Monday, September 05, 2011
As I've said and written many times, you can't be a good fan without knowing something about the business and politics of racing. Politics and business came together in an interesting way last week with the announcement that President Obama would host a Chase-related event at the White House -- but five of the 10 invited NASCAR drivers wouldn't be there.
One would think -- wish and hope -- that "journalists" would understand that words mean things. That' not how the coverage played out, with words like "rejected" and "refused" used by some controversy-thirsty writers as if it meant the same as "not able to." That, in turn, got picked up by some conservative media outlets. As far as I can see, this was completely bogus.
NASCAR’s first news release stated that Kurt Busch was among those who would not attend, but Busch said at Atlanta Motor Speedway he had been able to change his schedule and would be present. Carl Edwards serves on the presidential Council for Fitness Sports and Nutrition, so absolutely no reason to imply any snub, even though he won't be there. Kevin Harvick flat-out told the media "none of your business" as to why he won't attend, but made general references to scheduling conflicts. Ditto Tony Stewart. Greg Biffle thoughtfully explained a long-standing sponsor obligation that was built around him.
Now, I don't think there's a lot of Obama support in the NASCAR garage area, especially policy differences regarding business. This manufactured controversy came at the same time the federal jobs report revealed no new net jobs were created in August. And, with consumer confidence way down, that comes at an especially bad time for the NASCAR industry -- the Chase ticket-selling season is on and plenty of teams are trying to finalize 2012 sponsorship. Just as the NFL season kicks off.
But should that be cast as a presidential snub? No. Yes, there was a time in our country when a chance to meet the president -- regardless of party -- would trump everything. The reality is that's not the way it is these days. One reason is that some of these driver had their schedules set months ago. And, depending on Atlanta-area weather, the whole non-issue could be meaningless, anyway.
This was bad journalism, involving use of some inaccurate words, and I'll stand on that analysis unless I see video of Harvick and Stewart at a Tea Party rally at the same time the other drivers are at the White House. I find it especially unfortunate coming at the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11.
Here's a link to my Arizona Republic story last week on NASCAR tire testing at Phoenix:
FAST LINES: Yes, IndyCar needs to replace Brian Barnhart. Some of the prospective replacements floated by the "experts," however, are inane ideas. A few of those guys would make the Chris Kniefel era in Champ Car look good. If you want a smart/competent choice, here he is: Gil de Ferran . . . A recent story on PRdaily.com was headlined, "Writing: The No. 1 skill for PR pros." Amen! Way too little of that these days. All releases I receive that talk about how "thrilled" a team is to sign a new sponsor, or how "excited" a driver is to be racing that weekend (both completely non-news) result in an instant press of the "delete" key by me . . . The "Danica is mailing it in" posts got postponed by her sixth place in Baltimore . . . TV coverage of the U.S. Nationals was dumbed-down by the dumb decision to add Just Horrible Jamie Howe to the "talent" lineup. Otherwise, a great presentation of drag racing's biggest event.
[ more next Monday . . . ]
Sunday, August 28, 2011
I covered last Thursday morning's Danica Patrick-to-NASCAR news conference for the Arizona Republic. Here's a link to that story, which was lengthy by local standards, and ran on sports Page One.
GoDaddy's offices are about a 15-minute drive from my Scottsdale home. The event, postponed one day and moved from the downtown baseball field, wasn't the best organized I've ever attended. The formal announcement was very scripted and I would say nothing new was learned. There wasn't anything special or overly welcoming or friendly or relationship-building about it. I had an individual interview with Danica afterwards in a corporate conference room. I knew it was an extremely busy time for her, partly due to the postponement, as she had to travel to California for IndyCar obligations later that day.
Still, I was somewhat struck by the impression that she didn't seem as happy as one might have expected on such a big occasion. In fact, that was the second question I asked her: "Is this a happy day for you?" She appeared a little surprised by that and answered: "Yeah, sure, of course it's a happy day." OK -- I'm just saying she didn't look it.
Since she had earlier said there was no news on returning to the Indy 500 next May, I asked if there had been any conversations with Indianapolis Motor Speedway management about scheduling considerations that might make that a bit easier for her. DP said no but reminded me: "Anything can happen."
As the TV people like to say, stay tuned.
I have some more from Danica that I'm saving for future use in the Republic. A few minutes after I was done talking to Patrick, I discussed it all with Rick Benjamin and Chocolate Myers on SiriusXM. There really wasn't any "news" but my overall impression was really more a reminder of what I've observed for years: Danica is very guarded and doesn't go off-script very often. In that sense, she and her media manipulator sponsor are a good match. Sometimes, that reflects poorly on many segments of the celebrity-crazed/journalistically-challenged media world.
FAST LINES: Mark Armijo and I will be covering tire testing at Phoenix International Raceway this Monday and Tuesday. See our stories in the Republic or AzCentral.com . . . Despite what you might have read elsewhere, no paddock in major motorsports is more fan friendly than NHRA's. The Big Go -- the U.S. Nationals -- is this weekend, with plenty of interesting on-track and trackside things to see and do and hours of TV coverage. As I say every year, even if you are not a drag racing fan, you really should check this out . . . Remember Joe Heitzler, who as CART's president made the worst decision in modern motorsports history (even topping Tony George's IRL) and ran a race post-Sept. 11, 2001 weekend when the rest of the American sports industry respectfully paused? Given that disgraceful bit of professional history, take a look at his truly amazing comments on ethics:
[ more after Labor Day . . . ]
Sunday, August 21, 2011
It's this clear-cut: If the U.S. Grand Prix is officially scheduled for Nov. 18, 2012, it will officially prove the Formula One industry isn't serious about making its series a success in America.
Nov. 18? That would be a bigger joke than anything David Letterman lets out.
But that's the latest word regarding a date at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Tex.
Notice to all interested parties: Nov. 18 almost certainly will be the date of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase finale in Homestead, Fla. It requires about two functioning brain cells to know the national media attention will be focused on NASCAR. If F1 doesn't realize that, it's forever proof of the often-cited "arrogance" of Bernie Ecclestone & Co.
There are two possible issues at play here:
1. The track developers need more time to finish construction to even a minimal GP-caliber level, never mind the announced "master plan" that includes all sorts of upscale facilities. IF that's the case, the organizers should request a delay until 2013. While that would be a big hit from a PR standpoint -- following in F1's U.S. fiascos in Phoenix and Dallas, Indy's 2005 tire debacle and rigged finish (Michael Schumacher letting off the throttle in the closing yards to allow teammate Rubens Barrichello to win in 2002), and the embarrassing abort of the so-called American team last year -- well, as the old (but true) saying goes, you only get one chance to make a good impression. If CotA can't do that in 2012, it would be far better to wait.
2. It's just the latest example of Ecclestone and F1 taking the money at the expense of what's right for the host track. Let's just be polite and say Austin was a "surprising" site for a new F1-style track. But the CotA leaders have made their case and I've come to understand the merits of the location. From Day 1, though, that meant accepting the realities of Texas' weather -- HOT in June -- the expected date to create logistically logical back-to-back events with Montreal. That was the trade-off and everyone should have agreed to the up-and-down sides from the first negotiating session. It should have been baked into the contract cake.
Assuming the November date is Ecclestone's command not CotA's true wish, here's a perfectly legitimate question: For all of the billions of dollars that make up the F1 economy, are we to believe there aren't enough for some basic market research? Does Ecclestone and his bunch have any concept at all that football is almost the state religion of Texas? It starts with unbelievably popular high school games Friday night, Big Time college action on Saturday, and the almighty NFL on Sunday, including teams based in Dallas and Houston.
Only those truly arrogant -- or haven't bothered to do a modest amount of homework -- would think it smart to attempt to launch a first-time event featuring athletes very, very, very few Americas have ever heard of -- against football in Texas.
And then, again, there is NASCAR's Cup championship concluding contest that same day.
I've reached a point where I am sick of the talking points that routinely come from F1's movers-and-shakers about how important it is to them to build their sport in the massive American market. IF that's TRUE, gentlemen, PROVE IT!
As a former official in two series (CART and IROC), I have first-hand knowledge of how difficult scheduling can be. F1's calendar is the toughest to piece together, because of the worldwide travel, and differing local needs/conflicts in each country. But the time has come, once and for all, for Ecclestone and the team owners and sponsors to decide what's MOST IMPORTANT to them. IF that is the United States, then DO WHAT MUST BE DONE! In terms of scheduling, that means clearing out a date in late April or early May. That would take care of the temperature problem and create a link to all the other events (Indianapolis, Charlotte, etc.) that make May America's Race Month.
(Second on their list, as I've said before, is to bring back the old rule that allowed teams to run a third car, usually for a "guest" driver from the host circuit's country. Find a non-NASCAR weekend and you'd have a much better chance of landing a Jeff Gordon or Kyle Busch.)
But Nov. 18? That's crap. While this is difficult to calculate, I would estimate that date would cut the national media coverage for Austin by 50 percent. If Bernie and Boys are happy to have a regional event, well, good for them. If they really want what they say they want -- an event of national American importance -- then don't go down this road. That would really be stupid.
And definitely prove, for all time, that the Business of Formula One power brokers aren't serious about making Grand Prix racing a serious sport in the United States of America.
FAST LINES: Congratulations to my friend Jon Asher, who was surprised to learn he was the Grand Marshall at the recent Auto-Plus Night Under Fire drag races at Ohio's Summit Motorsports Park. Congrats also to the Bader family for doing this. Jon's contributions to the straight-line sport, as a writer, columnist, photographer and various other roles makes the honor well deserved . . . Congratulations also to Jayski.com, named one of Time magazine's top websites. The story said Jayski "remains the delightfully fannish creation of one obsessive NASCAR enthusiast, Jay Adamczyk. It squeezes the world of America's favorite form of racing into one site, filling it to capacity with news bites, rumors, links and other vital information" . . . Congratulations to Daytona International Speedway for winning the Golden Image Award from the Florida Public Relations Association for its 2010 Daytona repave PR program . . . Another week, another newspaper cut: Jeff Wolf is no longer with the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
The appeals panel Brian Barnhart selected to decide who finished 1-2-3 at New Hampshire is a perfect example of the screwed-up thinking that has gotten IndyCar into such terrible trouble. First, Barnhart chose two former/current executives from that eternal example of officiating excellence -- USAC. Now, ladies and gentlemen, let's take an educated guess: Sanctioning body execs aren't going to rule against the decision of a sanctioning body. The third panelist is the promoter of the disputed New Hamp race. I've known Jerry Gappens for many years and like him, but this is a flat-out PR no-brainer: A promoter can NEVER be in a position where he helps determine the outcome of any race at his track. It's that simple. To fall back on Bill France Jr.'s long-standing philosophy, is a promoter really going to vote in favor of letting his paying customers leave the property without seeing/knowing who won? Here's my wild guess: NO! Plus, Jerry gave interviews after the controverial finish that signaled he was OK with what Barnhart did. Suggestion for Randy Bernard: Never mind falsely building up hopes for races that have zero chance of happening, and instead of wasting that time and energy, use it to clean up the huge mess in your office.
[ more next Monday . . . ]