Volume X, Issue 7, Page 84

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WTF Were You Guys in Glendora Thinking?

7/10/2008

It was a PR guy’s wet dream. 

There was big, big news in NHRA land, with an historic event coming in a few days on the NHRA National schedule.  Here was extremely positive news in the wake of the death of Scott Kalitta, one of drag racing’s shining faces from one of the iconic families in our sport.

For years we in the media, team owners, drivers, Internet bulletin board fans and just about everyone in drag racing called, even pleaded, for the NHRA to raise the Professional payouts. Most people, probably most racers couldn’t tell you when the sanctioning body announced the last purse increase.  It had been over a decade ago.

Now this is a really big, good-news sports story at a time when the highly public perception of drag racing had been controversial, sliding down a slope toward awful at best.  Two-time champion Scott Kalitta dies in a horrible, fiery, on-camera nitro funny car accident at E-town and it is being investigated by the cops, and before we hit Denver for the start of the Western Swing we get the 1K-foot solution, albeit pronounced as a temporary answer.

As an aside, for the first time in recent memory I had conversations at local coffee shops about, “Who was that racecar driver that was killed?”  Just because I was wearing a drag racing T-shirt, it was my charge to explain what had happened to Scott to a few very casual observers.

As I sat at my desk Wednesday, July 9, at 6:00 PM, getting ready to leave the office, one last email dings into the mailbox, a surprise communiqué from the NHRA Media Department.  My first reaction was, here’s more pre-race for the Mile High Nationals I could not attend this year, but wait… as Fred Sanford said, “This is the big one, Elizabeth!”

Cue the trumpets…NHRA finally does the right thing and opens the moth-eaten wallets in Glendora with an official announcement of both more money on the table for the Professional racers and the Official 2009 Racing Schedule.  Yeah!  Good for everyone.  A new Coca-Cola-owned sponsor for the new year putting up more money, a double-digit percentage purse increase and we can all log onto Priceline to book our accommodations early for the 2009 schedule, long before we have ever seen a new schedule before, in my memory.

Earlier in the same day of this big NHRA announcement the sports news media was buzzing about two-time NASCAR champion driver Tony Stewart leaving Joe Gibbs Racing, longtime sponsor Home Depot was non-committal as to their loyalties and Stewart was headed back to drive a Chevrolet in a deal brokered by GM, as a team co-owner at Haas CNC Racing.  What do you think the stick and ball sports pages will be covering Thursday morning?

But wait a minute…as I mentioned before, this was the PR guy’s wet dream, BIG news, huge news, the proverbial Win-Win for all.  Then why did the mother of all Press Releases come out on Wednesday evening at cocktail/rush hour time in LA, after dinner time in Chicago and 9:00 p.m. in the Big Apple...way after deadline for any newspaper’s Thursday morning sports page.

The very next day, Thursday of NHRA PR week, the week of the Mopar Parts Mile High Nationals has one of the coolest sponsor pre-race street parties, held in Golden, Colorado.  To my knowledge there’s not an event quite like this one on the NHRA tour, I’ve been there a dozen times.  There’s a stage, food, BBQ’d pigs, drink, hot rods, racecars, famous drivers and owners -- all within a short drive from nearby hotels.  Now there’s the place for the BIG announcement to grab the old spotlight, wouldn’t you think?

But there’s a much bigger problem I see from a PR standpoint.  NHRA President Tom Compton is missing in action.  He’s a nice enough guy; hell he’s the Prez!  He even remembers my name at social events and on Sunday morning driver introductions, but where in the hell is he today?  Dammit, this purse increase is his big news and it is his story to tell! 

One of the jobs that the Prez gets is being the front man who delivers both the good news and the bad news in his domain, that’s why they get the big bucks.  To my knowledge Compton has made no, I repeat, no public, on-camera comment about Scott Kalitta’s tragedy, nothing on the 1,000-foot track change and now, with the biggest positive announcement in recent years, he has the NHRA PR Department issue an after-hours email press release. 

I will always remember NASCAR President Mike Helton, his voice breaking with emotion in the media center with the unbelievable news, "This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements I have ever personally had to make. We've lost Dale Earnhardt,'' Helton said.  That’s part of a sanctioning body President’s job.

Tom Compton, I’m calling you out. 

Get out in front of the stories, all the stories, both good and bad!  This positive increased-purse announcement could have made a difference in the media with the proper PR management and presentation. Compton, you could have actually shown that you have leadership.  You could have used the prestige of the Western Swing by using your sponsor’s platform at the Mopar party.  Have your people pick up the phone to Gary Graves at USA Today, to friends like Louis Brewster and Jeff Wolf, to NASCAR reporter David Poole, so they had an advance on this breaking story with an embargo attached. 

NHRA drag racing had a big story, a positive story, something that’ll show leadership in motorsports, a pro-active approach as with the 1,000-foot decision, but you blew it again, Tom Compton.  You blew it again, NHRA.  A $1.3 million dollar purse increase AND you have two, high-powered PR agencies and Jerry Archambeault who came from Hill and Knowlton Public Relations, where he was a managing director in the Sports Marketing Group.  Is this the best that all of your collective PR minds can do -- a weak-ass, after hours email?

Tom Compton, I implore you to come out of the shadows. The HD Partners deal is officially dead; get over it.  Get out in front of the stories as you did with the now defunct HD Partners sales job.  Get out in front of the issues, all of them. Become a real leader. Sadly, Wally Parks is gone. It’s time to assume your leadership role.  You had the big story and you blew it. Step up and take NHRA Drag Racing to the next level. 

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