Saturday, December 1, 2007

NASCAR TV Needs One Little Thing: Diversity

The weekend after the NEXTEL Cup Banquet is the real end of the season for many race fans. The reality that there is no more Tony, Junior or Jimmie really hits home when the last TV show says goodnight.

Memories of the races begin to mix with the fun of RaceDay, Trackside and Brent Musburger in his sneakers. With over one hundred and fifty hours of racing, and several hundred hours of "support programming," the Cup season is a television blur.

Over on the drag racing trail, the NHRA is also a professional racing series that lives its TV life on the ESPN Networks. The diversity of the classes mixed with the personalities of the drivers and the incredible speeds makes for a very entertaining TV package.

They also have a support show on ESPN2 called NHRA2Day. This thirty minute program is considered outstanding by most NHRA fans. It basically fills the role of NASCAR Countdown on ABC, the network's pre-race show.

Also, like NASCAR, the NHRA has regional and local racing series. As the national series cris-crosses the country, it visits the racetracks to hold legendary events visited by fans on sold-out weekends. Everyone gets into the pits for free.

There is one striking difference between the two series that really hits home after both of the end-of-season banquets. That is Tony Schumacher in the picture above, the 2007 Top Fuel Dragster Champion.

With Tony in the picture is Angelle Sampey and Antron Brown. Both of them finished in the top ten in the Pro Stock Motorcycle category. Also, finishing in the top twenty in Top Fuel were J.R. Todd, Melanie Troxel, and Hillary Will.

This past season in NHRA competition, the sex or the race of the drivers was an afterthought. J.R. Todd is the Kyle Busch of the series, a feisty driver with a hot foot that likes to go fast. He is a fan favorite. Mr. Todd is black. Antron Brown, pictured above, is graduating from the motorcycles to Top Fuel Dragster next season. He will be the NHRA face of Matco Tools.

The NHRA Awards Ceremony aired November 18th on ESPN2. It took place at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, CA. Like NASCAR, the NHRA lost a pioneer this season when Wally Parks passed away at the age of 94. He was remembered in much the same way as Bill France Jr. was at the NASCAR banquet.

The NHRA Top Fuel Funny Car Champion this season was Tony Pedregon. He and his brother Cruz are two of the highest profile Hispanic drivers in the country. In his speech, delivered without a Teleprompter or notes, he put everything into perspective. He remembered his good friend Eric Medlen who lost his life in a practice crash, and his former boss John Force who had been injured in a similar accident. Then, he began to cry.

Wally Parks meant a lot of things to a lot of people, but he and the NHRA meant the world to a young second-generation racer struggling to make it to the big time. This was a TV moment not to be missed, and it reminded everyone at the ceremony how deeply this sport had touched all their lives.

As the TV cameras looked across the tables, the faces appeared to be very different from those at the NASCAR banquet. The well-dressed women who rose to come forward were not on the arm of the winner, they were the winner. The handsome Black and Hispanic men fit into the crowd like a glove, with everyone chatting and having what appeared to be a very good time.

Those TV cameras have a lot of power. They put into the minds of everyone watching images that form impressions. The impression of the NHRA was that a diverse group of people had come together after a tough season for a heartfelt awards ceremony.

The same simply could not be said of the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Banquet. Try as they might, NASCAR had once again passively allowed the TV cameras to sent a message that contained a theme they just cannot escape. This sport is for white males.

Even a momentary mention of Juan Pablo Montoya was never followed by a single camera shot of that driver. Fortunately, it was during the only bright spot of the night when Tony Stewart delivered a speech that was possibly funnier than David Spade had been all evening.

The pressure is on NASCAR to find a way to diversify by giving opportunity to those who want it and can prove they have the ability. Continuing to import already established stars will only solve the problem for a short while. Hopefully, when the TV cameras pan across the crowd at a future banquet, the faces will be just a little more...diverse.

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Banquet Lessons Are Hard To Teach

Most of us who have been around a bit in life have been to large corporate functions away from the office. These tend to run in either one of two directions.

The first is the get-together that has been aimed at drawing out the personalities involved in the company, and entertaining the entire group in a comfortable manner. It usually is the topic of conversation at the airport, and on the plane ride home.

The second type of event is the one that everyone knows they have to do, but deep inside they just dread walking through the same old routine as the previous year. At the airport, and on the plane ride home, this type of event usually is also the source of conversation.

The difference is that over-and-over again the same question comes up. What can we do to change this thing? The fact it serves a purpose is understood. The fact it has been around a long time is also understood. What is not understood is why hasn't this "function" changed with the times?

In this column, we are not going to talk about the NEXTEL Cup Banquet airing on ESPN Classic. You can read about that topic by clicking on this link.

We are not going to talk about moving the banquet to Las Vegas, or Charlotte, or anywhere else. If you want that issue, just click here.

What we are going to talk about is the one topic that makes NASCAR fans crazy. Believe it or not, it is also the one topic that makes NASCAR crazy quite often.

While there are some corporate executives mixed in with the crowd, most of the faces at the Banquet belong to drivers, teams, and owners. Even as they sit at the carefully arranged tables in their carefully arranged fashion attire, there is something very different about a NASCAR banquet from the big corporate functions.

The key thing for the millions of fans is...we already know these guys. This is not "Bob from the St. Louis office" getting the Herbert Hoover Penmanship Award or "Tom from Accounts Payable" getting the Fred Flintstone Financial Trophy for a balanced budget.

While crowning one champion at Homestead is nice, this is essentially the big "post-race" show for the fans. ABC did not make the commitment to talk with the "Chase" drivers after the "Chase" races. We saw how they finished, but had no idea how they got there.

Most of the top drivers have big fan clubs and a large amount of all kinds of apparel and gadgets for sale. We know their wives, their children, their parents, where they came from and probably even their favorite color. The bottom line is, we have seen all these people before and want to hear from them in some other form beside a set speech read from a teleprompter.

Some of the best TV shows that cover big events like this are not "inside" the show at all. Viewers tune-in by the millions to watch and listen to the pre and post-show coverage. Basically, for one reason only. The featured celebrities get to speak as themselves, from the heart, and off-the-cuff.

NASCAR allows slices of brief emotion in the top ten driver's speeches, but it has to be fleeting, and then we have to return to the business at hand. Some of the best moments and speeches during corporate functions come from not allowing exactly the same thing.

Shaky hands, a quivering voice, and 3X5 note cards often cause a swell of emotion in the room and result in a standing ovation for someone who has clearly done well at doing what they do not normally do. The reason is simple, we all can relate.

This is the content that fans want to see. If their driver turns out to be "plastic" and smoothly slides his way though a practiced speech, than so be it. But, if he uses this national platform to thank people in a way that causes emotion and tells us a story that no one could be priceless.

At big corporate functions, smart companies bring in a comedian who has taken the time to update himself on the issues at-hand in the corporation. The audience thinks they are getting a set comedy routine, and then explodes when he or she talks about how the mailroom caught fire or Tom from IT split his pants at the company picnic.

This type of topical entertainment puts the entire room, no matter how huge, in a very different mood. That mood is "receptive." Now, the audience wants more because they know the people who planned the event did the right thing. They made it all about the nameless faces in the audience who will never be on stage.

Over the years, I have seen a lot of musical groups perform at "corporate gigs." Sometimes, their name was announced in advance, and everybody already had weighed-in with an opinion by the time they hit the stage. It made for a divided crowd, no matter how hard or how well the performer did their thing.

Several times, however, it was done a different way. At the break, or right after the event, or even during dinner, the curtain was simply pulled back and the announcer said the magic words. The name of the group or singer was not the issue, but the fact that this was a "surprise" made the function.

If that curtain was pulled at the NEXTEL Cup Banquet, and there stood Kenny Chesney, or Big and Rich or The Dave Matthews Band, it would get my attention as a TV viewer. I would suggest that it would also get the attention of the audience in the room. Even if I forgot the speeches, and the sponsors, I would walk away thinking..."I wonder who they will get next year?"

Safety is a concern for all companies, especially when the Public Relations Department is put in a position of hosting an event. Bring in an outside company and you run the risk of getting a great show that has nothing to do with your purpose. Keep the planning in-house and you may wind-up distributing energy drinks to make it through the program.

NASCAR drivers, owners, crew chiefs, and many other racing types have appeared on national TV and radio since January of this season when testing began. It is now November, and nothing horrible has happened. The normal bad word or grumpy athlete has been the big story, but there have been no melt-downs or public embarrassments.

One gets the feeling that beneath each Banquet table, the driver is on a leash just long enough to feed himself. When he is summoned to the stage, he is escorted by a group of NASCAR folks who are, in essence, his babysitters.

He is buffed, and smoothed, and made presentable...but for who? We have seen these men in the rain, the heat, under the cars, and completely grimy after a race or practice. The attraction of the fans watching the banquet is to the very parts of the driver's personality that NASCAR forces to go away.

It might be fair to suggest that no one really likes Kyle Busch because of his speech-making abilities. We like him because he can drive the wheels off a loose car, shows no fear, and possibly will crash into his brother a few more times.

There has to be a way to step-back, take a deep breath, and evaluate this post-season award show from more than just a "wow, we got through it again without anyone making us look like redneck idiots" perspective. The top two drivers live in NYC, are married to models, and Jeff Gordon has a boat bigger than my house.

The bottom line is, times have changed and "The Banquet" did not get the memo. Either NASCAR Images or ESPN or whoever is producing this shin-dig needs to put a planning team on this that can make it a surprising and entertaining night.

With all due respect, neither David Spade or Kelly Clarkson fit that bill. I like them both, and they have a place in their respective businesses, but not a place at the post-season function for a racing organization. In the pre-show Public Relations press releases, it was emphasized that David Spade was a NASCAR fan. The resulting expectation of topical humor about the sport never materialized.

I would like to suggest that this is a great time for NASCAR to walk away from another mediocre Banquet and look around the sport. NEXTEL is changing to Sprint, Busch is changing to Nationwide and the Cup car is becoming the COT. The fifty plus drivers are walking away, and the youth movement is in full swing. Walking through the garage, we now see various countries, not just states represented.

This would be a great time to re-do the format of the post-season awards show. Changing this function would fit-in nicely with all of the other changes going on in the sport. NASCAR is asking the fans to accept all of those, how hard would it be to accept a new format for a tired old Banquet?

Maybe if a Bill Engvall and a Kenny Chesney blended-in with some driver's behind-the-scenes home movies, some bloopers from the TV crew, and even some video sent in by the fans we might just see a new on-air TV "dynamic" occur. An injection of fun and good humor and an easy atmosphere is exactly the ticket to spruce-up a corporate function that has just simply lost its "zest" with time.

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