Volume X, Issue 9, Page 72

Crafting a public image

I feel sorry for anyone who repeats the old canard, “Any publicity is good publicity.” It reveals a naivete about the significant difference between raw exposure vs. carefully crafted image.

That is a key issue within the NHRA Powerade Series right now.

It’s always seemed to me drag racing has a media inferiority complex, and that’s made a lot of its publicity efforts appear to be tinged with desperation. The operational mindset has often looked to me to be exposure for exposure’s sake – get your headlines any way you can – an approach sometimes at odds with building a buffed image.

Over the long haul, WHAT people THINK about you is way more important -- and valuable – than HOW they HEARD about you.

John Edwards, for example, has been in the news a lot lately. I’m quite sure that’s not the kind of publicity he wanted. The former presidential candidate once enjoyed favorable (even sympathetic) press coverage. But he lied to his media buddies and had his staff lie for him and so his image has gone from ambulance chaser to U.S. senator to champion of the poor to sleazebag who cheated on his popular cancer-stricken wife.      

NHRA didn’t know it, but it was promoting an “extreme” sport before extreme (ESPN’s X Games) was cool. Central to the PR push were TV commercials featuring visuals of Top Fuel fireballs and Funny Cars blowing their bodywork to kingdom come. That continued right into the start of this season, when Tony Pedregon’s blazing Chevy bounced off the wall at Pomona. He thereupon packed up the spectacular video and made the New York City media rounds, including NBC’s Today and CNN’s American Morning

No disrespect to Tony, but to me, it was a scene straight out of the old carnival barker’s script: “Step right up and see the man who cheated death!”

It was classic “any publicity is good publicity” stuff.

That approach came to a crashing halt at Englishtown.

NHRA’s hype machine stalled in the sad aftermath. True, Tony Schumacher marched on, Funny Car remained fascinatingly unpredictable, and the Countdown was coming . . . but those were puzzle pieces, not the building blocks to construct a new image.

With the renewed emphasis on safety and advent of 1,000-foot nitro racing, it’s fair to ask: Just what will that different image be? That’s a decision that requires most careful consideration. 

Meanwhile, along comes the debut event at zMAX Dragway @ Concord, the fancy new $60 million facility next to Lowe’s Motor Speedway. The name alone signals you that these are the same people who have been known to turn the PR spotlight into a garish spectacle.

Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports Inc. management team is notorious for its ultra-aggressive tactics to gin-up ticket sales. There’s nothing wrong with creative promotion – I’ve pulled off a few PR stunts in my career -- but there’s a line that should not be crossed.

Especially now.

NHRA doesn’t need a farce, where security guards are assigned to a driver to create the impression he’s in danger from fans, or billboards that exploit discord within a family, or cash prizes as a reward for bad behavior. Yes, SMI tracks have done all those things.

The fact that a gullible press gives such nonsense even a moment of notice is not a valid excuse to do it.

I’d like to believe there still are standards of decency in this sport. Cheap tricks are no substitute for sharp thinking and hard work.

That’s the way to succeed in business.

Moving forward, I hope Compton & Co. will resist the temptation of over-the-top gimmicks that in any way leave the impression of demeaning NHRA’s product. Or the quality of its teams and the competition/entertainment they provide.
Drag racing will continue to be an extreme sport. In recasting its image away from hell-on-wheels, however, publicity-by-any-means has to go the way of the open-face helmet.

When the NHRA circus comes to town, it must be a respected main attraction, not a sideshow.


With Full Throttle assuming NHRA’s title sponsorship next season, this story in the Aug. 10 Brandweek caught my eye:

“Suddenly $2 for an energy drink seems like a lot of money,” said the industry publication’s article. “After almost a decade of explosive growth, the only surging category in carbonated beverages is starting to look sluggish.”

Beverage Digest reported that volume was up 10 percent this year through mid-June, compared to 30 percent overall growth in 2007.

One factor is the national economy.  “Consumers are spending far less in convenience stores (energy drinks’ primary channel) thanks to soaring gas prices,” according to Brandweek.

A reported $12.8 million marketing initiative through the first five months of the year, largely focused on Dale Earnhardt Jr., increased Amp’s awareness by 30 percent. BW said Full Throttle’s volume is down.

"Energy drinks are premium priced," said Beverage Digest editor John Sicher. "Some consumers are trading down. Others are buying them less frequently."  




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