MEDIA ROUNDUP: Auto racing is cruising toward media acceptance

Though motor sports enjoy enormous popularity, mainstream outlets have been slow to provide coverage. But once they catch on, they tend to get more involved - much like the fans.

Though motor sports enjoy enormous popularity, mainstream outlets have been slow to provide coverage. But once they catch on, they tend to get more involved - much like the fans.

Auto racing is the fastest-growing sport today in terms of the sheer number of fans, TV ratings, and dollars, facts that are lost on many in the traditional sports media - especially those parts of it outside of the Southeast. Andrew Giangola, NASCAR's director of business communications, describes the phenomenon as a split between "two worlds." "If you go to Charlotte or Richmond or Daytona," he says, "you see NASCAR on the front page. But if you look at markets like New York City, we're battling to get NASCAR on the sports pages and into the highlight reels, because we're competing with nine professional sports teams." But NASCAR's legions of fans and massive TV deals are impossible to ignore and, over the past few years, the traditional "stick and ball" sports editors have been slowly but surely coming around. Even The New York Times now has a dedicated auto-racing correspondent. "The benefit we have is the story is a good one," says Giangola. "It's the second-most-watched sport on TV [after NFL football], and the one with most corporate involvement in terms of Fortune 500 companies. We also have tremendous fan loyalty, with 75 million fans who by their own claim are three times more loyal to the car sponsor's product than a non-sponsor product," he adds. "Trend-wise, you've seen more major dailies develop motor-sport beat reporters," says Ron Green, director of public relations for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which hosts the Indianapolis 500, NASCAR's Brickyard 400, and the US Grand Prix Formula 1 race. "A lot of times, that coincides with a race facility being built near that major city." Patricia Baker, president of the Southwick, MA-based Big Picture Agency, adds, "Many papers are catching on, especially in areas where there's a track, because it's good for business. But we still run up against a lot of resistance in the Northeast. And it's not because of the racing fans; it's because the writers and some of the editors have not caught up with the racing public." The influence of sponsors But the sheer level of sponsorship involved in motor sports often presents reporters with a bit of a dilemma. A NASCAR racing team can get upwards of $15 million from sponsors for a race and, consequently, drivers are taught to work the sponsor's brand into every interview and appearance. "If you provide a reporter with a quote from a driver about a race, the quote will say that whatever sponsor car had some trouble in turn one, or, 'We made an adjustment on the Dodge,'" says Tracey Zeeck, senior PR strategist with Boulder, CO-based GroundFloor Media. "Every quote that a PR person submits for his or her driver is usually peppered with these sponsor mentions. I think that sometimes the journalists feel taken advantage of for this reason." Even as they're hard at work convincing the last of the holdout sports editors that a huge portion of their audience are racing fans, motor sports PR people are also aggressively expanding into men's lifestyle and other non-traditional outlets. "We don't do spray and pray, and blast out e-mails," explains Mooney. "We get very selective in our pitches and target places like FHM and Life magazine. One of things racing and racing public relations still have to battle is the lingering perception among some editors that drivers are not athletes. "There is still that mindset that sports figures have to run 40 yards in four seconds and have to display certain physical characteristics to be considered true athletes," says Mike Mooney, principal and director of business services for Cox Marketing Group. But Mooney says that ignores the fact that driving 500 miles in one day is a physical feat in itself. "They spend four hours in a very extreme environment where the temperatures in the cars can reach 120 degrees, and they're in a full driving uniform," he explains. But Mooney adds there are many more outlets now willing to do a motor-sports-themed story, and much of that can be credited to the drivers themselves. "You look at a driver like Dale Earnhardt Jr., who's taking the sport to the mainstream Gen X, Gen Y audience," he says. "Earnhardt Jr.'s been in Rolling Stone, he's done several interviews in Playboy, and he goes on talk shows." Seeing the race firsthand Giangola says that while some reporters may be able to ignore the hard statistics about auto racing in a press release, few can help but be swayed after attending a race in person. "We found that if you take reporters to the track, they get it," says Giangola. "We just had the Financial Times down to a race in Richmond, and you can literally see the process where the skepticism melts away and the reporter appreciates the size of the crowds. Most races are easily in the six figures in attendance, and some like Daytona or Talladega are over 200,000 - bigger than the Super Bowl, a World Series game, and an NBA Final game combined." It can be argued that much of this surge in motor sports is strictly due to NASCAR. But, Green insists, "All types of racing have benefited from the NASCAR phenomenon. Its popularity has skyrocketed in the 1990s, and raised the level of awareness for other motor sports." Somewhat surprisingly, one group that occasionally can be resistant to motor-sports stories is the traditional auto reporter. "To do a review of a mini-van on one day and a story on NASCAR the next can be a bit of a stretch," says Mooney. "So we'll go to Auto Week and Popular Mechanics, but there we're pitching more the technology of the sport. We're currently working with Popular Mechanics on the engineering behind funny cars, which can go 200mph." As for whether the rise of auto racing is a short-term trend that may quickly fade, Len Batycki, SVP at Ogilvy PR Worldwide and head of Ogilvy motor sports, says, "I have watched it - since the mid-1980s -continue to grow at a good, steady rate. So this is not an unforeseen anomaly. This is something that has been building." Batycki served in a variety of motor-sports-related positions before joining Ogilvy, including VP at Richard Childress Racing, home to the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. He notes that the biggest trend in media coverage is not just the increase in the amount of space devoted to motor sports, but the rise in quality of that reporting as well. "The sport is drawing the media in, whether it's because of the advertisers wanting to participate, the readers wanting them to participate, or just their own curiosity," Batycki says. "And the media is doing a good job. They're just like the fans, where they get their first taste and then a little bit more, and a little bit more, and it's just neat to watch it grow across the country." ----- Where to go Newspapers USA Today; The Charlotte Observer; Atlanta Journal-Constitution; Richmond Times-Dispatch; LA Times; Las Vegas Review-Journal; The Arizona Republic; Birmingham Post-Herald; The Indianapolis Star; Chicago Tribune; Chicago Sun-Times; The Raleigh News & Observer Magazines Sports Illustrated; The Sporting News; Road & Track; Popular Mechanics; Automobile; Motor Trend; Speedway Illustrated; FHM; NASCAR Weekly Cup Scene; National Speed and Sport News; Grassroots Motor Sports TV & Radio NBC Sports; Fox Sports Net; TNT; ESPN; CNN; CNNfn; CNBC; FX; Auto Sport Radio; The Big Show - John Boy and Billy Online (radio); Fast Talk with Benny Parsons; Focus on Racing Radio; Frontstretch Radio; The LTN Hour NASCAR Radio Show; MRN Radio; NASCAR Radio - XM Satellite Radio; Performance Racing Network (PRN); The Pit Reporters; The Racing Show; Race Talk Live; SpeedFreaks Internet NASCAR.com; ESPN.com; Jayski.com; Thatsracin.com

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