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Harris: Tour Tests Truth, Patience

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, January 17 2010
One of the marquee events on the annual NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte is a Q and A with top NASCAR officials. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images )

One of the marquee events on the annual NASCAR Media Tour sponsored by Charlotte Motor Speedway is a Q and A with top NASCAR officials. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images )

Every year about this time, I start to get antsy.

I haven’t been to a race since November and I haven’t seen most of my racing friends and colleages since the Sprint Cup awards dinner in early December.

Worse, since most offseason testing has been banned since 2009, the hot stove league that kept the winter days warm in past years has lost most of its sizzle.

Two years ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s decision to leave the family team and head for Hendrick Motorsports kept everybody talking through the cold, snowy days of December and January. Last year, it was Tony Stewart getting his own team up and running.

This winter? Sure, there’s some talk about changes to the Car of Tomorrow, but the offseason hasn’t exactly been cooking with excitement.

That makes the coming week’s four-day NASCAR Media tour in Charlotte even more welcome than usual.

Starting Monday morning and going full speed ahead until late Thursday afternoon, about 200 journalists – print, electronic and photo – will gather together to try to get a handle on what’s going to be happening when the season opens at the Daytona 500 and beyond.

Of course, in the preseason it’s common for nearly every driver and every team to put on a good face and talk about all the races they are going to win and how each of them will be in the championship hunt. The challenge for all those journos is to see through the, ahem, camouflage and figure out the real story.

There are a couple of hardy souls who have been part of all the previous 27 media tours. Yours truly, who worked for The Associated Press until retiring from that noble institution last July, somehow managed to miss one early in the 80s, but has been around for all the rest.

When former track president and P.T. Barnum incarnation H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler got the Media Tour rolling in 1981, it  was fashioned after the preseason conference football tours where media members visited each team in the SEC, the ACC or the Big Ten, talking to the coaches, the ADs and a few select players.

In racing, it had never been done before and not everyone bought in. For one thing, NASCAR wasn’t anywhere near as big a national entity in 1981 as it is today. Everyone who came on that tour fit into one Greyhound-style bus. And a lot of the race shops we visited were far from the GarageMajals of today.

Among the places we visited that first year was the one-car garage of Dave Marcis in Skyland, N.C., which, as memory serves, still had a dirt floor and a pull-down garage door. Nowadays, NASCAR teams have bigger shelters for their excess sheet metal and old parts.

I fondly remember the way that some teams in the early days of the tour tried to outdo each other with their sponsorship presentations.

On one tour, as we walked into the team shop, we were greeted by a very loud stereo system belting out show tunes as confetti fell from the ceiling and Las Vegas-style showgirls did a dance routine near the front of the fabrication room.

Another year, a Cup team made a deal with a meat packer to alternate its many brands on their car during the season. This was announced to the media in an auditorium, where we were surrounded by salesmen and officials of the sponsor taking part in a choreographed, rah rah sales presentation extolling the virtues of pig products.

Now, the number of journalists taking part in the tour is limited to no more than three buses full. And we don’t even ride the buses that much any more, with many of the teams, drivers, crew chiefs, etc. coming to the tour headquarters hotel.

It still can get pretty dicey with that many media folks trying to interview Dale Jr. or Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart in a mob. But the Charlotte Motor Speedway folks, who still run the tour, do a good job of spreading it out, asking electronic media and print media to take turns.

That sometimes works.

Seriously, though, if you’re patient, you can usually get your interview or picture.

The four days can be exhausting, starting with an early working breakfast each day and ending with a late social hour (sometimes working) after sqeezing in writing and filing time between sessions. But it’s an event that can fill up several notebooks, take up a lot of megabytes on voice recorders or a whole lot of room on digital media.

Now, I’m going to cover my first media tour for RacinToday.com. I can hardly wait to get started.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, January 17 2010
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