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Minter: Winner’s Circle Sells More Than Hot Dogs

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 3 2010
Kurt Busch makes a big sale at an Atlanta restaurant. What he sold was attention for NASCAR. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

Kurt Busch makes a big sale at an Atlanta restaurant. What he sold was attention for NASCAR. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer

In a time when quality access to Sprint Cup drivers continues to dwindle, one of the few remaining options for reporters has come under criticism from none other that the defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson said last week at Las Vegas last week that he doesn’t believe NASCAR’s Winner’s Circle program is working.   
For most reporters on the print and Internet side, the Winner’s Circle is one of the last remaining chances to get a decent interview with a top Cup driver.

The Winner’s Circle program is designed to take recent Sprint Cup race winners to markets where races are upcoming, so they can help the track promote the event. Tracks pay large sums for the rights to the drivers, although there’s always been much speculation about how the teams and the drivers divvy up the money.

But Johnson indicated he’s not happy with the program.

“I’m not sure that the whole Winner’s Circle program is working as it needs to,” Johnson said. “There are some tracks that are a pleasure to work with and other tracks that are not.”

In fairness, there have also been complaints from track operators about a lack of cooperation and enthusiasm on the part of some of the drivers they’re paying as part of the Winner’s Circle program.

Johnson’s comments reflected the fact that he didn’t like some of the promotion ideas cooked up by the various tracks.

“If somebody can show me how a paint ball fight is going to sell tickets and fill the grandstands, I’ll gladly be a part of that paint ball fight,” he said. “I don’t believe that’s the case though. Do hot dogs really sell tickets? There are a lot of questions out there that don’t made sense in a lot of ways.”

Johnson may not realize it, but hot dogs do sell tickets, at least in Atlanta. Kurt Busch was the most recent Winner’s Circle driver and part of his trip had him working behind the counter at the Varsity, Atlanta’s landmark hot dog eatery.

His appearance at the Varsity landed him – and NASCAR and Atlanta Motor Speedway – on every local TV broadcast that night as well as mention in lots of other media. It’s highly doubtful that something less creative would have gotten NASCAR and AMS and Busch that much air time.

His trip to Atlanta also offered local reporters a rare chance to get more time with a top driver than the 10- to 15-minute media sessions at the track each week will ever offer. It seems that more and more these days, the only access print and Internet media members get to the stars are the brief session in the media center each week and a mid-week teleconference, both of which are usually transcribed and widely distributed.

In todays’ NASCAR world, it’s unreasonable for a reporter to expect to get more than one question per session. And quality one-on-one or even small group media gathering with a driver – the scenarios that lead to in-depth stories and even shorter ones about something other than what’s on the transcript – have become increasingly hard to set up.

On the other hand, Johnson believes drivers and others in the garage are doing all they should to promote races.

“You look at everything that goes on in this fenced-off area, and we’re tapped out in there,” he said. “What happens over here in filling those stands, that responsibility needs to go back on the tracks and the promoters and they need to understand what it takes to sell tickets and put people in the stands.”

It probably is true that drivers are tapped out. But it’s not from time spent with reporters.

Even though the number of reporters on the beat continues to shrink, and as professionals are replaced by amateur “citizen journalists,” drivers like Johnson need to remember that one of the main things separating NASCAR from other forms of motorsports like Monster Trucks and such is that the print types still follow NASCAR.

But if the access to drivers continues to dwindle, how much longer will they continue to show up? And why should they if every question and answer is on a transcript?

– Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 3 2010
One Comment

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  • John says:

    Rick: Nice piece on a NASCAR promotion I think truly works. Sounds like Jimmie’s most recent Winner’s Circle experience was a downer. Did he really get paint-balled somewhere? His last such appearance in the Dallas-Fort Worth market on behalf of Texas Motor Speedway took him to the skating rink, where he got a hockey lesson from Mike Modano of the Dallas Stars. (For the record, Jimmie skates like, and has a slap shot, comparable to a little girl). But other recent examples of programs put on by Mike Zizzo, vice president of media relations at TMS, have seen Elliott Sadler shoot skeet; Jeff Gordon slide into an F-16 before “flying” a jet simulator at Lockheed-Martin, and Matt Kenseth fly a pilot’s simulator capsule over at American Airlines headquarters. Drivers usually leave North Texas smiling after a unique experience, while the assorted media have plenty of fresh _ albeit hardly exclusive _ material.