Gossage Takes Promotions To New Heights

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, June 12 2009
Shaquille O'Neill don't need no stinkin jack to change tires on an Indy car. (RacinToday photo by Owen Richards)

Shaquille O'Neal don't need no stinkin' air jack to change tires on an Indy car. (RacinToday photo by Owen Richards)

By John Sturbin/Senior Writer

Fort Worth, Texas – In the colorful history of pre-event promotions at Texas Motor Speedway, only Robosaurus has cast a larger shadow over O. Bruton Smith’s palace of speed than Shaquille O’Neal.

Shaq, the gentle giant who plays center for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, made his first visit to an American racetrack last Saturday night, serving as grand marshal for the IndyCar Series Bombardier Learjet 550k.

Can…you…dig… it?

At 37, Shaq is entering the final year of a Suns contract that will pay him a very cool $20 million…a figure that likely has IndyCar free-agent and superstar Danica Patrick speechless. Not so The Big Aristotle.

“I’m getting up there, but I have three or four years left,” Shaq said during an informal and wide-ranging news conference hosted by TMS president Eddie Gossage. “I just want to be a consistent person. You know, time is almost up for me but I had fun doing it.

“And when I’m done,” Shaq said, mischievously smiling at Gossage, “I’ll just come over here and take your job.”

Has anyone ever told Shaq what he can’t do?

Maybe only Robosaurus. You remember Robo. A 40-foot-tall member of the Transformer Dinosaurus family, Robo entertained before the annual IndyCar June night race a couple of seasons ago by munching on an assortment of foreign and domestic junk cars. Great theater, lousy quote. Seems every time Robo opened its mouth, a stream of fire shot out, the better to sautee the Pontiac Sunbird or Kia Rio he was about to devour.

Similarly, the dysfunctional Teutel family of American Chopper cable TV fame – Paul Sr., Paul Jr. and Mikey – served as grand marshals on another June evening, leading a parade of motorcycles that circled the 1.5-mile quadoval from start to finish line. As impressive as that visual was, the Teutels were so caught up in their own Teutelness – or maybe they were just hungry? – that they declined to be interviewed by the ink-stained wretches of the local media.

In contrast, motorcycle daredevil Robbie Knievel – son of Evel – was the pre-race entertainment on two separate occasions, and basically, filled every notebook, tape recorder and TV videocam this side of the Red River. Robbie’s successful jump over 21 Hummers in June 2008 during the “Kaptain Robbie Knievel Great American Hummer Jump” generally was voted aesthetically superior to his gig in 2001, when he cleared the entire 24-car starting field for the IndyCar Casino Magic 500k.

And certainly not to be overlooked was The Aaron’s Dream Team – first all-female pit crew to perform during a NASCAR event. The women worked on the No. 49 Team Texas Chevrolet driven by Shawna Robinson to an 18th-place finish during the Camping World Truck Series O’Reilly 400k in June 2003…and promptly disappeared.

All of those spine-tingling extravaganzas brought a short-track, Saturday night feel to TMS, much to the delight of Gossage in his role as promoter extraordinaire.

That brings us to Shaqtastic, whose interest in IndyCar developed out of a recent partnership with Luczo Dragon Racing, with whom he has joined to raise money and awareness for charity throughout the season.

“The past couple of years they’ve raised over $ 1 million and handed it out to certain charities,” said O’Neal, who has anchored four NBA championship clubs. “(Team co-owner) Jay Penske and his family have done a lot of charitable work. I’ve done a lot of charitable work, so I thought it was an excellent partnership. I urge people to help and give, especially in these tough times.”

The list of prominent athletes partnering with Luczo Dragon includes Wayne Gretzky, Joe Montana, John Elway, Marcus Allen and Serena and Venus Williams. Shaq said his desire to give back was ingrained by his parents, stepfather Phillip A. Harrison – an Army sergeant – and mother Lucille.

“I always tell people I had the Karate Kid upbringing,” said O’Neal, voted the NBA’s Most Valuable Player in 2000. “Born and raised in the projects of northern New Jersey. Left there, moved to a small town in Georgia. Then to Germany, then to Texas (and high school in San Antonio) and Louisiana. So basically, I think it helped me understand the people, and how  everything I do or I’ve been involved with has been real to me, especially when it comes to charity work.

“My father had me doing charity work at age 7, taking old Army blankets and old Army food and passing it out to the people who didn’t have food for Christmas. So this is just stuff I’ve been doing for a long time. It’s an honor and privilege to be involved with Luczo Dragon Racing. That’s why I’m here…the charitable aspect, as well as have a good time and watch these fabulous athletes do their thing.”

In addition to bellowing the command to start engines, Shaq participated in a simulated pit stop on the No. 2 U.S. Air Force Luczo Dragon Racing Dallara/Honda driven by rookie Rafael Matos. At one point, Shaq raised a right front tire and wheel over his head as if it was a stuffed animal, creating the perfect photo op. He later rode shotgun alongside three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Fort Worth resident Johnny Rutherford, driver of the Honda Accord Safety Car, as it paced the field to its flying start.

“I guess I didn’t know what I was in for,” said Shaq, beads of perspiration sliding down his bald head and cheeks after laboring to mount the front tire. With that, Shaq – who checks in at 7-foot-1 and 325 pounds – confirmed his brief encounter with the open-wheel world was enough to reinforce the notion that these drivers truly are athletes.

“You have to be in great shape, sit there in a little car with no AC and I’m told by Rafa you can’t even listen to music,” said Shaq, a 15-time NBA All-Star. “You’ve got to listen to the guy on the headphone. When it comes to being an athlete, it’s nice to have the physical part. But being an athlete is more mental than anything. It’s not easy driving 228 laps (the race distance at TMS) and trying to be safe and doing this and doing that. From that point of view, I consider them phenomenal athletes.”

Shaq, of course, remains forever linked to former Los Angeles Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant, whose peaceful co-existence has run hot-and-cold since O’Neal exited the Showtime Lakers for the Miami Heat, and more recently, the aging Suns.

Asked to pick a winner from the current NBA Finals between the Lakers and Orlando Magic – recall that Shaq was drafted No. 1 overall by the Magic in 1992 – O’Neal said he’s been taking it all in merely as a fan. “I’m not really rooting for anybody,” said Shaq, adding he’s not rooting against Bryant either.

“I finally gave out one of my secrets a long time ago,” Shaq said. “Basically, what I told everybody was it was all marketing. You look at all athletes, the main thing we try to do is win. And because of all the hoopla around myself and Kobe, I think people forget we won three out of four (titles). I think that’s 75 percent, if I’m correct. I think if I had it to do all over again, I’d probably do the same thing. Everything was done by design, whether it came from Phil (Jackson) or it came from myself. A lot of it was he’d (Bryant) say stuff, I’d say stuff. When you think about Hollywood, it’s lights, camera, action and drama. And that’s what we gave you guys. We were the best 1-2 punch ever created in the history of the game.

“This is his time…so I just wanted to say hey, I want the young man to get his fourth ring. There’s two teams out there playing and Orlando has a fabulous player in Dwight Howard, and may the best team win. But it was all done by design to get the best out of him (Bryant) and the best out of me, and it worked. Something I learned at LSU in marketing class.”

As for marketing his own bad self, The Big Cactus acknowledged that while he has one year remaining on his contract with the Suns, chatter about a trade to another contender – maybe to Mark Cuban’s Dallas Mavericks – always remains an intriguing offseason talking point.

“I really can’t answer that (question) because I don’t want it taken out of context,” Shaq said. ”I’ve been a professional my whole career and also understand the business. Whoever is in charge is going to do what’s best for their corporation. That’s something I understand and something I never really take personal. I’d like to be somewhere where I’m wanted, I’d like to be somewhere where we have a chance to win. I have no say-so in that. But both parties are going to do what’s best for both sides.”

Meanwhile, unlike NFL star and neophyte NASCAR team-owner Randy Moss, Shaq said he has no interest in owning a racing team, much as he respects the sport and the particular gender and national diversity displayed by IndyCar.

“I think it’s a beautiful thing,” Shaq said. “Cultures uniting here at this event for one great cause. I’ve seen all those female drivers. Gorgeous. Hot. So be looking to get one of those calendars…not for me but one of my friends’ office. You know, it’s just fun to be out here, and having a different mixture of people and different mixture of cultures only enhances the sport.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, June 12 2009