News & Media

Caraviello: This media tour brought 'talk' to a new level

January 28, 2012, David Caraviello,

CONCORD, N.C. -- From mock talk shows to stand-up comedy, this year's event anything but routine

Heeeeeeeeeeeerrrrrreeee's Elliott!

And indeed there Elliott Sadler was, wearing a suit, settling behind a desk featuring a microphone, a stack of familiar blue note cards and a coffee mug full of pencils, and preparing to host one of the more unusual presentations in the 30-year history of NASCAR's preseason media tour. Theme music blared and colored lights flashed as an announcer welcomed everyone to the "Early Evening Show with Elliott Sadler." Forget the standard media availability -- the Nationwide Series had turned its session into a talk show, complete with a couch and a sidekick and even something approaching a comedy act. The only thing missing was Doc Severinsen on trumpet.

Even for the endearingly offbeat media tour, which Charlotte Motor Speedway has hosted since 1983, and features bus rides to sometimes far-flung racing outposts (and once even included Bruton Smith herding everyone onto a plane to Texas), it would have been a stark departure from type -- if Michael Waltrip Racing hadn't attempted a decidedly more lo-fi version of the exact same thing one night earlier. For almost three decades, the media tour has been a parade to race shops and hotel ballrooms. Then on back-to-back nights, we get Leno and Letterman. And honestly, the low-slung chairs Brian France and Mike Helton sat in during the NASCAR presentation resembled something out of the old Dick Cavett or Tom Snyder programs.

So yes, suffice to say that this year's preseason media tour brought the idea of talk to a whole new level, a concept that while entertaining also cut the assembled journalists -- who are there to gather information, after all -- out of the discussion. Predictably, some scribes grumbled into their salmon with capers (and again into their carrot cake, and even later into their Heinekens). But it's difficult not to award a little credit for originality to Nationwide, and give a Johnny Carson golf-swing-salute to Sadler, who so aptly channeled David Letterman that he even remembered to fling his pencils and note cards at the crowd.

The result was a sometimes odd mixture of the strange and familiar, like Nationwide Series director Joe Balash settling in as the first guest on Sadler's couch. "So, any rules changes in the last few days we need to know about?" Sadler asked. Not especially, but Balash did bring a clip of his new film. Travis Pastrana -- whose broken foot in a motorcycle stunt last year delayed his Nationwide debut until 2012 -- came out and attempted what appeared to be a stand-up act, which seemed bound for its own crash landing until he called a writer up on stage and urged him to eat a raw egg. Food comedy? Gallagher would have been proud.

Four Nationwide rookies -- Austin Dillon, Brad Sweet, Cole Whitt and Johanna Long -- came out and crowded onto Sadler's couch together, and agreed that Dillon would most likely be the first among them to get called into Balash's office. And of course there was a top-10 list, this one focusing on reasons to cover all Nationwide Series races. Timmy Hill brought down the house with No. 4: "Kentucky: Easy in, easy out." In truth, the whole elaborate production was a simple plea for coverage from a series that often struggles to peek out from underneath the enormous shadow cast by the Sprint Cup tour. For one night, at least, it succeeded.

If you're going to try something unusual, though, media tour is often the time to do it. Where else would you find reporters trudging through a furniture store, past sofas and loveseats and dinette sets, and eating lunch at dining room tables that still have price tags hanging off the side? That was the case during the tour stop at Furniture Row Racing, whose shop is out in Denver, and hosted the media gathering at its Charlotte-area store instead. (Side note: The you-break-it, you-buy-it rule is particularly enforced when journalists are around.) There was a tailgating setup complete with cornhole at a Charlotte Motor Speedway event, and heavy construction equipment and orange cones -- get it? -- at a Kentucky Speedway presentation touting progress on traffic issues.

"Pastrana came out and attempted what appeared to be a stand-up act, which seemed bound for its own crash landing until he called a writer up on stage and urged him to eat a raw egg. Food comedy? Gallagher would have been proud."


Roush Fenway hosted a media lunch celebrating its 25th anniversary, and adorned each table with trophies won over that span, or one of co-owner Jack Roush's signature straw hats. Richard Childress Racing hosted a media dinner -- hey, journalism makes a guy hungry, all right? -- in out-of-the-way Welcome, N.C., and you can guess what the renowned big-game hunter Childress served. That's right, sushi. (Side note: It was excellent, but not as good as the rare tuna.) Of course, everybody forgot about the food when Kevin Harvick announced that his wife, DeLana, was 14 weeks pregnant. That plan to close Kevin Harvick Inc. "makes a lot more sense now, doesn't it?" the driver said. Congratulations, DeLana. But no sushi for you!

Oh, the quips came fast and furious, appropriate at a time of year when everyone is optimistic and the cold reality of race track performance has yet to intervene. "We may not have any baby news or girls in heels up here, but we do have some racing news," said Brad Keselowski, referring to the Harvicks, Danica Patrick, and gains he said have been made by his Penske Racing team. New teammate A.J. Allmendinger was happy to be in the fold. "I finally realized I was a Penske driver this morning when I put on my white Hugo Boss shirt," he said. "I looked in the mirror and thought, now it's real." The toughest part of Darian Grubb's transition to Joe Gibbs Racing? "Getting my 3-year-old son to say Denny Hamlin is his favorite driver," the crew chief said. Added Gibbs: "We're coachin' him up."

And then there were the sponsor announcements, a staple of media tours past, but which have been in short supply in recent years during the downturn in the economy. Stewart-Haas, Earnhardt Ganassi and Penske all added new deals, Gibbs said three of his main sponsors had re-upped, MillerCoors renewed its partnerships with Penske and NASCAR, and Walmart jumped in to back a Daytona 500 entry driven by Bill Elliott and fielded by Turner Motorsports. While that doesn't mean NASCAR's sponsorship drought is over -- there are still many cars out there that need something on the hood -- an uptick in activity can only be seen as positive.

"The interest level in the sport has always been there," said EGR president Steve Lauletta. "A lot of these conversations have been going on. The time it takes is longer ... and I think the economics of what goes into these packages have certainly changed. But there's still a tremendous platform there that businesses are interested in. Do we have to do things differently than we did in the past, when CMOs were knocking on the door going, 'How much can I give you?' Of course we do. We have to work harder, work smarter, be more innovative. ... It's different, but the interest level and the desire to get in is still really strong."

The sponsor announcements provided a few more doses of hope and optimism, two things the preseason media tour -- put on by Charlotte Motor Speedway in conjunction with Sprint and NASCAR -- is famous for. And this, year, talk shows. "I'd like to welcome our musical guest tonight, Steven Tyler!" Waltrip said grandly at his presentation. Everyone waited a beat until Waltrip said he was just kidding. Oh, well. There's always next year's program, when guests will be Robert Wagner and Ann-Margaret. Goodnight, everybody!

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.