NEIL RANDON discusses BriSCA’s relationship with the media and why it needs to become more proactive if the sport is to thrive.
Below is the piece I wrote for the King’s Lynn programme on Saturday – it saves me repeating what I want to say as an introduction:
TIME flies by. This time last week the World Championship Final was held at Odsal Stadium for the first time since 1997. No one in their right mind would have said after the last World Final, held here at King’s Lynn in 2019 and won by Tom Harris, that the next one would be run at Bradford!
But Bradford it was, and for the most part it was a great success. The main event was an excellent race, and the rest of the card was good, too. And, of course, there was the tear-jerker moment of the night when John Lund came out on track for the parade prior to the World Final (after a pantomime moment when the crowd were supposed to be fooled into thinking he had car trouble and wouldn’t be in the race after all) and he paraded around the track standing on the back of his 1997 World Final-winning car.
The reception he received was wonderful to witness.
Unbelievably, John made his debut at Rochdale in 1976, when Harold Wilson had only just stood down as Prime Minister. Most of his competitors in this year’s World Final hadn’t even been born then.
And in the race itself he did remarkably well. He was into the top 10 after halfway, on the pace and would have finished higher but for an engine issue, which forced him to pull off.
But the race for gold was only really about two men, Tom Harris and Lee Fairhurst. Both at the top of their game, driving absolutely on the limit. Nothing was left out on track. Tom came out on top, but he could not afford to make any mistakes because Lee would have immediately pounced.
There was just one moment, when the world champion went to pass Frankie Jnr Jr in turn four and got out of shape for a split second, that Lee was given half a chance. He was up alongside Tom as they exited turn four but the leader floored it down the straight and managed to maintain a safe enough gap right the way to the chequered flag.
So Tom Harris successfully defended his world crown and was a deserving winner. To see him beaming from ear to ear afterwards showed how much it meant to win this race. Out of the three he has now won, this was probably the best performance.
As the undisputed No.1, Tom is proving his salt as the sport’s leading driver representative to gather publicity for BriSCA F1. He also represents the sport and Britain with his exploits in the States in the World of Outlaws and Midget car racing. He is more well-known among American motorsports media than he is over here.
And that’s significant, because BriSCA F1 needs the publicity. Why? Because while the crowd at Odsal was reasonable considering the Dutch fans were not there, the stadium wasn’t exactly bursting at the seams. The grandstand was only two-thirds full.
Plenty of fans on social media appeared satisfied with the turnout and will think my comment is a bit harsh, but as I mentioned in a Facebook post before the meeting, the sport should always think big, otherwise it means settling for second-best and over time expectations are lowered, and the sport lessens as a result.
So what do I mean when I say think big? I am going to discuss this on my FactorUK.com blog in the coming days but to start with, BriSCA should engage more with the media.
Media coverage is free publicity, so why not use it? This has always baffled me. Some will say it does get media publicity, via Premier Sports coverage on TV, local papers, and very occasionally through me in the national newspapers.
But this is the thing. I do my bit, when I can, to put BriSCA F1 on the national newspaper map. I can do this because I am currently employed by a national newspaper group and work daily with the group’s sport editorial team.
They give me a fair crack at the whip and I always appreciate it when I’m given space to write something on a minority sport that is utterly insignificant compared to the behemoths such as the Premier League, F1, Test cricket, tennis, golf, etc.
But it only happens because I make the effort and because I want to. I don’t have to do it. But BriSCA really do have to.
The problem here is there is no cohesion within BriSCA when it comes to the media. There should be a BriSCA press office, where news is sent out to all the relevant media, national and local newspapers and their online equivalent, national and local radio and TV networks. For big events there should be press accreditation, and a media facility for press to write reports, interview drivers and send photos.
Have that and it is possible the World Final could feature in the Sunday papers the next day. If something dramatic happened and a photographer captured the moment, it could be sent immediately to the national sports desks.
It can’t be THAT hard to arrange, surely?
Even though I work for the national press, I have never been sent one sentence from anyone on the weekend’s racing. Not a word. It will be said that I know what is going on anyway, but that really isn’t the point. As a matter of course, every media outlet should be sent info, news, features and reports.
John Lund’s World Final story is a remarkable one, but hardly anyone outside of the BriSCA F1 bubble knows about it.
That has to change – and soon.
PROACTIVE MEDIA PUBLICITY CAMPAIGN
Let’s get one thing absolutely clear. The return of Bradford as a stock car venue was a masterstroke by Steve Rees. The sport should be forever grateful he had the determination and will-power to pull off what most thought, including me, was an impossibility.
That Steve was able to host a World Final at Odsal this year was extraordinary.
The 2021 World Final was yet another example of a wonderful opportunity missed to put the sport on the map.
BriSCA F1 is motorsport’s best-kept secret – that’s what you often hear people say like it’s some kind of badge of honour. The fact is BrISCA F1 IS motorsport’s best-kept secret – and there is one very simple reason for that.
We don’t tell anyone.
We’ve been down this route so many times, it’s becoming quite tedious.
I have been a fan for more than 50 years, employed all my working life within the sport media (40 years) and been to numerous motorsport events during that time as a member of the press. Within stock car circles, I have been intimately involved for 25 years and I’ve also worked on the other side of the fence as a press officer (for the ASCAR/Days of Thunder series).
Currently, I am assistant racing editor for Reach PLC’s daily national newspaper titles: the Daily Mirror, Daily Express and Daily Star.
So I’ve witnessed up close how some of the decision-making is made and have had plenty of off-the-record conversations with promoters, drivers and others about the good, the bad and the ugly surrounding BriSCA F1. These conversations have droned on for two decades or more. Nothing has really changed.
I had the same conversation at Bradford on Saturday. A couple of people I spoke with, who are well-known and respected within stock car circles, were incandescent at the lack of initiative and how the sport appears to be lumbering along as it always has, without much incentive to change or improve.
It’s curious, because if you read fans posts on social media, there’s a sense of excitement surrounding the sport, and very few seem to feel that anything needs to change. If you are a passionate fan, you always tend to see the glass as half full.
My King’s Lynn programme column focused on how the sport fails to embrace the media – whether that is through ignorance or apathy, it’s hard to know for sure, but it is a major concern.
And we have to be honest and accept the sport’s fanbase is shrinking. The only time it went up was after Gears and Tears was aired on BBC in 2010, but again the sport floundered around not really knowing how to make the most of this phenomenal publicity, the like of which it will never see again.
We don’t lack for drivers and cars – in that regard the sport is in a healthy condition and they put on an excellent show – but we do lack fans. The pandemic obviously has had an effect during the last 18 months, just when the sport looked to be back on track, but a plan should be in place now to rebuild the fan base.
Bradford has seen a number of people return to watch stock car racing. It is a magnificent venue for the sport. Along with Ipswich it has the potential to cater for the needs of fans, sponsors and the media. For big events King’s Lynn also has that capability and the developments made by Rob Speak at Skegness Stadium is bringing that stadium up to the standard required.
SHRINKING FAN BASE
Many will completely refute this next claim, but going on the estimate there were around 6,000 spectators at the World Final – reasonable considering there were no Dutch fans present, but not exactly earth-shattering by any means – crowd numbers at the regular “domestic” meetings must be in the region of 500, if that.
Bigger meetings, like the British Championship, may host around 2,000 on a very, very good day. So, being generous, we have a core fanbase of around 1,000-1,500 fans.
Let’s put these figures into perspective. My local football team, Merstham FC, representing a Surrey village north of Redhill with a population of 8,123 (2011 census) are in the Isthmian Premier League.
In 2016 they got to the first round of the FA Cup, when they played Oxford United at home and they attracted plenty of media attention as a result. The team had a full-page feature in the Daily Telegraph, and the game was shown live of Sky Sports. The Moatsiders crammed 1,920 into their little ground, when normally they would get around 200.
Many fans travelled from Oxford, but plenty also came from the local area. Many of those wouldn’t normally have gone to a football match, let alone watch a team as lowly as Merstham FC. But media publicity, national and local, captured the Merstham community’s imagination and the match was a sell-out.
One of the people I spoke with suggested that the number of spectators at Odsal on World Final night should be what we are aiming for on a regular basis during the season.
Coaxing ardent fans to travel to stock car venues is hard enough, but without publicity and awareness, no one will go. The fanbase won’t come to BriSCA, BriSCA has to go to it.
My book Heavy Metal focuses on the sport during the 1960s through to the early 1980s, when stock cars at venues such as Nelson, Rochdale and Hyde Road, Belle Vue were thrilling the crowds – and it was the local community who helped to support it. Admittedly, a number of our stadiums are located in rural areas, but these days very few people within a ten-mile radius of the stadiums are aware that a dramatic motorsport, BriSCA F1 stock car racing, is happening on their doorstep.
Looking at some of the successes for a moment, the BSCDA have done an excellent job with their Off Track interviews, hosted by Jonathan Abbott, as well as some amazing action footage produced by JC Productions. Jordan Cooper is very creative and the results are professional and compelling to watch.
The Off Track World Final programme was fabulous. Some brilliant interviews, hosted by Jonathan, who is developing into an impressive anchor for these programmes, plus more dramatic action footage via JC Productions. The wives/partners of drivers were also interviewed, and these were possibly the best feature of the whole programme – a really interesting angle. It was something different.
However, no matter how good this was, and it was very good, outside of the online stock car social media bubble, no one knows anything about it.
Such a lot of time and effort much have been invested in this, but who actually benefits? OK, so nearly 7,000 people with an interest in stock car racing have watch it, but that is but a drop in the ocean compared to the number who could have viewed the event, say on a live stream.
A pay-for-view live stream, via 24/7TV for example, would have meant the huge Dutch following would have been able to watch the World Final, as well as our New Zealand fans, and others from Australia, the United States and across the world. Anything to give the sport media coverage has to be a bonus. And if money can be made from it to benefit the sport, then even better.
Gathering extensive media coverage doesn’t happen overnight obviously, but there are plenty of ways to achieve it, whether it’s via TV, radio or print journalism.
Before any of that can happen, however, there has to be – as I mentioned above – a press office. It is a fundamental requirement, with either a full-time employee or a number of freelancers on a rota system, who can send press releases each week to all the media outlets to inform them of upcoming events – reports from the previous weekend, plus points charts, interviews and photos – you know the sort of thing.
It needs to be as organised and as relentless as Megan Markle’s PR team, and while not everyone will bite, some will.
Next up, the brilliant JC Production footage. Same thing, these films should be sent to all the media outlets, notably online newspapers and magazines, TV networks. Just short promo packages, that include any major incidents, with a story attached.
Newspapers love this sort of stuff – not endless footage of cars going round and round, but anything short and sweet that grabs the attention and is likely to produce clicks on their websites. Joe Booth’s dramatic crash at Odsal is one incident that springs to mind.
Over time, some media outlets, particularly local ones, will publish footage and stories, and will promote them on social media. People who click on the website or read the paper will see it and some may actually then be curious enough to visit their local stadium. The more media coverage the sport gets, the more likely sponsors will come on board – especially if their brand is mentioned regularly in print or seen via the on-board camera footage.
What follows is my vision – something that should have happened 20 years ago or more.
WORLD FINAL PRESS DAY
The World Final is the shop window for the sport. During an official countdown to the event, the stadium would host a press day, where the media are invited, and the leading contenders would be present with their cars. A press conference would be held in a conference room, with the cars out on the track.
As an introduction a film showing a brief history of the sport and brief highlights from the best World Finals would be shown. This would be followed by a round-up of the current season’s World Championship and how the contenders qualified for the big event.
After that, a brief presentation would be made either by a BriSCA or BSCDA representative explaining who each of the drivers are present. Then the media would be positioned out on the terracing and the drivers would give a demonstration run, not dissimilar to the Autosport Live Action Arena at the Autosport Show. After that the drivers would come in for a Q&A session. There would follow a buffet so press and drivers, in a relaxed environment, can interact, and the press/film crews could then go and have a closer look at the cars in the pit area for any further interviews – and that would be that.
For the actual World Final itself, there would be a room allocated as a press centre, with a BriSCA or BSCDA representative working there to help invited media with any questions and requests. The centre would overlook the track so the journalists can follow the event. After the race a press conference hosted by BriSCA/BSCDA would be held with the top-three finishers, followed by a Q&A with the visiting press. Reports can be written and sent that night, as well as photographs.
Of course, to coax the media to a track takes effort and not many will turn up at first. But over time as the BriSCA/BSCDA press office gathers momentum and more experienced at working with the press, it would become second nature. Relationships with journalists would develop – in much the same way they have with me over the last 20-odd years – and coverage would become more complete.
But, there is still work to be done on the actual product.
And one area that needs addressing is the World Championship itself.
© Neil Randon 2021
Photos: Neil Randon