Attention to Detail
Rea White, NASCAR Scene
Edwards is full of questions. Where should he look? Is this
the real setup? How different will things look when they are
in the actual Waldorf-Astoria grand ballroom for NASCAR’s
annual postseason awards ceremony?
At the moment,
it’s 11 a.m. on Tuesday, three days before the main event, and Edwards
is just trying to figure out a teleprompter. He’s the first to practice
his speech using the magic screen that guides drivers through their nerve-wracking,
four-minute speeches on national television. Edwards is practicing in the somewhat
less intimidating quarters of the Herbert Hoover suite.
start, he’s a professional. As public relations representatives from
NASCAR and his team look on, Edwards takes his simple notes and weaves poignant
tales of his first full season and the path that led him to this spotlight.
There’s just one problem: The speech is a couple minutes over. OK, says
Edwards, give me a minute. He checks his notes, makes minor changes, then goes
again. He clocks in this time at four minutes, two seconds.
officials, this practice is another crucial step toward putting on the best
possible show. From the outside, the annual NASCAR Champions Week in New York
City appears to run smoothly, seemingly without a hitch.
scenes, however, there is a continual dance of deadlines, speech drafts and
schedule changes that keep more than 40 NASCAR officials tied to cell phones
and hand-held computers 24 hours a day. There are countless meetings to plan
every detail, a backup plan dealing with rain and snow and numerous drafts
covering every aspect of every event. The officials must be ready at the last
second to accommodate late confirmations and cancellations from drivers, sponsors
facing those in charge of planning and executing the Sprint-Nextel-sponsored
Champions Week is formidable. For one week, NASCAR gets a platform to promote
itself, its drivers, its sponsors and its fans in the nation’s biggest
a perfect stage, for New York City in December is magical. Tourists roam the
city, lining up by the thousands for the lighting of the Christmas tree at
Rockefeller Center and staring in awe at the massive decorations and lighting
shows. Millions pour into town to shop, look and party. It’s truly a
most wonderful time of the year.
Champions Week takes place against that backdrop. The preparations for this
year’s Champions Week in New York began almost a year ago, when a group
of NASCAR marketing executives and employees met Jan. 9. Huddled together,
going over e-mails and evaluations, they dissected the 2004 awards banquet.
What went right? What went wrong? What could be done to improve for 2005?
time, NASCAR’s core group booked rooms and banquet halls in New York
City, tossed around entertainment ideas and video sketches and set in play
the multitude of concepts that turned into highlights for the 2005 postseason
after months of planning the big week is here. Life suddenly falls to the mercy
of others. Stress and heart-pumping close calls challenge the staff pulling
off the event. Traffic jams, airtime shifts, speech changes and even the potential
of a missed wake-up call loom, threatening this choreographed dance of champions.
Vice President Jim Hunter – the behind-the-scenes man who has done this
for all 25 years in New York, but who now merely labels himself a “consultant” in
all areas – and his group unflinchingly charge on. By the end of the
week, they’re exhausted and hungry. Room service has ferried pounds of
macaroni and cheese and sodas to the multitude of suites the company operates
in the Waldorf-Astoria. Starbucks coffee has been consumed by the gallon and
sleep deprivation is rampant.
3,000 room nights, more than 25 appearances and more than $1 million in expenditures
culminate with a week-ending report that should leave officials nothing short
of thrilled with the procedure.
celebrate? Not yet. When Dec. 3 dawned, with the banquet concluded and the
week’s activities finally completed, officials found themselves with
a day to play in New York and then take flights to the home office in Daytona
Beach or to Orlando to pull off the next weekend’s double-play Busch
and Craftsman Truck series banquets.
say in New York, the show must go on.
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
first held is postseason banquet in New York City 25 years ago, officials begged
the local media for coverage. Now, the sponsor flag is proudly unfurled in
front of the Waldorf. Requests for media credentials swell to new heights,
and NASCAR finds itself struggling to find a way to let everyone come along
for the ride.
It may sound
simple, this business of bringing the top-10 teams to town for a week celebrating
their accomplishments. It appears that networks would line up for these men,
that media would scrap whatever else is on their calendar for this once-a-year
glimpse at the sport’s top stars. After all, NASCAR claims
to be the No. 2 sport in professional sports viewership.
a tough sell.
past 25 years, the night of honors has grown into a week of activities. NASCAR
puts celebrating its drivers’ success first, but underneath all the hoopla
is a carefully calculated marketing plan aimed at drawing more fans to the
sport and titillating those already there.
TV appearances are key, but NASCAR enters a market with two NBA, two NFL and
two NHL teams already competing for local news time and space. Selling NASCAR,
a sport still somewhat new to these ranks, is no easy task. Pulling off five
days of ushering the champion around town is even more difficult.
don’t know how they got it done; they still had to seat all those people,” says
NASCAR Managing Director of Communications Ramsey Poston, comparing all those
years of changes. “But every year they did. The champion gets put through
a lot, but it comes with winning a championship.”
Posocco, NASCAR’s senior manager of special activities, and his group
knew they barely had time to pull off everything for NASCAR’s 25th visit
to Gotham City. He’s done this for several years, gaining experience
in not only how to run things smoothly but also in dealing with the litany
of things that could go wrong.
28, the group meets at one of the four suites NASCAR set up as offices in the
Waldorf. The sport’s headquarters in Daytona Beach must look deserted – NASCAR
shipped equipment, computers and supplies to New York and has set up a miniheadquarters
inside the hotel. Need a glue stick? NASCAR administrative assistant Nancy
Green’s got it. Need to get online? Computers line tables. One would
be hard-pressed to come up with an item that isn’t on hand.
George Silbermann, best known to fans as the man chairing the NASCAR Stock
Car Commission but now helping with logistics in New York, sit huddled in a
corner in what is essentially the foyer to the bathroom of the suite, sighing
over the latest draft of the seating chart for the banquet. It’s like
a high-powered chess game, finding seats for everyone and sitting people where
they want to be as often as possible. Sometimes, there are simply too many
wanting to be at the same place.
1,209 people attended, pressing the space available in the storied hotel’s
main ballroom. It’s a far cry from that first event in the hotel 25 years
ago when about 700 people rolled into town for the one-night show, and Hunter
wrote out the seating chart by hand on a notebook. Now a row of computers hum
as NASCAR banquet veteran Kari Fahey’s small but efficient group keeps
a running tally of changes.
handwritten debut was for one of only two times that the banquet has not been
in the Waldorf. The other was a somewhat disappointing attempt to hold the
event in an auditorium. One suspects there will be no more forays outside the
hotel’s grand ballroom.
draft, 1,259 people are signed up to come, though these men suspect the number
will dwindle over the following days. It actually will not. The word, “No,” doesn’t
surface much this week. Instead, tables expand, shrink and shift into spots
to make more room. The balcony will be practically overflowing. More than 15
drafts of the seating chart will roll across the table this week alone.
hours to showtime and things look good. Message boards hang with schematics
and draft No. 9 of the timeline for the event. NASCAR PR representative Herb
Branham sits sequestered in another suite, typing away speeches that will be
delivered through the week.
NASCAR Manager of Broadcast Communications Kate
Davis is focusing on the Victory Lap, arguably the marquee
event of the week’s
festivities, involving the closing of the New York streets,
for only the third time this year, for a stock car procession
be 11 p.m. before these people head to their own rooms. Most have yet to see
more of New York than the view afforded from the suite windows.
dawns with the daily slate of meetings beginning at 7:30 and ending, for Davis,
with more Blackberry messages from her personal room as midnight nears. Details
few would consider are discussed. The drivers’ trophies are currently
being stored, most not yet even assembled. That’ll happen Wednesday.
won’t even be available to work with for a couple more days, nor will
the host site of the luncheon featuring NASCAR’s annual “State
of the Sport” address and appearances of the top-10 drivers, so alternate
practice sites are set up.
is relaxed and confident. Considering every angle, he even has an elevator
service repairman on call in case there’s an elevator failure when the
seven trucks bearing setup gear for the banquet begin their scheduled unloading
at 11 p.m. Dec. 1, a mere 19 hours before the doors open for the main event.
700H, communications manager Denise Maloof and Green continually pore over
the seating chart for the press conference. Those who figure out the seating
for wedding receptions have nothing on this crowd. More than 400 people must
be placed at tables and grouped with drivers.
900, Branham is looking over speeches. NASCAR doesn’t mandate what drivers
say, but they do write a speech for everyone, just in case. For some drivers,
major portions of this will be used. For others, it’s sort of a guideline,
a formula of how to give a speech. Drivers can either accept what they have
or write their own. All NASCAR asks is that those be turned in so they can
be put on the teleprompter.
that rolling screen during the banquet will show quite a bit of straying from
the script, but one can only control so much.
especially true in a year with a retiring driver. Rusty Wallace can do whatever
he wants in his speech, something he’ll struggle with in the coming days.
just going to go over some bullet points,” Wallace says beforehand. “I
won’t be reading it. I’ll glance down at my points and people to
thank, then I’ll tell a story and tell another story. It’ll be
basically a series of thank-yous. I never have been much of a prompter guy.
Generally, you hear a guy who doesn’t know how to read a prompter. … It
would be totally impossible. … I could talk for many hours thanking
[people] and going on and on and on.”
DRIVING MISS DAVIS
and umbrellas. Who knew they meant so much?
suddenly narrow in on these seemingly minor but key details. At the Waldorf,
a narrow metal stairway constantly echoes with the clanging of heels on stairs
as NASCAR officials shift from floor to floor, trading reports in a constant
string of meetings.
the focus is the Victory Lap.
big. Cars line up in the Plaza area of Rockefeller Center, with the top four
in the main area. “The Today Show” carries live interviews, followed
by the start of the procession.
snow can stop this show. It drifted into the forecast a week earlier, so the
marketing crew adjusted. Ten Ford F-150 trucks were wrapped with giant decals
matching those on the cars. There might be several feet of snow in the street,
but these will plow through anything. When the forecast changes to rain, drivers
are hired to take those trucks around the city for 10 hours, more exposure
To be street
legal, the top-10 cars have been fitted with tires with a bit of tread. UPS
steps in and gives NASCAR parking for the transporters carrying the vehicles.
After all, where would one park 10 18-wheel trucks in New York City?
Other business partners contribute. NASCAR officials are clad
in Sprint-Nextel jackets with Champions Week logos. Levi Strauss
contributed yellow and black jackets for some appearances,
and Sprint-Nextel hands out cell phones, signs and T-shirts
to wave during the filming of the morning show.
At the Plaza, reporters will be positioned in some cars while
photographers try to find the perfect position to shoot the
route. The New York Police Department, the Sports Council,
the city and several other groups are involved.
Snow may no longer threaten, but a veritable monsoon is on
tap. What to do if it rains? Davis and her group settle the
seemingly minor details that determine whether the event runs
smoothly or disintegrates, developing a game plan for all possibilities.
It may sound silly, but dealing with the concept of drenched
drivers trying to give media interviews, of wet cameras trying
to capture them or of drivers appearing at a marketing forum
still clad in sweaty uniforms, could be the key to a good event
or a day turned bad.
dawns with Davis briskly heading to the Plaza at 6 a.m., scouting the location,
schmoozing with cameramen, security people and her network contacts. Her cell
phone rings constantly. She coordinates and oversees and calls her drivers
and PR people to make sure everyone is running on time. Each time she hangs
up her phone, more messages pop in. Fans at the site hassle her for free NASCAR
merchandise, a bus driver gets lost trying to find the correct street, and
last-minute changes crop up.
the fireman on the scene, constantly putting out ever-smoldering fires.
Stewart charms. As he enters the Plaza area, he’s greeted by a screaming
fan holding up a sign proposing marriage. Stewart laughs and jokes with her
during breaks, probably only heightening her desire to be closer to the star.
the star here. At ease in this element, he appears a natural idol.
drivers climb into the vehicles, which roar to life on the New York streets.
People lean against windows on upper floors, curious about the kind of noise
that’s totally unexpected amid the usual clamor of the nation’s
As the cars
roll into the street, the engines can be heard revving for several blocks,
and puffs of smoke lift into the air. Fans scream and cheer repeatedly as drivers
do burnouts. Jeremy Mayfield sends up a plume of smoke directly in front of
the Waldorf. Ryan Newman turns a full 360 at the corner of Madison and 43rd.
Onlookers go crazy. The police, however, don’t seem quite so amused.
like at our races, tempers flared and everything calmed down, and it was, I
don’t know if it was forgotten, but it wasn’t a huge issue,” Hunter
says, pointing out that Newman and the others always had control of their cars.
however, drivers will be instructed on what to do and not do in the parade
taxi driver – those guys are supposed to be the best in the world – but
I don’t know if those guys could [orchestrate] a perfect 360 and have
complete control of the cars,” Hunter later adds.
always a silver lining. A day later, Newman’s move draws more coverage
on the “Today Show” and crops up in local TV broadcasts. NASCAR
Chairman and CEO Brian France opens his annual address commenting on Newman’s
360, yeah,” Newman says of his turn. “I was watching Jimmie [Johnson].
He was getting pretty crazy doing some burnouts and stuff, and I just took
it to the next level.”
be boys, after all.
10 a.m. Thursday, and workers are racing frantically around Cipriani’s,
a New York restaurant that has been converted to the host site for the annual
luncheon press conference featuring France and the top 10 drivers, rookie of
the year and the 11th-place finisher.
run down the street carrying the scaffolding rails to hold up the banners in
the foyer. It seems that the original ones were the wrong size. It’s
less than an hour until the doors open to the more than 400 expected guests,
and Maloof is busy. She tours the site, checking out the floor plan and getting
things set up for the imminent arrival of the drivers, who are currently heading
over after finishing an appearance at the New York Stock Exchange a little
The clatter of scaffolding rolling through the area rings in the air as workers
move around, checking lighting and securing banners. Waiters storm the room
en masse, setting up the tables. Doors are scheduled to open at 11, but it’s
a little after 10 when the first guests begin to roll into the area.
sound crews and slide presenters practice and pore over scripts on teleprompters.
Both NASCAR and Nextel have people working slides for separate presentations.
Slide shows roll across the giant screens at the front of the room, offering
a constant view of the year’s highlights. After the series of speeches,
drivers and media members are shepherded into a side area for the interviews.
and tired, NASCAR officials know the end is in sight. One more day. Just 33
more hours and everything is over.
we’re not nervous,” says a surprisingly relaxed looking Posocco. “I
don’t really get nervous about it. You know what you’re in for,
so you just do it.”
And do it
at a new level.
it’s practically over. By the time Friday rolls around, things appear
to be clearly under control. A final seating chart for the banquet is set by
6 p.m. Thursday night, and the tickets are printed for pickup the following
morning. By midday Friday, there’s more ordering of room service and
calling of VIPs to make sure that everyone is still coming and to make sure
they know where they will be sitting.
touches like these that make Fahey and her group so popular – and that
make the massive banquet and series of events have such a personal feel. More
than 175 names will be called when Hunter recognizes VIPs and their wives during
the banquet process, more than four hours of speeches and thanks will be held.
mar the final event, and the staff is free to breathe. NASCAR gives everyone
Saturday in New York as a reward and then moves on. Within days they’ll
evaluate this event, and before drivers head to Daytona once more, the meetings
will begin again.
that final evaluation will be nothing but positive. The group put NASCAR in
The New York Times and on “The Today Show,” bought a featured section
in USA Today and earned rave write-ups about its champion in the likes of Newsday.
New York somewhat like champions themselves.