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Rea White, NASCAR Scene

            Carl 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.

            From the 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.

            For NASCAR 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.

            Behind the 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 and others.

            The challenge 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 media market.

            It’s 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.

            The NASCAR 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?

            At that 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 awards ceremony.

            Finally, 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.

            Yet, NASCAR 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.

            But they’ve done it.

            More than 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.

            Did they 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.

            As they say in New York, the show must go on.

PUTTING IT TOGETHER

            When NASCAR 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.

            But it’s a tough sell.

            Over the 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.

            Network 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.

            “I 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.”

            Still, Cory 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.

            On Nov. 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.

            Hunter and 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.

            Last year, 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.

            Hunter’s 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.

            On this 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.

            Ninety-six 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 through town.

            It’ll 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.

            Tuesday 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.

            The ballroom 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. 

            Posocco 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.

            In Suite 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.

            In Suite 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.

            Watching that rolling screen during the banquet will show quite a bit of straying from the script, but one can only control so much.

            It’s 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.

            “I’m 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

            Clothes and umbrellas. Who knew they meant so much?

            Meetings 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.
            Right now, the focus is the Victory Lap.

            This is 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.

            Not even 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 for NASCAR.

            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.

            Wednesday 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.

            She’s the fireman on the scene, constantly putting out ever-smoldering fires.

            Meanwhile, 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.

            Stewart’s the star here. At ease in this element, he appears a natural idol.

            Then the 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 business capital.

            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.

            “Just 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.

            Next year, however, drivers will be instructed on what to do and not do in the parade format.

            “A 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.

            Yet there’s 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 move.

            “A 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.”

            Boys will be boys, after all.
           
SPEAKING UP

            It’s 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.

            Men literally 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 early.

            Chaos reigns. 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. 

            Backstage, 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.

            Harried and tired, NASCAR officials know the end is in sight. One more day. Just 33 more hours and everything is over.

            “No, 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.

            And then 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.

            It’s 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.

            Suddenly, it’s done.

            No glitches 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.

            For Hunter, 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.

            NASCAR leaves New York somewhat like champions themselves.