Preparing to shoot a few segments of Big Jon in 5 for BEER2WHISKEY in our upstairs studio at Barley's Taproom in downtown Greenville. That's owner Josh Beebe preparing for his closeup.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Race Tracks, Car Companies, and Media Events: Just a Recollection or Two

I'm sitting enjoying a Bitch Creek Extra Special Brown by the Grand Teton Brewing Company of Jackson Hole Wyoming as I write this. I like it! It's the $2.50 Sunday special at one of my favorite Greenville joints, Smoke on the Water. It's where I waste a couple of hours on Sundays when I'm in town.

It's a place where I can blog in relative peace despite the fact that I know several of the folks who work here and also have some pals who put in an occasional cameo. We never formally organize these meetings; they just sort of happen.

I was looking through my photos from my track day at Virginia International Raceway with the new Camaro ZL1. I saw this photo of my helmet on the hood of one of the cars, and it got me thinking about tracks, car companies and media gifts. Yes, some of the car companies still give gifts to journalists attending their launch events.

It used to be a fairly even playing field with every company handing out some bobble or trinket. Not so much today. A few of the carmakers have used the excuse of the recession to curtail -- at least temporarily -- the practice. Some have cut back; yet others have stepped up the heat.

I am often asked if such gifts sway my reviews of the cars. My response -- as difficult as it might be to believe -- is, no. I'm not going to whitewash a problematic car because the maker gave me a ball cap or tote bag. Rather than the gift, I am more likely to have a warm-and-fuzzy feeling because the company's PR team did its job, putting on an engaging event.

Believe me when I tell you that some of the manufacturer events I attend make the journalists feel like party crashers. The PR folks don't want to be there and certainly don't care if we are there. It's difficult to fly home from one of these events with a positive impression.

Anyway, what launched me on this tangent is the racing helmet in the above photo. I received it at a Mercedes event a number of years ago. I know it was a number of years ago because -- for some reason unknown to me -- I haven't been able to buy my way on to a Mercedes trip in at least five or six years. This is not a situation unique to me or to Mercedes.

Attempting to figure out which journalists get invited to which events is a common topic of conversation among media types. No one -- including the car companies themselves -- seems to have a clue.

When I was at VIR with Chevy for the ZL1 event, I was asked if I had ever driven VIR before. I was able to say, yes, with every confidence because in addition to Mercedes putting my name and its logo on the helmet presented to me, they also stenciled VIR on it. Otherwise, I wouldn't have remembered.

The ZL1 event was only the second time I've used the helmet. I get to drive a race track a couple of times a year, but dragging the helmet along is more trouble than its worth, as it was on the ZL1 trip.

This is the second helmet I've received from a car company. The first came from Saab in 1988, I think. It was the second manufacturer event I was ever invited to. They flew us to Birmingham and then drove us to Talladega. They had souped up the base four-cylinder engine and decided that the Talladega track was the ideal spot to show it off.

This was absolutely my first experience on a race track. For me, it was an adventure of monumental proportions. Once past the "aw shucks" quotient, it was simply exhilarating. I was surprised Saab allowed us to drive by ourselves, but this is fairly common on such events. To be on a race track, alone in the car, is a real rush.

But, if we wanted, we could ride shotgun with Erik Carlsson. At this point Erik was easily in his 60s. He was a champion rally driver for Saab. I remember flying around the top of Talladega at about 110 mph with Carlson in the pilot's seat. At one point, he says, "Now it's time to rest." He took his hands off the steering wheel and placed them in his lap.

I was like, "WTF!!!"

That entire event will be forever etched in my memory. I drove Talladega at least two more times that I can specifically recall. Once was in a Subaru Forester and the other in a Dodge Grand Caravan. But, those are stories for another day.

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