By on August 17, 2010

Inspired by the Michael Karesh review of “Sixty To Zero” today, I thought I would share some aspects of auto journalism with the TTAC readers. To the best of my knowledge, this kind of information has not appeared anywhere in the print-rag world or “blogosphere”… and perhaps after reading this, you will understand why.

What I propose to do is to take you along with me for a “typical” product reveal. I’m combining various “signature” aspects of different companies’ press events here to create an imaginary journal for my trip to see the introduction of the 2011 Mythos 200EsI.. Now, if you’ll grab your bags, we have a plane to catch…

8:30am EST I’m going through security at Port Columbus International Airport (CMH). Since I’m a TTAC writer, I spend my own money to get to the airport and park my car for the next 48 hours. We’re only talking $40 or $50 here, but it’s money I won’t get back. And, of course, I can’t work my regular job while I’m gone. The print guys and the big-blog dudes often have different arrangements. It’s common for automakers to maintain satellite press-fleet offices in major cities. So the fellow from Car Advertising And Breathless Reviews will drive his free press car to the airport, get on the plane, and return two days later to find another one in that spot. He may also fly first class; some outlets get the upgrade. With one exception, I’ve flown coach every time in the past three years. The flight is paid for by the manufacturer and booked through their people.

12:30pm PST I’m here in Los Angeles. Whenever possible, automakers hold their events on the West Coast. It allows the East Coast guys to gain three hours when they fly in. East Coast events usually have to start the following day. I’m paired up with a writer for the Smallville Post and Gazette and we are given a Mythos 200EsI to drive to the host hotel. The P&G guy asks me to drive and spends the next hour on the phone with various people. By the time we get to the hotel, I would cheerfully stab him through the throat if I thought I could get away with it. It could be worse; sometimes we are chauffeured to the host hotels and then I have to listen to two print journos whine at each other.

2:00pm PST At the host hotel, which is usually a four-or-five-star arrangement, I’m re-paired with a “drive partner” for a 120-mile loop over a route that usually is split 50/50 backroad and freeway. About half the time, my drive partner will suggest that I do the entire thing so he can sleep, make calls, or surf the web on his iPhone. There are two kinds of people on these press drives: people who treat it like a stopwatch challenge and people who drive five under the limit and fiddle with the stereo. Halfway through the loop, we will stop at some fabulous restaurant for refreshment. Some manufacturers have displays at the halfway point; some just feed you and put you back on the road.

The cars we get for these trips are usually fully loaded examples. This Mythos 200EsI bases at $19,995 but my tester is $31,650. I asked for a manual transmission but was told there were none available. With rare exceptions, such as a Ford Mustang launch, stick-shifts are usually not in the press fleet.

5:30pm PST Time for the presentation. These can range from light-hearted twenty-minute talks to two-hour slogs through interior fabrics and loving descriptions of the intended customers’ socio-economic positioning. We’re each provided with a notebook and pen: Mythos knows better than to assume that we’re prepared with that sort of stuff. At the end there’s a question and answer time. As usual, there are three questions asked. The first one is from a grossly fat, Methuselah-old print writer in the front row, and is designed to show everybody how much he knows about the industry. The second one is from a mommy-blogger and inadvertently reveals the fact that she was unaware of the Federal Government’s requirements for child-safety rear door locks. The third one is from a newspaper guy and is related to whether the turn signals will “click” like the ones in a ’98 Honda Accord. Sometimes I will ask Question #4, and it’s usually related to some gaping void in the presentation, such as the Cruze’s Korean engineering or the Honda Crosstour’s cargo space. Question #4 is never popular. Time for drinks!

7:30pm PST Mythos has laid on a top-notch dinner here! My table has six other journos and a chassis engineer. As is my post-Chicago Auto Show policy, I restrict myself to eight shots of Ketel One. The conversation around the table is lively and mostly related to various personalities known to most of us. There is a rehashing of the old story about the prominent auto-blogger who hired a prostitute and took her on a first-class flight to Europe as a “personal assistant”. Rumors fly from seat to seat. Stories are told, most of them frankly slanderous. I’m telling one of the three women in the forty-journo “wave” how I personally cheated death in a horrifying racing accident, holding her hand, and running her fingers through my hair for the purpose of evaluating the brand of color-safe conditioner I prefer. About once every ten minutes, the lonely chassis engineer will attempt to ask the table a question. “Did you guys think the engine was okay? What was your favorite wheel and tire combination?” There is never a response. By ten o’clock he’s gone, but for some of us the party continues to midnight or beyond.

8:30am PST Today is track day! Mythos thinks the 200 EsI is track-ready so we go to a local road course. After a safety briefing, we are sent out to drive. There’s never much of a line to drive the cars; in fact, most of the journalists are busy trying to obtain a “driveaway” press car to take them into LA for a shopping evening. If we’re lucky, we’re given two consecutive laps before being called into the pits; if not, we will simply drive from pit-out to pit-in. Nearly every manufacturer is savvy now to the fact that requiring single laps staves-off brake fade and engine heat soak while also discouraging people from driving the cars very much.

In such an environment, I am forced to immediately dial the pace up as high as I can stand. You learn nothing about a car’s handling by driving it at “eight-tenths”. During these short laps, I am struggling to push the car as hard as possible while simultaneously taking mental notes about everything from steering feel to the effect of the A/C on back-straight performance. It’s mega-stressful, which is why nobody else bothers to do it. I take as many laps as I’m permitted to, but after just fifty minutes my Mythos is the only one on-track. The event is called over with forty minutes remaining on the schedule, and I step into a Mythos minivan for the ride to the airport. In the lobby I see autojournos with the press brochure on their knees furiously typing their stories. The goal is to get off the plane with the work completed. I’m simply too physically big to operate a netbook in a coach seat, so I’ll wait until I get home.

10:15pm EST After a layover and a switch to a Regional Jet for the last leg to Columbus, I walk through a mostly empty airport and catch a shuttle. My white 911 is sitting faithfully in the parking lot, ready to carry me home. I have a Mythos-branded Flash drive with the press release on it and a Mythos hat that I’ll give to my sixteen-year-old neighbor. I realize I cannot remember the name of the woman I fell in love with last night, but I do remember her telling some story about being stalked by some dude who quit the business to work in publishing. I check the comments from my last TTAC story and see that, in the moderation queue, there is a 600-word rant from somebody who likens me to Hitler and suggests that the death of my infant son would be just plain hilarious. Tomorrow’s article on the Mythos will put me on the “shit list” with two automakers, neither of which will actually be Mythos, and it will offend at least fifty dedicated TTAC readers. I hope that the article at least helps somebody who is considering buying a 200EsI. I arrive home and fall asleep before I can tell my girlfriend about the in-room waterfalls at the host hotel. It’s just another two-day vacation in the life of the low-budget auto writer.

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63 Comments on “How To Be An Auto Journalist Part I: The Press Drive...”


  • avatar

    Yes kids, this is where car reviews come from. Pretty much to a T.

  • avatar
    Jordan Tenenbaum

    Sounds fun.

  • avatar
    Jeff Semenak

    ‘I’m telling one of the three women in the forty-journo “wave” how I personally cheated death in a horrifying racing accident, holding her hand, and running her fingers through my hair for the purpose of evaluating the brand of color-safe conditioner I prefer.’

    heh

  • avatar
    redliner

    A friend of mine is a writer for Car advertising and breathless reviews. Its so very ironic to me that he always has the latest and greatest convertible this or supercharged V8 that, and yet he can barley afford the cup-o-noodles he eats for lunch.

  • avatar
    Verbal

    You forgot to mention accidentally breaking off a piece of plastic interior trim, then handing it to a bewildered PR type at the end of the ride.

  • avatar
    daga

    Here’s hoping your girlfriend and anyone who knows her doesn’t read these posts. Either that or I misunderstood the dinner part. At least there’s good food.

    That’s a bit depressing to think of the C&D articles I consumed endlessly in the 80s were generated in this manner.

    • 0 avatar
      Demetri

      He’s playing a character. Last week he was telling us about the two chicks he took to an amusement park. I don’t take him too seriously, and I wonder sometimes how much of what he says is BS and what isn’t. Maybe it’s all true. Maybe he and his girlfriend have an ‘arrangement’. Someone as badass as Baruth can’t be tied down you know? Remember the article a while back where he told us that he “never sleeps alone” at these events, and how the women journos are easy to nab because all of the guys there other than him are “beta-males”?

    • 0 avatar
      Doc

      Speaking of C&D, I saw a “test drive” of a 2010 Regal on Speed Channel the other day. I was really disappointed to see someone from the mag participating in what essentially was a half hour advertisement for the car.

      They mentioned that the car was designed in Germany at least 150 times in 30 minutes.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Demetri, I just said I took them to an amusement park, I didn’t say we were all swinging from the overhead light in the hotel. :)

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    Simply hilarious. More of that, please…

  • avatar
    blau

    Can we please get a Baruth story that doesn’t include gratuitous BSing about sexual conquests? It’s usually the only thing I don’t like about Baruth stories, so I probably shouldn’t complain, but it’s just such a glaring fault.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      I’m just having some fun here… I assure you that the average female journo is a paragon of married virtue and that no such conquest, expressed or implied, could occur. That doesn’t mean I haven’t tried…

    • 0 avatar

      Blau, if Jack’s possibly fictional sexual conquests annoy you, in my next review I’ll be sure to include an account of my latest pathetic and failed attempt to find some female companionship.

    • 0 avatar
      cwallace

      Seeing how Jack will work one of those in is one of my favorite aspects of a JB article. We’ve all had a friend like that, a charismatic old rake that will casually drop a few leading statements without actually connecting the dots. You know deep down it’s BS half the time, but never which half.

    • 0 avatar
      Syke

      Jack, don’t let the whiners talk you out of leaving in the ‘asides’. Reminds me of the guy who taught me how to build a race car and autocross, back in my college days. That kind of rake: Wife, two kids, two mistresses. I’d join them all for a weekend at a track, help him set up the car, do a few laps myself in it, and end up sleeping with one of the ladies (usually the wife) for the weekend.

      Cars and rakes. That’s what makes life worth while.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      @Syke I like you more now than I did before. Amen on what makes life worthwhile.

  • avatar
    ihatetrees

    I hope that the article at least helps somebody who is considering buying a 200EsI.

    Amen.
    After I make my first billion (or two) in software, I’m gonna endow a dozen scholarships and a Baruth chair at Columbia Journalism School. Although I doubt they’d accept…

  • avatar
    Demetri

    Why not start naming names? Said journalists should be discredited. Certainly the great Jack Baruth isn’t afraid of a few pussy auto journalists.

    • 0 avatar

      If he can’t remember the woman’s name, how could he possibly remember theirs?

    • 0 avatar
      Demetri

      I didn’t believe that part. I’m convinced that he likes to play the part of Jack Baruth in his writing, much in the same way that he is in the picture that he uses for his avatar.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Everyone should have an alter-ego. It’s one way to stay sane.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      I don’t care if Jack is just a figment of his own imagination, I’ve really been enjoying his stuff. Keep keepin’ on Jack!

    • 0 avatar

      Demetri,

      While he may affect a persona (as we all do), that pic is really Jack.

      As for naming names, unless there’s an obvious conflict of interest or something else genuinely newsworthy, there’s no point in slagging off other journalists by name. That would be more akin to a gossip column than a car review. Besides, I think it’s more entertaining to try to figure out who the writer is putting down.

    • 0 avatar
      Demetri

      Ronnie, I realize that, but he has said before in comments that the picture was meant to be ironic.

      I’d at least be interested in knowing what publications they work for. I have no doubt that the types who work for newspapers and such behave this way, but aren’t the more enthusiast bent publications a little better? They’re at least more likely to write a less than flattering description of their experience.

    • 0 avatar

      @ Russycle: “figment of his own imagination” beautifully put! I love it, and you’re absolutely right.

      Sometimes the patented JB swagger grates with me a little (possibly because I’m not american…) but I keep reading because he writes so damned well! Who cares what percentage is fiction and what fact.

  • avatar
    jkross22

    Hilarious. Can’t wait for more.

  • avatar
    Joseph

    Thanks for keeping it real Jack! Don’t mind all the haters, just keep on giving us the truth.

  • avatar
    JeremyR

    About half the time, my drive partner will suggest that I do the entire thing so he can sleep, make calls, or surf the web on his iPhone.

    If this mere mortal had Baruth’s skill, he could still surf the Web on his iPhone while driving his part of the route!

  • avatar
    ajla

    The 200EsI is okay for secretaries and little girls, but I’ll be waiting for Mythos to build the M6600EsI GTrf-V with that awesome SH-x.4Wd all-wheel drive system.

  • avatar
    mtymsi

    Funny, as many bottles of it as I’ve been through I never knew it was spelled Ketel. Good thing I never had to spell it before being served!!! Sounds like a good story about why you limit yourself to eight shots after the Chicago show.

  • avatar
    Seminole 95

    Great, funny article, keep up the good work.

  • avatar
    ExPatBrit

    “Thanks for keeping it real Jack! Don’t mind all the haters, just keep on giving us the truth.”

    I will just go with that!

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    I guess this may be the write time to mention that I could use a working vacation.

    Or preferably a real one…

  • avatar
    niky

    “About once every ten minutes, the lonely chassis engineer will attempt to ask the table a question. “Did you guys think the engine was okay? What was your favorite wheel and tire combination?” There is never a response. By ten o’clock he’s gone, but for some of us the party continues to midnight or beyond.”

    Damn you all. (Leaves the room.)

    I’m so glad the locals still haven’t figured out what the words “brake fade” and “heat soak” mean. It’s hilarious when the X6 in the queue in front of you goes off at the chicane with its brakes on fire.

  • avatar
    zerofoo

    A fantastic glimpse into the PR machine of the automakers. This is why I keep coming back to TTAC.

    -ted

  • avatar
    Ron

    These junkets used to be more interesting.

    I remember a 1991 Mitsubishi 3000GT “ride and drive” on the Big Island of Hawaii. Everyone brought their radar detectors, and it was common to pass five cars driven by tourists in one shot. Two journalists stopped on the Akoni Pule Highway to take a “beauty shot” of the car. They forgot to put on the parking brake. The car rolled off of a cliff and plunged hundreds of feet into the Pacific.

    Chrysler introduced the 1994 Ram pickup on Baron Hilton’s ranch in Nevada. Inspired by Bob Lutz driving at twice the ranch’s posted speed limit, one journalist attempted to pass another on a dirt road. With all of the dust obscuring vision, the journalist crashed head-on into a pickup driven by a 21-year-old guy who washed the trucks. He died instantly. Unfortunately, the journalist lived.

  • avatar

    Completely accurate. They used to depress me to no end, which is why I try and avoid them. Thanks for sharing, Jack — nice to see the fire again.

    M!

  • avatar
    mad scientist

    Damn, Jack- you’re one hell of an engaging writer and storyteller. I bow to you.

    Keep ‘em coming, I look forward to your masterpieces.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    You sure are on a roll Jack. Keep ‘em coming!

  • avatar
    MarcKyle64

    Jack Baruth, haven’t I read your stuff in R&T, MT or C&D?

  • avatar
    fiatjim

    I love question #4. The source of the Prius’s batteries. The cost of making ethanol, measured in gallons of fossil fuels. The mandatory CVT in the Maxima. The point of the CR-Z. There have to be many more, but this is all available to me off the top of my head.

  • avatar
    DearS

    I want to see a happy jack, so take care dude.

  • avatar
    hurls

    “The first one is from a grossly fat, Methuselah-old print writer in the front row, and is designed to show everybody how much he knows about the industry.”

    heh… I spent a good chunk of time as an industry analyst (not auto industry) and every single analyst event or call-in briefing had this guy. Couldn’t see them on the phone events, of course, but I always imagined that the description fit regardless…

    • 0 avatar
      gimmeamanual

      …named something like Gene Schlosky, wearing a striped button-down dress shirt that you can see his gut between the buttons when he sits down, pleated khakis that last saw an iron during the Reagan administration, and a Corvette hat, regardless of what company/car he’s reviewing.

  • avatar
    Tricky Dicky

    Interesting article – confirms to me my belief that if you don’t love your work, you’ve got very little to offer to the world.

  • avatar
    Detroit-X

    Great story, and thanks for The Truth About Car Events. More, more! Nobody has the guts that JB has!

  • avatar
    ash78

    Great story, Jack.

    No, I really mean that.

    On days when I’m sitting in the office, groaning about the spreadsheets and reports I build, it’s easier to keep plugging along when I can rationally limit my daydreaming about other careers.

    In the immortal words of Chris Cornell, the grass is always greener where the dogs are sh*tting. (I’ve always wanted to say “in the immortal words of” and follow it with a rock musician. So at least one of my dreams came true today.)

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    And this, ladies and gents, is why you generally trust Consumer Reports.

    Talk smack about how they’re not “real” auto journalists all you like, they havce their own track, buy their own cars, and participate in none of this nonsense.

    By the way, it’s a good piece, and a tenor I’ve missed seeing here as of late, outside of Booth Babe. Nicely done.

    • 0 avatar
      Zackman

      Yeah, Consumer Reports. As far as their credibility goes, I remember when the Chrysler “K” cars came out and one of CR’s biggest complaints, large photo included, was how high you had to lift your left leg to depress the parking brake! Look it up circa 1980-81. Loved our K car, though.

  • avatar
    Jaywalker

    Good story, especially getting it on the record. I’m pleasantly surprised that the journos actually ride in the cars they write about. I always assumed they wrote their stories in the bar from the press handout – they always sound the same, anyway.

  • avatar

    Well said, Jack. The one junket that I attended was far too much like this account. It was a real wake up call for me!

    Can’t wait for the next installment…

  • avatar
    Wagen

    Jack Baruth, between this and the Phaeton driving tales, you are my hero.

  • avatar
    bomberpete

    Jack — Brilliant stuff! You hit the nail on the head. I’ve organized more than a few of these motor-shilling lovefest/shindigs. I even have some of the most outlandish credit card receipts from the most expensive hotel bars and gentleman’s clubs in North America.

    Trust me, these ride & drive events were as predictable for the engineers, execs, product people and PR types as the journos. But the hype machine needed to be fed. It would be easy to name names, but I’m glad you didn’t. What would be the point? These are essentially decent people making pretty small paychecks in exchange for “glamor.” Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

  • avatar
    Slow_Joe_Crow

    Thanks for an amusing tour of the sausage factory. Cue standard warning about those who like [fill in the blank] or sausage should watch neither being made.

  • avatar
    Ooshley

    The closest thing we have to TTAC down under for no BS advice is (essential) a one-man-band: Autospeed.

    Julian covered his experiences like this in 2003, to quote:
    ‘I waited with excitement for the questions…but I was to be disappointed.

    “Did you follow the lead of Ford in releasing that new green colour?” was something like one of the first questions.

    OHMYGOD! They’re asking about paint colours!?

    I couldn’t stand it any longer.

    “You mentioned in the context of this range of cars that ‘performance dynamics’ best summarised it,” I said. “Aren’t you embarrassed by the lack of stability control in any of these cars?”

    There was a short silence. Everyone looked at me.

    Director of Engineering Phil Harding viewed me expressionlessly.

    “No,” he said.

    There was another short silence. ‘

    http://autospeed.com.au/cms/title_The-Spin-Circuit/A_111462/article.html

  • avatar
    niky

    Autospeed is great… but one guy can’t do it alone. I feel bad that his updates have gotten sporadic in the past two years.

    It’s a lonely job.


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