While most eyes were on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's 2-1/2-mile oval this month, Kevin Long was more interested in what happened in the media room.
Long is not a news reporter, but he's been focused on every word spoken to the media this month by drivers, team managers and owners.
It's Long's job to make sure those speaking into the mike maximize the benefit for themselves, their teams and sponsors. He owns and operates MVP Sports Media Training LLC, a West Lafayette firm that trains athletes in the art of dealing with the media, and he was hired by the Indy Racing League this year to train its up-and-coming drivers.
Long, 36, gained his media experience working in the press offices of Beltway politicians, including three Indiana Republicans: Sen. Dan Coats, Rep. Dan Burton and Vice President Dan Quayle.
Later, Long, a 1992 Purdue University graduate with degrees in political science and history, did media training for the U.S. Department of Defense, serving in war zones from the Middle East to Bogota, Colombia.
While in Bogota, he caught a television interview with National Basketball Association star Kevin Garnett, who was making comments about being armed for the next game and going to war.
"I was sitting in the middle of a war zone," Long said, "and it struck me how inappropriate those comments were."
So three years ago, with no clients lined up, Long launched MVP. He quickly worked contacts he'd made playing high school and amateur baseball. Long said his Capitol Hill contacts helped arrange meetings with some top-shelf sports executives.
Purdue University men's basketball coach Matt Painter, who went to Delta High School in Muncie with Long, was the first to hire MVP.
Long works with athletes in groups or solo, with rates ranging from $1,500 to $10,000 per session. He wouldn't divulge his revenue.
He also sells software that allows clients to monitor Internet chatter about their organization and helps assure favorable Web site content emerges from fans' Internet searches.
Painter said he was impressed with Long's presentation, and referred him to the basketball programs at the University of Arkansas and Colorado State University.
George Mason University men's basketball coach Jim Larranaga hired Long just before the team's miracle run to the NCAA Final Four in 2006.
"We became a national story," said George Mason assistant coach Chris Caputo. "Of course, part of that was our tournament run, but our kids never would have been ready to handle that without Kevin's media training. It helped us become media darlings, and that was good for our program and the university as a whole."
A direct-mail piece caught the attention of Indy Racing League officials, who became convinced Long could help drivers in their top developmental series, Indy Pro Series.
Long uses a classroom setting to teach athletes how to field questions and respond appropriately. He videotapes mock interviews and critiques them with athletes, and makes athletes play the role of reporter to give them a unique perspective.
"Part of the Indy Pro Series is about training the drivers on and off the track in all facets," said Tim Harms, IRL media coordinator for the Indy Pro Series. "The media attention really intensifies when you begin running alongside the [IRL], and these guys have to be prepared for that."
Long said how drivers handle themselves in public may determine whether they're able to secure sponsors and sign contracts with top teams.
"Image is everything in any top-level sport, but in motorsports where there's a more direct connection with sponsors, I think having a good public presentation is even more important than with other sports," said Paul Swangard, managing director of Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.
Long's work with the IRL led to other deals, including one to work with communications executives for all 32 National Football League teams.
Several small firms nationwide offer media consulting, but there are only a few major players, such as Charlotte, N.C.-based Sports Media Challenge and Chicago-based The Speaking Specialists. Long plans to move MVP into those ranks.