Rod Campbell, Motorsport Marketing and PR Man Extraordinaire, Dies at 88
The eternal optimist was already making plans for his next adventure.
Rod Campbell, the man at the centre of what has to be one of our country’s most spectacular rags-to-riches stories, died with dignity this week in Los Angeles, Calif. He was in his 89th year and leaves behind his wife, Sandra; two daughters, Heather and Alison; and two grandchildren.
Born dirt-poor on the Saskatchewan Prairie to a Methodist preacher father and a stay-at-home mother of five, Campbell built a financial fortune through ambition, determination, self-promotion, talent and an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time.
From volunteering, initially, to promote races at Le Circuit-Mont Tremblant north of Montreal, to announcing at the first Formula One race held in Canada at Mosport Park in Ontario, Campbell parlayed friendships with important people he’d met along the way to land public-relations and marketing contracts with Stirling Moss, Jackie Stewart, the Can-Am Series, Formula One drivers George Eaton and Brett Lunger and F1 team owners Walter Wolf and Mo Nunn.
His personal Mount Everest moment of success came when he launched Campbell and Co. to handle motorsport program promotion and event planning for the Ford Motor Co. He sold it in 1999, making him, as he would say, wealthy.
“We were very poor when I was a boy,” he said. “As a result, I was extraordinarily ambitious. I was determined to succeed.”
This ambition and determination gave him the good life, which he loved. Sure, there were failures, but in the end, the good outcomes far outweighed the bad. He travelled the world, staying in the best hotels. He played on the best golf courses, hobnobbed with the captains of industry — Roger Penske, Edsel Ford, et al — ate the finest food and drank the finest wines. In short, he thoroughly enjoyed his success.
He had two marriages — one not so good, the second the best, which gave him the family he adored.
One time, with Sandra, the love of his life, they were driving along the Pacific coast and she casually mentioned she’d like to live in Malibu one day. So, he bought a six-acre lot and built her a mansion, complete with a three-hole golf course (which got him into trouble with environmentalists, who demanded he rip up the greens).
He was respected far and wide and liked by one and all (except maybe those California environmentalists). When word got around that he was ill and would die, the phone started ringing. Bernie Ecclestone was among the first to call. Bernie thanked him for what he’d done for Formula One. There were many others.
He knew everybody — Penske, Walter Hayes, Michael Kranefuss, Pat Patrick, Jack Roush. Former Ford CEO and president Jacques Nasser once told him that if he ever had an idea — and he had a million — all he had to do was call his secretary and he’d have him in his office in an hour.
He was respected for his integrity — people trusted him implicitly — and his internal optimism. It didn’t matter if it was trying to recover money from his F1 friend Wolf or organizing the Santa Claus parade in London, Ont., he was convinced everything would turn out all right.
Er, the Santa parade in London? Yup, it was a great success, that parade in 1959, particularly because Campbell convinced an old roommate, the singer Robert Goulet, to drive over from Toronto to be a celebrity guest.
It was in London that Campbell discovered what would be the secret to his success. “If you agree to do a job, and then do more than expected, you add value,” he once told me. “Added value has worked wonders for me.” And then he told me how it all came about.
He’d been in Europe, serving in the U.S. army (he’d gone to New York to study broadcasting, applied for a green card and, as a result, got drafted) and, once discharged, had gone looking for a job, which was easier said than done. He finally landed one selling ads for a radio station in London, for which he had zero experience. But one of his clients, Ed Leavens, sold sports cars.
“When I was in the service, I’d gone to the German Grand Prix. I was captivated by the sights, the sounds, the bravery of the drivers — I loved everything about it. So when I started selling radio ads to Ed Leavens, I found out he raced the cars he sold. I asked if I could go to the races with him.
“So we were at Harewood Acres and Ed won his race. I had a brainwave. I called the radio station and asked the sports guy if I could do a live hit and I reported that Ed Leavens of Leavens Motors had won the race. So I sold him ads and reported on his races and that was added value. I always tried to do that.”
From London, it was on to Montreal, where he continued to sell ads for radio and immersed himself in the local motorsport community. Once, he chartered an Air Canada plane (then Trans-Canada Airlines) to take 50 people to the Indianapolis 500. He asked Dick Irvin Jr., son of the legendary coach of the Canadiens who was doing sports on the CTV station there, to plug the trip so he could sell the last couple of tickets. Irvin said sure, but asked Campbell to appear on his late-night sportscast to do a report after the plane got back.
It was 1964, the year Dave MacDonald and Eddie Sachs were killed in a second-lap inferno following a crash that involved seven cars. Irvin was so impressed with Campbell’s reporting and on-camera demeanour that, soon after, he offered him a job reading sports on weekends.
In a short period, Campbell had learned the advertising business and was an on-air radio and TV sports personality. He finished his on-the-job journalism training by writing about racing and later editing Canada Track & Traffic magazine. It all stood him in good stead when he went into PR.
Now, I could write a book about Campbell — but that’s already been done. In 2015, Campbell financed his limited-circulation autobiography, “I’m Rod — An Incorrigible Optimist: My life in auto racing and public relations.” He hired award-winning motorsport reporter Pete Lyons to write it and I think it’s terrific. In fact, I thought a good editor could turn his story into a bestseller. I still do. Few people in this world have led the fascinating life that Campbell led, or enjoyed the successes.
Here are some of Campbell’s observations and conclusions about people and business, garnered either from conversations we had (we met for lunch during the Los Angeles Auto Show for years, as well as in Toronto) or from his book:
• “Respect was the central focus of my life. I wanted the respect of my family and my peers. As we grow older, we all realize there isn’t a lot to hold (onto) in our senior years except for memories and relationships nurtured in a lifetime of chasing dreams.”
• Campbell was thrilled when he was hired to promote Jackie Stewart and his sponsor, L&M cigarettes. It came about after the company was told to “get that Canadian guy to do it.”
“I had made sure he knew my work!” Campbell said of the fellow who’d recommended him. “That’s just part of being ambitious and making sure the right people know. And it still works today.”
• His nephew, Jason Campbell, general manager of the Canadian International AutoShow, wrote a letter to his uncle in recent weeks:
“In Grade 11, when I was 16, I had a creative-writing assignment in school, and I remember one of my tasks was to write a short biography on someone of my choosing. Of course, I chose my uncle Rod. I remember sitting down for this formal interview with you. By then, you had built up Campbell and Co. and seemed to be going from strength to strength. I remember asking you the question, ‘What has been the key to your success?’ And I remember very clearly your answer — ‘Confidence! Confidence is critical.’ You’ve always been one to instil that confidence in others — to push the boundaries, to do things not done before and to do them better than anyone else. That lesson in life is one of the greatest you’ve passed on.”
• On Eaton, the Canadian department-store heir — the family name is still on the Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto — who raced in the Can-Am Series and Formula One: “George had a lot of natural talent, but he didn’t want to work to develop it. I used to nag him, but he’d say, ‘Nah, I don’t need to test; I can drive fine.’ He really liked the idea of being in the spotlight in a dangerous sport. He liked the badge it gave him. But he really wasn’t serious about racing in itself.”
• On Stewart: “I don’t remember races so much as I remember incidents. One big one blew up at the Mid-Ohio track. Jackie was on a safety crusade in those days. I’ll never forget when we got to Mid-Ohio (for a Can-Am race), there was this one giant tree sitting out 50 yards off the first turn. No barricades, no protection, just a big tree sitting there. Jackie starts, ‘What? What is this? It’s got to go.’”
• On Wolf: “I have to say, much as I liked Walter, and enjoyed working for him, he was a little loosey-goosey about business. He agreed to pay me pretty well for the time, $120,000 for the year, but getting him to actually pay was another thing. I always had to chase him to collect it and finally he’d wire me something or hand me cash.”
That was in the book — but there was more to it than that. I have copies of several collection notices sent to Wolf on behalf of Campbell (part of the research for a book I’m working on) and I once asked Campbell about them. “It would take awhile,” he said, “but Walter would always come through. Those (collection notices) were more to get his attention. He’s still a good friend.”
• On Campbell and Co., and his great friend Len Coates: “Len was a wonderful Canadian writer I’d gotten to know from my reporting and publishing days (Canada Track & Traffic). I wanted him to be an integral part of Campbell and Co., but he wasn’t as disciplined as I’d wanted him to be. He liked to work all night and I wanted him in the office during business hours. He wanted to go back to Toronto (Campbell and Co. was headquartered in Michigan) and I gave him 15 per cent of the company in stock in an effort to get him to stay. But he gave that up and left.”
Campbell and his wife remained personal friends of Coates’s up to his death several years ago. In co-operation with the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame, they then established the Len Coates Awards, three bursaries for young journalists studying at Toronto’s Ryerson University, Coates’s alma mater.
Campbell attended the bursary luncheon at Ryerson last fall and took a moment to talk about his friend, but to also tell those in attendance that the bursaries would be funded in perpetuity but that because of his age, it would likely be his last trip to Toronto.
Ever since I learned he was ill and would die, I’ve wondered whether he had a premonition.
As expected, the tributes have poured in.
Mario Andretti sent out a tweet in answer to one by Campbell’s son-in-law, Townsend Bell, the Indianapolis 500 and sports-car driver: “I’m one of the fortunate to have known him well enough to call him a friend. I’ll miss him.”
Bell himself wrote: “Rod had an amazing 88 years and we are proud that he passed with so much universal love and respect. He died a very happy man. What more can any of us ask for?”
Said Kevin Kennedy, executive vice-president of what is now called Campbell Marketing and Communications: “He taught me so much about the business, including a philosophy of always going above and beyond for the clients and the people we work with.”
Coates’s brother, Bert, wrote: “Rod was a true gentleman and friend throughout the motorsports and automotive worlds. And he shared his abundant energy and intellect in support of many worthy causes.”
And Dr. Hugh Scully, chairman of the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame, wrote: “Rod would call me personally on a regular basis to offer wise counsel as the Hall’s board of directors was restructured and we broadened our scope of inductions to include international and media contributors to motorsport in Canada. As time passes, we will all treasure and share happy memories about Rod as a man, a friend and a genuine builder of motorsport.”
On March 19, less than two weeks ago, Campbell sent me an email with his phone number and asked me to call. I knew he was ill and so I was expecting the worst. But after explaining what his death would entail — essentially an explanation of California law — we settled in to enjoy some reminiscences and we had a few laughs. He told me Stewart had called, as had Sir Jackie’s son, Paul. And others. And we gossiped about our mutual pal, Coates. And then it was over.
Said Campbell to me, Norris McDonald, around 12:30 p.m. Pacific time in Santa Monica, 3:30 p.m. my time in Mississauga:
“OK, I’m outta here. See ya on the other side.”
The eternal optimist was already making plans for his next adventure.