• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Woe are us, TV viewers. Remember when Bob Varsha smartly would say "turn up the volume" at the start of Formula One races so we could enjoy the roar of the high-revving engines? If anyone involved in the production of Formula E had a clue about what this series supposedly is all about (electric power), he/she would have instructed screaching announcer Jack Nicholls to shut up at the start of the series' debut in China, so we could have been shocked by the lack of such sound. Without that contrast, it looks like just another junior formula series (with ugly cars.) And then there was ESPN idiot Jonathan Coachman calling Brad Keselowski "brother" during a post-Chicagoland interview. Of course, Coachman wasn't credible reading his script as a pro wrestling announcer. Looks like a good candidate for White House spokesman.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

LEADERSHIP

The "new" Chase is on. Whether or not it will be "new" and "improved" we'll find out over the next nine weeks.

But the real story, the important issue, this week is leadership. LEADERSHIP.

While there is zero doubt the National Football League is America's No. 1 sport and a true cash-generating marketing machine, we saw in the last few days that it isn't bulletproof. The NFL's $44 million man, Commissioner Roger Goodell, came under more intensive media and public fire for his handling -- or not handling -- of the Ray Rice domestic abuse case. Goodell  took to the big leather executive chair in the league's swank New York City Park Avenue offices with the agenda of even further protecting "The Shield's" PR image, always tightly controlled. He became the Enforcer-In-Chief, rolling out a series of new or more robust penalties for off-the-field misconduct. I happen to agree that much of that was needed as the athlete-as-role-model notion increasingly became fantasy.

But I've also had the unsettled feeling, right from the start, that Goodell wasn't really the rock-solid leader the image-makers wanted all of us to believe. We now know the NFL has been, well, less than aggressive, regarding the effects of concussions. Yes, there are new rules and medical evaluations, but given what we've seen in auto racing it's difficult for me to believe more hasn't been done on the football helmet front. (I know Bill Simpson and others have been working on it, but it's the NFL that will be the force to get it done.) The legal negotiations over a compensation fund for retired players left with brain damage has been a prolonged and twisted road, which has not reflected well on Goodell. There was the questionable handling of the New Orleans Saints' BountyGate affair. And I thought it outrageous that Goodell essentially kept Rush Limbaugh out of a potential St. Louis Rams' ownership role based on political correctness and pressure from liberal media and outside interest groups. I wrote here at that time that this wouldn't help the career of Goodell's wife, Jane Skinner, now no longer a Fox News anchor.

Sure, Goodell has brought in Billion$ to the NFL, but also a LOT of controversy. Experience tells me that, sooner or later, that will catch up with him.

I'm not an NBA fan but look at how much stronger Adam Silver, who had to step in to the Big Shoes of David Stern as commissioner, seems than Goodell for his leadership in the Donald Sterling affair.

We've even observed Rhodes Scholar Pat Haden, a very smart and overall good guy and now the athletic director at USC, get smacked down for coming from the press box to the sidelines to argue with game officials.

Executive leadership at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar series has been a hot-button issue for many years, perhaps going all the way back to Tony Hulman's death. I'm certainly not going to signal thumbs-up or thumbs-down yet to current CEO Mark Miles. It's obvious, though, that his decision to end the season by Labor Day is controversial. It will be legitimate to reassess this in another year. Most in the pit area will only talk about it off-the-record, but don't doubt many Many competitors, sponsors and track operators have serious doubts about the leadership in NHRA drag racing.

Which, of course, brings us to Brian France.

When Brian, son of Bill Jr. and grandson of Bill Sr. who both had the vision to make NASCAR Big League, innovated the Chase "playoffs" back in 2004, he drew more praise than criticism for this revolutionary new approach to the Cup championship. France separated the Chase from the regular season as a way to jump-start interest against college and pro football and the concept was copied by others, most noteably the PGA Tour with its four-tournament FedEx Cup.

Not long ago a very smart and accomplished sports marketing guy I know, one not directly affiliated with the NASCAR scene, told me the Game 7-type winner-(highest finisher)-takes-all format being used this season was a matter of when, not if. The system was sure to evolve. Just, for example, as baseball has with one and five-game playoff series. 

Adapting the playoff idea to stock car racing meant it almost certainly would eventually reach the point of a Game 7, which many consider the ultimate thrill in American sports. In NASCAR's case, that translates to the highest finisher at Homestead-Miami Speedway among four eligible drivers will claim the Sprint Cup championship. As my business contact said, it was inevitable. 

The potential challenge for France and the rest of the Daytona Beach brass is, now that they have gone this route, what's the next step in the evolution? Maybe it will work so well one won't be needed. But what happens if this doesn't work as hoped, in terms of higher TV audience, ticket sales, media coverage and marketing opportunities? I guess NASCAR could reverse itself and alter the title run to a best-of-three race series, but I'm strongly sure the media and public would see that as going backwards.

Honestly, we won't know for two or three years if France has painted himself into a corner.

I think the chances are good this will produce a bounce come November. I have to admit, though, I continue to have an uneasy feeling about Homestead. Can you begin to imagine the negative feelings from Junior Nation if someone spins out in front of Dale at Homestead or a tire blows? In other words, something out of Earnhardt's control that costs him the Cup? Such bad vibes might trigger an earthquake in Florida!

I think the most significant effects will be seen at the elimination events -- Dover, Talladega and Phoenix -- due to the make-or-break nature of the situation. But also because of the number of drivers who still will be championship eligible. Out here at Phoenix International Raceway, for example, eight drivers will start with a Cup chance. We've typically seen two-three with a realistic shot. Some people prefer one-on-one rivalries -- let's say Junior vs. Kyle Busch -- but the selling point for race promoters will be having a lot more drivers still in the mix. 

France has been rejiggering NASCAR in many ways the last few years, from his executive management team to the pressure he imposed for more side-by-side racing and exciting finishes supposedly to come from the new car. The results have been mixed, at best, while it's too soon to grade some of his other moves. NASCAR's health for the next decade has been secured with billions of TV dollars, perhaps due to good timing, because of the expansion of sports cable TV and those networks' need for content to fill all those hours.

As this version of the Chase unfolds, while fans' eyes will be on the drivers, the industry's eyes will be on Brian France. In NASCAR, as in life and sports and business, it's all about leadership.

[ more next week . . . ]

Sunday, September 07, 2014

MORE NOTES FROM MY LEGAL PAD

Since my lists go page-after-page, and since many of the previous responses were interesting, here are some more notes from my legal pad:

What in the bleep happened to the quality of racing at Richmond? Last weekend didn't help sell a single ticket for any Chase event. Was it Goodyear's new tire combination? If so, and if NASCAR wasn't on top of the tire situation (again), well . . . what say you, Mr. "Side-by-Side Racing" Brian France?

Given who his sponsor is, and remembering that Brad Keselowski admitted he was "buzzed" during post-Cup interviews two years ago at Homestead, Andy Petree and Dale Jarrett best be careful when describing Brad K's lackluster 2013 season as a post-championship "hangover." 

Back in the late 1990s, ESPN pulled motorsports-know-nothing Rece Davis out of who-knows-where? to host the weekend editions of rpm2night. The 1998 CART season opened at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and on the Thursday afternoon there, I was in the paddock area talking with a half-dozen of the series' Biggest Name drivers. Someone noticed Davis off in the distance and that triggered a bunch of comments from said drivers. I'll be polite and say they had minimally high regard for him. A couple of minutes later Davis started walking toward our group and the drivers quickly scattered in several directions on their motorbikes, leaving me to talk with him. I'll never forgot that Davis was so out-of-touch with reality that he told me how "welcoming" all the drivers had been to him. (Hey, Rece, that's called PR!) This memory came back to me while in the garage area before the IndyCar season finale at Auto Club Speedway. NBCSN has at least one talking head that's regarded by this generation of competitors (some of whom were at Homestead in '98) the same way Davis was. If NBCSN production boss Sam Flood were to spend any meaningful time in honest discussion with IndyCar drivers, he would know that.

I about fell out of the driver's seat on my trip to Fontana when I heard a SiriusXM NASCAR channel host say NASCAR "doesn't make decisions based on PR." What! Please tell me an example of a decision the sanction hasn't made in recent years that didn't involve PR!

Under the philosophy and leadership of NASCAR's conjured-up Integrated Marketing (Non) Communications theory, more and more statements from the sanction include these words: "NASCAR will not comment on . . . "

Look no further than Atlanta's victory lane to see one reason why Hendrick Motorsports is NASCAR's most successful team. There we saw Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. all together congratulating Kasey Kahne on his victory. Trust me, folks, this doesn't happen within a lot of other organizations.

Absolutely no one should be surprised Beaux Barfield is no longer IndyCar's race director. Numerous people who have worked directly with him for the last three years have expressed to me, well, I'll call it their "concerns" about his attitude, arrogance and inconsistency. I experienced it once myself. Barfield's status was strongly signaled to me last May at Indy and that was before the bogus red flag near the end (pre-determined by him and excused post-fact by SAFER repairs.) And have no doubt Jon Beekhuis wants the job.

The Big IMSA staff shakeup, with two races still to run this season, proves how stunningly wrong Jim France, Ed Bennett and Scott Atherton got it in putting their Year 1 merged-series program and organization together. There have been officiating, operational, marketing and communications problems right from the first race Rolex 24. Race control blew the call on a class winner at Daytona and the top PR guy -- highly hyped to me by NASCAR IM(N)C -- lasted exactly one race. So who will call France, Bennett and Atherton on the carpet?

I don't care if a beer company is a team's sponsor, the team PR rep should not be drinking beer on the victory podium. It's his/her job to coordinate and stage good PR photos showing the driver, owner and crew enjoying the product, not to publicly knock down a can himself.

The IndyCar championship stage ceremony at Fontana was one of the worst organized I've seen in decades of experience. I stood off on the side and watched almost the entire thing. For example, time was wasted as the Chevrolet group came up and then off the podium three times for photos. Why wasn't it planned well enough to do once? And thus help get Will Power, etc. into the media center sooner for journalists already battling impossible late Saturday night deadlines. Another issue for CEO Mark Miles to fix.

Here are seven words any ticket buyer hates to hear in pre-race driver interviews: "It's going to be hard to pass."

And here's the driver cliche I'm tired of hearing: "The crew has been working hard." If someone isn't working hard, he/she shouldn't be on the payroll.

It's obvious to me ESPN is about out of ideas how to present it's NHRA event coverage. The same old clips and soundbites are put out there every year about the U.S. Nationals. "It's Indy!" We get it. Move on.

We're coming up on what I consider to be sport's most self-important and overblown (with the possible exception of NASCAR's All-Star race) event, golf's Ryder Cup. Let's see: The team members must be custom outfitted for expensive designer uniforms for the opening ceremony, practice rounds, each match, closing ceremony, off-course media and leisure time and social events. Ditto for their significant others. How about this for an idea? Redirect that time, money and effort into grass-roots programs to counter golf's declining participation rate.

I might scream the next time I hear a TV or radio pundit tell us: "It's going to be interesting."
Really? Wow, what great insight!

I've noted before that politics and government often showcase PR's best spinners and image-makers. But not lately. As if the Carney Barker's lack of credibility as White House press secretary wasn't a big enough disgrace . . . well . . . if you want to see how not to do it, watch any briefing from State Department spokeswomen Jen Psaki or Marie Harf. Their presentations make what any Kardashian has to say seem intellictual. My friend and PR legend Jim Chapman was a Democrat and a committed liberal, but I have no doubt he'd be embarrassed by these inept and amateurish performances.

[ more next week . . . ]



Saturday, August 30, 2014

MILES TO GO BEFORE HE SLEEPS

I sure hope you Verizon IndyCar series fans -- especially those who stayed up late in the Eastern and Midwestern time zones Saturday night -- enjoyed the MavTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway because the long off-season is now underway. Congratulations to Will Power and Roger Penske on their series championship. (Finally!) That avoided the biggest late-season collapse since the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies. Thank you to those amazing true fans -- could there have been 10,000? -- who sweated it out (literally) in the triple-digit temps in the grandstands.

As I suggested to a few writers before the race, some enterprising reporter should have gone into the stands when the green flag waved to interview any available Boston Consulting Group brains who got paid Big Money to suggest ending the season by Labor Day. It pains me to say it, but I can honestly see a season two or three years from now when the Indianapolis 500 is the only oval. I put that notion to Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles during a conversation in the IndyCar business unit Saturday afternoon. He said he doesn't expect that to happen, but think about it, please. 

Fontana, Milwaukee, Iowa, Pocono all have challenges and are no long-term sure thing. Last week Miles announced a new race in Avondale, Louisiana -- a road course -- but there's still nothing in Avondale, Arizona, home city to Phoenix International Raceway. Miles admitted to me zip is happening with PIR and it seems obvious whatever window of opportunity there existed for a PIR return under Randy Bernard's leadership (he told me in 2012 a PIR race for the track's 50th anniversary season this year was "a must.")

"I don't think that's where we'll end up or where we want to be," Miles told me as to an Indy-only oval schedule. "We're just going to have to work really hard to make sure that's not the result. It's obvious that ovals got overbuilt. That creates challenges. It's certanly our intent for them to be part of the series.

"It's a hypothetical we don't ever expect to face. We will find ovals that will be vibrant events. We don't have a quota but it's a part of our racing and a big part of our brand is the diversity."

I Tweeted a bit about this ( @SpinDoctor500 ) and the other big part of my on-the-record portion of the conversation had to do with international events. Expect a couple of them in a narrow time window right after the Super Bowl. As I said to Miles, the world is a mess, and has terrorism caused him to rethink his plans? Of course, Miles was involved in many international tennis tournaments, so he got my drift. 

"We're not oblivious to the point," he said. "I won't name the person, but a well-known racing name came to me and said, 'You're not thinking of taking us to places where they kill Americans.' And I'm not."

Miles assured me security at overseas races can be independently verified. The big checks from those races will help bolster the Leader Circle plan money to teams. That might balance against companies not willing to sponsor cars in countries where they do not conduct business. 

One thing I'll really be watching in the coming months is if the IndyCar staff, especially in sales and absolutely especially in PR, will be greatly expanded. The series desperately needs a high-horsepower PR leader who knows relationship-building isn't done via E-mail. Miles needs someone aggressive enough to be knocking-down doors to get the national media attention that's so needed and necessary.

Especially during a long, cold, dark off-season.

[ more next week . . . ]



Sunday, August 24, 2014

NOTES FROM MY LEGAL PAD

Chris Economaki used to clean-out his notebook weekly for National Speed Sport News readers. Here are items written in recent weeks on the legal pad that's on my office desk:

The NASCAR weekend at Michigan International Speedway provided a useful insight into the mindset of the media these days. Despite layoffs and big budget cuts in the print industry, the MIS media center population was up over recent times as even out-of-state journalists traveled in case Tony Stewart was there. 

Here are five words that are as unlikely to appear on Internet forums as Terry Labonte is on Comedy Central: "I was wrong. I apologize."

The most troubled American racing series? No, not IndyCar. Big-time drag racing has very, Very, VERY serious problems. For the Powers-That-Be to deny this is ridiculous.

I don't know how it could be much better for NASCAR with both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon making headlines with major victories. If that continues into the Chase, lame-duck ESPN's ratings should be up. If they aren't, well . . . 

Did Joe Gibbs consult with Kyle Busch or Matt Kenseth before hiring Carl Edwards? You know, about personality clashes. Just asking . . .  

The Indianapolis and Bristol Motor Speedways are case study examples of how difficult it is to rebuild the fan base after doing things that turned-off the ticket buyers. Popularity is a very fragile thing, especially in the era of cell phone cameras and social media.

"Rebuilding" is a term usually associated with losing stick-and-ball sports teams. But that is exactly what Roush Fenway Racing will be doing next season.

I see no evidence that Toyota's on-track performance has improved since Lee White was replaced as TRD president.

Shame on the grassy-knoll Internet types and lazy media for not bothering to learn that sprint car drivers use the throttle to help steer on dirt tracks.

NASCAR's Cup schedule needs more than a little tweaking. From a ticket-selling standpoint, it's just dumb to have Phoenix-Las Vegas-Fontana and Dover-Pocono-Watkins Glen so close together. That might work in the south, but not elsewhere.

No disrespect to the ladies involved, but I've yet to meet or see any race queen that's in Linda Vaughn's league. And not just in appearance. And, as a group, Bill Brodrick's Union 76 RaceStoppers were a great part of the NASCAR scene. (I bet Chris would approve of this note.) I was a member of the old Union 76 Racing Panel of Experts, which set the favorite for major races, and those annual Panel dinners in Daytona before the 500 are fondly remembered. Those kind of gatherings simply do not happen today. Budget is just one reason. The philosophy of how to work with the media (relationship building) is anohter big one. I know the likes of Brodrick, Jim Chapman and Jack Duffy (who was Linda's boss at Hurst) would not approve.

Times change, but one thing that doesn't is my list of three favorite road courses includes Watkins Glen, Road America and Laguna Seca. Not just for the track, but also the beautiful surrounding area.

One disgraceful change that came with the welcomed ALMS and Grand-Am merger has been the demise of the ALMS' traveling medical and safety team. This is even more important in sports car racing. That's because of the high number of competitors and vehicles in different classes, which must be studied to know how to safely shut-off systems and extract drivers. Local "one-off" course workers cannot be expected to know how to deal with a crashed DP vs. a GT.

If, as we often are told, it's all about entertainment and keeping the fans happy, why prevent teams from working on their cars during a red flag? Having those cars on the track in competition surely is more interesting than being parked in the garage.

And, if safety is truly as important as we're all told it is, why ban tire-pressure sensors? It's insane for drivers to guess "I think a tire is going down" when there's passenger-car technology that can prevent or reduce accidents and crashed cars. NASCAR, please note, and get with it!

Sprint car racing, as a sport and industry, desperately needs to get the Knoxville Nationals back on live national TV. It would make business sense for World of Outlaws' series sponsor STP to get together with other involved companies and guarantee to buy the number of commercial spots necessary to make this happen. I know it's easy to tell other people how to spend their money, but I don't see how anyone involved could argue with this imperative.

I don't get it why more tracks don't offer "all you can eat" ticket packages. Seems to be a popular option at some other sports venues and perceived by fans (especially with families) as good value.

Every year public opinion polls show trust in, and respect for, the media goes down. Yet the gimmicks continue. In the last several weeks I've seen a guy sitting in a Fox News Channel studio in Los Angeles "report" on stories taking place in New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Just to give viewers the impression of real shoe-leather journalism. Please, don't be fooled.

Will Power gets another chance this Saturday night, at California's Auto Club Speedway, to prove he really is mentally tough-enough to win the Verizon IndyCar championship. His actions Sunday at Somona again call this into legitimate question.

Racing-developed technology really does transfer to passenger vehicles. I'm amazed at the electronic performance, fuel saving and safety features in today's cars (which I've recently test driven) such as paddle shifters, traction control, front-and-rear cameras, data displays, collision-prevention systems and so forth. Plus all sorts of electronic gizmos like navigation and voice command. Now, as long as the on-board computer doesn't crash . . . 

[ more next week . . . ]


Sunday, August 17, 2014

BAD EXAMPLE

It's been called "The SportsCenter Effect." It's when an athlete does something to draw attention to himself and it gets played repeatedly on ESPN. It's proven over time when the pro sports "heroes" do this it translates down into college play and, sadly, even high and elementary schools. The more outrageous or self-promoting the action, it seems, the better for TV. I would say basketball players have been the biggest offenders.

I have no reason to believe this hasn't happened to motorsports, too. One thing, from a Business of Racing standpoint, I've mentioned here many times is the unprofessional appearance that seemed to begin in Formula One with drivers walking around and doing interviews with their uniforms pulled down. Tens of millions of dollars in TV and photo exposure for sponsors has been lost. I guess some people think the underwear look is cool. It has made its way down the racing ladder, certainly in IndyCar, where Graham Rahal, for one, has been a chronic offender.

Another behavior that has evolved into a "norm" in NASCAR and other pro series is drivers getting out of their wrecked cars, walking down onto the track, and gesturing at whoever they think did them wrong. Remember Kurt Busch's "signal" to Jimmy Spencer in a years-ago Brickyard 400? Robby Gordon causing other drivers to dodge him on the backstretch at New Hampshire so he could throw his helmet at Michael Waltrip? Danica storming down a "hot" pit lane at Indianapolis to get into Ryan Briscoe's face? (She was cut-off-at-the-pass before reaching Briscoe.) I'm not picking on any of these drivers because they are among many, Many, Too Many examples of this.

This has made for, what the microphone-holders and producer-types like to call, "great TV." I feel sure this, also, has translated its way down and young drivers see these moments replayed over-and-over again and come to think it's OK conduct, it's acceptable, it's the way to go.

It was just a matter of time. Unfortunately, it happened in a local sprint car race, but the type of car doesn't matter. A 20-year-old was killed in a horrific way. TV and the Internet people couldn't seem to hit the "replay" button often enough. I could not help but notice the standards of acceptability have now been lowered to the point where high-profile cable networks decided it was OK to show it all. I remember when network executives decided in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, to stop replaying the video of people jumping from the World Trade Center. 

But, I guess, anything goes these days. And that is disgusting.

I think this problem has been worse in NASCAR because that rich organization still refuses to field its own safety team. The sanction depends on local course workers. Just watch the video over the years. Some are more forceful than others in keeping angry drivers off the track. Back in CART, and today in IndyCar, the safety team members are paid by the sanction, are race officials, and have much more authority (and confidence) in restraining drivers.

Once again I see NASCAR as being behind-the-curve -- reactive instead of proactive -- in safety (remember it took months for it to mandate the HANS Device even after Dale Earnhardt's death.) Here's what should have been announced last Friday: Unless fuel is leaking or there is risk of a fire, or an actual fire or some other overriding concern, the driver must remain in the car. Penalty for first offense: $50,000 fine, loss of 50 driver and owner points, and a one-race suspension. 


Whatever NASCAR and other organizations do, the ultimate responsibility is on the driver. Shame on the next one to angrily walk onto a "hot" track to vent anger. One of the first things I was taught as a child was not to walk out onto a street into on-coming traffic. 


It's always dangerous to generalize. In this case, however, I believe it is completely fair to say the overall media coverage was atrocious. And a showcase for all that is wrong -- ugly -- disgusting -- about the so-called "new" media. I used Twitter ( @SpinDoctor500 ) a lot, so if you wish you can review my numerous call-outs on the media there. Terrible to say, but NASCAR "partners" ESPN and Fox (News Channel) were among the very worst. With all the NASCAR race telecast announcers under contract, the best Fox could do was Jim Gray? Jim Gray? Jim Gray! Absurd and, no surprise, he had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.  Lead news anchor Shep Smith was another who didn't have a clue, saying the tragic accident involving Tony Stewart happened at  "NASCAR track." On the ESPN front, while I'm not into boycotts because too often they are counterproductive, it is fair for anyone to decide not to do business with any company that pays the elitist and narrow-minded Colin Cowherd to be its spokesman.

When ESPN2 first came on, one of its signature shows was hosted by Jim Rome, who immediately caused a big controversy by disrespecting guest Jim Everett. Rome thought it was funny to be rude. It so happened a day or two after that 1993 episode, Rome's producer called me about having Nigel Mansell on the show. I rejected the idea out-of-hand, citing the Everett incident, and said I would not insult a driver I represented by placing him with rude Rome. I also told this to a very senior ESPN executive. This was a policy I kept in place until 2004, until I put Robby Gordon on Rome's radio show. I would suggest to all racing publicists, in any series, anywhere, to immediately reject any offer to place their driver on Cowherd's Cowbleep show. 

There were so many bogus references to the accident as being in NASCAR, well, I guess the modern media couldn't figure out the difference between "Sprint Cup" and "Sprint Cars." 

Which leads me to this: Just where was the vaunted NASCAR Integrated Marketing Communications group and its "engagement center" capability to monitor what is being said of the sanction? There were countless references to the accident as being at a NASCAR race or at a NASCAR track -- the Drudge Report's banner headline was "Horror at NASCAR". All wrong. This wasn't the time for some new age conjured-up PR theory. It was a time for old-fashioned shoe leather work -- like picking up the telephone and calling their high-level contacts at media organizations to get this corrected. It either wasn't done -- shame; or it wasn't effective -- Brian France please note. This was the worst crisis PR non-response since an agency advised Randy Bernard that IndyCar not say anything after Dan Wheldon's death. So, for more than a week, that void was filled with negative stories.

Finally, there was the statement issued by Jeremie Corcoran, promoter of Canandaigua Motorsports Park. It ended with this (bold emphasis mine):

"Lastly, I had to have our Facebook Page taken down early Sunday morning due to insensitive and hateful comments. I plead with you to be respectful so we can keep this page active for you to keep informed."

Every aspect of this terrible incident was truly troubling. And profoundly sad.



Those on Twitter ( @SpinDoctor500 ) saw this first last week: "Let's Race 2," my latest CompetitionPlus.com column --
http://competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/28833-michael-knight-anyone-up-for-a-drag-racing-double-header

[ more next week . . . ]


Sunday, August 10, 2014

McGEE's STORY WORTH TELLING -- AND READING

(For my comments on the accident involving Tony Stewart, please go to Twitter and find me @SpinDoctor500 .)


It's an interesting experience to read a book by or about someone you've known for a long time.
Such is the case for me reading Jim McGee: Crew Chief of Champions, launched with a first-rate party Indianapolis 500 weekend at the Speedway Museum, which I attended.

I first met and interviewed Jim in the mid-1970s when I was with the Philadelphia Daily News. After a stint running Roger Penske's Indy Car team, which at that time was based in Reading, Pa. and thus covered by me as a "local" team, Jim returned to Indy to take charge of Pat Patrick's operation, succeeding George Bignotti. I had moved to Michigan to become CART's first communications director and McGee was a good resource for me. Whenever I had a journalist who needed help with a story on technical matters or pit stops or similar race team issues, I'd call Jim and ask him to speak with the reporter. Or get them connected at a track. He'd always do that and Jim has the talent to take such topics and explain them clearly. Then, in 1993 and '94, I worked directly with Jim when he was team manager at Newman/Haas Racing. 

Jim's tenure there included Nigel Mansell's historic PPG Cup championship in '93 and let me say, having seen all that happened behind closed garage and motorcoach doors, I don't think there's any way Nigel would have accomplished that without Jim. McGee's vast experience and calm manner helped Nigel understand what CART racing was about. No one could have done a better job. It was one of the best moves ever by Carl Haas. If Jim had not taken the job, it was going to go to someone with a lot of racing experience, but none in CART. Jim also was very smart about the rulebook and he exploited a loophole that allowed the crew to refuel and change tires when Nigel was blacked-flagged for supposedly passing in a yellow-flag zone in his debut race in Australia in 1993. Nigel went on to win, the first driver to take both the pole and race victory in his first start, with Jim on the radio with him all season. (CART subsequently ruled no more pit work during a penalty stop.) Jim, of course, is best known to many for his many years with Mario Andretti and together at Newman/Haas Mario won his last race, at Phoenix, in '93.

In more recent years, I was there at Manzanita Speedway when Jim was inducted into the Arizona Motorsports Hall of Fame, and in Indy when he became a member of the Speedway's Hall. He and Patrick tried to develop a racing program to showcase natural gas as a fuel. In fact, they wanted to try to break Arie Luyendyk's official IMS track speed record with a car fueled by natural gas, but the management then in place at the Speedway would not give the green light. Eventually, an ALMS class was to be powered by NG, but the merger with Grand-Am and a lack of corporate involvement stalled the project. Earlier this season, McGee emerged from his semi-retirement to call Ryan Briscoe's races.

Anyway, McGee's book, written by longtime journalist Gordon Kirby, is a good read for those wishing to understand what was happening with some of Indy Car's most famous teams and drivers. I like Kirby's technique of having many of the great names McGee worked with -- including Penske, Patrick, Andretti, Mansell, Danny Sullivan, Bobby Rahal, Emerson Fittipaldi, Adrian Fernandez, Scott Pruett, Rick Mears and Bobby Unser -- provide commentary specific to each chapter. 

Kirby takes McGee through his career journey that led him to becoming not only a four-time Indy 500 winner (Andretti, Mears, Gordon Johncock, Fittipaldi) but also Indy Car's most successful team manager/crew chief. I knew at least a few of the details of some of the fascinating stories McGee recalls, but most were new to me. (I'll bet to you, too.) Those sometimes crazy early years working and traveling with the legendary Clint Brawner and Andretti, well, I bet a lot of younger readers will think "no way" those kind of things actually happened. But I know they did. 

In books like this, I always look to see just how candid it will be. I've known for decades that part of Jim's great success has been his calm personality and, well, I'll call it diplomatic skills. But McGee does give you a good taste of things, such as the debacle of the car designed for Vel's Parnelli Jones Racing's so-called "Super Team." Most fans buy into the notion of Penske's "unfair advantage" but McGee says the cars he ran there were very stock, that the gains came from management and organizational skills, smart thinking in calling races, attention to detail and the budget to do lots of testing.

I can personally vouch for what McGee says Haas told him, which was to focus his time and attention on Mansell. Of course, this put a strain on Jim's long relationship with Andretti. McGee, via Kirby, writes that he doesn't think Mario really understood this is the way Carl said it had to be done. I agree with what Jim states in the book because Haas essentially told me the same thing. "This guy (Mansell) needs a lot of love," Carl told me right from the beginning. And the unprecedented international media attention made it a true necessity.

Jim remembers Brawner saying it's not all the fancy tools or equipment a team might have, what counts is what the team does with what it does have. A basic, but very insightful, philosophy. Jim has told me, and many others, that at Indy it's key to stay calm and follow your plan. Too many drivers, owners, crew chiefs, etc. get nervous when practice days are lost to rain and change what they do -- and that's what usually leads to trouble. My friend Bill Yeager, one of racing's all-time great characters, used to say such people were "jukey." Others, fully of the mind that nothing outside of Indianapolis is important, Yeager would say suffered from "Hoosierites."

I must congratulate Kirby, who has been a friend for three-plus decades, for the obvious great personal effort he put into this project. And I must also compliment publisher Joseph Freeman and the production staff for a strong presentation. The 286-page hardbound book just plain looks terrific. The photos brought back memories and often made me smile. The listings of Jim's drivers and wins is a great touch. Sure, I found a few errors, but none that take away the high value of the end product. It's certainly the best racing book I've read since Bones Bourcier's As a matter of fact, I am Parnelli Jones. It's important to racing history that this book exists.

You can't go wrong buying and reading Crew Chief of Champions. I'm proud to own a copy (yes, I paid the $75 price) and grateful for the very kind inscriptions from both Jim and Gordon.

Get it, IndyCar (and racing history) fans, because your premature and long off-season is only weeks away. 

For more information, go to www.RaceMakerPress.com or www.GordonKirby.com

[ more next week . . . ]

Sunday, August 03, 2014

SORRY

Apologies. This is one of those weeks where other priorities have kept me from thinking and writing. I plan to post anew next week. Thank you.