• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Thursday, August 03, 2006

COVERING THE COVERAGE

A warning to drivers who behave badly (and their publicists): While veteran motorsports journalists may give you the benefit of the doubt, and usually report what happens accurately because they understand what they are seeing, don’t automatically expect the same from mainstream media.

This was proven – again – last Sunday on ESPN’s long-running and influential The Sports Reporters. The show’s panelists focus on the stick-and-ball games and mention racing about as often as they do rodeo. In his concluding “Parting Shots” commentary, host John Saunders teed-off on Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards for their antics at Pocono. Fair enough (and I agree). But Saunders veered off-base by saying Edwards “spun Stewart dangerously toward his pit crew.”

Wrong. As the video played over Saunders’ words proved, Carl hit Tony in a way he knew would turn Stewart rightaway from crew members. Edwards specifically said in post-race interviews he did that intentionally because he respects those whose job takes them over the wall. Saunders’ bottom line was such retaliation could end up “killing someone.”

Speaking of drivers behaving badly, hello Alex Tagliani and Paul Tracy! Their confrontation at San Jose last Sunday raises two points:

1. It obviously was entertaining for the media and SportsCenter producers, but that does not make it right. Professional athletes should never act unprofessionally. Since Tagliani (photo courtesy Champ Car World Series) telegraphed his intentions with a huffy walk back to the pits -- straight toward Tracy – I can’t help but ask why someone from Team Australia’s management didn’t intercept him to stop this PR embarrassment before it happened? I’ve done just that at least three times in my career. A Sports Illustrated photographer captured one incident, and a grateful sponsor executive put the image into a gold frame, and gave it to me along with a “thank you” note. It hangs on my office wall.

2. Worse still was the journalistic judgment in the NBC production truck, as TV cut away from Tagliani-Tracy just as they started swinging, to show a pit stop. It was asked on Wind Tunnel if the race or the fight should have been the priority. The answer is clear: Cover the news! Two drivers brawling in full public view is a far bigger story than a routine pit stop, which could have been taped, and replayed if necessary. Compounding the error was the questioning – no, the lack of meaningful questioning – of protagonist Tagliani. And, at least twice, Champ Car President Steve Johnson was visible in the background during interviews with backmarkers on the extended post-race time filler. Why wasn’t Johnson, or race director Tony Cotman, put on camera and asked about potential penalties to Tag and Tracy? (Fines, of an undisclosed amount, were announced Wednesday.) Comments from the respective team owners, Derrick Walker and Gerald Forsythe, would have been appropriate. Champ Car changes production companies (four in four years; currently John Mullin's group) the way Paris Hilton does boyfriends. Paris goes for variety and quantity; CC desperately needs stability and quality.

If Danica Patrick’s hissy fit at Michigan, after she apparently ran out of fuel, had been limited to when she got out of the car, I’d buy into the notion that it showed her “competitive fire.” When the antics – foot-stomping, helmet-dropping, stopping-and-sulking -- persisted throughout her walk back to the pits, though, perceptions changed. To my experienced eye, it had all-the-look of playing to the ABC/ESPN TV cameras and print photographers, plus whatever fans remained in the stands. The harshest judgment would be to call it intentional showboating. If that's true, Danica fell into the hands of her critics, because it could be said her very public actions tended to reinforce certain societal stereotypes. I’ll be polite and simply say the scene was not very attractive.

Sports car drivers remain as anonymous as corner workers and last Sunday’s Rolex Sports Car telecast on Speed helps explain why. Daytona Prototype No. 11 was involved in an early race incident and had to pit. Moments later, officials called a penalty, and brought the car back into the pits. Throughout this multi-minute drama, however, the booth and pit announcers repeatedly referred to what was happening with “the 11.” I still don’t know who was driving! In fact, I noticed many examples of car numbers, not driver names, used as the primary or only identification throughout the three-hour presentation. Memo to the producers: This isn’t NASCAR, where even casual fans can say who is in the 8, 20 and 24.

It is with sadness and respect that I note the death of Dick Ralstin. Dick, who saw his first race in 1933 at a half-mile dirt oval in Rochester, Ind. and later became sports editor of the Kokomo Morning Times, served 11 years as PR manager for Goodyear’s racing division. Some seasons he worked as many as 40-50 events. Bob Markus, now retired from the Chicago Tribune, recalled he missed the winner’s interview the first time he covered the Indianapolis 500 in 1968 because he didn’t know his way around the Speedway. Dick came to the rescue and quickly arranged a one-on-one Q&A with Bobby Unser. Ralstin finished his career as field manager for Goodyear’s off-road racing program, until he retired in 1987, and settled in New Mexico.

[ more Tuesday . . . ]