• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

THE INDY MINDSET

Indianapolis. Friday. 6 a.m.

I click on the TV in my downtown Hyatt room. I start my day by hearing a local anchor say this:

"You are looking live at 16th and Georgetown, the most famous intersection in the world."

I immediately change the channel.

That, my friends, is the strongest impression from my time in Indy last week for the 91st edition of the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" -- the absolute disconnect from reality among the Hoosier media gentry. Up in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway media center, I quizzed about a half-dozen of the locals I know well and, unanimously, their comments were along the lines of "what a great month it's been."

Really? Were they saying so over in the Speedway ticket office? Sponsor sales department? I did a downtown tour the night before the race and seating was immediately available in many of the most popular restaurants. Even with more quality dining options for the choosing, such openings were unthinkable until the IRL Indy 500 era began in 1996.

In fairness, my visual observation was not as many obvious sections of unoccupied grandstands as recent times, so race-day attendance maybe was UP. But with all due respect to the late Tony Hulman, a man I knew and liked and respected and who saved the Speedway from oblivion and built the 500 into the world's largest sporting event, 16th and Georgetown is NOT the "most famous intersection in the world." My list starts with Hollywood and Vine. That's the spot where wannabe “stars” went to be "discovered." Indy once was like that, too. Can anyone HONESTLY say contemporary winners such as Buddy Rice or Eddie Cheever or Dan Wheldon or even Sam Hornish Jr. attained the level of celebrity of Parnelli Jones or Bobby Unser or Johnny Rutherford or even Danny Sullivan?

Or Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart or Dale Earnhardt Jr.?

Friday's Carb Day crowd did evoke some memories of glory years past. A ton of that had to do with Kid Rock's post-practice concert. Let me tell you from personal experience -- and confirmed to me by some of my Indy police friends -- that crowd in the infield concert area was one of the meanest you could ever hope not to encounter. (Naturally, IMS chooses to place media parking only yards away.) Nothing wrong with doing what must be done to get people in the gates, mind you, but I do wonder just how many of them were (or became) race fans? The kind who will come back when the music isn't blaring or will watch the ABC/ESPN telecasts. That's what is needed to build a long-term public foundation of popularity . . . and prosperity.

I also duly noted that some national media biggies took a decidedly "Indy is back" attitude. Well, I would politely ask them to read my "The Bottom Line" column in the May/June issue of Race News magazine. I detail -- based on having lived it -- exactly the mistakes that were made that cause Indy to no longer be Indy. Actually, what was obvious to me was the pro-Indy media movement was a conscious attempt at a bit of NASCAR pushback -- at a time when NASCAR is in a lull and thus a bit vulnerable. Now, it could well be our stock car friends have set themselves up for that sort of media pushback. Even so, it didn’t change my fundamental view: After my 31st Indy 500, I agree it remains a terrific event, but it's no longer what it was. Sorry to say, in my opinion, it never will be. But the problems will NEVER be effectively dealt with until all the constituency groups admit to the realities of 2007. Not by living with a 20th century "cheer for the hometown team" mindset.

Friday may have been a good day. Ditto Sunday. Maybe the month of May. Only, however, by using the downsized yardstick dated “1996-present.”

If you think "the most famous intersection in the world" was bad, let me wrap this section with another example. Sunday morning, an Indy TV lady was talking with a soldier serving in Iraq. When it was mentioned that our soldiers over there would be able to watch the race on "live" television, the local TV lady said how "lucky" they were, because the 500 is on a delayed telecast in Indy. Let me understand: Someone is "lucky" to be in Iraq because that means he/she can watch the Indy 500? How absurd. Indy will never again be Indy until that sort of narrow-minded media mentality is banished to the dumpster of journalism history.

Where have our standards gone?
********************************************************************
Adding Up Indy . . .

- Another place that needs an upgrade in standards is the IMS interview room. The Speedway-assigned moderator acts like a FAN, not a pro. Here's an on-point example, from a bump day press conference with non-qualifying driver Jimmy Kite and car owner Paul Diatlovich.

Moderator: "Darn. Put forth an effort, and I imagine the pain is just immense. Gentlemen, we wish we were talking to you again in happier times, but just talk about the whole experience and what happened near the end and what ultimately was the situation that resulted in you falling just a little bit short . . . Paul, this thing can be just a very fickle mistress, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway."

A visit to a Super Bowl, World Series or Kentucky Derby interview room would reveal to IMS PR management such nonsense would not be tolerated. I've sat in the back of the Speedway interview room with big-time media members, and watched their shaking heads and heard their groans, as this goes on. Standards . . .

- The most predictable thing that happened all week was the USA Today cover story on Danica Patrick. And, in the media center, I detected that gushy Danica reporters have now reset the bar for her performance. The new conventional wisdom among those who think with something other than their brains goes roughly like this: "Danica shouldn't be criticized for not having won a race (not only in IndyCar, but anywhere, for way over a decade). She's doing a good job. She doesn't throw away her opportunities on the track (uh, remember Homestead?). Maybe she will win a race, but even if she doesn't, she's doing a good job." Maybe it's just me, but I always thought the point of racing, baseball, football, golf, tennis, bowling or whatever, was to WIN! Standards . . .

- Memo to the USA Today editors: David Carter does not have to be quoted in EVERY story with a business angle. Just like Darrell Waltrip should not be quoted in EVERY story about NASCAR. Yes, I know those comments are EASY for you to get . . . but there are OTHER legitimate sources and perspectives. It would not be too much work to find ‘em. Your readers would benefit from different points of view.

+ Full credit to ABC for staying with the coverage, despite the almost three-hour rain delay. (Of course, the network had a moral, if not contractual, obligation to do so given the pushed-back start time was a TV-driven decision.) But we know other broadcasters might well have dumped off to cable. So, cheers, ABC. I have heard mixed reviews of the actual telecast, but I won't yet comment, as I have not been able to watch the full tape. Congratulations to George McNeilly and Andy Hall of ESPN's communications department for being professonal enough to spend several days in Indy and for participating with AARWBA. One would think that would be a no-brainer. Others at other TV network PR departments show it is not.

+ Overall, the Indy 500 was a GOOD -- not great -- race.

- The start, however, was one of the worst in history. (That is, one not involving a wreck.) The front row took the green flag single file! Brian Barnhart has dumped Indy's historically correct tight 11-rows-of-three formation until a green flag just before the Yard of Bricks on the basis of safety. But, c'mon Brian, by letting that green wave Sunday, you left the impression you didn't even trust Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti to do it safely.

- Unlike Churchill Downs, where spectators pleasantly sing My Old Kentucky Home before the Derby, IMS' attempt to sub for ailing Jim Nabors by having fans do Back Home Again in Indiana was a flat-out flop. An audiotape of Nabors' famous performance would have been far better.

? Tomas Scheckter, who drives for Tony George, said this after his contact with Sam Hornish. "He’s such a good champion, such a good driver but what an idiot, a real idiot. Straight down the front straight, comes straight in. I hope I damaged his car when he hit my front wing. We are lucky that he had just a flat tire and I’ve got a broken wing. Next time he does that to me, I’m definitely not going to lift and will ram him straight into that front wall.” If a threat like that doesn't draw a penalty, I don't know what will. OK, Brian Barnhart, will you act? Or give Tomas a pass because his car owner is your boss? The answer will be revealing to all of us.

+ I spent an enjoyable several minutes catching up with Al Unser Jr. Susan Wade asked me to do an impromptu interview with Al for 1320tv.com. The two-time Indy winner revealed that, over the years, he’s received invitations to test NHRA Top Fuel and Funny Cars. Including an offer from John Force!

- Rapper Ludacris, whose vile lyrics are as out of place with Midwest values as coconut trees, was a "celebrity" in the 500 Festival Parade and at the race. Here's what he had to say: "The fans love me, and I show the love back. I have a lot of fans here in Indianapolis . . . "

+ Congratulations to Chris Economaki, recipient of the third annual Bob Russo Founder’s Award, presented at Saturday’s annual AARWBA breakfast meeting co-hosted by Firestone and Honda. And to photographer John Mahoney, winner of the Straight Shooters Award, in memory of Art Flores and Ron Hussey. That came with a $500 prize courtesy of Fernandez Racing.

+ Thanks to Indy poleman Helio Castroneves for maintaining a semi-tradition by stopping-by the AARWBA breakfast. And to Davey Hamilton, who came to accept the Angelo Angelopolous Award, for sportsmanship. P.J. Jones came, too, to get the infamous “Jigger” Award, for tough luck. IMS Executive VP Fred Nation passed out $10,000 in prizes to winners in the annual AARWBA journalism contest – including to me, for first place in the online column category.

- Take a look at this photo (link below). I'm not referencing the fact this driver is signing autographs. I have no doubt this plays directly into the image truly desired by the driver pictured. I also have no doubt that, while one of the driver's sponsors loves the "look," it is counter to another corporate backer's "family" positioning in the marketplace. Legitimate questions: Does this show class? Dignity? Professionalism? Respect for the public? For sponsors? For the sport? The NFL recently fined one of its athletes $100,000 for a violation of the League's dress code at Super Bowl media day. It's long past time for motorsports' sanctioning bodies -- in this case, the IRL -- to establish and enforce standards of public behavior -- and appearance -- at the track. What is shown here should be unacceptable to anyone who considers himself or herself a pro. The photo also symbolizes what has gone terribly wrong at the Indianapolis 500 -- a sad lowering of the standards of excellence the great race used to represent . . . and demand. http://www.speedtv.com/_assets/library/img/large/153121_dp.jpg

********************************************************************

Congratulations to my friends, Jamie and Betsy Reynolds, who will mark the 500th Racing Roundup Arizona show next Monday night, June 4. Now in its 10th season, RRA is a weekly two-hour motorsports' information radio program on KXAM (1310 AM; can be heard on http://KXAM.com or http://RacingRoundup.com). Thanks, Jamie and Betsy, for your contributions to the success of motorsports in Arizona. I hope everyone who does racing business in the state says "thank you."


[ more next Tuesday . . . ]