• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

MAY DAZE

I'll be watching to see if Sunday's 91st Indianapolis 500 continues the trend of May comebacks. Or keeps collapsing like Katie Couric's ratings.

The Kentucky Derby, another American classic that has enjoyed more popular and prosperous times, got a bounce with the Queen in the grandstands and Street Sense in the winner's circle. NBC's presentation of "The Run for the Roses" blossomed with a pretty seven percent increase over the 2006 numbers. Last Saturday's Preakness gave us a more thrilling finish than Indy '06.

Friday night boxing, sponsored by Gillette, carried a big punch when I was growing up. These days, there are so many champions in various weight classes in an alphabet soup of sanctioning groups, well, they are as anonymous as open-wheel drivers. But the Oscar De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather Jr. bout a few weeks ago set a record with 2.15 million household buys.

Now, it's Indy's turn. I'm less than optimistic. The Speedway, at its best, was once a historic proving ground for technical innovation, but ABC and IMS Productions have only now gotten around to showing the "Greatest Spectacle" in HD -- putting them about three years behind the curve. Of course, the 500 field is virtually spec -- all Honda, all Firestone, almost all Dallara. As forecast here, both the network and the track are promoting the "first" of two female pit reporters -- Jamie Little and Brienne Pedigo -- their respective news releases brought to my attention by several sharp readers. (It's three, if you count Nicole Manske, on the radio net. That makes sense -- think about it!)

Thank God, some media credential wearer stood up for professionalism with this question to Danica Patrick in the interview room: No, I am NOT making this up!

"How hard is it to get your hair inside the helmet?"

Patrick: "Well, I don't have my hair band on. I just put it back, it goes underneath my suit. It's pretty easy."

I've been disappointed by the Indianapolis Star's coverage. What? No more "Daily Danica"? Not even a "Sarah Second-by-Second" or "Milka Moment-by-Moment" diary? I could tell standards were lowered when a May 8 story led with, "All of a sudden, the Indianapolis 500 is flush with competitors . . . the event could have as many as 37 car-and-driver combinations for qualifications . . ." I know the Star's journalistic yardstick has shrunk when FOUR over the MINIMUM = flush. (!)

Columnist Bob Kravitz did ride to the paper's rescue with his May 14 piece, questioning why the IRL had not tested Al Unser Jr. for drugs and alcohol. I've known, worked with, and liked Al Jr. for years -- but Kravitz was absolutely right. It's the single-best example of opinion journalism I've seen emerge from the IMS media center this decade.

I respect the loyalty and commitment of true fans -- a declining population at the Speedway. Indy's issues, however, will NEVER be corrected until there's an HONEST acknowledgement of the problems by ALL the constituency groups. I was disappointed to read one chatroomer's response to Kravitz' excellent column: "Kravitz is just trying to create a negative story because things are going too well at 16th and Georgetown this year."

You betcha! Man, it hasn't been this tough to get a ticket since "Mansell Mania!"

Please, please, enjoy the event to the max of your desire -- but STOP drinking the Kool-Aid. That includes the Indy TV and radio types -- some part-timers for Hulman family broadcasting interests -- who keep announcing how "great" everything is in the "racing capital of the world." That, my friends, is 20th century thinking.

For the third consecutive year, IMS made questionable use of resources Monday, by hauling all 33 drivers to New York City for a photo-op on Times Square's Military Island. Maybe this was worth trying once, but no longer. With THOUSANDS of seats available, I can't believe Tony George hasn't ordered his troops to spend promo money in a way that might actually SELL TICKETS. That means a race-week publicity offensive in western Indiana and the half-dozen neighboring states . . . NOT New York. (!) But rapper Ludacris, whose vile lyrics represent the polar-opposite of traditional midwest values, will be in the 500 Festival Parade. Yes, the decision-making process continues to make complete sense -- as proven by the "results."

Meanwhile, over at Champ Car, some drivers and series execs went on a multi-country European media tour to pump-up forthcoming races in Belgium and the Netherlands. I don't know if new VP of Strategic Development and Communications David Higdon (formerly of ATP tennis; I read a few of his father Hal's motorsports books) scripted the remarks for CC President Steve Johnson, but I sure would NOT have recommended this: According to the tour blog posted on the series' site, Johnson told the Euro journos, "I think it's fair to say that Champ Car has come home, because this series has a lot of European drivers and in terms of victories over the last few years, it has been dominated by European drivers. So it's good to be here interacting with the most knowledgeable open-wheel media in the world."

I'm sure the few remaining U.S. reporters and fans who care about CC really appreciated those comments.
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When does non-news rate 14 graphs on the AP wire? When it comes from Humpy Wheeler Nextel All-Star Challenge week. That's what AP gave Humpy's annual prediction of who would win the race, described in the story as presented "in his carnival-barker style . . . with an assist from an illusionist." True NEWS, indeed. For the record, he picked Jimmie Johnson, but Kevin Harvick made it to victory lane.

The non-points exhibition has long outlived its purpose -- remember, it was dreamed-up by Winston to give NASCAR extra publicity during May, back when the Indy 500 dominated the media scene. The event has been hyped light years beyond any reasonable standard of decency (which makes the published winning average speed of 89.091 mph that much more laughable) with each new gimmick serving only to further diminish its credibility. Whatever speck of legitimacy this showbiz show had left was shredded when Kenny Wallace was put into the Challenge via a "fan vote" (he finished last among those running at the end) -- a result worthy of attention from all you Florida 2000 election conspiracy theorists. Kenny Wallace is an All-Star! Up next, Paris Hilton on the cover of Time as Person of the Year!
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Did you know there were two "major" sports car races last weekend? Don't worry, not too many did. With sponsors trying to scratch-out any useful publicity via the ALMS or Rolex Series, I'm stunned that the "businessmen" in both series don't do Carl Edwards-backflips to make sure funders at least get what they paid for in their deals. Saturday, in Utah, a garland wreath was bestowed upon Penske Porsche winners Ryan Briscoe and Sascha Maassen. See ya, DHL ID for the CBS cameras! Over at G-A at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, The Terrible Towel (for Performance SomethingOrOther) made its way onto the shoulders of runners-up Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas. Sorry, series sponsor Rolex and presenter Crown Royal, the value of your TV time during that SPEED interview = ZERO. Sanctioning body officials, who supposedly control the victory lane/podium area, should NOT ALLOW the logo of their series sponsor to be covered. Period. And the award for the worst announcing on a weekend of non-All-Star announcing goes to Chris Neville. He opened his Speed Report report from Laguna Seca by calling the Rolex conclusion "another fantastic finish." THE RACE ENDED UNDER YELLOW!
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I'm the MC of Saturday's annual AARWBA breakfast meeting in Indy, co-hosted by Firestone and Honda. Pole winner Helio Castroneves and another two-time winner, Arie Luyendyk, will be among the guests. Several traditional awards will be presented and winners of AARWBA's journalism contest, sponsored by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, will be announced. Havoline, marking 20 years as a NASCAR Cup team sponsor, just signed-on as sponsor of the organization's June newsletter -- the company's first participation with AARWBA. Lowe's Home Improvement and Budweiser are set as upcoming newsletter sponsors.
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Wrapping-Up My Indy 500 memories . . .

+ I'll be attending my 31st Indianapolis 500 this Sunday. I hold membership card No. 1,000 in the Indy 500 Oldtimers Club. I have a chunk of original Speedway bricks embedded in the walkway at my home.

- The way too many in Speedway management and on the staff disrespect those who made contributions to the history -- and success -- of the Indy 500.


[ Blogging the Indy 500, next Tuesday . . . ]