• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

YOU SHOULD BE WATCHING

It is, to me, a sad fact that the media and public only awakened to road racing last weekend when NASCAR got twisty at Sonoma. With all due respect to Jeff Gordon and others who do it well, to consider 3,400-pound stock cars proper road racing machines is as laughable as Rosie O'Donnell guest hosting The O'Reilly Factor.

The previous weekend was Le Mans -- take your pick, either LeM or Monaco is the world's most famous road race -- while the Rolex Sports Car Series was at Mid-Ohio the same time Nextel Cup savored the Napa Valley. Not that you'd know it by reading USA Today or Sports Illustrated or other national media outlets, but the BEST RACING in the country right now isn't found in NASCAR, IRL or Champ Car -- which combine for probably 90 percent of total coverage (NASCAR deserves it, excluding the Indy 500, the others don't) -- it's in the Rolex Daytona Prototype class and the American Le Mans Series' P2 category.

DP has produced five different winners in the first seven events. The positives include some attractive U.S. driver names (if not superstars) like Scott Pruett, Alex Gurney and Patrick Long and strong manufacturer participation from Lexus, Pontiac, Porsche, Ford and BMW. ALMS' P2 currently features a mighty struggle between Porsche (with two factory cars entered by Roger Penske) and a trio of Acura teams (including Andretti Green and Fernandez). Acura, with Dario Franchitti, Bryan Herta and Tony Kanaan driving, finished second overall at Sebring. The Penske Porsches have taken class honors the last four times out, including overall triumphs at Long Beach, Houston and Utah, vs. the P1 class titan Audi diesels.

It is good racing -- the finishing segment at Mid-Ohio had Pruett, David Donohue, Colin Braun and Max Angelelli nose-to-tail for second place -- and entertainment. Too bad not enough of you know it.


I pin some of that -- but certainly not all -- on the Grand-Am and ALMS. The Rolex cars have legitimately been knocked as not very sexy (have you looked at the Car of Tomorow?) -- hopefully, that is going to change. It wasn't the wisest decision to be at unglamorous Mid-Ohio at the same time Champ Car was in Cleveland for the 26th consecutive year. But both G-A and ALMS generally are extremely weak in terms of individual team PR/marketing talent and what sponsors there are certainly don't do much to attract press attention or activate the sponsorship. (I'd credit Lowe's support of Adrian Fernandez in ALMS as a rare exception.) Hey, folks, it's all about PUBLICITY and PROMOTION! (I suspect some of these sponsor managers would be shocked by what could be accomplished with a modest budget used by the right person.) While not helpful, I don't believe the existence of two sports car series is a huge negative factor, such as the IRL-Champ Car split.

The biggest issue remains the obvious one: Pruett, Gurney and Long aside, there are NOT ENOUGH AMERICAN DRIVERS. I would have hoped the respective managements would have, by now, learned this lesson from their open-wheel counterparts. If I were commissioner, it would be a rule that every team must have at least one U.S. driver. (!)

Applause to Gainsco team owner Bob Stallings, one of the few who gets it: Californians Gurney and Jon Fogarty are the only duo to clock multiple Rolex wins this season. (Mid-Ohio made it two in-a-row and three in total.) On the other hand, it defies any known logic for potential superstar Long -- a factory Porsche driver -- not to be assigned by the automaker to one of its Penske entries in what is called the American Le Mans Series. A Troubling Sign-of-the-Times: Young and fast Colin Braun just signed a development deal with Jack Roush and is headed to ARCA in '08.

Sometimes, it's frustrating to be a sports car fan. While the raw horsepower and win-one-weekend/DNQ-the-next nature of the NHRA Top Fuel and Funny Car classes fascinates me, this summer, I'm enjoying Daytona Prototype and ALMS' P2 more than any other racing.
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Aric Almirola deserves criticism, but Joe and J.D. Gibbs get the blame, with an assist to Milwaukee Mile management.

I assume you know the story of Saturday night's Busch Series race at Milwaukee. Gibbs' development driver Almirola qualified the No. 20 Chevrolet on pole as Denny Hamlin was en route from Sonoma. When Hamlin didn't arrive in time for the start, Almirola led, until he was ordered to get out in favor of Denny during a yellow. Hamlin went on to finish first, but a bleeped-off Almirola wasn't in victory lane to share the glory, because he refused interviews and left the track.

Here are the key points:

* Young Almirola let his emotions get the best of him -- always a mistake. Everyone can understand his disappointment, but at this stage in his career, Aric isn't a "star" and certainly not in a position to do anything other than be a good "team" player and do what his employer says. He would have gained goodwill and respect by sitting on the pit stand wearing headphones and cheering Hamlin to the checkered flag. Someone should have been there to make him understand that fact.

* J.D. Gibbs blew it by not giving specific instructions to whoever was in charge of his Busch operation in Milwaukee. In subsequent media interviews, Gibbs said he left the call on whether or not to replace Almirola as a "group decision."
That is not leadership.

* Multiple news reports said Hamlin would have been there for the green, except his helicopter couldn't land at the track, because cars were parked on the helipad.
That represented a security shortfall and potential public safety issue and demands an explanation from Milwaukee Mile management. If the Milwaukee Journal doesn't ask, NASCAR should.


* Joe Gibbs Racing burnished its reputation for not having the ability -- read that PEOPLE -- to properly manage young drivers. From the beginning, Gibbs failed to surround Tony Stewart with strong and experienced professionals, to teach him and guide him away from the predictable PR crises which followed. (Amazing that Gibbs' spokesman for the Milwaukee debacle was the same person who has fallen-down on the job so many times re: Tony.) It also turned out Hamlin missed Saturday's first Cup practice at Sonoma because he misunderstood the schedule -- any properly managed team I've been around has a structure in place to keep its drivers organized and on time. Gibbs not only failed Almirola, he put his star-in-the-making, Hamlin, in a difficult spot in terms of his own image because there are lots of fans who think Denny should just have said "no." (Not an option.)

* Worst of all, Gibbs broke the most important rule in the Business of Racing: NEVER make your sponsor the source of controversy. J.D. Gibbs implied the strong presence at the Mile by local company Rockwell Automation -- and the wish of their guests to see Hamlin in action -- as the central reason for the driver change. Bad, BAD PR mistake. He should have accepted responsibility and said it plain and clear: "It was my decision."

NASCAR might do Almirola a favor, and provide the discipline the Gibbs' group apparently is incapable of, with a point penalty and fine for not following victory lane procedures. After all, according to NASCAR's own rules, Aric was the winner -- and skipped out on the ceremonies. Meanwhile, Almirola's family, friends and advisors should now know Aric's best interests with the media and in the marketplace of public opinion can't be entrusted to those chosen by Gibbs Racing.
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+ Angelle Sampey, Ashley Force and Melanie Troxel for a good segment on ABC's Good Morning America in advance of Englishtown. Done outside the ABC studio in New York City, Sampey's Army Suzuki and Force's Castrol Ford Mustang were on display. Troxel cleanly fielded a misleading question about the recent accident in Tennessee involving a Pro Mod car in a charity parade, stressing the safety standards at NHRA-sanctioned tracks.

- Chris Cuomo, who was poorly prepared for the Angelle-Ashley-Melanie interview. I especially felt bad for Sampey -- ABC's Cuomo didn't even use her last name when introducing the trio. (!) His question to Troxel about the Tennessee incident was badly phrased and made it clear he didn't know (and, apparently, hadn't bothered to learn) the subject matter.

! I hope Paul Newman didn't notice: With IRL on ABC and Champ Car on CBS up-against each other "live" for two hours Sunday -- no doubt a huge ratings sinkhole -- at the exact same time Newman driver Sebastien Bourdais was leading in Cleveland, his sponsor, McDonald's, was the advertiser on IndyCar's "side-by-side" commercial break.

- Brienne Pedigo is the poster girl for the new generation of what I call television "microphone holders." Not only does Pedigo ask terribly weak questions -- "What's going on out there?" "Can you tell us what happened?" -- she does so in an always tentative, sometimes stumbling manner. According to a press release, she's "an actress, singer and dancer (who) grew up in a racing and sports-oriented family and has been performing since the age of two." And was a pit reporter on some USAC sprint and midget races. This is what passes these days as "credentials" to get TV work.

- I've said before that NASCAR and it's media "partners" should try toning-down the excessive hype and over-dramatization for a while. I'm convinced the public has grown tired of every little happening being blown-up into the most important news since America won the Cold War. (Lesson for Texas Motor Speedway, which after a week of breathless Danica-Dan BS, had the "550" IRL race lose 38 percent of its lead-in Busch Series audience on ESPN2.) Nextel Cup's first twisty contest of the season, at Infineon Raceway, historically hasn't been known for its great showbiz so we got a big dose of how "competitive" the race might be because drivers like Terry Labonte and Ricky Rudd and others are "great road racers who could challenge for the win." No disrespect to Labonte or Rudd, but neither has won turning left-right in over five years, back when Cup's talent pool of road racers was much more shallow. And just what evidence was there to make one believe Michael Waltrip or Robert Yates would be able to provide either with a winning Car of Tomorrow for Infineon?

? Count me among the amazed when SPEED cut-away from "live" Nextel Cup qualifying at Sonoma Friday -- before Juan Montoya made his much-anticipated run -- to go to Milwaukee for the Truck pre-race show.

- Mike King, on XM Satellite radio: “Lewis Hamilton will easily shatter all of Michael Schumacher’s Grand Prix records.” A classic example of contemporary media bluster and exaggeration. For the record: Schumacher retired with a record seven world championships and 91 victories. Rookie Hamilton has two wins and is leading in points.

+ Roush Fenway Racing is worth $316 million and ranks as the most valuable operation in NASCAR. So says a Forbes magazine survey. Hendrick Motorsports came in No. 2 at $297 million. Forbes made its estimates based on a variety of factors, including sponsorship contracts, other business deals, and scale of operations. I guess this will lead to another round of debate about franchising.



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