• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

ESPN's TURN

I confess: When it comes to motorsports, I have a bit of a pro-ESPN mindset. I guess I feel like I played a (very) minor role in the network's racing history.

It was a small story, deep inside the pages of the Wall Street Journal in the late 1970s, that first made me realize ESPN could be big. The article revealed that Budweiser had agreed to become the network's initial major advertiser. I remember wondering if racing could find a place at this cable TV upstart, but I was thinking more USAC sprints, not Nextel Cup.

In December 1980, a little over a month after becoming CART's original director of communications, I traveled to ESPN's New York City offices to see what we might do together. This was the era where its programming was filled with Australian rules football, but I could offer Johnny Rutherford, Al and Bobby Unser, Rick Mears and (sometimes) Mario Andretti. (Rutherford was being honored as Driver of the Year that week and I invited a SportsCenter crew to the 21 Club to interview him.) A few months of back-and-forth resulted in CART Chairman John Frasco signing a deal.

So, in June 1981, we met up at the Milwaukee Mile for what would become ESPN's debut "live" race telecast. Bob Jenkins was the anchor, joined in the booth by Larry Nuber. Gary Lee went solo in the pits. Terry Lingner produced and Mike Wells directed. Throughout the weekend I was explaining to drivers, owners and chief mechanics what was happening and requesting their cooperation. I introduced the group at the pre-race drivers' meeting, and one driver came up to me and asked, "What's ESPN?" It was an eventful day -- I did my first-ever TV interview with Gary to explain there were no serious injuries after a pit fire -- while Mike Mosley came from the back of the field to win the 150 in Dan Gurney's Pepsi Challenger Eagle stock-block Chevy.

Everyone came away pleased and a long-term relationship was born. Jenkins became one of my most reliable friends. I got to know a lot of ESPN folk. Occasionally, when they were understaffed, I helped out as a spotter/scorer in the booth and even worked in the production truck during a NASCAR race. I'll admit to "leaking" several stories which ESPN broke on SportsCenter, SpeedWeek or during races. I got Michael Andretti to tape an "In Your Face" promo for them and twice brought Nigel Mansell, and later, Jimmy Vasser, to the ESPY awards. When SC did a long feature on "Mansell Mania" that aired the Friday before the 1993 Indy 500, they used a sound bite from me -- "This is what it must have been like when Elvis was King" -- at the top of the show. (Mysteriously, I received an Elvis postcard thanking me for the plug.) Dan Patrick asked, if he came to Indy, could I have Nigel sit for an extended "Sunday Night Conversation" segment? I set it up, but Dan had to bow-out at the last minute, so Paul Page stepped-in. I arranged for Vasser and Joe Montana to tape the opening for RPM2Night when it went on the air in 1996 and put many drivers on the show. When Gil de Ferran and his family flew on the Goodyear blimp, I invited Marlo Klain and her RPM crew to share the adventure. I've long respected founding RPM producer Shawn Murphy and am grateful for the compliments he's steered my way. Paul Page has been generous with his time and advice. When Joe Amato retired and hired Darrell Russell to replace him, I gave the news to Jack Arute, who had it before anyone else -- and the first "live" interviews with Joe and Darrell -- on ESPN Radio. Former ESPN executive VP and ABC Sports president Howard Katz kindly recommended me for a job with the National Hockey League. Over 10 years ago a producer gave me a real nice ESPN jacket as a "thank you." I still have it.

Considering this history, you'll understand when I say I'm anxious for ESPN's return to NASCAR Nextel Cup racing with this weekend's Allstate 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Especially coming off six weeks of TNT. Depending on if one wants to be charitable or critical, that presentation was either "disappointing" or "dismal." If the TNT suits bring that same lot back in '08, the only explanation will be their standard of excellence is Xanadu.)

Indy is the network's initial Cup telecast since the end of the 2000 season. No one would argue ESPN's first turn at bringing NASCAR to the nation was key in building the stock car sport's popularity. Given what we've seen since, it's increasingly obvious some exec should have busted butt to keep that original announce team of Jenkins, Benny Parsons, Ned Jarrett, Jerry Punch, Bill Weber and John Kernan intact. Their chemistry was better than DuPont's.

It tells us plenty about the financial investment ESPN has made in the NASCAR property that arrangements were made to shift Indy's date one week forward so the Brickyard would be the network's Cup curtain-raiser. History tells us the ESPN brass doesn't hurt for confidence, so there's nothing like debuting on a huge stage. (Sunday, 1 p.m., EDT.)

ESPN and ABC will have "live" coverage of the final 17 Cup events, with all 10 Chase races on ABC. (Every second of every program will be HD.) Since Indy is the start, I say it's silly (and unfair) to speed into critiques. It is no secret, however, ESPN's Busch Series and studio shows have struggled for cohesiveness and identity. This group is still looking for the Jenkins- Parsons- Jarrett et al formula. It remains to be seen if they find it.

I'm happy that Jerry Punch, who has always been nice to me, had his loyalty rewarded with the anchor chair. Mike Massaro, too. I've liked Rusty Wallace since the day I met him in 1980 and hiring his outgoing personality and marque name sure made sense. Going back to SPEED's original Inside Winston Cup, I've always rated Allen Bestwick as a very good studio host, but I fear he is miscast as a pit reporter. On ESPN's weekday and pre-race programs, Shannon Spake has emerged from the wreckage of SPEED's wretched NASCAR Nation as a solid, straightforward reporter. (As rare these days as three seconds of silence from Michael Waltrip. I suggest Shannon replace the unbelievably amateurish Brienne Pedigo on IndyCar telecasts.)

As for NASCAR Now and NASCAR Countdown, well, Toyota has performed better. Considering ESPN's long and deserved reputation for outstanding studio shows focused on virtually every sport for which it is a rights-holder, this has been a shocker to me. I still don't understand Brad Daugherty's role. As for "insiders" who also contribute to ESPN.com: We have a columnist who, relatively speaking, discovered NASCAR 10 minutes ago. Another's coverage resume for most of this decade is sketchy, too.

Brent Musburger is listed as overall host from Indianapolis. Suzy Kolber is set to become Countdown host. These assignments have been knocked elsewhere because the two are not racers. I doubt Musburger's tasks will take him much beyond lending his "big event" presence. I've never met Kolber but I don't think I've ever seen her be anything but completely professional on everything from the NFL to figure skating. And I definitely want to give ESPN's PR department credit for this: Musburger and Kolber were announced well in advance, as opposed to Fox, which didn't reveal the participation of non-racers Chris Myers and Jeannie Zelasko until the very eve of its 2001 Daytona 500 coverage.

As I am certain management spent months putting together its NASCAR team, I admit to being surprised there have been issues. I say let's see how it goes from this weekend until the checkered flag flies Nov. 18 at the Ford 400. I am confident of this: ESPN has no more important property than Monday Night Football, and after one season, changes have been made in the booth and the presentation of support programs. I'm pretty sure that -- if necessary -- NASCAR will be no different.The Business of Racing Is Business. Recent News Has Again Proven the Vast Majority of Producers, Editors and Racing Journalists Don't Understand That Essential Truth.

On Fox and SPEED, ESPN and TNT, and just about every radio show, website, newspaper and magazine in-between, we heard and read that it was a given Budweiser would go with Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Hendrick Motorsports. An ESPN.com writer wrote: "Budweiser is going where Earnhardt goes, unless Bud execs want to give up the best marketing tool in company history." I'm sure those within Anheuser-Busch's sports marketing department -- one of the most respected in the world -- wish all decisions could be made based on such simplistic thinking. P.S. -- Ever heard of the Clydesdales?

Meanwhile, recently, the media business pretenders have also told us: The Ginn Racing meltdown is a "surprise" (sure, without questioning the viability of running without sponsorship, plus a document search would have revealed a useful paper trail); that Formula One "must" be in the U.S. (such baying at the moon shows reporters have no clue how Bernie Ecclestone operates); that the IndyCar Series will be "fine" if Sam Hornish switches to NASCAR (you betcha!); and that Champ Car street races are "successful" (based on what set of criteria?), Tony Cotman's appointment to a front-office management position was a "good move" (maybe, but what are Cotman's business credentials?), and the head-shaking suggestion that Andrew Craig shouldn't have been ousted and it "might have come in handy" to have him around still today (the groundwork for CART's decline, and many of its current-day woes, can be traced directly back to Craig's arrogant regime.)

The Biz of Racing is a speciality beat. The time has long past for media decision-makers to treat it as such. If, for no other reason, than to preserve credibility. And avoid embarrassment. I first met Scott Atherton in the mid-1980s when he was with Domino's Pizza and involved in the company's CART team sponsorship. He moved on to work for Roger Penske, and ran California Speedway for Penske, before taking charge of the American Le Mans Series and other Don Panoz motorsports businesses. I've always liked and respected Scott, which is why I found comments he made last week so disappointing. Before Mid-Ohio, a Q&A with Scott was posted on the ALMS site, http://americanlemans.com/ . What follows is taken directly from that interview.

Q: "Brian France recently took the position that NASCAR had to continue its leadership role in developing alternative fuel strategies. With that initiative being such an integral part of the American Le Mans Series, what was your initial reaction?"

A: "Honestly, I can't imagine where they are coming up with these ideas. Charging into the 70s with the introduction of unleaded fuel this year, still running through carburetors is humorous in a certain sense but maddening in another. The American Le Mans Series has always prided itself on being truly on the cutting edge and being very proactive and innovative in embracing technology and allowing manufacturers to bring new technology to the race track on its way to their production examples. To think that NASCAR has even the slightest connection to that is frankly laughable.

"There is really no future in engaging a war of words, but our actions speak much louder than those words. We are the only series in the world that has an ethanol-enriched gasoline blend and the only series in North America that features a diesel-powered race car -- clean diesel, 100 percent sulfur-free. These are true examples of alternative fuels, true examples of cutting-edge technology and true examples of manufacturers developing tomorrow's practical road-car technology today. There's no one else that's doing a better job. Brian has a unique perspective on this. But the proof is in the facts, not the hyperbole."


Atherton was right: There was no point in engaging in a war of words with the chairman of the country's most successful and popular racing enterprise. I would have expected Scott to remember this lesson from his Penske days. Yes, we all understand the France family controls the rival Rolex Sports Car Series. And, yes, the timing of these remarks was especially inappropriate given the personal losses the France family has endured the last six weeks.

I would describe these quotes as an unfortunate misjudgment.



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