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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

THE CROSSROADS OF 9/11

September 11 is an appropriate day for me to write about something that's been on my mind for years. That's the intersection of American motorsports and international politics.

A thrill, for me, in the 1960s was European superstars like Jimmy Clark, Jackie Stewart and Graham Hill coming to the Indianapolis 500 to challenge the best in the U.S. That continued in the '80s/'90s with Emerson Fittipaldi, Nigel Mansell and then, at least in CART, when Alex Zanardi emerged as an endearing personality and big winner.

Champ Car and IRL, ALMS and Grand-Am, allowed their fields to tilt into an unhealthy imbalance with an unchecked immigration of funded international drivers. I can tell you, certainly in CART, the great popularity of Emmo, Nigel and Alex fooled management into believing American fans were fine was a high percentage of non-U.S.A.ers. In fact, a string of CART presidents, from Bill Stokkan to Andrew Craig to Chris Pook, were not originally of these shores and so were all-in-favor of turning the series into the United Nations. CC's current internationalist owners continue down this ill-fated course.

With all the money supposedly spent over the years on "market research" -- or maybe that was just talk to fool sponsors -- it's stunning these guys didn't figure out everything changed on 9/11/01. Americans turned inward -- and that included their cheering interests in sports. This is not just my opinion; I've researched it in great detail. It's been proven repeatedly in the TV ratings, Olympics included: If the U.S. athletes aren't winning, people tune out. That's a FACT. (!)

Then came the Iraq war in 2003. Poor Sebastien Bourdais happened along as Champ Car's new superstar at the same time French President Jacques Chirac and Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin (known to me as Dominique de Villain) were actively opposing America in every available international forum. Ditto with Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Canada's Prime Minister Paul Martin.

As I wrote at the time
( http://www.valvoline.com/pages/racing/rn_article_viewer.asp?nid=1455 ), the defining day in American motorsports this decade was Sunday, March 23, 2003. On the first weekend U.S. troops were in Iraq, NASCAR was in Bristol, and presented itself as All-American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. The images were of proud soldiers, patriotic music, waving flags, and taped messages of drivers offering their thanks and prayers for troops in battle. The grandstands were full with the kind of people, in Bill France Jr.'s famous quote, "Who go to war and win wars for America." If NASCAR had wrapped itself -- and us -- any tighter in red and white, we would have turned blue.

The pictures and words that day offered-up by CART and the IRL were much different. On-track in Monterrey Mexico, CART played up its "party," and poleman Bourdais' girlfriend (now wife) was seen running down pit road waving the Tricolor, a magnitude five PR faux pas. Up at Phoenix, the IRL race winner offered comments widely interpreted as anti-war and, thus, anti-U.S. -- a sentiment repeated a few hours later by the Hollywood elites at the Academy Awards.

On this sixth anniversary of 9/11, the international political landscape has dramatically changed, despite the many mistakes and hardships of the Iraq adventure. The new French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, campaigned promising better relations with America. (He even vacationed this summer at one of my favorite spots, New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee). Schroeder was ousted by pro-U.S. Angela Merkel. Our neighbors to the north dumped Martin, of the Liberal Party, with Conservative Stephen Harper.

IF -- and that remains a BIG IF -- the American public actually sees France, Germany and Canada become pro-actively engaged in supporting the worldwide war on terror, I wonder if this will present a chance for some thinking and clever and aggressive motorsports marketer to reposition non-U.S. drivers to make them more "acceptable" to the domestic fan base. Perhaps it's a window of opportunity; perhaps not; but I would judge it worth a good try. After all, no one I know can cite the logic of California's Patrick Long -- a factory Porsche driver -- not being in one of the winning RS Spyders in what is known as the AMERICAN Le Mans Series.

Don't be misled into believing NASCAR is tracking the failed open-wheel path by accepting into its fold Juan Montoya, Jacques Villeneuve and, apparently, Dario Franchitti. Championship-caliber drivers who also happen to fit NASCAR's marketing plan (diversity; Hispanics; Busch Series races in Canada and Mexico) will be welcomed. The standard-issue ride-buyers who are not even household names in their own households -- the majority of a CC grid -- need not apply because NASCAR knows they add nothing to its business.

Champ Car lays claim to a heritage of more than 90 years of history as America's national championship. Yet, there is increasing evidence CC's owners are contemplating a de-emphasis of the American market. International expansion seems to be the name of their game. According to David Phillips, one of only two legit U.S. print journalists who covered the two recent overseas events, management is touting Will Power, Robert Doornbos and Justin Wilson as "potential inheritors" of Bourdais’ "legacy," with "other talents emerging like Simon Pagenaud, Neel Jani and Raphael Matos." With Long Beach the only true U.S. showcase, their drive is toward Asia, more European events, and even a priority on off-shore TV ratings rather than the microscopic domestic numbers.

Sounds to me like CC should be working toward moving its headquarters to Paris or London and a rebranding as an "international racing series with some events in America."
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PROFESSIONAL STANDARDS? Countdown, MSNBC, Monday, August 13.

Thanks to NBC, a refuge has been lost. What was (usually) our society's escape from Page 1 problems has been swept-up into the increasingly "anything goes as long as it gets ratings" mentality of the network sports divisions.

NBC has added, as a co-host of its Sunday Football Night in America program, the Countdown anchor from its ratings-challenged MSNBC cable channel. Indy 500 drivers don't go this far left. His vocabulary to describe the President of the United States includes "liar," "lazy," "fraud" and "evil." His guests five-nights-a-week consist ONLY of those who share his viewpoint. The Democrat presidential candidates refused to debate on the Fox News Channel but happily joined in a forum where he was the moderator. Yes, of course, he first became known as an ESPN SportsCenter anchor. That, however, does not matter now that he has staked-out such toxic turf. And, please, don't tell me about ESPN's experiment using Rush Limbaugh as an NFL pre-game commentator. The difference that trumps all here is NBC regularly uses this biased broadcaster to host what are supposed to be "objective" news reports. If a former president dies or a bridge falls or a mine collapses, this guy will share the "hard news" anchor chair, a role Limbaugh has never had.

Credibility?

It would have been nice to think sports announcer icons like Al Michaels or Bob Costas would have stood-up to management to protect the integrity of their broadcast. Then, again, it would have been comforting if NBC's sole living news legend, Tom Brokaw, had stood tall. Brokaw, who has enjoyed the rewards of wrapping himself in the glory of The Greatest Generation, has the stature where he could have heard the words of the Countdown anchor and looked at tasteless graphics such as shown above (on the occasion of Karl Rove's departure from the White House staff) and put his foot down with the network Powers-That-Be: "NO."

I truly wish NBC had not crossed the line of politics/sports. Now that it has, though, here's another sports assignment I hope will come his way: Next year's Summer Olympic Games in Communist China. He might like that. I suspect that government might not.
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FAST LINES: So Sam Hornish and Dario Franchitti are going to NASCAR? Is it any wonder, when the IRL couldn't even properly organize its championship ceremony at Chicagoland? . . . I'll have more to say on the general NASCAR sponsorship scene in the next few weeks, but the NASCAR-AT&T compromise revealed at Richmond is at least a short-term positive. NASCAR, still trying for a new title backer for its second-tier series once Busch leaves, looked strong in defending its contractual rights. But make no mistake, being perceived as "hurting" fan and media favorite Richard Childress was a PR negative for NASCAR -- and Sprint . . . I nominate Gary Scelzi as the best driver-negotiator of recent seasons. Even though he announced months ago a "hiatus" after this year to spend more time with his family and work on his family business, the NHRA Funny Car racer let it be known in interviews that he still "loves drag racing and, if somebody with a private jet would fly me to the races (from his Fresno, Calif., home), I'd love to come back." Well, owner Don Schumacher arranged transportation on rival owner Ken Black's jet for at least 10 of next season's 24 events, so Scelzi's going to return. Other drivers should hire Scelzi as their agent. (!) AARWBA will present Gary with its Rick Mears "Good Guy" Award, for long-time cooperation with the media, at Pomona . . . Shannon Spake has been a solid reporter for ESPN's NASCAR Now, which made her performance in victory lane at Richmond so disappointing. With time for just two comments from Busch Series winner Kyle Busch, she started with the dreaded "How does it feel?"; followed by the lazy "Talk about . . . " Journalism 101: Reporters are supposed to ask meaningful questions . . . Putting a wrap on the Phoenix Champ Car fiasco, here are three points I made last night on the Racing Roundup Arizona radio show: 1) Since lack of sponsorship was cited as the reason for the cancellation (a problem I pointed out more than a year ago), ALMS would have been a better choice. Porsche, Audi, Honda (for Acura), General Motors (for Corvette), Lowe's (Valley resident Adrian Fernandez' backer) and other companies were certain to buy tickets, hospitality and advertising -- those sales are lacking in the sponsorship-challenged CC series; 2) I would not be surprised if promoter Dale Jensen, race manager Jim Freudenberg and/or CC management are out looking to sell the rights/assets of the Las Vegas event to someone else; 3) Just what is the status of the downtown "entertainment district" Jensen said he wanted to develop around the race location? Did the current capital markets crunch play a part in Jensen pulling the plug?


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