• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Monday, May 26, 2008

A STEP FORWARD, BUT . . .

Is Indy back?

It's too soon to tell.

But Sunday's 92d running of the 500, my 32d, tells me it's getting there.

There certainly were positive signs going in. The list, of course, starts with reunification and the first "together" field since 1995. I'll say this -- everybody in the garage area was saying the "right" things. So was my friend, Emerson Fittipaldi, back at the 500 for only the second time since the split, to drive the E85 Chevrolet Corvette pace car. I asked Emmo straight-on about the growing controversy in America over food prices rising due to increased ethanol production and the two-time Formula One champion and double Indy winner had all his talking points ready to go. The difference is, in Brazil, sugar cane is used instead of corn. Emmo has business interests that include sugar cane production and he's building a refinery.

After rain washed away all but a few practice laps Friday, Indianapolis Motor Speedway management enjoyed close-to-perfect weather Saturday and Sunday, and that was important in determining what a single open-wheel series meant to the Speedway's bottom line. The turn-three grandstands have been the most visibly empty in recent years, so that's where I looked during the parade laps. DEFINITE IMPROVEMENT. A friend of mine, looking to upgrade his tickets, said the business of scalping was back for the first time in 10 years. I continue to believe the key metric is for the event to regain "sold out" status.

Rain impacted too many other days during the month to get a fair reading on increased fan turnout for practice and qualifying.

I'll also continue to hope for a return to the days of the traditional start of 11 perfectly aligned rows of three. Again, I think Sunday's was better, but still too-strung out.

As I have said many times, reunification meant the hard work was just starting. That's a fact the cheerleading segment of the Indianapolis news media still doesn't get. I hope these are people content to live out their careers in Indy, or smaller towns, because this sort of blind-to-the-realities "reporting" will never lead to employment in a major -- and serious -- news market.

And then there are the so-called "professional" PR people. In three days, I never saw -- and there certainly was no outreach -- from any PR representative from Team Penske, Andretti Green, KV, Panther, or Vision, among others. (Kelby Krauss made sure Scott Dixon maintained the tradition of the pole-sitter coming to the AARWBA breakfast.)

Not only does the League ridiculously still not require "standards," its Speedway has plenty of problems of its own on this front. In my presence, Sunday morning, a female member of the infamous Yellow Shirts upbraided an experienced and accomplished female journalist in the media center -- in front of others -- over a minor issue. Educational memo to management: If there was a problem, the PROPER way to have handled it was for a member of the PR staff -- NOT one of your arrogant Yellow Shirts -- to have privately discussed it with the reporter. But was it typical of the "way" things are done at IMS and have been for decades? You betcha!

The truth: Both the Speedway and League have chosen to employ people for various PR functions who are too young, too inexperienced, invested too heavily in the narrow and misguided "We're the Speedway" and "We Won!" mentality, who are not improving over time, who show no inclination to learn, who seemingly are insufficiently motivated, and whose work is obviously not monitored or supervised with appropriately rigorous review or oversight. (And then there's the amateurish way interview room sessions are presented.) Journalists from publications representing hundreds-of-thousands of circulation get lesser credentials than bit-player local media rah-rahers. A writer with arthritic knees got a pass for the great privilege of parking in the furthest section of the worst media parking lot at any major racetrack in the world while the press cheerleaders were put closest to the media center.

I put the blame for this lack of attention to detail right on those in charge at the highest levels. Sadly, that's another Indy "tradition." Maybe, with the Super Bowl coming to town, IMS will finally go to school on how the NFL does it right.
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Truly, the most amazing Indy-related statement I heard all month came from Dave Despain Sunday night on Wind Tunnel. Regarding Danica Patrick's latest temper tantrum -- which she recently said she wasn't going to do any more -- DD said, and I quote exactly:

"I saw nothing wrong with this. She doesn't know that she is the focus of attention . . . She has no idea the camera is on her."

Please . . . Dave, you know better than that. Respectfully, I would encourage you to go on next Sunday night and, as they say in Congress when senators and representatives need to clean up dumb comments, please "revise and extend" your remarks. Danica "doesn't know that she is the focus of attention" an "has no idea the camera is on her"? Come on, credibility is at stake here.

Here's what you need to know, according to last Sunday's Indianapolis Star: She has a Hollywood celebrity PR consultant. (That story also referred to Danica's father, T.J., as her "media relations director." What a joke and another reflection in declining standards. Just inform yourself about Patrick's "media relations" in her home city.) For once, let's tell the truth: Danica is a person who craves attention, who needs to be in the spotlight. While I don't doubt she was upset with Ryan Briscoe, the bottom line here is Danica needs to keep the media fires burning for her own ego -- and bank account. She knew exactly what she was doing. It was as calculated as those well-researched "cute poses" in victory lane in Japan. How do I know? Hell, I've taken drivers into studios and meeting rooms and taught them how to pose for "good" pictures!

The fact that media encourage her in this behavior, because it's good video and good copy, only underscores what our culture has come to.

As for her PR "handlers," I'd say this: Watch a tape of the 1996 CART race in Vancouver. Danica should never have been allowed to take more than a few steps in Briscoe's direction. If that means physical restraint, so be it.

Instead, her out-of-their-league PR people allowed the embarrassing "show" to go on. Which, of course, is exactly what Danica wanted.

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This, from Humpy Wheeler who suddenly left Lowe's Motor Speedway and SMI last week:

“Plus, we have to work on driver availability. That’s what got us here. We have to make sure that these drivers have real PR people, not just bag carriers. I know these guys are extremely busy, but I can remember the day when a PR person’s job was to get that driver more publicity and whatever it took was what you did. I don’t see as much of that as I’d like to see.”
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Below is part
of a Q&A last week in the Charlotte Observer with Bruton Smith. I've put the last graph in bold, for emphasis. I'll offer without comment but it again reflects what I've written before about encouraging bad behavior and a general lowering of standards in our society:

Question:
What's the state of the racing industry today?

Answer: "Pretty good. I've been in this ever since I've been an adult.

"The thing we've done -- NASCAR shares some guilt here -- is sterilize the sport too much. In March of last year, Jeff Gordon got out of his car and pushed another driver, and they fined him 10 grand. I'd have given him an award. That's what we need.

"Our sport was built on people showing some emotion. We've got to have that. We've got to have drama. I think NASCAR has been getting away from hurriedly trying to fine somebody because they showed some emotion, and that's good.

"The best thing that could happen is if four or five drivers get out of the cars and had a fist fight. If that happened, I'd have to hire more ticket sellers out there for the race. We need more of that."
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Here are links
to last Friday's Arizona Republic notebook and Sunday's "State of the Indy 500" feature:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2008/05/23/20080523racingnb0523.html


http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2008/05/24/20080524indyluster.html ********************************************************************
Congratulations to
my friend Bob Jenkins, the pioneering motorsports broadcaster, who was named recipient of the Bob Russo Founders Award at Saturday's AARWBA breakfast in Indy. The annual members' event was co-hosted by Firestone and Honda and I served as MC. Former AARWBA President Jim Wilson received the Angelo Angelopolous Award for sportsmanship. Poleman Scott Dixon and NHRA Funny Car drivers Melanie Troxel and Tommy Johnson Jr. attended.

In AARWBA's annual journalism contest, sponsored by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar Series, this blog won first place in that new category. A Republic feature on NASCAR's Super Teams got third place in the newspaper feature writing category. A Valvoline.com column proposing changes to NASCAR's Chase system got third in the online column category.


[ more next Tuesday . . . ]