• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

SURPRISE! BILL YORK OUT at IMS

I like to tell myself nothing surprises me anymore.

I was wrong.

A decision made last Monday in a conference room at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's corporate offices -- which I learned about earlier today -- defies logic, good business practice and virtually every other quality I can imagine.

Thus, the need for this emergency post.

Bill York, who for decades ran the Speedway's media center with a gentlemen's class all-but-lost to another -- better -- era, was told to "retire."

The ramifications are no less than this: The last remaining voice of credibility, delivered with a sincere smile and warm handshake, within Tony George's communications apparatus has been silenced.

For what purpose?

Don't tell me the economy -- Bill's fee was modest measured against the hours he put in. More valuable was the goodwill and common sense he brought to the MC. Especially after some journalist or publicist had just gotten needlessly hassled by the credentials department or a Yellow Shirt or some other arrogant operative within the Speedway's self-sacred "system."

"Have a seat," York would say in that calm way of his, gesturing to a chair opposite his in a glassed office on the fourth floor overlooking the pits. He'd pick up the ever-present bowl of candy on his desk and offer it to you. "Have a piece of candy, Michael, you'll feel better," he said to me after one especially maddening bit of nonsense several years ago.

If Bill could do something tangible to make it better, he would. If he couldn't, he'd give some genuine words of support. In 2005, at AARWBA's annual pre-Indy 500 breakfast meeting, I introduced Bill by calling him "the media's perennial MVP during the month of May."

When I began covering Indy for the Philadelphia Daily News, in the 1970s, Bill was the first Speedway person to say, "Welcome. Glad to have you here." Even with a full house (those were the days!) in the old MC, Bill somehow always took time for our Eastern press group which included the late Bill Simmons of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Paul Reinhard of the Allentown Call-Chronicle, Nick Nagurny/Terry Brennan/Leroy Samuels of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Pat Singer of the Philadelphia Journal, and others in our crowd.

When I left the Daily News to become CART's first full-time communications director, in the midst of one battle in the CART-USAC war, Bill never treated me with any less respect or kindness. To him, I was a friend, not the enemy as other IMSers would act. In various team/sponsor PR roles starting in 1984, I would always make it a point to walk through the MC race morning, and I remember Bill would always not only offer a "good luck," but also "be safe."

York has provided statistical expertise for various Indianapolis sports teams for many years, but many of us know him from the Speedway. He first showed up there as a spectator in 1951. In '57, he proudly carried a flag as part of the Purdue University marching band parade. The next May, he worked on Stark & Wetzel's Rookie of the Year program, serving lunch meat in the press room and garage area. He's been an IMS man since '64.

I spoke with Bill a few hours ago. He says IMS' PR director Ron Green unexpectedly gave him the "word" on Monday. But, hey, the Speedway still will give him a credential. (!)

There have been times in my life when I have been wronged, and was deeply pained when "friends" didn't speak out. Bill York has tons-more friends than I'll ever enjoy, and their voices must be heard -- NOW. "It won't do any good" isn't good enough in this case.

I predict with true sadness that too many of the Indycentric, IMS-dependent will be too scared to do what's right. Shamefully, they will cower in their silence. That will not be a surprise to me.

For all that Bill York has done for them, for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and for the sport, he deserves much -- much -- better.