• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Monday, May 25, 2009

SEEN and HEARD at INDY

33 AT INDY: On the front straightaway last weekend for my 33d Indy 500. (Indianapolis Motor Speedway photo courtesy of Ron McQueeney.)

Random observations from my 33d Indianapolis 500:

* One of the first things I noticed was the Bombardier logo was off the Pagoda. (See above photo.)

* Race-day attendance was better than I expected. To my eye, as good as last year, maybe some more in the grandstands.

* Indy continued a mystifying trend we've seen throughout racing this season: Pit stop problems. Why?

* The 500 rated low on the entertainment meter. Only six lead changes (tying 2000), the fewest for a full-distance event since 1965.

* When was the last time the green wasn't waved third time by? It didn't look to me the field was any more strung-out than in recent years. The days of 11 rows of three coming to the start exist only in museums and history books.

* What was needed didn't happen -- a boffo start -- to keep the TV audience. Maybe three lead changes in the first 10 laps, Danica charging so Marty Reid could be yelling, maybe some fireworks from Paul Tracy.

* The current aero configuration makes it very difficult to pass when everyone is running full fuel settings. Witness the lack of progress Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti were able to make with fast cars after bad pit stops. The IRL needs to get on this problem pronto.

* The overwhelming majority of Indy media continues to cheerlead for the Speedway and League. As I drove onto the grounds Friday at 7:30 a.m., a local radio reporter said, "Traffic is starting to back up for Carb Day." I passed maybe two cars! At least Gordon Kirby told me a local TV anchor admitted he considers the lack of technical diversity a negative.

* Well-known journalists weren't happy that reps from fan websites were issued media credentials.

* Two long-time major-team sponsorships are in jeopardy. One maybe as early as the end of this season, the other, after 2010.

* Since when is it appropriate for a network TV announcer to put a sponsor's cap on a driver? That's what Jack Arute did, placing the Firestone hat on Helio Castroneves in the winner's circle, and helping to thrust the traditional bottle of milk into his hand. Explanation, please, from ABC management on the journalistic standards in effect here.

* I also want to know if the buffoon IRL tech inspector who tried to physically restrain Castroneves from getting out of his car so he could climb the fence was acting on his own tin-ear-to-public-opinion mindset, or from instruction from Brian Barnhart or someone else in race control. This was the most stupid thing I've seen since Andrew Craig talked of fining Alex Zanardi for "dangerous driving" when he spun donuts to celebrate a 1997 victory in Cleveland. Explanation, please, IRL PR department. The public -- whose support you desperately need -- wants to know. If the tech guy was acting on his own, this self-important jerk should go. If a higher-up ordered the action, he should be held to account.
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Two answers of note from my interview with Terry Angstadt, president of the IRL's commercial division:

On the Versus ratings: "This is the honest truth: They are right where we forecast them to be. They are not a surprise. We knew that was going to be the challenge in making this move. It will take us time; that is why we did a 10-year deal. Our confidence is in their Comcast ownership and management team. We are convinced, over time, we will be exceeding the historical ratings."

On the perception (at least by me) that Tony George is disengaged from IRL decision-making after reunification: "That’s one (question) I haven’t had, so that’s always good. My best response is I think Tony, you’re right, for a couple of good, identifiable reasons, and I’m not trying to pat my management team on the back, but I know Tony has expressed his confidence in the direction we’re going. Like any good CEO, what he did was he gave us, the management team, the platform, the opportunity, with unification, where he had to be absolutely embroiled in that, the opportunity now to work with a (unified) property. I think he has a confidence level, and I check in with him on a very regular basis, to make sure we are setting the right course and executing as he wants us to, but, that doesn’t require him to look over our shoulder every day. And I mean that in a good way. I know he loves running Vision Racing, so he’s not only got CEO of the League, CEO of the Speedway, CEO of Clabber Girl Baking Powder and all the initiatives they have, a couple of bank Boards, I mean, this is a busy guy. I think he feels, 'I’ve got my check-ins and check-outs, but I don’t need to be doing that every day of my life.'"
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Here's a link to my Indy preview in last Sunday's Arizona Republic: http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2009/05/23/20090523spt-indy.html
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For the second consecutive year, this offering won first place in the blog category in the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association's annual journalism contest. The results were announced at the AARWBA breakfast, co-hosted by Firestone and Honda, last Saturday. We also got a second place in the online column category. The contest is sponsored by IMS and the IRL.
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FAST LINES: Again this year, no USA Today special section devoted to racing's biggest weekend, something that was standard for many years. The section was an opportunity for drivers-teams-sponsors to get into the paper who otherwise wouldn't make it all season . . . Chris Economaki missed just his third Indy 500 since 1938 . . . Photographer Jim Haines won AARWBA's Straight Shooter Award, in memory of Art Flores and Ron Hussey, and the $500 prize provided by Lowe's Fernandez Racing . . . The late Shav Glick, of the Los Angeles Times, was named recipient of the Bob Russo Founders Award.
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John Force will be the Newsmaker of the Week guest on the June 3 debut of The Race Reporters, my new Internet radio show on VoiceAmerica.com's PowerUpChannel.com. ESPN2 drag racing anchor Paul Page and CompetitionPlus.com's Jon Asher will be the media panelists. Listen live at 7 p.m. EDT or download into your iPod or click the show icon afterwards to hear it on-demand.
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If you haven't
yet done so, please scroll down to my special posting of last Saturday morning, as the sport's and industry's greatest names paid tribute to Mike Harris. By the way, Mike's 30-year tenure in motorsports is the longest time on one beat in AP history. The Speedway announced creation of a scholarship in Mike's name. It will be available to college students attending the Indiana University School of Journalism's new National Sports Journalism Center, location of the Associated Press Sports Editors headquarters, and the winner of the annual scholarship will also have the option to serve as an intern with IMS or IRL. "The scholarship is certainly one of the greatest things that's ever happened to me," said Harris. He was presented with a helmet signed by all 33 Indy 500 drivers. Contributions to the Mike Harris Scholarship can be made to:

Indiana University Foundation Mike Harris Scholarship, c/o Fred Nation, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 4790 W. 16th St., Indianapolis, IN 46222.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]


Saturday, May 23, 2009

RACING's GREATEST NAMES PAY TRIBUTE to a GREAT MAN -- the AP's MIKE HARRIS

I first met Mike Harris in February 1980 at a pre-Daytona 500 media breakfast. He was at the start of his assignment as the Associated Press' motorsports writer and I was covering for the Philadelphia Daily News. We sat near each other and it became, for me, a valued friendship with Mike and his wife, Judy. And, as history documents, an important chapter in racing history as Mike went on to become one of the most prominent and respected motorsports' journalists in the world.

Mike's AP run ends with his July 1 retirement.

How best to honor this friendship and his career? To me, the answer was clear: With the help of some of Mike's many other friends, I collected tributes and personal stories from 40 of the sport's most important people. Mike's legacy with his colleagues in the press boxes and media centers is guaranteed to endure, but I think of greater weight is what the athletes and decision makers have to say. As you'll read, it can be summarized by one word: RESPECT.

This morning, at the annual AARWBA media breakfast prior to the Indianapolis 500, I gave Mike a printed copy of what you see below.

Thank you, Mike, for all you have done for me, professionally. More importantly, thank you for what you and Judy have done for me, personally. I hope you enjoy reading these words as much as I did in compiling them.

EDSEL B. FORD II (Great-grandson of Henry Ford; member, Ford Board of Directors): "Mike Harris has seen many of the greatest moments in racing history during his career and has reported on them for millions around the globe. He's been a friend to, and reported on, many of our Ford's top drivers over the years including the likes of Jackie Stewart, Mario Andretti, Bill Elliott and more. We at Ford wish him the best in his retirement and thank him for his contributions to motor racing."

ROGER PENSKE: “Mike Harris is one of the true gentlemen to report on the sport of auto racing. We appreciate all the coverage he has given to our teams over the years and we are certainly going to miss reading his stories. Mike has always brought a real passion and fairness to his reporting and he has been there to capture some of the greatest moments in racing history. Mike, it has been a real pleasure working with you. We wish you happiness in your retirement and we hope we get a chance to see you again at the racetrack soon.”

BRIAN FRANCE: “Mike Harris has been the primary source of NASCAR news for our growing fan base for decades. Mike’s reporting was instrumental in the establishment of NASCAR as a national sport. We’ll miss seeing Mike in the media center and will be thinking of him as he improves his golf handicap. Thank you for your service, Mike. All the best to you and Judy.”

RICK HENDRICK: “On behalf of everyone at Hendrick Motorsports, I congratulate Mike on a fantastic career and wish him well in this next phase of his life. Our sport has changed so much in his more than three decades as a journalist, and he’s been there to document all of it with great integrity. Mike has been in the garages, media centers and press boxes for my entire 25 years in NASCAR, and his presence is something we’re all going to miss.”

JEFF GORDON: "Mike has always been first class to work with. I've always respected him as a journalist, and I can't think of a time when I ever had any issues with what he wrote.

"His questions are always thought-provoking. You know when he begins to ask a question that you are going to need to think about your response -- and I love that because the question is usually unique. I'll always have a lot of respect for him because he's been one of the best to cover our sport."

JIMMIE JOHNSON: “I’ll hate to not see Mike. I see him in my head when we do conference calls, he always starts off: ‘Mike Harris, AP’. I’m definitely going to miss him. It’s great to have worked with him and see somebody who has truly been dedicated to the sport for so many years. I have a great respect that he chose this for so long.”

MARIO ANDRETTI: “Mike: I admire people who choose a career and then dedicate themselves to being the best at it. You have been at the top of your profession for as long as I can remember and I’m very happy that our paths ran together for so many years.

“You know what really stands out in my mind about you? Not so much that you were a dedicated member of the racing press for so many years. But the fact that you gave so much humanness to your work. That’s what separates you from the pack. You are a considerate, very intelligent, honest guy and you worked hard to earn the respect you get. You are a gentleman with a high degree of personal integrity. You know how to handle tough situations and write about them with fairness and clarity. You have the ability to deal with everyone all around the circuit and you know how to earn their respect.

“It has always been a pleasure to run into you at the track. I have to say – you are one of the really good guys. Everybody likes you. I hope the future brings you and Judy good health, security, joy and much satisfaction. I have this retired thing down now. So when you want to talk – retired-to-retired – call me. I’d like that.”

TONY GEORGE: “Mike Harris has had a long and successful career covering auto racing for the Associated Press. He has reported fairly during the era of racing’s greatest growth in America and at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mike is known as a mentor for many younger reporters and is an excellent model for all reporters.”

JOHN FORCE: "Mike Harris was the man at the AP for all those years. I met him at a couple of AARWBA banquets and Densy (Dave Densmore) told me this was a guy that made things happen but that he didn’t do a lot of drag races. Well, when he came out last January for the AARWBA breakfast at our shop, we talked safety and the story he wrote, you could tell that this is a guy that gets it whether he comes to the races or not. So now we’re just getting to be pals and they tell me he’s gonna retire. Well, we’ll miss him but maybe now he’ll have time to come around and visit us at the races because I ain’t retiring until they pry my fingers off the wheel. Be a good guy to swap old Earnhardt stories with, I bet.”

KENNY BERNSTEIN: “Mike, we first met you after we had spent several years competing in the NHRA drag racing series. In quick succession, we jumped into NASCAR and CART, and that’s when our paths crossed. You embraced us as a friend, not a reporter. In fact, it took no time at all to feel completely comfortable with you. It seems we spent the greatest amount of time together during the month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There were long days and besides press activities, we sometimes enjoyed lunches with you at our hospitality bus.

“After we left NASCAR and CART and continued along the NHRA path, you continued to be open to writing stories about us as you did again this year. We are happy to have called you ‘friend’ and we appreciate your sharing our journey these past couple of decades.

“Now instead of chasing race cars, we hope you and Judy are able to chase some of your dreams. God Speed.”

MIKE HELTON: “Mike has been a fixture in NASCAR media centers about as long as I can remember. He has covered the sport with dignity and fairness and has always been a pleasure to be around. Whether the subject was serious or lighthearted, Mike found just the right balance in his stories, which went out to the American people.”

RICHARD PETTY: “Mike is one of the guys that has been around the sport for such a long time that I think he kind of helped build what we have today. From drivers to fans to everyone who benefits from NASCAR – they owe Mike Harris and the writers like him an awful lot. He gave us coverage back in the days when there weren’t that many people willing to do so.”

RICK MEARS: “I wish Mike the best of luck in his retirement. We’re definitely going to miss him. Mike has always been one of the real ‘good guys’ in the sport. From my driving days through all of my experiences with Team Penske, Mike has always been great to work with and he has become a good friend over the years. I’m going to miss reading his motorsports coverage but if I know Mike, I’m sure he’ll still be involved in racing somehow.”

AL UNSER Jr.: “Michael Harris is THE writer in my entire career who I could go to talk to, tell the truth, and he would print the truth. He never sensationalized, nor asked detrimental questions. He would always ask the right questions to get to the truth. That made Mike Harris the best writer I ever spoke to in my career. He told the truth when I had my alcoholism problems and he told the truth when I got my life straightened out. He is the one writer who never sensationalized anything for his own gain. He spoke the truth.”

ARIE LUYENDYK: “I always found Mike to be a real pleasant guy. He was always very polite and really didn’t go after political issues. He was more interested in your racing and career, at least with me. Any interview I had with him, I looked forward to it, because it was respectful and done properly. He’s just a good guy.”

JOHNNY RUTHERFORD: “Our families have been close friends for many years, have partied together, and discussed the art of motorsports. The most important thing about Mike Harris has always been his fairness. He wrote about the sum of his information. He would inquire a lot of places to make sure he had the story right. He was always fair and told it like it was.

“Mike’s retirement leaves a real void in motorsports reporting. He is always welcome to visit because he truly loves the sport. Betty and I think the world of Mike and Judy and their family. We are going to miss him.”

DARIO FRANCHITTI: “I think the first time I met Mike, I was introduced to him by his ‘front man’ Lewis Franck. Since then I have enjoyed sitting down with the two of them (as they always seem to travel as a pair) and having a good chat, normally over lunch in the Honda tent!

“Mike is so easy going and relaxed that I sometimes forget what a great job he has done and continues to do for AP and, as such, probably reaches more people than anyone else in the sport. I'll miss him round the track as a friend as well as one of the old-school proper journalists covering Indy Car racing.”

JACK ROUSH: “Under my observation, Mike has brought civility and tranquility and maturity to his trade. He’s not been a person that chases the ambulance and he’s not been a person to look for the sensational story, which may or may not be true. He’s always checked his facts and has been even-handed in his reporting. Unlike a lot of writers and reporters, to the best of my knowledge, he could always go back and anybody that he ever did a story for or did a story about, he could always see them and be welcome to have another encounter.

“I’ve always admired Mike’s personality. He’s always smiling and he never got caught up in a lot of frenzy. There was not a lot of anxiety in dealing with Mike. He always made everybody feel very much at ease and he would look for things that would be newsworthy and not something that was unnecessarily offensive to the subject.”

SCOTT ATHERTON (Panoz Motor Sports Group/American Le Mans Series president/CEO): “Mike Harris is one of the few journalists whose mere presence in the media center of a venue or event provides a level of validation that is unmatched in the industry. If Mike Harris is covering your race – then there is no question, it matters. I can only think of a few peers in motorsports journalism (Chris Economaki and Shav Glick) who could be included on the same list. The American Le Mans Series has been fortunate to have Mike cover several of our events over the years and the impact of his reporting is consistently evidenced around the world. I can think of no other motorsports journalist who can make such an impact.

“I have had the pleasure of knowing Mike since 1985. Throughout the past 24 years I have admired his work, his work ethic and his commitment to reporting on a broad spectrum of the sport we all know and love. We have all benefited greatly from Mike’s professionalism and abilities, but more importantly, we have all benefited from knowing him as a person. He will be sorely missed, but I wish him only the best as he takes a much deserved rest and evolves into a life without deadlines . . . Mike, thank you for all that you have done for motorsports fans around the world.”

ADRIAN FERNANDEZ: “First of all, I would like to congratulate Mike on a tremendous career. I have known him for many years and consider him both a true professional and good friend. For me as a driver, he was one of the key people you looked for when you were in a press conference. For sure, his reach was undeniable but you always knew he would be getting the story out with the highest level of ethics and integrity. He has been an ambassador for our sport and we owe him a huge amount of thanks. I wish Mike and Judy all the best in his retirement, and hope they can begin to use some of those frequent flyer miles he has earned over all these years! Hopefully, a book is on the horizon so he can share the inside scoop.”

TOM ANDERSON (Lowe’s Fernandez Racing co-owner): “The entire motorsports community owes Mike a debt of gratitude for his contributions to our sport all these years. From the days when submitting a story meant a lot more than pushing the 'send' button on a computer, Mike’s passion for racing never waived. He put us in front of the masses and helped to not only strengthen, but broaden, our audience. For me personally, I have always enjoyed our chats at the racetrack while, at the same time, silently wondering how he managed to keep it all straight. His friendly demeanor has endeared him to many in the sport, and I’m sure if there were a contest for who had the most driver cell phone numbers, Mike would win. Mike, it has been a pleasure and I wish you all the best. Knowing you, something tells me that we will still see you at a race or two.”

THE CHILDREN OF JIM CHAPMAN (Sheryl Chapman Kammer, James P. Chapman Jr., Caprice Chapman Aerts, Randy K. Chapman): “As you know, to be invited on Jim Chapman's (PPG) race bus was rather like receiving an invitation from the Queen. Mike Harris spent a lot of time on that bus, compiling his various racing reports. In fact, he was not to be disturbed when writing by any of us 'kids.' Jim always welcomed him with a warm handshake and roughish grin. We all knew that Jim respected him tremendously, both professionally and as a friend. The best to you on your retirement.”

CARL A. HAAS: "The role Mike Harris has played in bringing our form of racing to the fans has been one of the most significant in the last three decades. Not only did he cover the news side, he was able to show the personalities of the many colorful people in our sport because of the relationships he built. In addition, his work was so respected it gave Mike access to the highest levels of our sport. It was an honor being covered by Mike over the years and all of us at Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing wish him the very best in his retirement."

SCOTT PRUETT: "There's not one story I have about Mike, it's about all of them put together. He's a class act, he's always there. He's one of those journalists who's always been supportive of everything we've done, but also very fair. He always digs deep to get the whole story, and it's been a privilege and honor to work with him over the years, because he's truly a class act."

ROGER EDMONDSON (Grand-Am Road Racing Association president): "Mike Harris' involvement in motorsports dates back long before Grand-Am Road Racing began competition with the 2000 Rolex 24 at Daytona. Mike was there for that race, and it's been a real pleasure to work with him over the years. He's made an impact on all forms of American motorsports, and we wish Mike and Judy the best in the future."

TONY KANAAN: “Since 1996, when I'm about to start a press conference, it's a huge privilege to see on the first row -- Mike Harris, a real journalist -- the best. I will miss you!”

GIL de FERRAN: “Good for every word . . . read, written or spoken! I will miss you Mike, best of luck my friend.”

JEFF BURTON: “Mike has been around our sport for a long time and he’s quite the class act. He’s methodical, professional and someone who I respect in the media. He’s done an amazing job covering our sport and getting information out to our fans. I always enjoyed talking to him and I wish him well on his retirement.”

RUSTY WALLACE: “Mike's not just someone who was hired to do a job. He understands the sport, the ups and downs of it, and what drivers go through. I've always enjoyed seeing Mike at functions away from the track and listening to his opinions. He gets it."

DALE JARRETT: "Mike was always very fair with me and just a solid person. We need more like him in the journalism profession."

EMERSON FITTIPALDI: “Mike was there for many special moments in my career. What he wrote brought that news to millions of people all around the world. I appreciate, so much, what Mike has done for me and motorsports.”

JIM HUNTER (NASCAR vice president of corporate communications): “It seems as though it was just yesterday that Mike and Judy joined Ann and I at a table for the first banquet in the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. Mike Harris is one of those people who has never changed, always even-keeled, always the gentleman and always fair. His coverage of the sport for the Associated Press in the early days helped motorsports, all motorsports, develop a bigger fan base. His stories brought our drivers to life in homes throughout America in the same fashion as other great sports heroes, like Ted Williams and Johnny Unitas. He very likely has more contacts in the American motorsports industry than anyone alive, both past and present. The best thing anyone can say about Mike is, ‘He's a great human being.’ He loves to play golf but hasn't had time to play a lot. Mike hopes Hank Haney will take him on as a project when he finishes with Charles Barkley. Mike would certainly be an easier fix.”

FRED J. NATION (Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Indy Racing League executive vice president, communications): “Thirteen years ago, I joined the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy Racing League. My racing background was limited, almost entirely to being a long time fan of the Indy 500. Included in my job was to help tell the story about the formation of the Indy Racing League, which proceeded my coming on the scene, and to help prepare the way for the eventual unification of the sport, which took much longer than anticipated. Coming from a political background, I was used to combat and also to the cynicism of reporters. It did not prepare me adequately for the ferocity of feelings and opinions in open wheel racing media centers across the country. That is where I met Mike Harris, his wife Judy, and Lewis Franck, good friend of Mike’s. Mike was patient with me and helped me gain a greater understanding of the emotions and opinions that swirled around IRL and CART, as well as the personalities, traditions and history of the sport. He always did so in a straightforward way. He was not without opinions, but in the grand tradition of the Associated Press, he was a straight shooter when it came to what he wrote. We always wanted Mike at a race, because his byline meant that more papers would run the preview and race day stories that Mike would write. In another grand journalistic tradition, Mike and Lewis would sometimes allow me to treat them to dinner. Mike knew most of the best spots on the circuit and was happy to give menu advice. These evenings were always entertaining, sometimes enlightening, and usually delicious. I have and will always appreciate Mike’s Midwestern common sense, love of the Indy 500 and his ability to report and engage with some of the most fascinating athletes on the planet. Thank you Mike Harris for all you have contributed.”

AL SPEYER (Firestone Racing executive director): "Firestone Racing would like to congratulate Mike Harris on his successful journalistic career and now his well-earned retirement. We truly appreciate his dedication and contributions to the sport of auto racing through the years. To me, the thing that stands out most about Mike is his commitment to fully researching his stories and making sure he has all of the facts straight. His dedication to quality and accuracy truly shines through his work. I have thoroughly enjoyed his writing and will miss his friendly demeanor and smile. What really disappoints me, however, is that Mike has beaten me to retirement -- he gets to take it easy while I have to keep working! Mike, all the best!"

STU GRANT (Goodyear Racing global race tires general manager): "Mike is retiring as a very well-respected journalist. From a personal standpoint, whenever I was involved in a press conference I was always happy to field a question from Mike Harris, because his questions were always right on the point. He gave me the impression that he was actually trying to help me get the correct story out, because his questions always allowed me to clarify something or emphasize something important. He wasn't confrontational or adversarial -- he just wanted the facts for his story."

TERRY DOLAN (Chevrolet racing manager): “Mike Harris has made a tremendous contribution to auto racing worldwide with his insight, attention to detail and fairness of reporting as a premier motorsports journalist for the Associated Press. On behalf of General Motors and Chevrolet, I congratulate Mike and extend our best wishes as he retires after so many years of distinguished service."

KURT ANTONIUS (Honda public relations assistant vice president): "To say that Mike Harris 'will be missed' at racetrack media centers and interview rooms across the country is an understatement. It doesn't begin to describe the enormous impact Mike has had for decades on the sport that all of us at Honda love.

"Throughout his long career, Mike has helped introduce auto racing to a broad, mainstream audience. In so doing, he was invaluable in the graduation of racing from a niche, minor-league activity into a major, mainstream sport. And he accomplished all of this while maintaining the AP's high standards of 'fair and balanced' coverage, long before that term became a popular catchphrase.

"Through Mike, readers across the nation first experienced the many different ways a racing driver seeks success: The passion of Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt's thirst for victory, the class of Dan Gurney and Rick Mears, the exuberance of Alex Zanardi and the determination of Dan Wheldon. He also was able to bring home to his readers the true depth of Honda's commitment to motorsports, something for which we always will be grateful.

"Our best wishes to you, Judy, and your entire family for a long and pleasurable retirement, and our sincere thanks for the outstanding service you provided the racing community through the years."

LES UNGER (Toyota Motor Sales national motorsports marketing manager): "Mike will be sorely missed by all constituents within the racing community -- fans, sponsors, teams, drivers, sanctioning bodies, and most of all his readers. The reason is quite simple, yet worthy of mention. His career was consistently based on factual writing, diligent research, honesty, and passion for the sport he covered in such an exemplary fashion. Without being egotistical, just courteous, and fair -- adjectives in short demand in today's media world."

ANDY SCHUPACK (Porsche Cars North America motorsports public relations): “I met Mike during the ’86 Miami Grand Prix, and I pitched him on covering my driver – a 17-year-old karting champion named Scott Pruett – who was running only his second sports car race. Mike listened to my pitch attentively, and proceeded to tell me that, while he really wasn’t covering the GTU race, he would watch with interest. As it turned out, Pruett ran a great race, but just couldn’t get past Jack Baldwin on the last lap, and had to settle for second place. Mike came over to me, patted me on the shoulder, and said, ‘Your guy looks fast – I’ll remember his name.’ He made me feel like I had accomplished something even though he didn’t write about my client. He has always treated PR people with respect – even when they have tried to pitch him on ridiculous stories – and his friendship to the families of some of our recently-departed colleagues, Bob Carlson and Mike Hollander, has shown what this man and his wife Judy have meant to all of us.”

DEAN CASE (MAZDASPEED communications officer): “I knew Mike Harris as a ‘byline’ for many years before I had the opportunity to actually meet him. I think the best compliment I can give him is to say that he was a fair and thorough reporter. In today’s world, both qualities are in short supply. Mike’s support of the profession, via his service to AARWBA, is another reason I’ve admired Mike. His AP replacement has big shoes to fill.”

[ Review of Racing's Most Important Day of the Year next Tuesday . . . ]

Monday, May 18, 2009

MY MILLER TIME

WHAT A VIEW!: ALMS cars on the grid Sunday at Utah's Miller Motorsports Park.

PLEASE check back here Saturday (May 23) for a VERY SPECIAL posting, in TRIBUTE to a very important person in this sport and this industry.


NHRA would be a VERY different series without the fan-favorite, headline-grabbing nitro Top Fuelers and Funny Cars. A similar issue is facing the American Le Mans Series' premier prototype classes in 2010.

I had my first visit to Utah's Miller Motorsports Park last weekend for the ALMS weekend. It's a modern and interesting facility, as I write about below, but the thing that spiked my attention was the state of the P1 and P2 proto divisions. Only five P1s (including the new Corsa team Zytek hybrid with KERS) were in the overall field of 23 (boosted by five in the new Challenge class, the best of which was about 25 seconds a lap slower than the pole time of just over 90 seconds) and just three P2s, an Acura and two Mazdas. Gil de Ferran and Simon Pagenaud ran away from the pole, their Acura winning by 73 seconds, the series' largest MOV since 2005 at Laguna Seca. Adrian Fernandez made the show, getting the lead from the Mazda of Butch Leitzinger in the closing minutes and driving flat-out to assure his P2 win with Luis Diaz in the Lowe's Acura.

In my view, ALMS had it close to being just-right last season. While series president Scott Atherton (not at MMP due to a family obligation) has emphasized ALMS as a platform for technical innovation (and Green racing), it had a useful showbiz mix, too. The P2 cars, including the Acuras and Porsches fielded by Penske Racing, were able to battle for the overall win with the diesel Audis. Good stuff. Now, though, the rules have changed and P2s aren't a factor for the overall W. The Porsches and two of three Acuras are gone (Fernandez Racing remains), and Audi parked its diesels due to the economy. (Coming back at Petit Le Mans this fall?)

The prospects for '10 are concerning. With almost no meaningful competition after major costs to enter P1, I'm told Acura (Honda) intends to go forward with an engine-lease arrangement for interested parties. There's a legitimate chance three current teams could move to the IRL, depending on sponsorship. That would leave GT2 as the "healthy" class survivor, with Porsche and Ferrari and BMW and Chevrolet (hopefully) scheduled to join in with its Corvettes. But GT2 is to ALMS what Pro Stock is to NHRA -- worthy competition, but not the "sexy" category.

All of which, of course, again argues for ONE American sports car series. ALMS' approach to techno innovation doesn't compliment Grand-Am's NASCAR-style managed competition, so the obstacles to a unified tour are huge.

But, honestly, are they any higher than those painfully -- but eventually -- overcome by Champ Car and the IRL?
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I may have discovered the biggest bargain in racing history.

It's the SCCA Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup, which ran at Miller. For $45,000, a driver (must be between ages 16-26) gets a car, prep, maintenance, entry fees, driver's suit, team clothing, access to the (Formula One-esque) hospitality tent and professional instruction. Cars and crews are rotated during the eight-weekend, 10-race season. Plus six slick tires per weekend and even media training. Adam Hoover runs that project and has built a media contest, challenging the drivers to generate some of their own publicity via media outreach, social networking, etc. There's a prize for that winner -- joining a press trip to Germany for launch of the 2010 Golf. The series champion gets $100,000.

VW is trying to showcase its clean diesel TDIs (turbo direct injection), which Hoover said sold 12,000 units in America after its August 2008 launch. Yes, there's a manufacturer actually upping its motorsports commitment! I looked over a few of the cars, with the air conditioning vents still installed, and which can be driven either by shifting or not shifting.

Timmy Megenbier, of Melrose Park, Ill., won at Miller. It's difficult to get attention for such a series in our celebrity-driven society. But the Jetta TDI Cup should be an exception.
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MMP opened in 2006 and is located in Tooele, a convenient 30-minutes-or-so outside of Salt Lake City. The 4.5-mile course is the longest in North America, with 24 turns. For the second consecutive year, ALMS ran on the 3.048-mile layout. Jason Altzman of the series' Vitesse ("speed") team kindly took me around Saturday afternoon in a silver turbo Porsche (above). (It was great that Jason had an appreciation for the history of the PPG Pace Car team -- his wife used to be a member!) The track is flat with picking up useful reference points definitely a challenge.

There are enclosed garages, just yards from transporter parking, for the competitors and a nice museum (right) and clubhouse. (What a collection of Cobras and Ford GTs!) It's a multi-use facility which even has an off-road course. There's plenty to do beside watch the racing, including go-karting. Founder Larry H. Miller, who also owned the NBA's Utah Jazz, died earlier this year. The facility seemingly is safely protected within the corporate structure of Miller's enterprises. Put Miller Motorsports Park on your "bucket list."
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FAST LINES: Thanks to John Gardner, Bob Dickinson, Allison Barry, Nate Siebens and Adam Hoover for their help last weekend . . . MMP is a VERY media-cooperative facility, with a quality media center, good viewing, eight TV screens (the Rolex Series race was on during the ALMS event) and friendly atmosphere. Media manager Gardner serves fresh fruit in the MC, perhaps a small, but appreciated detail. Beverages are stocked in the photo shuttles. Journos are offered rides to the parking lot. Well done, John -- others PLEASE take note! . . . I've always been a fan of the Atlantic series, so to see only 12 cars show at Miller was a letdown. Simona De Silvestro, 20, from Switzerland got her second Atlantics win from her first pole and led all the way. Formula One is Simona's goal, and she told me Bernie Ecclestone has signaled the "new" F1 could be ready for a competitive female driver. She's never driven on an IRL-style oval, but doesn't rule-it-out . . . Michelin claimed its 100th overall ALMS victory Sunday . . . How was the MMP weekend similar to NASCAR? Way too many of the so-called "PR" people are so busy talking among themselves, they don't bother to introduce themselves to media. I'm still waiting for the ALMS' No. 2 guy, as well as the Porsche, Highcroft and Rahal Letterman reps to say, "Hello. Anything I can do to help?" . . . One of the biggest mistakes made in the name of cost-cutting has been elimination of printed media guides. It is much faster and easier for journos on deadline to look up a bio or stat in a book than via some data-storage plug-in. This, again, exposes the fatal flaw in contemporary PR: UNDERSTANDING WHAT JOURNALISTS NEED . . . Valvoline signed a multi-year contract extension with all of the Don Schumacher Racing NHRA teams . . . Take a look at Dave Wilson's new site: http://davethekingwilson.com/ .
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Sports cars are high-tech but putting on a proper, professional media event takes more common sense than brainpower, as well as an understanding of what the media needs and some basic organizational skills. Saturday's Corsa team media avail to show its new P1 hybrid was an example of what not to do: Staged in the garage, fans -- including children -- were able to wander in and take up space needed by photographers, writers and broadcasters. Drivers had their uniforms pulled down as photogs clicked away, denying corporate partners their entitled-to visual exposure. One speaker steered way off message, even talking about terrorism as a reason why the U.S. and U.K. governments (read that: taxpayers) should pay for battery research. It is a well-documented fact that the attention span of the American public is short -- and that includes journos challenged with limited space and time to tell a story. I went away not even being able to guess what the "bumper sticker" was out of the event. What a mess . . . inexcusable in what is supposed to be a time of sophisticated communication techniques.
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Adrian Fernandez will be the Newsmaker guest on week two of my upcoming radio show, The Race Reporters, on VoiceAmerica.com's new PowerUpChannel.com. The show, live on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. EDT for one hour, launches June 3. Fernandez will be on June 10, good timing as Le Mans is that weekend. See last week's blog for full details on TRR.

I'll be in Indianapolis this weekend for my 33d Indy 500.

REMEMBER: Come back Saturday for something special and important. (!)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

'THE RACE REPORTERS' RADIO SHOW LAUNCHES WEDNESDAY, JUNE 3 ON POWERUPCHANNEL.COM



As I wrote in Blog One -- July 10, 2006 -- my hope was this on-going series of postings would be an exercise in mutual learning. My version of "The Great Adventure," which is how Paul Newman described Nigel Mansell's move from Formula One to CART in 1993.

It's time to take the next step.

Beginning Wednesday, June 3, I'll debut as host/managing editor of The Race Reporters, a weekly one-hour Internet radio show on http://voiceamerica.com/ 's new http://powerupchannel.com/ 's motorsports channel. The show (at least for this 13-week pilot run) will always be live on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. Eastern. You'll be able to listen by clicking on the show icon at the Power Up site. The techno-wizards also tell me the program will re-air 12 hours later, be available for "on-demand" listening, and you'll also be able to download it into an iPod. (Look for the above show banner!)

Voice America is the country's largest producer and distributor of Internet radio programming. I'll be hosting the show from their studio in Tempe, Ariz. The Power Up channel (I'm also a consulting senior executive producer) launches June 1. I'm happy to say my friend Larry Henry is bringing his Pit Pass USA to the channel, starting Tuesday, June 2, at 7 p.m. (EDT).

I was given the opportunity to create a show of my choosing. So, I'll bring together a panel of two or three journalists for a good, hard, honest, Constitutionally-protected conversation on the issues of the day. My goal is to ask good questions -- and get better answers. It will not be a forum for bomb-throwing. A few days ago, I heard a host on the ESPN affiliate in Phoenix say this about his approach to his show: "When in doubt, speculate." That's another thing we will not do. (!)

I intend to include many voices -- not the elites-only philosophy of certain shows -- because I believe there are a lot of interesting and informative reporters who aren't offered an op elsewhere to share their views and knowledge.

I'll select a Newsmaker of the Week, who will join us at the bottom of the hour, and the panelists will join in the questioning. You can expect the Newsmaker will include guests from virtually all the important series: NASCAR, NHRA, IRL, road racing and other tours, as well as key industry executives.

Here's the format: In the first segment, I'll speak to what I think is important that week, bringing to the assignment my 40 years of experience in the industry. In segment two, the media panel will join me. Segment three will be the Newsmaker. We'll conclude our discussion in segment four.

I'll be announcing guests here, in advance, but please go ahead and note this special show: On Wednesday, June 24, The Race Reporters will mark the publication of National Speed Sport News' 75th anniversary issue that day. Chris Economaki will be the Newsmaker, with Corinne Economaki, Dave Argabright and Susan Wade the media panelists.

Yes, of course, commercial spots are available. Contact Stefani Paulus at stefani@powerupchannel.com .


Please join me as we continue "The Great Adventure" -- and learn more about the sport and industry.


I'll make my first visit to Miller Motorsports Park this weekend for the ALMS race and various supporting events.

Here's a link to my May "All Business" column in Drag Racing Online.com. It's the first of a two-part series on the issues surrounding ESPN2's coverage of NHRA: http://www.dragracingonline.com/columns/knight/xi_5-1.html . (Be sure to click on the "next page" bottom at bottom of right-hand corner.)

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Monday, May 04, 2009

DEALING WITH THE TALLADEGA AFTERMATH

I take some personal comfort in the fact that David Poole was able to take-on Talladega and it's aftermath in the available short hours before he died of a heart attack at age 50.

In his final column and blog, David straight-talked:

"The track is an anachronism."

Also:

"And this weekend, Lowe's Motor Speedway announced a despicable promotion tying the price of bargain tickets for its May races to the number of cars involved in the biggest wreck Sunday at Talladega."

. . .

"All I want is for someone to tell me what's acceptable. We apparently established Sunday that seven fans being injured – one spent the night in a hospital with a broken jaw – is OK. It seems we've decided we can live with that much damage being done to the sport's customers for 'good racing.' How many people have to be listed in 'guarded' or 'critical' condition before we say that's too much? Is it lead changes? If we have fewer than five fans hurt for every lead change, is that acceptable? Does somebody have to die before we've decided we don't have control?"

Years ago, after a death during non-Cup practice at Charlotte, David wrote a column saying that it should be mandatory for each driver to have a spotter at all times. His suggestion almost immediately became a rule. A few weeks later, I told him every driver in the garage area owed him a "Thank You."

David had the unenviable task of following the respected Tom Higgins as the Charlotte Observer's man-on-the-NASCAR scene. As a reporter for the hometown newspaper in stock car's hub, Poole had a ready-made platform. He elevated it by putting his own stamp on the Observer's coverage.
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Following a big happening, such as Carl Edwards-into-the-fence-at-'Dega, I prefer to step back and watch the media and PR swirl. I've found it provides a useful perspective.

You knew NASCAR knew it had an issue-to-be-managed on its hands when an unusual late-Monday afternoon media teleconference was scheduled. And, you knew NASCAR knew this could be trouble, because Jim Hunter was the moderator. These days, Jim only takes on that role when the situation demands his "touch."


By then, the radio talk and cable TV shows were in full-chatter mode. That was no surprise -- it's what I've come to expect. Every time there's a death-defying crash, the video is replayed 500 x 500 times and everyone feels the need to voice an opinion -- no matter how ill-informed. (I heard everything from remove the restrictor plates to narrow the racetrack.) And, in a disturbing trend that is now the norm, the driver hits the talk show circuit. Last year, it was Michael McDowell, and on the NHRA side, Cruz Pedregon. This time, Edwards was out there, on with Larry King and Ellen. I detest this . . . but that's the way it is now in our celebrity-driven, People magazine, photo-op, sound-bite society.

What I really wanted to see was how NASCAR's media partners made use of this incident. And those are precisely the correct words: "made use of." Given the season's down arrow TV ratings, I expected the worse. I wasn't disappointed.

As noted here last week, Wind Tunnel thought an accident that injured seven spectators worthy of its fluffy "Eye Candy" segment. Candy is sweet but that was in bad taste. About 24 hours later, a Fox network promo was on-the-air, using the Edwards' crash video to promote its Richmond telecast. The most monumental embarrassment, however, came from Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Hammond during the Richmond pre-race. What should change at Talladega? Nothing, according to them, using as an excuse that fans sometimes are injured by foul balls at baseball games or stray pucks at hockey games. I bet DW's story would be different if he had been in Edwards' seat, or his daughters were in the seats where the spectators were hurt. (!)

The new Fox standard apparently is injury-as-entertainment is cool if it generates excitement, ratings and media buzz.


I'm with Dale Earnhardt Jr., who called-out the media during his Tuesday teleconference:

"There's a responsibility for NASCAR and for the media to understand the messages they send. They just have to know what the repercussions are to however it's conveyed. For years and years they've been telling everybody, 'Turn the TV on and watch the Talladega race, see when the Big One happens, see who's in the Big One, see who can miss the Big One, see who can win the race and not get caught up in the Big One.' It's just been on and on and on and on for years. Now everybody associates that type of action with Daytona and Talladega, which is fine if you're going to celebrate it. But now you can't sit here and turn around and change your opinion because everybody knew this was the possibility of the style of racing."
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Please be sure to check back here next week -- I'll announce the next step forward in what I like to think of as our mutual Great Adventure in learning.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]