• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

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 . . . ]