• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Monday, June 29, 2009

IMAGE IS ALL-IMPORTANT

FARRAH: One of the most iconic images of the 20th century.

One name was enough.

Farrah.

One image launched a million fantasies.

Farrah.

Farrah Fawcett's death last week, from cancer, immediately reminded me of the above picture -- the largest-selling poster of all time. It's testimony to the power of an image and a tribute to those who pay attention to the details.

Yes, it was shot in a studio setting, with the lighting and makeup and pose just so right. I've always thought that while the tilted head, curly hair and one-piece swimsuit were sensational, what really made the shot was Farrah's full display of teeth. White and bright and full of promise.

Don't laugh. Look again -- and think about it.

This image is what cemented Farrah's place in the public's mindset for the rest of her life. Easily forgotten was the fact that she starred on the ground-breaking Charlie's Angels for only one season; that she left in a difficult contract dispute; that her movie career never reached the heights of one TV series in the 1970s.

It reminds me how overwhelmingly important image is in our celebrity-driven, People magazine, photo-op, sound-bite society.

Including motorsports. Kyle Busch's is set as the guy who smashed his guitar trophy in victory lane. Richard Petty will always be the "King." Dale Earnhardt is forever "The Intimidator." Under new and careful management from IMG, Danica Patrick obviously has softened her persona this season -- as she ponders her next contract and career move. Tony Stewart still has the Smoke, but maybe, less fire. Jimmie Johnson seems to have tried a bit of an image change, but it hasn't worked.

Image. It's something every track, team, driver, sponsor and sanction publicist needs to give a good, long, hard think on. And, like Farrah's poster, re-double efforts to pay attention to the details. Allowing drivers to appear with their uniforms pulled-down, or doing interviews in front of portable toilets, isn't paying attention to the Big Picture.

Meanwhile, Michael Jackson's sudden death served again to spotlight all that is wrong in the current media age. Wall-to-wall cable TV coverage. With very few details, the networks had to fill all that time one way or another. The absolute worst was Fox News allowing a TV psychic, who claimed to have once hypnotized Jackson, on. Actually, more than once. This nothing was bannered as a Jackson "friend" but admitted they had not spoken in years. It was THE most offense of time fillers . . . although the attention-seeking family attorneys and ex-attorneys and doctors guessing at the state of Jackson's physical and mental health came in a very, very, very close and disgusting second. It has been the biggest public and media spectacle since Princess Diana's death in 1997.
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My April 10, 2008 story on Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Arizona Republic won the gold medal in the personality profile category in the 2008 International Automotive Media Awards, results announced last week. This blog took the bronze medal for commentary.
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One day before his 72d birthday, and just before the 25th anniversary of his historic 200th NASCAR Cup victory, Richard Petty (left) will be Newsmaker of the Week on The Race Reporters Wednesday, 7 p.m. EDT. You can listen at http://powerupchannel.com/
. See links for iTunes and the show page over in the right-hand column. The show will re-air several times and can be heard "on demand" by clicking my show logo at the Power Up Channel site.

It's universally accepted that King Richard's win at Daytona, with President Ronald Reagan in attendance, stands as one of the most important days in NASCAR history. We'll ask Richard about that, as well as current topics, including his recent victory with Kasey Kahne at Infineon Raceway.

Joining me in questioning Richard will be longtime writer Lewis Franck, who now contributes to ESPN the Magazine and Reuters. Mike Harris, retiring that day after 30 years as AP's motorsports writer, will join us for the journalists' roundtable. In the final segment, Mike and I will talk about his own important career.

Upcoming guests:

July 8 -- Newsmaker: Ron Capps. Panelists: Jim Pedley, Jeff Burk, Alan Reinhart.

July 15 -- Newsmaker: Scott Atherton. Panelists: Larry Edsall, Greg Creamer, Jonathan Ingram.

July 22 -- Newsmaker: Ray Evernham. Panelists: Ed Hinton, Bob Pockrass.

[ Richard Petty interview news nugget Thursday . . . ]

Thursday, June 25, 2009

ECONOMAKI REMEMBERS NSSN's 75 YEARS

Wednesday, on the day the 75th anniversary issue of National Speed Sport News was published, editor Chris Economaki was the Newsmaker on my The Race Reporters radio show on http://powerupchannel.com/ . President/publisher Corinne Economaki and award-winning NSSN writers Dave Argabright and Susan Wade joined me for the journalists' roundtable.

I asked Chris what has been the most important story covered in the pages of NSSN during the last 75 years:

"That was in 1935 with the general acceptance of the crash helmet by people in American auto racing . . . It was an incredible move. The death rate in American racing to that point was horrendous. The crash helmet saved life-after-life-after-life. When everybody decided to use one, it was a big story."

What is America's most important race, the Indianapolis 500 or Daytona 500?

"The Daytona 500 is important because it is heavily promoted. The Indianapolis 500, unfortunately, is not heavily promoted. It's presented and managed well, but it isn't promoted well. That is the big difference. You have to beat the drums for your event and the Indianapolis 500 doesn't have a drum beater."

Who is the greatest driver you've seen?

"It's a toss-up between A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. It's a difficult question to answer. One of those two is, without question, the senior performer in American auto racing."

Listen to the entire show by using this link:
http://va.radiopilot.net/voiceamerica/vepisode.aspx?aid=39476

The Race Reporters podcast is now available on iTunes:
http://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewPodcast?id=319558548

Upcoming guests:

July 1 -- Newsmaker: Richard Petty. Panelists: Mike Harris, Lewis Franck.

July 8 -- Newsmaker: Ron Capps. Panelists: Jim Pedley, Jeff Burk, Alan Reinhart.

July 15 -- Newsmaker: Scott Atherton. Panelists: Larry Edsall, Greg Creamer, Jonathan Ingram.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Monday, June 22, 2009

THE VALUE of LEARNING HISTORY

When it comes to their most important events, the U.S. Golf Association and Major League Baseball "get" it. NASCAR and the IRL do not. Amidst all the rain delays at the U.S. Open, not once did the USGA talk of shortening the championship to 54 holes. Officials immediately planned for Monday, and even Tuesday, rounds at Bethpage Black as would be needed to play the full tournament length. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig decreed last fall that all World Series games will be played to the scheduled nine innings (at least), with none permitted to end early due to rain. Here, I called it "The Selig Doctrine" -- and urged NASCAR to follow the example for the Daytona 500 and IRL for the Indianapolis 500. Thanks, in large part to a ridiculous a-little-before-4 p.m. green flag mandated by Fox, The Great American Race didn't even go 400 miles. I say again, the country's two most important races -- Indy and Daytona -- must go the full 500 miles. NASCAR and IRL execs -- Go visit the MLB or USGA offices for a consultation.


I enjoyed my formal education in history, but not because I discovered joy in memorizing names, dates and places. Somehow, and fairly quickly in the process, my brain got wrapped around the true fact that mistakes in the present could be avoided by learning about the mistakes of the past.

It's a terrible reality that the American educational system these days does such a poor job of teaching history. Young people who like racing quite likely think of Hamilton as a Formula One driver and The Framers as employees at Jimmie Johnson's sponsor.

As the motorsports industry struggles to keep its collective head above water, however, I realize it has been the decision-making adults who have erred so badly because they didn't bother to learn -- or maybe ignored -- history's lessons.

Last weekend brought just the sort of news that is as stupid as it is irritating: The Formula One Teams Association says it will launch its own series, a competitor to the Bernie Ecclestone-Max Mosley F1 establishment. I take it these gents have never heard of Tony George or the Indy Racing League. When the American Le Mans Series eschewed fashionable entertainment for technological innovation dependent upon robust automaker involvement, decades of examples of car-companies-in/car-companies-out yo-yoing was put aside in favor of taking shots at NASCAR and Carl Edwards' backflips. What now looms is a sort of economically-induced Prototype-class genocide. Sports car races without the P cars is as attractive as drag racing without the eyeball-popping nitro burners.

Did the IRL really do enough to avoid the wayward path of CART? NASCAR re: Toyota? Goodyear vs. Michelin as it impacted Indianapolis Motor Speedway patrons? USAC of today compared with USAC of the 1970s?

The list is longer than Jeff Gordon's victory roster.

History -- learning it and remembering it and appreciating it -- will be important in the next few weeks. This Wednesday, National Speed Sport News publishes it's 75th anniversary edition. I've subscribed to NSSN since the early Seventies and places like Reading and Wall Stadium and Ascot and Manzanita and Terre Haute became famous to me because they were headlined in the paper's pages and -- most importantly -- were visited by Chris Economaki (left) and written about in his must-read Editor's Notebook. (Anyone remember when Chris' column was titled "Gas-O-Lines"?)

I'm told there will be a special eight-page section in this issue.

"Previous anniversary issues have focused heavily on the various eras of racing, but this one will be about the paper and its role in recording auto-racing history," says publisher Corinne Economaki. "The format of the special section will combine design elements from the current paper with the basic layout that was familiar to readers for more than 40 years. The cover will feature each of the paper's seven logos and photos from eight decades of racing will be included in The Final Lap. The centerpiece will be an extensive timeline that marks milestone moments in the 75-year history of National Speed Sport News."

One of the advantages of technology is I won't have to wait for the print edition to arrive. I'll be checking it out Wednesday a.m. on the web. One reason is because Chris, appropriately enough, will be my Newsmaker guest on Wednesday night's (7 p.m. EDT) The Race Reporters radio show on http://powerupchannel.com/ . Corinne and award-winning NSSN writers Dave Argabright and Susan Wade will join me for the journalists' roundtable. More than ever, the show's motto that, "If you listen, you'll learn" will be true.

And we'll learn and enjoy more history next week, July 1, when Richard Petty comes on The Race Reporters on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his 200th NASCAR Cup victory. Mike Harris, who retires that day after 30 years as the Associated Press' motorsports writer, will be a panelist.

Occasions such as this one demand a Chris Economaki story. Dave invited me to share a personal story for the bonus section of the hardcover edition of Chris' 2006 book, Let 'Em All Go! I'll repeat it here:

It was in the pleasant surroundings of the PPG hospitality tent at Long Beach that I learned an essential, and enduring, truth about auto racing.

I sat with Jim Chapman, the legendary public relations executive who precisely arranged every detail of PPG's CART series sponsorship, as he patiently helped educated a journalist who was new to the sport. The writer asked Jim what he expected to happen in the Grand Prix. Just at that moment, Jim looked up from his plate of fruit and Virginia baked ham, and saw Chris walking toward their table. In his wise and fatherly way, Jim responded, "There are only three things certain in racing. Someone will win. Everyone else will lose. And Chris Economaki will be everywhere, asking questions he knows his readers want answered . . . whether they like it or not!"

Mr. Chapman, a friend and fan of Chris, was right as always. In the 35 years I've been in motorsports journalism and PR, I've fielded my share of the famous to-the-point Economaki inquiries, especially in CART's early years when I was the communications director. Chris is always working on some story and he's certainly not shy to press anyone to get information. He has called me at home before 8 a.m. and after midnight and even on New Year's Day!

One time I was with Nigel Mansell, waiting for the David Letterman Show to begin, when the dressing room door suddenly opened and Chris came in firing questions machine-gun style. When Chris left, Nigel took a deep breath just as a producer arrived to escort him to the stage. I told Nigel, "Relax. The hard part is over!"

Chris has never apologized for his aggressive pursuit of the news he knows the public wants to know. Nor should he. Agree or disagree with him as we all may on occasion, but acknowledge this: Chris's unflinching trust in the story -- and the reader -- deserves our profound respect.

Upcoming The Race Reporters guests:

July 1 -- Newsmaker: Richard Petty. Panelists: Mike Harris, Lewis Franck.

July 8 -- Newsmaker: Ron Capps. Panelists: TBA.

July 15 -- Newsmaker: Scott Atherton. Panelists: Larry Edsall, Greg Creamer, Jonathan Ingram.

[ Chris Economaki news nugget and radio show audio link later this week . . . ]

Thursday, June 18, 2009

RAHAL SEES INDY as 'PATRIOTIC'; SAYS NASCAR HAS 'PEAKED'

Graham Rahal, driver of the McDonald's Honda for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing in the IRL, was my Newsmaker guest on last night's The Race Reporters radio show on PowerUpChannel. Joining me in the questioning were journalists Holly Cain (AOL Sports), Mark Armijo (Arizona Republic) and Tim May (Columbus Dispatch).

Graham, 20, had what to me were some surprising comments on his career possibilities and the state of the IRL. Here are some quotes from the interview:

"Formula One absolutely is of interest. And frankly, not many people know this, I have looked at NASCAR. Are those places I'd ultimately like to be? No, because, to be honest, a unified open-wheel series in North America was what I've always wanted to see. Everybody can appreciate that, growing up with my father (Bobby), that's the way it was. I felt very fortunate that, unlike some of these other guys . . . I was lucky unification happened so early in my career. I want to see this open-wheel series succeed. Being an America, that's what means the most to me. The second-best thing would be to be the only American in Formula One. That would be quite an honor. NASCAR would be in there. I'm not as outspoken about those things as some people. I just try to focus on my job rather than get the media all hyped-up. Before I move on to another series, I've got to be successful in one."

"People can say what you want, but Formula One isn't exactly stable right now. NASCAR, let's look at what Chevy just did, if Chevy is going to continue to cut, Dodge is going to cut. NASCAR is no more stable. I've got to be honest: I think IndyCar is the most stable of all of them . . . NASCAR has peaked, plain and simple. IndyCar racing, the quality of racing is second to none. The quality of drivers is second to none . . . I still think IndyCar racing is where it's at. I'm American, I'm biased to that, I feel that the Indy 500 is the most patriotic thing to compete in and that's where I'm focused."

Listen to the entire show by using this link:
http://va.radiopilot.net/voiceamerica/vepisode.aspx?aid=39301

The Race Reporters podcast is now available on iTunes (!)
http://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewPodcast?id=319558548

Upcoming guests:

June 24 -- Newsmaker: Chris Economaki. Panelists: Corinne Economaki, Dave Argabright, Susan Wade.

July 1 -- Newsmaker: Richard Petty. Panelists: Mike Harris, Lewis Franck.

July 8 -- Newsmaker: Ron Capps. Panelists: TBA.

July 15 -- Newsmaker: Scott Atherton. Panelists: Larry Edsall, Greg Creamer, Jonathan Ingram.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Monday, June 15, 2009

NHRA, NASCAR and RAHAL on the RADIO SHOW

RINGING THE BELL: NHRA President Tom Compton stands at the podium of the New York Stock Exchange last week to ring the prestigious -- if ceremonial -- opening bell. Full Throttle series drivers (left-to-right, amidst sponsor executives) Eddie Krawiec, Bob Tasca III, Ashley Force Hood, Tony Pedregon, Morgan Lucas, Karen Stoffer and Antron Brown joined Compton. It was one of those moments that helps draw mainstream, non-sports, media coverage to drag racing. And, gain it added respect in corporate, media and public sectors. See NHRA on Fox Business, with Alexis Glick, here: http://www.foxbusiness.com/video/index.html?playerId=videolandingpage&streamingFormat=FLASH&referralObject=5880819&referralPlaylistId=1292d14d0e3afdcf0b31500afefb92724c08f046


NASCAR, like America and the world, is changing before our eyes.

I hope you have noticed.

While there's new political leadership in Washington, D.C., down in Daytona Beach, Fla., there's the same leadership but with a changed philosophy. With Sprint Cup at Michigan last weekend, I couldn't help but remember it was only one year ago, at the same track, that NASCAR held its infamous and what came to be known as its "Shut Up and Race" meeting with drivers. But it was only a few weeks ago that France, Helton et al called a Town Hall meeting with drivers and owners to hear varied opinions on the issues of the day. That's about as close to a 180-degree turn as you're ever likely to see in NASCAR.

With TV ratings down like a flat Goodyear at the Brickyard, empty seats (Michigan's worst-in-the-national economy made it surprising that many people showed up at MIS), and now manufacturer cutbacks born of bankrupt GM and Chrysler, Brian and Mike and Co. had better be open to suggestions.

Of course, Michigan also marked one year since Dale Earnhardt Jr. found his way to a victory lane. The sport's most popular athlete finished 14th Sunday, and now is 12th-27th-14th in three tries with new crew chief Lance McGrew. He's 255 points out of the last Chase position and it's difficult to imagine how he's going to make it. I can't help but wonder the magnitude of erosion of Junior's passionate fan base if his terrible slump continues. That would be yet another WWF-style body blow to NASCAR and especially Fox, TNT and ESPN.

If one needed any more proof of how the NASCAR landscape is moving, the organization now is planting trees in "a program to help capture the carbon emissions produced by racing. Under a pilot program that will expand significantly next year, NASCAR will plant 10 new trees for each green flag that drops during NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events" read the announcement.

CEO Brian France called it a "first, important step in an ambitious five-year plan to significantly reduce the environmental footprint of NASCAR, while raising awareness of conservation among fans.” It's said all Cup tracks will be involved by next season with the purpose of mitigating "100 percent of the carbon emissions produced by the race cars competing in their Sprint Cup Series events."

It's only in recent times that NASCAR began using unleaded gasoline. (!) (I could hear Scott Atherton chuckling all the way from Le Mans.)

Now, it's even being hinted that officials are open to some CoT modifications. While they hadn't built a stone wall against the garage-area tide of that idea, the decision-makers weren't exactly welcoming the talk, either. (Hence, "Shut Up and Race.") Best to bring on those fixes, because Michigan wasn't exactly a buzz generator, entertainment-wise, even though typical MIS fuel mileage issues produced an interesting last lap.

Will the changes in Washington and Daytona make our country, and the stock car sport, better?

I don't know. In fairness, it's too soon to know. But I do know we'd all be screaming for the leaders to "do something" if they had simply chosen to stand still.
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Following such legendary Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing drivers as Mario and Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Paul Tracy and Sebastien Bourdais isn't the most stress-free task I can think of. But that's what Graham Rahal is doing. The McDonald's Honda driver will be the Newsmaker of the Week guest on my radio show, The Race Reporters, this Wednesday at 7 p.m. EDT on http://www.powerupchannel.com/ .

Media panelists will be: Holly Cain, of AOL Sports; Mark Armijo, Arizona Republic contributor; and Tim May, of the Columbus Dispatch.

The show will re-air several times during the week. Check the daily listings on the PowerUpChannel home page for those dates/times. Please use The Race Reporters information page to bookmark the show, sign-up to receive an "E card" with news of upcoming guests, and to hear the show's promotional spot: http://www.modavox.com/voiceamerica/vshow.aspx?sid=1549 .

The Race Reporters podcast is on iTunes:
http://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewPodcast?id=319558548
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Here's a link to my June "All Business" column in Drag Racing Online. It's part two of my look at ESPN2's NHRA coverage:
http://www.dragracingonline.com/columns/knight/xi_6-1.html

[ Graham Rahal news nugget and radio show audio link later this week . . . ]

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

FERNANDEZ on ALMS and IRL in 2010?

Very popular and vastly experienced Adrian Fernandez was Newsmaker of the Week on my The Race Reporters PowerUpChannel radio show Wednesday night. Joining me in the questioning were media panelists Gordon Kirby (Motor Sport), Larry Edsall (iZoom.com) and John Oreovicz (ESPN.com). I asked Adrian about the current health of the ALMS and reports he might move his team (winners of all four ALMS P2 events this year) to the IRL in 2010 (with another driver), sponsorship permitting:

"It's difficult," said the Lowe's Acura driver-owner. "We would like to compete against the Porsches from Penske (not running ALMS this season). It was very strong last year. People say, 'You don't have as much competition as last year' . . . I know we have a good team and a better program and we would like to be able to prove that against the same competition we had last year. I'm a little worried about the prototypes because they are very expensive, very high-tech, very beautiful machines to drive and see. I would like to keep driving these, because I really love it. But, in reality, the economy has hit everywhere around the world. All racing has been affected. Prototypes in the American Le Mans Series have not been excused from this situation."

"They (Lowe's) would jump if I were to run IRL again. But I'm 46. I've been successful there and there's nothing for me to prove. I don't want to go around ovals anymore, especially with a lot of rookies around. I've had a few injuries and would like to live the rest of my years in good health."

Listen to the entire show by using this link:
http://va.radiopilot.net/voiceamerica/vepisode.aspx?aid=39145

The Race Reporters podcast is now available on iTunes (!)
http://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewPodcast?id=319558548

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

FERNANDEZ PLUS a FEW THOUGHTS . . .

The 24 Hours of Le Mans is this weekend (I can remember when ABC's Wide World of Sports would show those classic Ford GT-Ferrari battles in the 1960s) so it's a good time to welcome Adrian Fernandez as Newsmaker of the Week on Wednesday's 7 p.m. EDT The Race Reporters radio show. You can listen "live" (or later) by clicking my show icon at http://powerupchannel.com/ .

Fernandez and co-driver Luis Diaz have won all four ALMS P2 class races this season in the Lowe's Acura. Adrian had to drive qualifying-style laps at the end of last month's race at Utah's Miller Motorsports Park (I was there) to secure that win. Of course, we best remember Adrian for his 11 Champ Car/IRL victories. Let's remember, too, that he did some NASCAR for Hendrick Motorsports -- so I just might ask him about the Dale Earnhardt Jr. situation.

There's lots to talk about during the media roundtable segment. My panelists will be Gordon Kirby (Motor Sport), Larry Edsall (iZoom.com) and John Oreovicz (ESPN.com).

The show will re-air several times during the week. Check the daily listings on the PowerUpChannel home page for those dates/times. Please use The Race Reporters information page to bookmark the show, sign-up to receive an "E card" with news of upcoming guests, and to hear the show's promotional spot: http://www.modavox.com/voiceamerica/vshow.aspx?sid=1549 .
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Thoughts . . .

* NASCAR's new double-wide restart rule? Not really important to me one way or the other, as long as all acknowledge it's striclty showbiz. And as long as the drivers are willing to take the risk of wild late-race two-wide runs in the closing laps at places like Indianapolis, Bristol, Martinsville, Phoenix and the road courses. And the owners are willing to pay to fix torn-up cars.
* Just what we need: A racetrack with its own Terrible Towel. Thanks, Pocono.

* Speaking of showbiz, that's what the IRL at Texas used to be all about -- crazily-so, to a lot of people. Not so much now. A couple of yellows with less than 100 laps to go Saturday night brought back a taste of pack racing but the current aero-tire package has taken away the League's one calling card -- spectacular, close finishes.

* NASCAR says it's going to embrace -- and credential -- "citizen journalists." Hey, gotta fill all those empty media center seats to make it look good for sponsors. Please, just counsel them not to be asking traditional-media journalists in the deadline room why they don't write positive stories.

* I admit it. While at the Indy 500, I couldn't bring myself to walk to the front of the media level to see who was sitting in Bill York's office.

* Grand-Am unnecessarily extended Saturday's six-hour run at Watkins Glen, due to a late yellow, citing a rule that the white-flag must be waved. I've been to several races where, for reasons of safety or even race-control mismanagement, the white wasn't displayed. Teams who carefully plan their fuel mileage for the scheduled distance shouldn't be penalized. If Scott Pruett had gone dry on the last lap, and lost, it would have been a bogus result.

* IRL team owners signed a letter in support of Tony George as IMS CEO but, according to one report, released it to the media but didn't actually send it. Will it make a difference? Not unless they mail it and attach seven or eight-figure checks made payable to "The Hulman-George Family Trust."


PLEASE NOTE: I'll be posting each week's The Race Reporters audio link soon after each show and providing a news nugget from the Newsmaker of the Week. Check out the link and John Force's comments below.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]

Thursday, June 04, 2009

FORCE: NO DALE JR.-TYPE CHANGES COMING

John Force hasn't won a Funny Car race in more than a year, but he told me Wednesday night on the debut of The Race Reporters that a Dale Earnhardt Jr.-type crew chief change isn't coming.

“No, I wouldn’t even consider it,” the 14-time champion said on the PowerUpChannel. “Number one, if I tried it, (crew chief) Austin Coil would just write a book about me and he’d make a lot of money. Coil and I have been together for more than 25 years. We struggled the first years and then we went on to win championships. But, yes, we are struggling right now.”

Force continued: “I will not (make a) change. I’ve seen that happen and the crew chief you let go comes back and beats you.”

Listen to the show at: http://va.radiopilot.net/voiceamerica/vepisode.aspx?aid=38880

Monday, June 01, 2009

'THE RACE REPORTERS' DEBUTS WITH JOHN FORCE; INDY INSTABILITY BAD BUSINESS

The post-Indianapolis 500 doings at the Speedway demand follow-up comment. But first . . .

My new radio show, The Race Reporters, debuts Wednesday (June 3) with racing's biggest personality -- John Force -- as special guest. The show will air live at 7 p.m. (Eastern) on VoiceAmerica.com's new PowerUpChannel.com motorsports programming channel. For those unable to listen live, you can download the show into an iPod, or access it for later listening by clicking on the show icon on the http://powerupchannel.com/ home page. VA is the country's largest producer and distributor of Internet radio programming.

The Race Reporters will be one-hour weekly. We call it a "good, hard, honest, Constitutionally-protected conversation on the issues of the day." There's no bomb-throwing, but it's not going to be like eating cotton candy at the state fair, either. I think you'll be surprised at some of the questions we have for the 14-time NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car series champion.

I intend to bring together the country's top journalists for the media roundtable. Usually, it will be three people, but John-being-John, I'll limit it to two this week. ESPN2 drag racing anchor Paul Page and CompetitionPlus.com's Jon Asher will join me Wednesday.

TRR will air-it-out with big names from all the major series on the "Newsmaker of the Week" segment. Upcoming guests will include Adrian Fernandez, Dario Franchitti and Chris Economaki.
I'm not into predictions, but I'll promise this: If you listen, you'll learn.

(By the way, my friend Larry Henry brings his Pit Pass USA show to PowerUp Tuesday night at 7. He has an interview with Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the No. 88's crew chief change.)

Please use The Race Reporters information page to bookmark the show, sign-up to receive an "E card" with news of upcoming guests, and to hear the show's promotional spot:
http://www.modavox.com/voiceamerica/vshow.aspx?sid=1549
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Sorry, chatroomers -- who personally attack anyone who doesn't agree with them -- but I told you so: As called here April 13, the Indy 500 produced its lowest rating since the Greatest Spectacle went on live TV in 1986.

This was easy to figure -- even easier than when I said Annika Sorenstam's participation in a PGA event 2003 Indy week would drive down the TV numbers that year, too. Lead-in, momentum-building, audience-generating programming is EVERYTHING in TV, and ABC/ESPN didn't have one second of pre-Indy coverage before the pre-race show opened. No practice. No pole qualifying. No bump day. No Carb Day. Not even the parade. No IRL early-season races. NOTHING! As Sports Illustrated observed last week: "Astronauts made repairs to the giant Hubble Space Telescope. Unfortunately, it still can't find Versus."

The leaders of IMS and IRL shot themselves, well, I won't say where, once, Twice, THREE times in less than 72 hours after the start. 1. The race was not entertaining, a direct result of the current aero-tire package. 2. Terrible PR images were created with the attempt to physically restain Helio Castroneves from his trademark fence-climbing celebration. 3. The Hulman-George family itself created the perception of management instability and cast doubt on the future of Tony George's tenure as Speedway CEO.

I leave it to the designers and engineers to address the first issue. But I feel well qualified, on the basis of experience, to speak to the other two.

The bottom-line reason for Brian Barnhart's call for tech officials to try to prevent Castroneves from climbing the fence -- one physically restrained the three-time winner, pushing him back down into the cockpit -- was the Hulman-George family's and IMS President Joie Chitwood's wish to preserve Indy's traditional winner's circle ceremonies. Those include presentation of the wreath (which blocks sponsor IDs from cameras), the Borg-Warner Trophy, and -- apparently most sacredly -- the sip of milk. (Memo to Jack Arute: Victory in the 500 isn't "official" until the winner takes the checkered flag, review of scoring data, and technical inspection. To say the milk made the win "official" was cheap hype. Of course, Arute putting the Firestone cap on Castroneves was bad form, too.) Apparently Chitwood lives in fear that someone might hand the winner a bottled water or soda or sports/energy drink before the milk. (Yes, Joie, we remember Emmo and the orange juice in 1989.)

That Chitwood and Barnhart didn't grasp that Castroneves' fence-climb is the horse that got out of the barn years ago -- he did it after both of his earlier Indy wins -- and that this misguided attempt to prevent Helio's popular trademark was certain to create PR damaging images, only served to reinforce the widely-held belief within the industry that Tony George has never assembled a proper management team. Interestingly, IMS' PR department allowed fan-site bloggers increased access this year (including the media center's deadline floor), a nod to the changing media landscape. But no one apparently figured out what should have been obvious -- those damning images of the tech jerk pushing Helio down into his car became an instant YouTube sensation -- and will live there forever, a perpetual monument to a misguided management.

That is EXACTLY the sort of arrogance that has made the Speedway enemies (and cost it sponsors) for decades, and why George and his lieutenants were convinced CART sponsors would force their teams to show up in 1996.

Simply put: TOO MANY of the wrong people have been empowered to make TOO MANY bad decisions for far TOO LONG.

Question: In hatching this bizarre plan, did Barnhart or Chitwood consult with the IMS/IRL spin doctors? If so, what advice did they offer? If not, why not?

Then followed Robin Miller's report that the H-G family-controlled Board removed power from George as IMS CEO. Did Miller write every word as precisely as he might have? Not exactly, but the underlying factual basis of his report was affirmed by the Speedway's own news release.

The first graph of that handout said, and I quote, "board members asked Tony George . . . to devise a plan . . . that would allow him to focus on the business which requires the greatest attention." The release then went on to quote Board Chair Mari Hulman George as saying, "the Indy Racing League represents our greatest growth opportunity and therefore deserves the most attention at this point.”

Allow me to provide a translation: Tony's creation, the IRL, continues to hemorhage money from the family's fortune. They want him to fix that, and that means focusing his full attention on the League, which means stepping away from the IMS duties. It is a matter of when, not if.

This came down just days after I quoted Terry Angstadt, the IRL's commercial division president, responding to the perception that George had reduced his involvement in the League post-reunification. Here is Angstadt's exact quote, as presented in this blog only last week:

"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.'"

Well, the family has decided otherwise. As a privately-held business, it's impossible to know for sure, but my experience leads me to think this: So much debt has been added onto the Speedway's books, the sisters are worried about sufficient cash flow to service that debt. Remember, the Brickyard 400 profits funded the IRL, but after last year's Goodyear tire fiasco -- and the fear another one might be coming -- NASCAR isn't ringing the IMS cash registers as before.

Would anyone want to buy the Indy Racing League?

With no one else in the family remotely close to being able to assume the CEO role, could the Indianapolis Motor Speedway itself be put up for sale?

Those once impossible scenarios now seem, at least, possible.

This much is clear: The perception of management instability at IMS is bad for the motorsports industry. Here's one potential consequence: If Danica Patrick bolts to NASCAR, this definitely will be one of the reasons.

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]