• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

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 . . . ]