• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

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 . . . ]