• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, March 27, 2011

TASK FORCE: CALIFORNIA

Decades ago, it was said that what was good for General Motors was good for America.


Let me update that to say what's good for racing in California is good for the motorsports industry everywhere.


Which means it's time to form Task Force: California. Sunday's downsized Auto Club 400 was the only chance for fans in the southern part of the Golden State to see Sprint Cup this year as what originally was known as California Speedway lost a prized date to Kansas. Less didn't mean a lot more, however, in terms of ticket sales.


Long Beach remains America's greatest street course event and benefits from what others have rightly called being "spring break for adults," but the ticket-buyers don't come out the way they once did. (Yes, put much of the blame on the split.) Pomona sure has had its share of empty grandstand seats. Laguna Seca, well, people like me remember the hillside completely occupied for CART. Sears Point is now Infineon Raceway but the crowds are not infinite.


I'm a California native, and understand the problems associated with plunging property values, high taxes, and the overall down economy. But I'm sensing there's more to the situation than financial concerns, because we are talking about, after all, the spiritual home of hot rodding and the classic place for cruising in convertibles, specially sports cars. The sport's California history includes names like Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones, Wally Parks, Don Prudhomme, J.C. Agajanian, Shav Glick, Ascot Park, Riverside International Raceway and oh-so-many more.


It's in the best interests of the motorsports industry to dig-down and understand what is going on. Any series that considers itself "major" should care -- and I am sure all those sponsors, manufacturers and automakers do -- considering the massive market size, diverse demographics and media opportunities.


I suggest the industry come together, as it did (under NASCAR's leadership, directed by Les Richter) during energy "crisis" situations of decades past, and come up with answers -- and an action plan. NASCAR, NHRA, IndyCar, ALMS, Grand-Am, AMA, World of Outlaws, USAC, SCCA, IMSA, everyone needs to contribute to this cause. NHRA, of course, is based there and both NASCAR and IndyCar have West Coast offices.


Some members of Task Force: California are obvious -- the heads of the tracks and sanctions located within the state. I think Long Beach founder Chris Pook is still out there, somewhere, and longtime NASCAR operative (and new NHRA director) Ken Clapp would be great resources. So would veteran publicists Owen Kearns and Doug Stokes. But I'd avoid the "Indiana only" mentality that has been a huge mistake by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar series managements and bring in experts (and good workers) from outside Calif. There's very valuable and experienced talent out there in the rest of the country who could be excellent contributors to this process.


Something's going in California that I don't think we really have a grasp on. Interest seems down and some of the passion within what we've always considered a "car crazy" state has cooled. It's in the interest of racers from Sea-to-Shining-Sea to find out why and get on with doing what must be done to change course.


To all industry leaders, I say, let's get on with it. Task Force: California, here we come.



At least for those of us of a certain vintage, there is no more shocking symbol of the "changing times" than the end of National Speed Sport News. For almost 77 years, from the first issue (published as National Auto Racing News) on Aug. 16, 1934, until the last newspaper on March 23, 2011, it was influential, sometimes irritating, always important. Chris Economaki -- who sold copies of that first paper at Ho-Ho-Kus Speedway in northern New Jersey -- became a powerful presence in every corner of the sport in virtually every corner of the world. But Economaki is now 90, and his byline went away from the legendary "Editor's Notebook" column at the start of the year.


I've witnessed several newspaper closings, as far back as the early 1980s in Philadelphia. When I was at the Philadelphia Daily News, we had four competing dailies, but not long after I left to become CART's first communications director, the Evening Bulletin and then the tabloid Journal went away. NASCAR Scene folded last year. The checkered flag for NSSN, though, strikes home in a different way because I've been a continuous subscriber for 40 years. I can't remember racing without this source of news, opinion and rumor. As a PR person, sometimes what was written was, well, "stressful," but then again Chris always understood the sales value of a little controversy. As a reader, it was always entertaining. For a very long time, the classified ads were among the most fascinating reads -- Carl Edwards advertised himself there. That turned out to be a good "buy" on his part.


That's what I'll miss the most, that weekly adventure of holding Speed Sport in my hands, wondering what might be on the next page.


The news business is not what it once was, of course, and the newer and more immediate sources of instant information won out over print and paper once every seven days. (NSSN.com will continue to be updated.) Economaki's well-traveled Royal typewriter is in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and NSSN's place in the history of the sport it chronicled is secure. To Corinne Economaki, Mike Kerchner, loyal staff past and present, and ace writers like Dave Argabright, I offer a most sincere Thank You.



Below is a link to my Sept. 6, 2010 blog, titled, "How to Fix the IRL on Versus." The entire theme of that posting was that IndyCar's cable TV outlet needed -- and this is the word I used more than once -- STORYTELLERS. Well, exactly that word was used in the series' official news announcement last week about the production and talent changes. I also suggested a pre-race The McLaughlin Group panel to draw-in viewers. Along those lines, it was revealed that Robin Miller will join the Versus pre-race show. Not that anyone involved had the common courtesy to acknowledge where these ideas came from or, God forbid, to say "Thank You." (Ditto when it was pointed out here that the Indianapolis Star's "expert" blog continued to use "IRL" in its headline long after the series officially abandoned that name. It was changed soon thereafter.) The rest of you, please just remember where you read this first:




FAST LINES: I've known Mike Wells, the new Versus director, for many years and he's a good upgrade in that position. New booth analyst Wally Dallenbach Jr.? Oh, you mean the "veteran" of THREE CART races in 1990 and 0-for-244 "star" in NASCAR's three national series? NASCARite pit reporter Marty Snider has given the impression for years that he thinks he's as important as the people he interviews -- just what ICS does not need. When Dallenbach and Snider were a part of a few ALMS/Champ Car telecasts on NBC in seasons past, well, viewers who were really paying attention could tell those were "mail it in" performances . . . Good news -- my friend Larry Henry is now the ALMS series PA announcer . . . ABC's St. Pete promos described IndyCar as featuring "the world's fastest drivers" even though NHRA's TV home is sister network ESPN2. Why NHRA puts up with this, I'll never understand . . . Laugh line -- Darrell Waltrip said fans at California were standing up at the start and looking to the TV booth in anticipation of his "Boogity" line, then a few minutes later, said some crew chiefs need to "check their egos" . . . I'll be in Las Vegas this weekend for the NHRA Nationals. A lot of people in that series have "Thank You" in their vocabulary.



The American Media, March 22, 2011: While ABC's Diane Sawyer went to Washington, D.C. for the first interview with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after military operations in Libya, CBS' Katie Couric was laughing it up with David Letterman.


[ more next Monday . . . ]