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Sunday, July 17, 2011

THE TRAFFICGATE SCANDAL

UPDATE 1: I'll be on The Checkered Flag right after Sunday's German Grand Prix on SiriusXM Channel 208. This is one of those weeks when the race will be live on Sirius but delayed on TV. Rick Benjamin is host and I should be on around 10 a.m. EDT.

UPDATE 2: I was Joe Castello's guest Tuesday night on WFO Radio to talk the Business of Drag Racing and my two most recent "Drags, Dollars & Sense" columns on CompetitionPlus.com. (See link at bottom.) Why do all drag strips have to look alike? You can listen (my part of the conversation begins about 41:30 and runs about 25 minutes) by clicking on the show archives at http://archives.wforadio.com/archive/20110719-joecastello-tues.mp3



Many times, I have written and said in public forums -- most recently, at this year's pre-Indy 500 AARWBA breakfast -- that "thank you" are the two most under-utilized words in America's conversations.

Rating a very close second, however, are "I'm sorry."

Or, as an alternative, "I apologize."

For years I have believed that senior members of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corp. family ownership and executive management should have issued a public apology for all the damage caused to the U.S. open-wheel racing industry and fan base by the $2 billion blunder that was the creation of the Indy Racing League. I'll quickly add I've also expressed the opinion that CART/Champ Car leaders also owed all an apology. (The chatroomers probably will ignore that last sentence.)

In the case of Kentucky Speedway, Speedway Motorsports Inc. and Bruton Smith, though, words aren't enough for the disgrace and fiasco of The Trafficgate Scandal. I will say I was personally disgusted with use of the pathetic "regret" in the track's initial comment to what happened at the inaugural Sprint Cup race. Forget inconvenience to the paying customers. Given the endangerment to public safety, that sentiment was like a party host trying to pass off weak tea as bourbon.

Let me comment on the words first. Then, let's talk about something no one else has -- action.

It doesn't matter that Kentucky GM Mark Simendinger later amended his comments, even admitting the track "blew it." What is most telling here is the all-important first instinct was to lowball the magnitude of the problem.

And since we are talking about the meaning -- and real-life consequences -- of words, shame on Smith -- and yes, those who laughed -- when he joked about people getting "home by Tuesday" in a pre-race yap session with the media. I've had it with all the "World According to Bruton" stories that come with the built-in excuse that Bruton is "good copy." No more. Until The Trafficgate Scandal is completely and fully explained, compensated for, and resolved, the ONLY questions at any and all future Smith press avails should be about Kentucky. Nothing else. Start with this one: Since there had been some traffic and parking problems at the track in previous years, when you added 40,000 more seats for the Cup race, doesn't common sense say you knew there was insufficient highway and parking capacity to handle that many people and vehicles?

In other words, in the matter of The Trafficgate Scandal: What did Bruton Smith know and when did he know it?

It was good that Allen Bestwick asked Simendinger journalistically-sound questions on NASCAR Now the following Monday. But it wasn't good this came with only 11 minutes left in the show. At a time in the Business of Racing when the fan experience ranks second only to safety in terms of importance, and the economy and competition from other entertainment options makes fan loyalty that much more fragile, this was NEWS No. 1 and should have been treated that way at the top of the hour, not buried near the end.

From an industry standpoint, reaction proved to me that things have changed and in pursuit of every available dollar, members of the "promoters' club" are no longer willing to give others any benefit of any doubt.

IMS -- which no doubt hated that Kentucky got a Cup date because that just gave the public another option past the Brickyard 400 -- quickly offered disaffected Kentucky fans a deal. But the most vocal and pro-active was the missive issued by Roger Curtis, president, Michigan International Speedway. Of course, let's understand there's a bit of ISC-SMI politics at play here, but Curtis let out a salvo that struck at The Trafficgate Scandal like a Cruise missle. Curtis' complete comments are widely available elsewhere, so here, I'll pull out the most damning words:

What happened at Kentucky "potentially, put all of us back several steps – maybe even years." The response "became an exercise in blame and unpreparedness – and race fans, corporate partners, media and drivers were caught in the middle. As a track promoter I am saddened and embarrassed about what happened."

"It is bad enough the racetrack went into the weekend knowing traffic was going to be worse than they had previously had with other series. But to think Bruton Smith made light of it with the media, and then pointed the finger at the State of Kentucky when posed with traffic questions is unfathomable."

"It appears the mentality at some other racetracks today is to see how much money they can make off a fan. Their line of thinking is to ban coolers, have fire sales on last-minute tickets, build, build, build without thinking, thinking, thinking, and blame others for their mistakes."

Speaking of Kentucky's make-good ticket offer, my best reading of the track's statement is that it applies to customers "unable to attend." What about the thousands of others who couldn't get to their seats in time? Friday, at New Hampshire, Smith arrogantly said he doesn't want to give refunds to any of these poor souls. That's the key word here: REFUND.

Smith is showing he doesn't have a tin ear, PR-wise. It's more like a concrete ear.

Now, let's talk about action.

NASCAR has made famous the description "actions detrimental to stock car racing" in assessing fines and penalties to teams and competitors. If The Trafficgate Scandal doesn't fit every possible definition and interpretation of "ADTSCR" then I don't know what does.

The FIA has, several times in the past, fined Grand Prix organizers for far less serious problems. NASCAR should follow that example. I would suggest calculating the average cost of all the additional seats built for the Cup race and fine SMI that amount. (Example: If 40,000 more seats were added, and the average cost was $40, that would be $1.6 million.) I'd be OK donating that among the NASCAR Foundation, the Red Cross, and other NASCAR-associated causes.

I realize that impacts SMI's public shareholders. I'd tell them to take out their anger on management.

In the matter of the Cup race at Kentucky Speedway, Speedway Motorsports and The Trafficgate Scandal, here's the bottom line: Greed was not good. Just as it wasn't when thousands of seats were added to the new Dallas Cowboys' stadium for the Super Bowl but weren't approved by the fire marshall.

What happened at Kentucky wasn't acceptable. Whatever price Smith, the track and SMI pay, they deserve. And, finally, any/all consideration of Smith for any Hall of Fame should be put on a very firm "hold."


Here's a link to my new July "Drags, Dollars & Sense" column on CompetitionPlus.com. Why can't drag racing have its own Yankee Stadium or Wrigley Field?:
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/18275-drags-dollars-a-sense-drag-strips-need-distinction

[ more next Monday . . . ]