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Sunday, September 11, 2011

RACING's SHAMEFUL 10-YEAR ANNIVERSARY


THANKS, RON: After 40 years with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, photo director Ron McQueeney (right) will retire Sept. 30. His last day in the office was last Friday. Over decades at IMS, Ron was a big help to me, providing guidance when needed and cooperation when needed even more. No, we didn't always agree -- but that was business, nothing personal. Ron says he'll be back helping out at IMS next season. I sure help so.


I talked about this with Rick Benjamin Sunday morning on the post-Italian Grand Prix The Checkered Flag show on Sirius XM 94/208. To me, it's important enough to write about here, too.

The 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on the U.S. means there is another 10-year anniversary for racing fans to remember: Alex Zanardi's terrible crash in the Champ Car race in Germany just a few days later. In a heroic triumph of skill by the medical team, and of the human spirit, Zanardi survived and remains an inspirational figure throughout the motorsports world. And, certainly, to me, as someone who worked with him in the CART series for a few years.

What I remember the most -- and what makes me profoundly angry to this day, to this moment as I write this -- is that this was a race that should never have happened.

While the rest of the America-based sports community paused in respect for the dead and the affected, Champ Car raced on. In one of the most pathetic PR statements ever issued, the in-over-his-head CC spokesman of that time told the media the group wished it had known NASCAR had postponed its race before making their own decision. (That's leadership!) Of course, it wasn't just NASCAR that did the right thing. NHRA, IRL, NFL, college football, baseball, right down the line, they stayed on the sidelines that following weekend.

The explanations offered by then-Champ Car leader Joe Heitzler and his minions were and are nothing more than butt-covering excuses. Anyone who knows anything about PR and dealing with public opinion knows that, if you want to maintain your own credibility, never defend the indefensible. Heitzler and Champ Car decided a trival auto race was more important than respecting the raw emotions of its home-country people -- and customers.

Many people think Tony George's decision to create the IRL was the worst decision in modern motorsports history. No, it was the SECOND worst. The grotesque decision by Champ Car to race in the aftermath of Sept. 11 was, by far, the worst decision in modern motorsports history. At the moment the green flag waved, the Champ Car organization lost all moral legitimacy and no longer deserved the respect or support of American racing fans. As reported in this space a few weeks ago, Heitzler had the nerve to speak recently about ethics in sports.

I know this: If Bill France Sr. or Junior, or Tony Hulman, had been in charge, they would have known to place the feelings of the Germans second, and the Americans, first.

If I had been a manager in charge of sponsorship of a team at that time, I would have urged the race to be canceled. If that didn't happen, I would have asked my team owner to withdraw. If that didn't happen, I would have ordered all corporate ID to be removed from cars and uniforms. Then, I would have ended all involvement with the series ASAP. History does show that, a few months later, Heitzler was booted from his job and the series' co-founder, Roger Penske, shifted his team out of Champ Car and to the IRL. (For many reasons.)

Alex Zanardi --yes, he knew the risks -- was critically injured in a race that never should have happened. My anger flared anew this year when another executive in another series -- Randy Bernard of IndyCar -- publicly said he wanted Zanardi to race in the $5 million Las Vegas challenge. His advisors/cheerleaders in the media applauded. As I wrote here during the summer, that was exploitive, seeking some cheap thrills, quick headlines, and a few dollars in ticket sales. Thank God common decency and common sense prevailed elsewhere, and Zanardi won't race.

The 10-year anniversary of the worst decision in modern racing history was followed by another horrid one. Both times, Zanardi was, in a sense, the victim of executive insensitivity. (To put it as politely as possible.) On this occasion, all involved should be very, very, ashamed.


For the three decades he worked as Associated Press' motorsports writer, Mike Harris would make sure the local AP writer covering an event Mike wasn't attending was up-to-speed and would offer some story ideas. Apparently, no one is paying attention at AP these days, because the wire service for the last few years has been spitting out the same-old non-news Danica Patrick features every week or every other week. It happened again last week pre-Richmond. This is more than about staff reductions. How long would it take to check, via search engine, what's been on the wire recently and if there is any real "news" in what is being offered? Mark this kind of inattention to detail as one (of many) reasons why survey after survey shows the public does not trust or respect the media the way it once did.


I guested on Larry Henry's Pit Pass USA show last week. We spent about 20 minutes talking the Business of Racing, mainly NASCAR and IndyCar. I'll admit, I jammed-in too many points in each answer. But if you are interested in a very candid assessment of the B of R, please give this a listen -- it starts at about 2:50.
http://www.voiceamerica.com/episode/56209/pit-pass-usa-with-larry-henry

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