• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

UNTENABLE

Preamble: Out of respect to the family, friends and fans of Dan Wheldon, I have waited until now to fully comment on his death in IndyCar's Las Vegas season finale. Until now, I politely declined several invitations to speak my mind. Unlike the chatroomers, my name is on this blog, and my experience is there at the left, for everyone to consider and evaluate. Unlike many who have spoken/written earlier, I do not have the bias of the "born-and-raised in Indiana" mindset, which, in this sad case as it too often has, leaves the impression that they think the universe revolves around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This is not a time for hometown cheerleading. Unlike many others who have commented, I have no direct or indirect financial interest in the success or promotion of the IndyCar series. Unlike at least some of those who have commented, I have no personal grudge with anyone I write about below. Randy Bernard once was a good guest on my old radio show. On the Thursday before this year's Indianapolis 500, Bernard told me he was going to call me after the 500, because he wanted to "rebuild" his series in the greater Phoenix area, my home. I never heard from him -- but I'm disclosing that information for your consideration. I am proud to say I knew Tony Hulman, he was nice to me and once did me the enormous favor of getting me an interview with A.J. Foyt, just minutes after Foyt had thrown a bunch of reporters out of his garage in Gasoline Alley. Bottom line: What you read below is not swayed by financial or employment conflicts of interest, hometown boosterism, or emotional passion. It is my true professional, experienced, analysis.


Last May, not long before the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500, someone who has had extremely close ties with Indy 500 racing for many decades -- in fact, I'd say this person has in large part devoted his/her life to Indy -- said something to me that I found powerful at the time and even more so now. No, I will not reveal the person's identity, because I am certain to do so would cost him/her a job.

In sharing thoughts on IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard's decisions on several matters, most especially double-wide restarts, this person said to me:

"The problem is Randy has never had to sit down with the family of a driver who has just been killed in a race."

That time came for Bernard the evening of Sunday, Oct. 16, with the family of two-time Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon.

Wheldon, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, willingly accepted the risks of racing at Las Vegas at speeds around 225 mph. The following, however, are unalterable facts.

It was Randy Bernard who decided IndyCar needed a big end-of-season Showbiz Spectacular, even though it was questionable any positive momentum would last some five months into the start of the 2012 schedule. It was Bernard who decided the site would be Las Vegas, where he had business contacts from his days as head of Pro Bull Riders. It was Bernard who decided to lease Las Vegas Motor Speedway -- an oval Dario Franchitti, the only series champion Bernard has ever known, judged "not suitable" for Indy Cars of the configuration raced Oct. 16. It was Bernard who self-promoted the event. It was Bernard who decided to post a $5 million bonus for any non-IC regular who could win. It was Bernard who wanted Alex Zanardi, who lost his legs in a crash and almost bled-to-death, to drive a high-horsepower open-wheel car for the first time in competition at high speeds since 2001 -- an invitation that legitimately can be described as irresponsible and exploitive. (Thank God wiser heads prevailed.) It was Bernard who decided, when there were no non-IC takers, to make Wheldon eligible. It was Bernard who decided to allow 34 cars to take the green flag -- one more car than in the Indy 500, at roughly the same lap speeds, on a track one mile shorter in length -- thus assuring the pack would be tightly compressed. It was Bernard who decided Wheldon would start last. And, no matter what good intentions were involved, Bernard's five-lap salute with playing of Amazing Grace only added to the Roman Coliseum visual and atmospheric spectacle of the whole, sad, event.

All of this in a season full of safety-related decisions that were a big and legitimate issue within Bernard's series. Examples: Driver concerns about making the Indy 500 the oval debut of the two-wide restart rule. Restarting a race in the rain on the New Hampshire oval. Starting a race with an emergency vehicle on-course at Baltimore. Drawing for starting positions for the second half of the Texas doubleheader.

This is not finger-pointing. This is a listing of the facts. As is this: With only two years of motorsports experience, Bernard was not in a position to properly judge the safety of his decisions. Entertainment-based decisions, yes. Safety, no. That does not mean he's responsible for Wheldon's death -- keep reading -- there are a lot of factors here.

Last week, I spoke with a senior representative of one of IndyCar's most important corporate participants. I asked what the company's response would be if Bernard again asked for increased support for another self-promoted IndyCar showbiz spectacular. I was told the answer would be a polite, but VERY firm, "No."

I ask you: How can Bernard now walk into any corporate office and try to sell sponsorship for his next big showbiz idea? At least, not to anyone who has done a minimum amount of due diligence.
There's no doubt Bernard injected much personal enthusiasm and energy into the series. In fact, I've often thought one mistake he made was trying to do too much himself -- but that, in fairness, was partly a function of the mess he inherited.

Now, however, Randy Bernard's position as CEO of the IndyCar organization is no longer tenable. I think he will be successful in other enterprises, but not IndyCar, and probably, not any type of motorsports.

Also untenable, going forward, is Brian Barnhart's job as the series' competition boss. Barnhart has shown himself to be like a bad baseball umpire: He calls a pitch six inches off the plate a strike for the pitcher of one team, but a ball for the other. Late season, Bernard defended the embattled Barnhart, and said the problem was a poorly written rulebook. That conveniently overlooked the fact that Barnhart himself is the rulebook's main author. Sadly, Barnhart actually came out of the Vegas disaster with a leg to stand on, as he's been opposed to Bernard's spice-up-the-show rules, including two-wide restarts. No matter -- his credibility has eroded, the confidence of the competitors destroyed, his position is no longer tenable.

Also untenable, going forward as it has been in the past, are the so-called public/media relations departments at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the series. If there was any doubt -- and, to experienced PR professionals, there wasn't -- it was erased in the week after Wheldon's death.

I was writing formal crisis communications plans for CART teams and sponsors some quarter-century ago. If IndyCar even had one, it wasn't worth the computer file it was stored on. Failing PR 101, IndyCar followed a submarine commander's "Run Silent, Run Deep" approach at exactly the time a reassuring, comforting voice was needed. There was only a written statement -- that had to be corrected due to a factual error. As I've explained here before, the IMS Corp. PR (I combine here both the track and the series) mentality has focused on the Indiana media cheerleaders, at a loss of good, solid, professional relationships with the national media. As Jim Chapman (and others) knew, having such one-on-one relationships is nice in good times -- but ESSENTIAL in bad times. The IMS Corp. PR Department hasn't bothered to develop such relationships -- and the negative coverage reflected that fact.

Also untenable, going forward, is the position of certain segments of the Indianapolis-region news media. The lack of critical (by which I mean bothering to cover all sides of the issues) reporting and informed analysis of Bernard's moves has been clear all along and even more so in the Vegas aftermath. It was just journalistically sad to see some who cheerleaded Bernard the whole year immediately say after Wheldon's death that racing on 1.5-mile ovals is "too dangerous." That was nothing more than "journalistic" butt-covering. Certainly one of Bernard's achievements has been to co-opt some of his series' media critics and others, including some in the NASCAR media community, who were charmed by his attention and wrote favorably, in part out of a desire to tweak the Powers-That-Be in NASCAR.

But where was the reporting to verify Bernard's statements? The best example of which was Bernard's on-going talk of opening the 2012 season at Phoenix International Raceway. To the best of my knowledge, I was the only one to actually interview Bernard, PIR President Bryan Sperber, and ISC President John Saunders on this subject. There was no chance it was going to happen -- it would be the kind of financial failure experienced at Milwaukee and Loudon. Those who have been compromised with track and series PA and broadcast jobs simply can't be relied on for balanced reporting in their other media outlets -- that has been shown repeatedly.

And, finally: Also untenable, going forward, is the Hulman-George family's ownership of the Speedway and the series.

I find it sad I have to write that. But that is my experienced, professional, analysis. Tony Hulman literally saved the I500 and, thus, the overall series with his purchase of IMS and work to elevate it to an American sporting institution. He was a strong leader. When the AAA withdrew from racing, Mr. Hulman was key in the founding of USAC, to govern a series. This, however, is true: The family's leadership after Tony's death has never reached his level. Tony George was put in charge at a relatively young age. He was smart to bring NASCAR to the Brickyard, gave Formula One an honest try, improved facilities, but bled the family's bank accounts with the ill-conceived and arrogant creation of the IRL (supposedly an all-oval series for the benefit of American drivers.) His sisters finally had enough and pulled off a family coup, which ultimately led to Bernard's hiring.

Randy came in as the sisters' man. How do they now, with credibility, go out and find another leader? No doubt they would have been happy to sell-off the series years ago, but who would want to buy it? Not without its most significant asset -- the Speedway itself. Honestly, it wouldn't make biz sense for the H-Gs to dump the series off to someone else, which would only put them back in the pre-IRL mode of having to deal with an independently owned and managed series (CART).

Yes, I know, Mari George has said (reported to have said) she won't sell the track, that it's for her grandchildren. The names most often mentioned of the next generation to run the place are Jarrod Krisiloff, Tony George Jr. and even Jesika Gunter. None are close to being ready -- remember Tony George was given the authority at age 29. And, even if they turn out to be the greatest businesspeople since retired GE CEO Jack Welch, the Speedway, the series, and the sport cannot wait for them. Their family business is in deep crisis -- there is no luxury of time.

There are simply too many problems to be solved, too many conflicting staff relationships to untangle, too much politics to be sorted out, too little credibility, too little leadership, not the correct "Vision." Whatever IndyCar will be in the future, it will have to be vastly different from what it is today, and those crucial and most difficult decisions can only be made now by new ownership, unburdened with its past choices and relationships. The roots of the problems run too deep to be fixed by those who did the planting in the first place.

Some potential bidders are obvious: International Speedway Corp., Speedway Motorsports Inc., Roger Penske (who I assume would unload the series and sign a very long-term contract of cooperation binding the Speedway to the series), John Menard, and an investment group including Tony George. There are other possibilities: The Walt Disney Co. (ESPN), some form of state of Indiana-private sector partnership, the group that owns Formula One's commercial rights, one of the private equity firms interested in sports/entertainment, maybe even Donald J. Trump.

The merits of those, or other, bidders can be debated later. For now, of this, I am certain:

Tony Hulman showed great leadership in buying the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mari Hulman George now must show leadership of equal greatness, and realize her family's time has passed. And I say that with true respect.

I see no other way. The situation is untenable.


[ more Nov. 7, when I'll announce the recepient of the 2011 Jim Chapman Award for Excellence in Motorsports Public Relations . . . ]

Sunday, October 23, 2011

POST-VEGAS

I don't agree with conservative commentator and former presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan on everything. But I enjoy listening to what he says, and reading what he writes, because Buchanan obviously is a brilliant thinker and communicator. He has a new book out, Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025? In brief, Buchanan cites numerous factors for America's decline, including a stunning lowering-of-standards within our society. Conduct that, a few decades ago, would have been widely considered unacceptable is now routine.

I thought of that last week in reading the grotesquely inappropriate chatroom post by a so-called "fan" of Indy Car racing after Dan Wheldon's death. The poster, blissfully anonymous and thus immune from the direct scorn he/she justly deserves, noted a National Public Radio segment about Wheldon's accident. I quote from the post:

"A story about IndyCar would not be on NPR if not for Dan. I'm of the opinion that any publicity is good publicity. I think this is Dan's last gift to a sport he loved. After the Interview I just said, thanks Dan. "

That's sick. Almost enough to make you vomit. This is what your liberal and union-protected American educational system has wrought -- and makes me afraid Buchanan might be right; our nation might not endure because of people like this.

Unlike the chatrooms, this blog carries my name. If this "fan" is man enough to reveal his true identity, my contact info is easily available. If not, I've finally thought of a legitimate purpose for the bouncer the series employs: Investigate and learn the real identity of this "fan" -- then make sure he/she is permanently banned from all your races.

For the record, here's a re-link to what people who actually know anything about publicity know: http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/19210-drags-dollars-a-sense-not-all-ink-is-good-ink

The information below was provided by the IndyCar series:

The Dan Wheldon Family Trust Fund has been established for the financial security of Wheldon's family. The public can make contributions to the Dan Wheldon Family Trust Fund starting Wednesday, Oct. 19 at the following address:

Fifth Third Private Bank
Attn: Dan Wheldon Family Trust
251 North Illinois St.
Suite 1000
Indianapolis, IN 46204


This also deserves to be reported: Longtime Associated Press photographer Ed Reinke died last week. He had been hospitalized since Oct. 2, when he fell and suffered a head injury while covering the IndyCar race at Kentucky Speedway.

I find it necessary to post this blog before the conclusion of the public memorial service for Wheldon Sunday afternoon in Indianapolis. Out of respect, I will stop on this subject now. That will change in the next few days -- before next Monday -- when enough time will have passed to have shown proper respect, let emotions cool, and add much-needed context.
************************************************************************** This was the blog I had ready to post last week until I learned of Wheldon's death:

I had NHRA on my mind last week, which certainly was not a bad thing.

I was out at Firebird International Raceway to cover the Arizona Nationals. Mark Armijo joined me in the writing for the Arizona Republic. Here are links to some of my stories and I especially point you to my now-traditional Q&A, this one with legends Don Garlits and Shirley Muldowney:
Friday notebook (Mike Neff, Matt Hagan, etc.):
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2011/10/13/20111013nhra-mike-neff-driver-crew-chief.html

Saturday notebook (Tony Schumacher, future of Firebird track, etc.):
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2011/10/14/20111014nhra-tony-schumacher-firebird-international-raceway.html

Sunday notebook (Force Hood unlikely to race in 2012, NHRA's new drug testing policy):
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2011/10/15/20111015nhra-ashley-force-hood-unlikely-race-in-2012.html

Sunday Q&A with Don Garlits and Shirley Muldowney:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2011/10/15/20111015nhra-q&a-don-garlits-shirley-muldowney.html

Monday notebook (Pro Stock, bike winners, etc.):
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2011/10/16/20111016nhra-rookies-vincent-nobile-hector-arana-jr-arizona-nationals.html

Nitro fumes and the feel of 16,000 horsepower under my feet as Top Fuel and Funny Cars thundered away from the starting line dulled my senses, at least in terms of paying as much attention as usual to other series. Sorry, NASCAR and Bernie. I even had to beg-off my usual post-Formula One segment on SiriusXM but, as Arnold famously said, "I'll be back."

There's one constant for me when it comes to drag racing: I had more fun, interesting and informative conversations last weekend than happens yearly in all other series combined. I've said it before and I'll say it again: NHRA's Full Throttle series is under-covered by the mainstream national media. The so-called and self-thinking "Big Time" columnists who look down on drag racing as too blue-collar for their tastes, and thus have never bothered to talk with the likes of John Force, Kenny Bernstein, Jack Beckman, Antron Brown, Ron Capps, Tony Schumacher, Melanie Troxel, Bob Tasca III, et al do their readers a journalistic disservice.

There's a much more friendly atmosphere -- and, generally, more cooperation from PR reps -- than I find anywhere else. (There are always exceptions, of course, like the PRer who answered my E-mail of a week earlier late Thursday afternoon, and asked if I was coming out to the track. Nothing like knowing who-is-doing-what, media-wise, in the race market!)

Friday afternoon, I sat with John Force in his trackside motorcoach with his daughters Ashley and Courtney as he held his new grandson, Jacob John. Try doing that in NASCAR. The lesson to be learned is NHRA drivers (and publicists) know their sponsors want and NEED the publicity, and they are willing to work for it!

And, it's always nice to break some news as I did with the story on NHRA's upcoming new drug testing policy, which I had in the Republic and a more extension version on CompetitionPlus.com.
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/news/19352-nhra-to-adjust-drug-testing-procedure

Yes, sure, I'll get back into the Chase and the rest of the F1 season. But the people of the NHRA pits provided a welcome "vacation." Thank you.


Dollar General officially announced its extensive 2012 NASCAR sponsorship, upping its ante to include part-time sponsorship of Joey Logano in Sprint Cup. Of its decision to drop IndyCar, DG CEO Rick Dreiling said: "Being in victory lane at Kentucky with Sarah Fisher Racing was wonderful, but our customer base leans toward NASCAR. Our demographic is middle America. A lot of our customers have cars, they work on their cars, and they can relate to these guys. They have a passion for car racing." What say you, Randy Bernard and Terry Angstadt?


FAST LINES: Special thanks to NHRA's super-hard-working Anthony Vestal for his extra help to me at Firebird . . . Read all the details on CompetitionPlus.com, but the NHRA's handling of Don Schumacher Racing's Top Fuel shield design was a credibility-and-PR fiasco . . . If Jimmie Johnson doesn't win his sixth straight Sprint Cup, remember the infamous Sports Illustrated cover jinx. JJ was on the cover last week. To be honest though, I would have put Al Davis -- a profoundly historic figure in America's most popular sport, the NFL -- on the cover . . . Sign of the times -- Matt Kenseth in victory lane at Charlotte admitting his team has no sponsors for next season . . . ALMS was quick to issue a release explaining a conflict with Le Mans testing meant Grand-Am gets to join IndyCar at Belle Isle next June. Not so fast -- unless Penske gets the deal to run Porsche's upcoming factory prototype program, he's got more to gain by scheduling Grand-Am -- remember, it's owned by the NASCAR holding company . . . I'm definitely not a member of the Grassy Knoll crowd, but seeing Danica Patrick listed as the fastest during Thursday practice for IndyCar's self-promoted Las Vegas race reminded me of the years when Ferrari didn't have a competitive car, but somehow would always be fastest on the opening day of practice for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

[ more in a few days . . . ]

Sunday, October 16, 2011

SILENCE

There is much that could be said. No doubt, given the realities of social media, others will do at least some of that. Out of respect to the family, friends and fans of Dan Wheldon, I will stay silent this week. Thank you. God Bless.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

ANOTHER THRILL RIDE at PIR

FAST RIDE: Chris van der Beeck (left), Mark Armijo, Jeff Gordon, me after lapping the new PIR.


I promised last week that this week I'd explain why I wasn't trying to be fast when I drove a Richard Petty Driving Experience stock car at Phoenix International Raceway on Sept. 30. As I indicated, I had a reason to want to take-in a wider perspective of the repaved and reconfigured track instead of trying to focus-in on speed.

That was because I knew, before the start of the two-day Sprint Cup test at PIR last Tuesday, Jeff Gordon would be taking us for a ride.

For example, as we went down the back straight for the first time, I asked Jeff to look left and note that SAFER barrier is positioned all the way down the inside wall -- something I had noticed when I drove the Petty car.

As I did when Trevor Bayne took us for a thrill ride before last February's Cup race at PIR, I videotaped the Jeff ride from the backseat of a Camaro using my BlackBerry. Due to space limitations in the Arizona Republic -- including the surprising Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League playoffs -- I have to wait until race week of the Nov. 13 Kobalt Tools 500k to write about Jeff's Lap of the New PIR. Sorry, but to protect that story, I'll have to delay posting the video. I do plan to put it on YouTube race week and will let you know here when it's available.

Meanwhile, here are some links to my recent AZR stories:

Thursday -- PIR test (Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch):
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2011/10/05/20111005phoenix-international-raceway-oval-stress-chase.html

Friday -- Arizona to host two wild-card races:
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/speed/articles/2011/10/06/20111006nascar-nhra-phoenix-races.html


FAST LINES: PIR's communications director, Paul Corliss, will leave right after the Nov. 13 Cup race to join the national basketball retired players' association. He'll be based for a few months in New York, then relocate to Chicago. Paul has been a tremendous help to me in covering the PIR races since 2007 for the Arizona Republic. No replacement yet . . . Isn't it interesting how it only took Speed Channel a couple of weeks to figure-out a format for Ray Evernham to shine but ESPN couldn't do that over several years?


Mark Armijo and I will be covering this weekend's NHRA Arizona Nationals at Firebird International Raceway. Please check out our stories in the Arizona Republic or at http://AzCentral.com . I'll have an event preview Tuesday and notebooks Friday-through-Monday. Look for my Q&A with legends Don Garlits and Shirley Muldowney on Sunday, Oct. 16.

[ more Blogging the Chase next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, October 02, 2011

DRIVING DAY

UPDATE: I'll be on SiriusXM 94/208 in the early hours Sunday a.m. right after the Grand Prix of Japan with Rick Benjamin on The Checkered Flag post-race show.


It was "Boys, have at it" last Friday at Phoenix International Raceway.

Sort of.

Arizona Republic Sports Editor Mark Faller, Page 2 columnist Bob Young and Chris van der Beeck, who coordinates the racing coverage, and I were out at PIR to drive Richard Petty Driving Experience stock cars on the newly repaved and reconfigured oval. Bob really got with the driving program and here's a link to his Sunday column.
http://www.azcentral.com/sports/heatindex/articles/2011/10/01/20111001phoenix-international-raceway-new-surface.html

We all had our pictures taken with a famous No. 43 in victory lane before getting out on the track. I'll skip the details here, but will say the Petty Experience crew was extremely professional and helpful, and I'd certainly recommend you give it a go if the opportunity ever is there. I drove a No. 9 Dodge Charger for eight laps.

I asked to go last because my objective was different from the typical student -- for reasons I'll explain here next week. I've had the chance to drive a Corvette at the Bob Bondurant school and even a Formula Ford on the Pocono road course (in the wet!). I've never had any thoughts of being a driver, especially after my misadventure in a media snowmobile race many years ago. I got to bumping on some ruts, ran into the guy ahead of me, and flipped. I landed on my shoulder and had my arm in a sling for one week!

Instead of having to narrow-focus on my line and driving and speed, I wanted to broaden my perspective to observe and experience the PIR changes. Especially the slight banking, increased radius, and especially the dogleg. That's now a real turn -- no more short-cutting. Again, I had a good reason for wanting to take this approach and if you read me here next week, you'll understand. Meanwhile, I wasn't fast and will admit I missed getting into third gear on my first try, but I didn't crash or spin or hit the wall and got my "graduation" certificate.

One other thing I came away with was this was a great example of relationship-building and can only be a positive for PIR coverage down the road. Others should take note.


You don't have to be a drag racing fan to maybe find my October "Drags, Dollars & Sense" column on CompetitionPlus.com interesting/useful. No, not all publicity is good publicity. Here's the link:
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/19210-drags-dollars-a-sense-not-all-ink-is-good-ink


FAST LINES: Katie Kenseth's injuries last week while practicing for a charity race just reinforces what I've said for some time -- these sorts of events are a bad idea. I notice those old-timer events have abruptly stopped in the aftermath of Larry Pearson's injuries at Bristol the other year . . . Sorry, NASCAR's new Integrated Marketing Communications department, but this was just too much: The 2012 schedule was released month-by-month, at five-minute intervals, on Twitter. News is news, not a game . . . This is how PR people lose credibility: The post-Kentucky news release from HVM Racing didn't mention that Simona de Silvestro spun in the pits and hit a member of E.J. Viso's crew. What? Did this PR-she think no one noticed? . . . NASCAR's two-day Cup test at PIR is Tuesday and Wednesday. Mark Armijo will have a story in the Republic Wednesday, and I'll be in the paper Thursday and Friday and also will have an NHRA-at-Firebird story next Sunday. Please check us out at http://azcentral.com/ .

[ more Blogging the Chase next week . . . ]