• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, May 13, 2012

COMMENTS on the NEWS

A LEGEND PASSES: As a kid, I mail-ordered a "Cobra -- Powered by Ford" T-shirt and dreamed of owning one of Carroll Shelby's (above, left, with Edsel B. Ford II) legendary beautiful/brutish creations. I never did, but did have a Cobra Mustang. I admired Shelby, who died last week at 89, for many reasons. I consider his taking on and beating mighty Ferrari at Le Mans one of the five greatest American racing accomplishments -- EVER. Shelby's name came to symbolize American automotive performance, but I also was a fan of his annual chili cookoff and his status as a heart transplant survivor of two decades. I met Shelby through my friend, the late Bill Yeager, another heart transplant recipient. Carroll Shelby will forever be an American automotive and motorsports icon and I'm honored to say I knew him. Thanks, Shel, and God Bless.


With apologies to longtime readers who have seen these words before: This coming Saturday night is my least favorite and, to me, the most meaningless race of the year. I refer, of course, to NASCAR's Sprint All-Star contest. To restate my position: When this event was hatched by R.J. Reynolds' sports marketing crackerjacks in the mid-1980s, it made a ton of sense. It was a Big Money/Loose Rules exhibition designed to draw attention to NASCAR from a then-dominant Indianapolis 500. And, in those early years, it did have its moments, such as Darrell Waltrip blowing-up his motor at the checkered flag and Dale Earnhardt's now-legendary (so-called) "Pass In The Grass." But those days are long gone and the race's purpose long, Long, LONG ago ceased to exist, what with the boat anchor plunge of Indy, as NASCAR rocketed to the heights of American sports. This stopped being an "All-Star" race a few years ago, when Kenny Wallace was added, and the continuous format gimmicks have produced more laughs than quality competition. I say again -- There is NO REAL REASON to stage this show. I'd much rather see a open weekend created that could provide a rain date for another track and the prize money could easily be added to the end-of-season fund. I doubt this means much to the drivers anymore, either. No doubt Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Carl Edwards would rather have a points-paying Cup win this season -- ANY points-paying Cup win -- than the All-Star trophy. Time for this dinosaur of sports marketing to be remembered no where else but the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It's become all hype and no substance.


So, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch didn't like Darlington Raceway promoting last Saturday night's Sprint Cup race using last year's post-checkered flag tangle as the promotional point. I sympathize with them in the sense that's not what Harvick needs with Budweiser and certainly not what Busch needs with M&M's and Joe Gibbs Racing after what happened at Texas last fall. But, given the economy and today's anything-goes attitude when it comes to selling tickets, one could have easily guessed this is what Darlington was going to do. My suggestion, not just for Harvick and Busch, but for all drivers: If you are concerned about this kind of fallout, don't behave badly in the first place.


As a general rule, I think it's a good idea to put a fresh pair of eyes on things, to provide often-needed context and perspective. I hoped that's what Car and Driver would do in its June issue. The mag had longtime journalist Peter Manso scope-out the Daytona 500. What is needed with a story like this, though, is rock-solid editing, because the writer isn't an expert on all the nuts-and-bolts of the subject matter. I've expressed concern in this space before about the editing at C&D and it's happened again. On just the first page of Manso's story, there are three factual errors: A reference to the following week's "500-mile race in Phoenix" (it's 500k), a statement that NASCAR is America's No. 2 sport "fractionally behind the NFL" (fractionally only in Brian France's dreams), and the inclusion of Tide on a list of major team sponsors (hasn't been for years). And that's just on the first page. There are more. Manso's epic ends with his apparent belief that Bristol never was remodeled because he writes about it being a "rough-and-tumble place(s) . . . where you can still rub paint . . . " These kind of mistakes undercut the credibility of the entire article -- and the entire magazine. I'll repeat a question I previously asked here of editor Eddie Alterman: Who is actually EDITING your magazine? (Which I have been reading since the early 1960s.)


In the early years of the Driver of the Year award -- especially when Jim Chapman ran the program -- there was no question that the honor meant just that: The recipient was Driver of the Year. No longer. So many other organizations have decided to anoint their own top driver that the award has been diluted and the title confused. Proof: When Ron Capps beat Robert Hight in the Funny Car final at Atlanta, Capps said he "tweeted when they gave Will Power the first quarter Driver of the Year thing. That’s a pretty stout group of guys voting for that thing — I mean it’s Mario Andretti, ‘Snake’ (Don Prudhomme) — and it irritated me that they didn’t give him that . . . " The problem is Andretti and Prudhomme didn't vote for the first-quarter DoY (a media panel did), those two racing legends are on the committee that determines Speed's version of the year's best. It would be in the best interests of the entire motorsports industry to return to the days of one clear and distinctive DoY award -- but I know that's not going to happen.


I hope all the open-wheel fan chatroomers who regularly bash NASCAR for its competition gimmicks will be intellectually honest enough to hold IndyCar to their same sacred standard. In what is, in effect, an admission that the new chassis-engine package isn't performing up to expectations, officials are permitting extra turbo boost which might add up to five MPH in lap speeds -- but only for the final day of practice and both qualifying days. Not the race, though, because of engine reliability issues. This is a showbiz gimmick -- and proves that the Powers-That-Be admit that SPEED DOES MATTER at Indianapolis, at least in terms of buzz, ticket sales and media coverage.


I became a race fan because, as a kid, I became a fan of Jimmy Clark and Colin Chapman. The Lotus Formula One and Indy 500 teams, to me, were icons of the sport. A personal hero of mine, Mario Andretti, won the 1978 world championship in a Lotus for Chapman. In 1984 I had the personal thrill of a behind-the-scenes tour of Lotus' base at Ketteringham Hall, in Norfolk in the U.K., when Budweiser Concorded me there on a one-day trip to scope-out their proposed CART team. I got to see everything there except upstairs -- I was told no one went up there because Chapman's ghost roamed those halls. (The sponsorship didn't happen and neither did the team.) I said to Gordon Kirby the other year it personally offended me to see the Lotus name and colors on a spec IndyCar, given Chapman's genius at innovation. The passing around of the legendary Lotus name to an assortment of F1 teams because of money and lawyers has been another offense. And, now, there's the current IndyCar engine mess. I would urge Chapman's heirs to publicly rebuke those responsible for the situation, which has disgraced the Chapman legacy. I would encourage fans of Chapman and Clark to do the same. I just did.


Dufus David Gregory, who has done all he can to dumb-down the standards at Meet The Press since taking over from the late Tim Russert, couldn't change the subject fast enough when legendary former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw said on the show the other week that the glitzy annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner is hurting the way the public views the credibility and legitimacy of the news media. "It's time to rethink that," said Brokaw, citing the black-tie event's emphasis on Hollywood celebrity guests and over-the-top partying with politicians and their operatives. "If there's ever an event that separates the press from the people they're supposed to be serving, symbolically, it is that one," said Brokaw. "That's another separation between what we're supposed to be doing and what the people expect us to be doing, and I think that the Washington press corps has to look at that . . . it's gone beyond what it needs to be." Gregory -- one of those who considers himself a media celebrity, having defended an on-air dance with Katie Couric with the explanation that "I think people like to see different sides of my personality" -- immediately changed subjects, guilty as he was of showboating at the dinner's podium. Brokaw's words are worthy of consideration by all journalists, whether they cover Washington or Daytona or Indianapolis or Pomona. Sure, we all -- me included -- enjoy a good time. But, with the economy these days, too many of our readers or listeners or viewers don't have that opportunity. As Brokaw noted: "I don’t think the big press event in Washington should be that kind of glittering event where the whole talk is about Cristal champagne, taking over the Italian Embassy, who had the best party, who got to meet the most people."

[ more next Monday . . . ]