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Sunday, June 03, 2012

A HISTORY of INDYCAR INFIGHTING

Sorry, I can't help but laugh.

The IndyCar series gathered on Belle Isle last weekend for Roger Penske's relaunched Detroit Grand Prix, ending a week where the latest round of political wrangling -- calls for the ouster of Randy Bernard -- up-ended what should have been a wheelbarrow of good tidings after an entertaining Indianapolis 500. Bernard foolishly elevated the story from rumor to headline by confirming it on Twitter.

But, hey, who's surprised? It's more of the same . . . deja vu all over again for a sport where internal political turmoil is as traditional as the checkered flag, Yard of Bricks and ESPN slobbering over Danica Patrick.

Those of us with an institutional memory recall it was at Belle Isle in 2000 that the CART Board of Directors finally woke up and threw Andrew Craig out on his all-arrogant ass. Having been deeply involved in the series at that time, I can faithfully report that was long in the making. In fact, at Phoenix in 1994 -- only Craig's second race as CART boss -- his attitude already had some people expressing concern to car owner Board members. I'll never forget when I first introduced myself to AC and his response was a dripping: "Oh, you're one of those." Meaning, a former CART employee (original communications director, 1980-1983), one of those Craig decided was beneath him and had helped create the mess His Highness was there to clean up.

Craig ruled with the mentality that it was his way or no way and he undoubtedly would have been fired years earlier if not for Tony George's creation of the Indy Racing League. The terrible atmosphere George and his key lieutenants fostered in May 1995 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- none other than Paul Newman was less than 24 hours away from going on Good Morning America and other national media outlets to let his feelings be known -- and the infamous "25/8" rule rock-hardened CART owners against George and solidified Craig's position. There's nothing more unifying than a common enemy. Carl Haas once admitted to me his concerns about Craig but said a change in command "would make us look weak to Tony. We can't do that right now."

I well remember visiting with Jim Chapman in his Birmingham, Mich., apartment in the summer of 1996. Jim was in the final months of his Great American Life. Although retired, he still was a consultant for PPG's CART series sponsorship. The phone rang and it was E. Kears Pollock, the PPG VP whose budget funded the CART deal. It was contract time and Craig -- who hadn't bothered to reach out to Chapman even though they were only miles apart in Michigan and there probably wouldn't have been a CART without what Jim had done for the series during his 1980-1994 tenure as PPG's racing director -- was trying to jam-down PPG's throat some key new items. Chapman listened, took a few notes, then calmly went through each point and explained to Pollock why CART wasn't in a position of business-strength to make those demands. "I'd offer to renew for one year at the same terms," was Chapman's final advice to Pollock. And that's pretty much what happened. If Craig's ego would have allowed him to see Chapman's importance, and had shown him proper respect, it might have been different.

Craig more than loved self-publicity -- he thought it was his God-given right. As one very well-known television personality observed: "There's no more dangerous place at a racetrack than betweeen Andrew Craig and a TV camera."

It was inevitable Craig's time to walk the plank would come. Craig crony and financial officer, the deeply disliked Randy Dzierzawski, also hit the highway. As one of their aggrieved paddock area citizens, I couldn't have been more delighted.

Before Craig there was Bill Stokkan, the former Playboy marketing executive, with whom I had a pretty good professional relationship. The Indy Car Public Relations Task Force was active at that time -- I was the original vice chairman and later chairman -- and Stokkan embraced our efforts as a positive for the series and met with me, individually, and the Task Force regularly. Stokkan established a New York City marketing office, a move I definitely agreed with, although its operation and staffing (and COST) became a topic of legitimate discussion.

But Stokkan got himself sideways with the Board on a number of fronts. I wound up playing a minor role in this drama. At dinner before the 1993 Michigan 500, some complaints from a prominent team owner alerted me to what was up (my antenna had first been raised at Portland earlier in the season.) The next day I was asked to come behind closed doors in a team's motorhome. The message basically was that the directors were going to need to meet confidentially (Top Secret!) during the upcoming week's races but didn't want to be seen. Since all of them knew me and it wasn't at all unusual for me to be seen talking to any of them and thus wouldn't raise suspicion I became the contact person, the messenger, going from one to the other, setting up meeting times and motorcoach locations. On one memorable occasion, at New Hampshire, I had to interrupt another meeting Jim Hall was having in his coach to remind him the others were waiting and transported him post-haste via golf cart. (I thought Jim, one of my original racing heroes, would be upset by the intrusion but, not at all, he thanked me for coming to get him.)

I always tried to repay favors I felt I owed journalists. Walking to the parking lot after the Michigan 500, I very casually floated the notion to one of CART's regular journalists that Stokkan might be in trouble. He didn't pick up on my "message" and I dropped the subject. I remember there was a lot of unhappiness with the way CART's man handled victory lane at Michigan that year (I was Newman/Haas Racing's PR director and we finished 1-2 with Nigel Mansell and Mario Andretti -- Arie Luyendyk was third) and so this was a big topic when PR representatives had a meeting two weeks later at Elkhart Lake. Someone suggested a letter of concern be sent to Stokkan. I was asked my opinion. "For those of you not aware, the winds of change are getting ready to blow through Bloomfield Hills (Mich., CART's office) once again," I said, adding it might be best to wait. Sure enough, Stokkan was called to a surprise meeting with the Board after the race the next day and a nonsense PR statement was issued afterwards (I didn't write it) that Stokkan wouldn't be seeking a contract extension.

John Frasco was CART's chairman when the organization seriously reformed itself as a sanctioning body after its shaky 1980 truce/alliance with USAC was blown up by USAC itself. USAC was under political threat from then Indianapolis Motor Speedway President John Cooper (a story I foreshadowed in an interview with Cooper at Pocono a few weeks earlier when I was with the Philadelphia Daily News); he said he might consider replacing USAC as the Indy 500's sanctioning body. I worked for Frasco at CART. His tenure came to an unhappy end as the 1989 season wound down. (The now-defunct newspaper The National later published a jaw-dropping expose of Frasco's sweetheart financial agreements, which CART took years to pay off.) The '89 championship celebration was in a large tent on the grounds of Pebble Beach Golf Club. When John Caponigro (who was a lawyer in Frasco's firm and then held various CART posts) opened the ceremony by asking for applause for "our chairman," the response was as tepid as Michael Moore being introduced at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention.

Caponigro took over and got himself in deep hot water at his very first Board meeting, held soon thereafter in Chicago. I was there, entertaining media (including Chris Economaki) in an adjacent hotel suite. Caponigro told owners he was going to play "hardball" with PPG, which, in his view, should take the money spent on pace cars and hospitality and put it into more prize money. A concerned citizen promptly told Chapman, who wrote a lengthy letter to owners, rebutting Caponigro point-by-point in explaining how those things formed the very reason for the series sponsorship. It was brilliant -- and devastating.

It quickly went downhill from there. John C was on extremely thin ice when owners met in Indianapolis in the year's closing weeks. A few owners, including Haas, were worried about more change and hung themselves out to somehow convince the others to offer Caponigro a one-year contract. When called into the meeting and offered that deal, Caponigro, who clearly did not grasp the gravity of the situation or the deep concerns about his leadership, said: "I'll have to think about it." That was so inappropriate for the moment he might as well have worn seersucker to the NASCAR Sprint Cup banquet. Virtually every owner in the room took it as unbelievably tin-eared so the end was at hand. Over lunch, the owners started talking about who to get to run the group. John Capels had announced his team was closing its doors due to lack of sponsorship. So Barbara Trueman suggested Capels as their new leader, and that's exactly how Capels got to CART's executive office.

And, of course, there was the inept Joe Heitzler (whose call to race the weekend after Sept. 11, 2001 remains the worst decision in modern motorsports history and effectively ended whatever remaining goodwill CART had with the public), the puzzling/surprising failure of Chris Pook, out-of-his-depth Steve Johnson, and the Hulman-George family's internal conflict -- see ya, Tony; hello, Randy.

As for Bernard, I have no particular axe to grind with him. For those sufficiently interested, I refer you to last October's "Untenable" blog (which recently took second place in the annual AARWBA journalism contest.) http://spindoctor500blog.blogspot.com/2011/10/untenable.html
I stand by what I wrote. Since then, I think it's very fair to say Bernard didn't do his due diligence before accepting Lotus as an engine supplier, didn't deliver the promised price on the new Dallara and parts, and has hired/promoted and thus is responsible for one of the five worst PR departments in all of professional sports (proven again during May. That situation is dire and requires immediate change.) I would also remind you that most of what you have been reading about this issue elsewhere has come from the Indianapolis media cheerleading community. One thing Bernard has done very well, and given my PR background I'll give him a lot of credit for it, is to co-opt the series' longtime media critics. Just understand that is the filter through which these stories are being presented to you -- and who the primary (if unnamed) source is.

Finally, there's another thing that hasn't changed. I duly note the chatroomers are offering petitions in support of Bernard and threatening boycotts against the series and the sponsors of team owners who want him gone. The lessons of history are clear: Such boycotts were routinely touted on message boards as one CART/Champ Car sponsor after another left the series ("I'll never buy that car, tire, oil again," etc., etc., etc.) It doesn't work for the simple reason there are not enough actual CUSTOMERS there to matter. I don't question the honest passion of some of these people, but as for this sort of thing making any real difference, sorry, NO. For example: Last I checked FedEx seems to be doing just fine, and enjoying a successful NASCAR sponsorship, despite all those boycott posts of the past. Apologies for lack of Business of Racing knowledge remain in order.

So, Randy Bernard's on IndyCar's political hot seat? History teaches us no one should be one bit surprised.

And so it goes . . .

FAST LINES: I agree with Jim Utter -- Danica Patrick should drop the talk about trying the Danica Double until she shows much better situational awareness than she did in the Coca-Cola 600 . . . Good job Courtney Force, who visited ESPN's "campus" in Bristol, Conn., before last weekend's NHRA Nationals in Englishtown, N.J. Courtney survived the "car wash" of interviews on ESPN's multiple media platforms. NHRA needs all of this sort of effort it can get . . . "We are no longer a newspaper company," Chicago Sun-Times Media Holdings Editor-in-Chief Jim Kirk wrote to his staff last week, in announcing a newsroom reorganization shifting emphasis to digital news distribution . . . "Green" is the politically-correct rage these days within NASCAR and ISC, proven again with last week's announcement that Grand-Am (owned by NASCAR's holding company) will add a third class, called GX. It will "feature cars and technologies not currently involved in the Rolex Series. Rules are being developed to allow for the exploration of a wide variety of alternative technologies and alternative fuels. This could include turbocharged engines; fuels other than gasoline, such as clean diesels; and hybrid powertrains." Just what sports car racing absolutely does not need -- ANOTHER class . . . Meanwhile, in sports car racing's never-ending -- I'm sick of it -- ALMS vs. Grand-Am one-upmanship, ALMS said it will race at Circuit of the Americas in 2013. A curse on both their houses -- and I say that as someone who became a sports car fan (Cobra, later Ford GT and Chaparral) back in 1963.

[ more next Monday . . . ]