• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, July 08, 2012

6th ANNIVERSARY BLOG: LEADERS NEEDED

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE? NASCAR Chairman Brian France, seen speaking to media last Friday at Daytona, faces the daunting challenge of living up to the standards of his grandfather, Bill France Sr., and his father, Bill France Jr. Can he do it? (Photo courtesy of NASCAR.)


This is the sixth anniversary of this blog. As I first wrote back on July 10, 2006: "I'm one of those people who believe it's essential to keep learning and my wish is this blog will be a vehicle to stimulate thought for all of us in, or with an interest in, the industry."

I wrote then that my goal was for this to be a "Great Adventure," which is how Paul Newman described Nigel Mansell's shift from Formula One to CART in 1993. I truly believe it's impossible in this day and age to be a good race fan without knowing something about the Business (and politics) of Racing. Those are the areas we often explore here. Our readership is primarily those involved in the B of R but, certainly, all willing to learn -- and help the rest (including me) to learn -- are welcome. Those who post anonymously and make personal attacks are not.

I do continue to thank those of you who make time each week to read the words posted in this spec of cyberspace. Thank you most sincerely.

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A few weeks ago I recounted, mostly from first-hand experience, the comings and goings of the various CART/Champ Car/IndyCar leaders over the years. Not surprisingly, that drew a lot of response. A reader, Will, E'd me with some questions including this very valid one: At least in IndyCar, was Tony Hulman the "last great leader?"

My answer: YES!

And that's what I feel an urgent need to call for in this sixth anniversary blog: LEADERSHIP.

As the years go by, I feel more and more blessed that I knew Mr. Hulman, the Bill Frances Sr. and Jr., Wally Parks and I'll add Bernie Ecclestone and John Bishop -- racing's last Great Leaders.

I've explained here in the past how I got to know Mr. Hulman (top left in graphic, then clockwise -- wife Mary Hulman, grandson Tony George, daughter Mari George) and how he did me an enormous favor of getting A.J. Foyt to do a one-on-one interview with me before an Indianapolis 500. That was at a time when A.J. was mad at the media and not doing interviews and I was with the Philadelphia Daily News and in fierce competition with other Philadelphia-area writers. I was at the Speedway in 1977 when Foyt became the first four-time winner and had Mr. H ride with him in the pace car for a victory lap. Hulman, of course, will forever have an honored place in history as the man who saved the Speedway from ruin in 1946 and built the 500 into an American sporting institution. When AAA withdrew its auto racing sanction, it was Tony who played a vital role in the formation of USAC as the new governing organization. His accomplishments as a leader in so many other situations simply are too numerous to recount now.

I believe the argument can legitimately be made that Hulman's death in October 1977 was as consequential to Indy-type racing as most of the things he accomplished during his 76 years. CART was formed the next year and split away from USAC. Another generation of Hulman-George family took charge of the Speedway. Tony George's high point was bringing NASCAR to the Brickyard in 1994 and those profits fueled his low point, creation of the IRL two years later. Split series led to a devastating devaluing of the Indy 500 on the U.S. sporting scene and it has yet to recover -- and won't, at least in my lifetime. Randy Bernard, brought in by the H-G family sisters when they ousted Tony for draining the bank accounts on Formula One and the IRL, provided fresh enthusiasm and new ideas but now is inching closer and closer to the ejection seat.

I only knew France Sr. slightly, but well remember the wide-spread skepticism when he put Bill Jr. in charge in 1972. All the skeptics were flat-out wrong. I will always remember Bill Jr. for what he told me during a one-on-one interview in his Daytona office a few days before the 1978 Daytona 500. After saying NASCAR would one day achieve status on a level with the major stick-and-ball sports, I asked him why he was so confident of NASCAR's future success. "Because we work at it day-after-day, week-after-week, year-after-year," was his answer-for-the-ages.

Brian France came along and created the Chase, a concept soon copied by the PGA Tour and some other sports. His style is much different from that of his grandfather and father. The ultimate success or disappointment of his tenure is not yet known. But the pressure of high expectations surely are more than virtually any executive in American sports because of his family legacy. Sister Lesa France Kennedy faces the same thing as leader of International Speedway Corp.

The Charlotte Observer got into one of the many challenges confronting the Frances: declining ticket sales. Click this link to learn more: http://www.thatsracin.com/2012/07/07/91025/nascar-ticket-revenue-in-sharp.html

Parks founded NHRA and created the playing field for the most American of all American motorsports series. Who among us hasn't felt the rush of pressing down hard on the throttle when the stoplight turns green? No, I'm not talking about illegal street racing, I mean just in the course of everyday driving. Drag racing continues to enjoy, as it has for decades, the most interesting collection of personalities in any pit area. One of the failings of current-day NHRA management has been the inability or lack of a plan to get the mainstream news media dialed in to just how much fun it is to talk to drag racers. NHRA is still the most undercovered of the U.S. racing series and, while I blame media people who look down on drag racers as too blue-collar for their tastes, I also put the majority of the responsibility on NHRA itself.

I've only met Ecclestone a few times. Say what you will about his methods and attitude, but he took Formula One's commercial rights and turned a disjointed series into a global marketing powerhouse and made himself and others far more wealthy than they likely could ever have imagined. How Bernie's current potential legal problems will sort themselves out is the most important question in all of international motorsports. What happens if/when something happens to Ecclestone, who is north of 80 years old?

Bishop founded IMSA and it zoomed past the SCCA as the top of U.S. road racing. I knew him a little and liked him. But Bishop never seemed to have the resources, or the collection of staff people, to get IMSA to where I thought it might reasonably go -- especially when Camel was the series sponsor. Sadly, U.S. sports car racing has gone the way of CART-USAC/Champ Car-IRL with two competing series that are going nowhere in terms of national attention.

When you ponder the achievements of the above leaders, and then worry about all the issues in our country and our world today, it makes you reasonably wonder if the same level of leadership even exists right now. All I can say is, whether you enjoy racing as a fan or work in industry, there had better be such leaders. And the same applies in the corporate sponsorship sector, the media, the standards-lowered public relations business and elsewhere. We must have the next T. Wayne Robertson, Shav Glick and Jim Chapman.

Put the big flashing neon signs up for all to see: LEADERS WANTED.

And needed. Now, more than ever.



Congratulations to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame's Class of 2013, announced last week: Rick Hendrick, Don Schumacher, Rusty Wallace and Dale Inman. I'm a member of the voting panel for the hall, located next to Talladega Superspeedway.

[ more next Monday . . . ]