• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, September 29, 2013

REMEMBERING DOVER's CASE OF PETTY LARCENY

Dover is the least interesting Chase race to me. No disrespect to Denis McGlynn and staff. I covered many boring 500-mile Dover marathons when I worked at the Philadelphia Daily News. With all the recent talk of NASCAR controversy, and Jimmie Johnson's track record win Sunday, it reminded me of a long-ago Dover race I covered. So, let's go back in time, to the Daily News story topped by my byline on Sept. 15, 1975.


DOVER, Del. -- Forget the mumbling about some boxing matches being fixed. Never mind the occasional inferences that there are pro football players who shave points in order to beat the betting-pool spreads.

Yesterday's Delaware 500 at Dover Downs International Speedway appeared to be a case of Petty larceny.

No one would point their finger directly at Richard Petty after his amazing win, coming from six laps behind the leaders after a pit stop to repair a broken steering arm with about 150 miles remaining. Rather, 37-year-old Buddy Arrington of Martinsville, Va., was said to be the driver wearing the black hat.

Petty, 38, the five-time NASCAR Grand National champion, was easily holding a one-lap edge over the field when Elmo Langley's Ford blew in turn three. The STP-Dodge driver was right behind.

"The crank, rods, pistons, you name it, came flying out," King Richard recalled after collecting the $14,725 first-place check. "I ran over it and it knocked a big hole, about like a good-sized cantaloupe, in the floorboard. They (his pit crew) had to reset the front end."

While Petty sat helplessly, Lennie Pond, Cale Yarborough, Dick Brooks and Benny Parsons diced for the lead on the high-banked, one-mile oval before a sun-warmed crowd of 28,000.

Showing the speed of a Saturn V booster lifting Apollo toward the moon, the Randleman N.C., rocket took up the chase and watched as Pond retired and Yarborough slowed with engine problems. Still, with 22 laps left, Petty was about 20 seconds behind Brooks and Parsons.

At that point, Arrington gently spun into the turn-four infield and waited for the yellow flag to appear. When it didn't, he drove through the pits and stopped next to the third-turn wall, like a frustrated center-city parker.

THAT brought out the day's fifth caution flag and allowed Petty to close on the two front-runners. When the green reappeared, he quickly zapped Brooks and Parsons and went on to take his 174th Winston Cup victory by two seconds.

"I don't think I would have ever caught up if it hadn't been for that last yellow," Petty admitted.

Brooks, who took second, and Parsons knew that. Heavens to Andy Granatelli, they knew that.

"I can't say there was teamwork or collusion, but I think we were robbed," Parsons, this year's Daytona 500 winner, said. "We didn't deserve to win but we should have been given a fair chance to win."

"I'd be glad to take his (Arrington's) car out right now and run faster than he did all day," said Brooks. "If I didn't, I'd give him my prize money ($9,000.)

"Maybe he was scared and just pulled off the track," Brooks said facetiously. "Or maybe he needed his truck paid for (Arrington recently purchased one of Petty's old transporters.)"

Bill France Jr., NASCAR president, and officials Lin Kuchler and Bill Gazaway inspected Arrington's racer and found no signs of the handling difficulties Buddy had used as an excuse for his actions.

Such shenanigans are not totally unheard of. One old-time driver remarked after the race, "I used to get paid more for spinning than for racing."



The media are calling it maybe the greatest comeback in American sports history. That's Oracle overcoming a huge win-loss record to claim the America's Cup. To me, though, the international sailing competition was an example of wretched excess where competitors get to write the rules on what is actually raced and thus the yachting sport lost touch with its base. Sound familiar, race fans? We saw it in CART. We saw it in the IRL. We saw it in NASCAR until the automakers got tough with Daytona Beach and the Gen-6 car was introduced this year, bringing back the visual connection between the showroom and the speedway.

What was generally passed off as "sailboats" (exotic catamarans speeding along on hydrofoils) in San Francisco had as much to do with what the weekend sailor pilots as NASCAR's CoT did with passenger models. Yes, I know, we live in a high-tech world and the younger generation is consumed with all-things tech -- but how many of them are out there actually sailing their own boats? Damn few, I bet. Meanwhile, the natural core base fan had zero emotional attachment to the America's Cup craft and crews. Competitor ego got in the way of common sense.

I much prefer the old days of sailing off Rhode Island with Ted Turner and Dennis Connor taking honors for the U.S. That seemed much more relevant. To me, last week's incredible Yankee Stadium ceremonies honoring the great and class act Mariano Rivera were much more important than some spaceship-cum-sailboat.


Let's just see how many of the low-information chatfans post apologies this week for all the inaccurate, nonsense, guesses about this Tuesday's Phoenix International Raceway announcement. As I've said many times, these days, you can't be a good race fan without knowing something about the business and politics of racing. That means you have to understand there is more to all of this than the actual racing. Let's see how many stand up (anonymously, of course)and say, "Boy, did I have that wrong." And use that as a lesson going forward.


I knew George Bignotti for many years. It was sometimes challenging to deal with him as a sanctioning body official. It was interesting to deal with him as a sponsor representative. I have to say that whenever I asked George to talk to a reporter, when I was with CART or repping Emerson Electric, he was gracious and did a great job. Bignotti died Friday at age 97 with the record of seven Indianapolis 500 wins and most Indy-series victories by a chief mechanic securing his place in the sport's history.


Breaking News: Marty Reid out at ESPN, effective immediately. Allen Bestwick to call rest of Nationwide series. New IndyCar host unannounced. (As first posted by me on Twitter Sunday.) Elsewhere: Jerry Archambeault, NHRA VP-PR and Communications, has left for an agency job.

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, September 22, 2013

TOO LITTLE. TOO LATE?

Maybe, just maybe, Michael Waltrip finally gets it. Too bad it just might be too late.

It apparently took the multi-million dollar loss of his longtime NAPA sponsorship for Waltrip to understand the depth of his problems coming out of Richmond. Because, at first, he sure didn't sound like someone who understood the profound consequences of what happened in attempting to manipulate the Chase.

Waltrip was a posterboy for the modern pseudo-celebrity who gets in trouble. On his first TV interview, he whined about Twitter posters being "mean" to him. Chicagoland morning he cited the mistake as merely sending Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers down pit road on the last lap at Richmond. That was completely outrageous and proof the team owner wasn't honestly addressing the real issue. Even the statement issued on behalf of MWR after the NAPA decision came across with an undercurrent of defiance.

But then, finally, came a statement directly from Waltrip. For the first time, he apologized and accepted responsibility. “To the fans and those who made their voice heard through social media, as the owner, I am responsible for all actions of MWR. I sincerely apologize for the role our team played and for the lines NASCAR has ruled were crossed by our actions at Richmond." Waltrip then met the media Friday morning at New Hampshire. The Charlotte Observer's story began this way: "Sounding contrite and rattled . . . "

As I wrote on Twitter, in an age of declining standards, NAPA did the right thing. It stood tall for integrity, sportsmanship and -- yes -- its own image. I feel sorry for Martin Truex Jr., who has driven his can off with an injured wrist. Whether MWR can actually field a competitive No. 56 entry next year without major sponsorship is certainly questionable. And, have no doubt, such sponsorship will be extremely difficult to find this late in the game. And, let's be honest, it's going to take a brave CEO or marketing VP to take the place of a sponsor who opted-out of its deal early because of the team's ethical lapses.

If the team is shut down, if employees are laid off, then it is Michael Waltrip's responsibility to reach into his own pocket and pay them full salary and benefits for a full year if they can't find other employment. It's his name on the door. The buck stops with him.

And, let me close with this: Fox Sports cannot allow its employee, Waltrip, to use its network or cable channels as outlets to try to rehab his image. (And neither can brother Darrell.) Frankly, Fox management should have, by now, told Michael he's parked for the rest of the season.


Helio Castroneves will likely win this year's IndyCar series championship but hasn't been a real race winning threat at the Indianapolis 500 for 3-4 years. Will Power hasn't had the pace of the last three years and, having blown three consecutive championships, has shown himself to be more Kevin Cogan than Rick Mears. Those are the reasons Roger Penske signed Juan Pablo Montoya for an open-wheel return in 2014 even though there is no sponsorship in place and, let us remember, Penske has cited lack of sponsorship in the past for not running the likes of Ryan Briscoe and A.J. Allmendinger(both, like Power, are not mentally tough enough). Penske apparently felt Montoya was a better choice than available free agents Tony Kanaan and James Hinchcliffe, proclaimed by some in the media and the chatroom crowd as the new "face" of IndyCar, which made me laugh. No doubt Montoya himself is on a one-year deal with Penske-favorable options, and if he succeeds, non-performing Power or Castroneves could be on the outs depending on sponsorship with Helio a possible Indy-only driver.


Just asking: What was the point of ISC spending all that money to build an infield road course at Kansas Speedway but IMSA (i.e., NASCAR) not awarding the track a United SportsCar Series event for 2014? Says to me KS took a big financial bath on its Grand-Am race earlier this year.


Why we continue to despair about the media: Only months after the embarrassing examples of inaccurate "get it first, not necessarily right" reports after the Boston Marathon bombings, the mainstream media were right back at it again with last week's Washington, D.C. Navy Yard shootings. NBC and CBS were forced to retract false reports. Across the board, media went with an inaccurate description of the weapon. Nothing has been learned and I, for one, refuse to accept (and am sick of hearing) excuses about how mistakes are going to happen when covering breaking news. How about this? Waiting for confirmation of actual, real, truthful FACTS!


Twitter followers saw this last week: My new CompetitionPlus.com column -- Improving the Fan Experience is a Must!
http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/26431-michael-knight-improving-fan-experience-mandatory-for-nhra

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, September 15, 2013

THE WORST THING THAT COULD HAPPEN TO NASCAR

Despite all the progress NASCAR has made over the last two decades -- spreading its schedule to become a truly national sport, with big money, major network TV deals, impressive sponsorships and celebrity/star drivers -- it has never managed to escape the ignorance and bias of a significant group of elitist mainstream media people who still look down on stock car racing and its fans as too Southern, too blue-collar and too linked to its moonshiner past.

It was only a few years ago, for example, when well-known NASCAR expert Tony Kornheiser "reported" that he had been told Dale Earnhardt Jr. was allowed to win the Daytona 500 pole in an illegal car. No evidence was offered. Just he "heard" and to the likes of an elite egoist like Kornheiser, that was enough, it struck him as something that could easily happen. After all, it's NASCAR, you know.

Which is a big reason why NASCAR did not do enough to punish Michael Waltrip Racing after the Richmond disgrace. And, why, the absolute worst thing that could happen to the credibility of the sanction would be for Clint Bowyer to win -- or even seriously contend for -- the Sprint Cup championship.

You knew something big was up when NASCAR called journalists to its R&D Center at 8:15 p.m. Monday night. (The season-opening Monday Night Football doubleheader was well underway.) You all know by now the penalties that were issued, the main impact being Martin Truex Jr. knocked-out of the Chase and Ryan Newman put in.

For the sake of fairness, for the imperative that is maintaining its legitimacy at all costs, NASCAR did not do enough. Not nearly enough.

The Chase, after all, was created to give NASCAR an increased national media profile against football. If that increased media attention is there, that means more scrutiny. Those higher expectations come with it the need for higher standards from officials and competitors.

I'm good with the end result for Truex and spotter/Michael Waltrip Racing exec Ty Norris. (It's absolutely not credible that MWR didn't have pre-race scenarios to help Truex make the Chase -- totally bogus -- I've been in such team situations.) But the penalties, and the inadequate statement issued by Waltrip that didn't say a word about Bowyer's spin, didn't nearly do all that needed to be done to maintain any sense of non-professional wrestling conduct. To really make it right, I would have:

1. Docked Bowyer sufficient points to drop him to 11th in the regular-season standings, and thus, eliminated him from the Chase. (Jeff Gordon, who also got screwed in this deal, would have advanced.)Bowyer also would have been fined $250,000 and suspended from competing in the 2014 Daytona 500. Yes, I would have carried over a penalty to the following season (as CART Chief Steward Wally Dallenbach once did to Paul Tracy) to inflict the punishment of non-participation in the year's biggest race and the embarrassment of still being on-track in 2013, just not in the Chase. Let the booing begin.

2. A $250,000 fine to Bowyer crew chief Brian Pattie and suspension for the rest of the 2013 season. Supposedly, NASCAR makes the crew chief responsible for the whole team.

3. I don't know what an appropriate fine is for a spotter, but something.

4. The buck stops with Waltrip himself. Therefore, suspension from all NASCAR activities (and, to Fox Sports 1 executives, that should mean TV announcing) through Dec. 31, 2013.

5. A $1 million fine to Michael Waltrip Racing.

Not even the Kornheiser types could accuse NASCAR of not managing its competition is a most serious way.

I posted on Twitter about this, but Waltrip and Bowyer didn't do themselves any favors with their interviews on Race Hub or SportsCenter (respectively), either. Waltrip whined about people who were "mean" to him on Twitter. Bowyer whined about the "pressure" of the Chase. The most powerful impression to come across from both was: Self-absorbed. Ricky Craven, who should be hired by NBC Sports Network for its NASCAR team in 2015, was excellent in questioning Bowyer. Craven mentioned fans who felt cheated -- Bowyer didn't respond directly.

Here's a Crisis Communications basic: When making a SINCERE apology, never use the word "but." Never!

Of course, it got worse for NASCAR as the week went along, with radio communications from David Gilliland's team implying there was a deal with Penske Racing to benefit Joey Logano. NASCAR put both teams on what has come to be viewed as meaningless probation. This cloud makes a Logano title the second worst thing that could happen to NASCAR. Jeff Gordon was added as a 13th Chase driver. If the exact situation existed but the driver involved was Travis Kvapil, not Gordon, would the same decision have been made? No doubt Gordon got screwed at Richmond in a season that hasn't been his, or his team's, best. But superstars are superstars in every sport and often get the benefit of the doubt. I'm accepting of that -- in the real world, they've earned it -- and OK with Jeff in the Chase. Besides everything else, it's good for business.

One talking point during NASCAR's growth period was it seemed to fans to be a safe harbor from societal ills that occurred in the stick-and-ball sports. It was often cited that protecting the interests and image of sponsors was an important reason for this. But just as NASCAR has worked to include more segments of the American public in its sport/industry, so have the lowered bar of acceptable standards evident throughout our society found their way into the garage area.

Why should anyone believe conduct away from the track doesn't carry over to it? If, generally speaking, competitors think it's OK to conduct their off-track lives a certain way, why would anyone think they change once inside a speedway? Ethics are always ethics. Ethics are not situational. There was a time when standard driver contracts contained a morals clause. Yes, I know, times change, and I'm no moralist, but one thing -- just as an example -- we've certainly seen is having children out of wedlock doesn't violate such clauses these days. Even as the sanction prides itself on being so into family values.

What happened at Richmond went far beyond the days of Junior Johnson's "innovative" cars and other things that have become cemented in NASCAR's heritage and lore. What happened at Richmond shows us the modern NASCAR sport isn't a better NASCAR sport. Or a more respectable one.


Talk about a lack of communication and/or cooperation: The Chase, PGA Tour's FedEx Cup semifinal, Bears and White Sox all played Sunday in the Chicago area. Ridiculous!


ESPN's SportsCenter on Tuesday morning, Sept. 10, lowered the bar in its own way. After Coach Chip Kelly's Philadelphia Eagles' fast-paced offense ran 53 plays in the first half of the previous night's game, some SC producer decided the show should go for 53 stories in its first hour. Consideration of importance, context, substance and other journalistic imperatives weren't acknowledged. Shame on ESPN. Shame on supposed "news" show SportsCenter. And shame on Hannah Storm, who punted her own journalistic credibility for a gimmick. She thus stepped dangerously close to Susan Rice/Jay Carney territory.


And, finally, when it comes to lowering the bar in the PR industry, Goodyear showed again last week it is a true leader. Once again I skipped coverage of a tire test at Phoenix International Raceway, refusing to accept insulting restrictions such as being escorted from the entrance tunnel to the media center and absolutely no access to the garage area. A mere 15-minute photo op was offered: at 4:45 p.m. (!) Of course, not one single word either verbally or in writing from Goodyear's so-called "PR" person even though local media is one of the foundational basics of publicity, something taught Day 1 to PR pre-schoolers. I've written before of G's fine corps of PR reps of decades ago. Dick Ralston and the rest would have known that all Goodyear does with such restrictions and non-communication (besides being unprofessional) is make itself look unconfident of the quality of its own product.

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Sunday, September 08, 2013

THE MOST CHALLENGING TIME OF THE YEAR

Many fans I know think this is the most exciting time of the racing season: NASCAR's Sprint Cup Chase and NHRA's Countdown quasi-playoffs are about to begin. Elsewhere, in IndyCar, Nationwide, Trucks, the World of Outlaws and so forth, including the Grand-Am and ALMS sports car series competing separately for the last time, seasons are winding down with champions to be determined.

I understand the enthusiasm and passion of that fandom. To me, however, this is the racing industry's most challenging time of year.

The NFL and Big Time college football are back and, have no doubt, football remains America's most popular and dominant sport. Despite its own challenges with concussions and making politically correct rule changes which alter the game in the name of greater player safety. Whether there will be a fan backlash remains to be seen, but certainly, there's no evidence of it yet. The NFL wisely got the head injury issue out of the headlines, for now, with its $765 million legal settlement (paid over a number of years) with former players. Believe me, the NFL can afford it, with estimated annual revenues in the billion$.

NASCAR's best hope to stay in the mainstream media coverage and TV ratings game vs. football is a compelling, dramatic championship run involving more than a Jimmie Johnson runaway. Dale Jr. in the mix would help, but I'm not expecting that.

But it's not just about the actual racing. It's about the storylines -- either real or PR generated -- that can be picked-up by the media and then catch the attention of the public.

Saturday night's Richmond "regular season" finale ended with two controversies. ESPN, in its role of storyteller and news organization, reported one well and completely blew the other.

I'm not sure there can be any argument winner Carl Edwards accelerated too soon on the last restart. Booth analyst Dale Jarrett said it directly: "You can't do that." But there was no penalty and Edwards got to celebrate.

I was at Daytona in July 2001 when NBC debuted as a new NASCAR TV partner. A comment from a member of the NBC production crew was shared with me, this person calling pit reporter Dave Burns "lazy." I took that to mean intellectually, not physically, lazy. I remembered that conversation Saturday night when Burns completely botched the victory lane interview by not pressing the restart issue with Edwards. Nothing could have been more obvious. Nothing was more journalistically necessary. Not doing it was a complete disgrace.

One thing to watch when NBC returns in 2015 is what current ESPN "talent" the network will pick up. Allen Bestwick as the race caller should be a clear choice. But Burns leads the list of those who should not be. I like Dr. Jerry Punch -- he's always been kind to me and is a loyal, genuinely nice man -- but his habit (and Vince Welch's) of referring to interview subjects as "my friend" and other words of affection is outrageously unprofessional. Feel free to cite me an example of a network NFL or baseball sideline reporter doing something like that. It's not acceptable and doesn't do NASCAR any favors.

One of the most meaningful elements of the Richmond telecast always is the post-race interviews with the drivers who either made the Chase, or didn't. Ryan Newman throwing his pit crew under the bus and Kurt Busch nearly in tears were classic examples. As the TV types say, it "made for good television." I was left shaking my head at how unemotional Jeff Gordon seemed -- but it's been one of those seasons for the four-time champion, and I'm guessing he was expecting it.

Rusty Wallace and Ray Evernham bailed ESPN out of the journalistic hole dug by Burns in victory lane and the gushy post-race interview introductions by directly taking on the question: Did Clint Bowyer intentionally spin at the end to help Michael Waltrip Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. make the Chase? The video and team radio communication evidence made for a strong case. Even so, too often, we've seen former competitors punt on such controversies. Wallace and Evernham went at it head-on. As they should have. Great stuff.

That's the kind of honest reporting and commentary that will be needed over the next 10 weeks to give NASCAR a real foothold as football marches up and down the American sports landscape.

But ESPN should have put on Mike Helton or Robin Pemberton to explain NASCAR's side of the restart non-call as well as Bowyer's Chase-altering loop. Frankly, that was another botch to end the post-race coverage.

P.S. -- For the record, NASCAR did the right thing in denying access to its events to Kelly Heaphy, girlfriend of Truck series driver Mike Skeen. The now infamous Heaphy was the one who slapped Max Papis after the recent Mosport race. In my view, she should have been charged with assault. NASCAR also fined her $2,500 although I'm not sure how it can collect. I invite the likes of Heaphy, who lower the standards of conduct and thus the standards of the entire sport, to stay away -- permanently.

[ more next Monday . . . ]

Monday, September 02, 2013

A DISSATISFYING WEEKEND

Higher personal priorities means I have not had much time for this week's posting. But . . .

I found the traditional and prestigious Labor Day racing weekend to have been very, VERY dissatisfying.

I'll start with ESPN2's Monday presentation of NHRA's Big Go, the Chevy Performance U.S. Nationals. This has, in the past, largely been a "live" presentation so I just could not believe it when the first hour-plus of the show was wasted on pre-taped filler. I expected the show to immediately begin with "live" first-round action. WE WANT TO SEE RACING! Even in Glendora, Calif., it should be obvious (well, wait, this is NHRA) that the TV model is completely outmoded and outright broken. The collapsing TV audience numbers prove it. If the true definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then we'll know who really is insane if NHRA and ESPN come back in 2014 with the same format and people. Social media and the immediate nature of Internet news means taped-delayed sports events belong in a 20th century museum. And people changes are needed, too. The concept of keeping pit reporters locked up in a production trailer during qualifying is absolutely one of the dumbest things I've ever seen. They are REPORTERS. They need to be out in the pit lane REPORTING. I don't know how more obvious that could be. Except, of course, for the truly woeful Jamie Howe, who, if she ever asks a MEANINGFUL question, it will be the first. (Gary Scelzi as a guest analyst was great and Paul Page's return for essays and interviews was welcome.)

Get out the broom, NHRA and ESPN management!

I will say the Nationals again proved the completely unpredictable and fascinating nature of nitro drag racing. Just look at who lost in the first round Monday: Antron Brown and Tony Schumacher, the 1-2 Top Fuel qualifiers, and pole winner Matt Hagan and Courtney Force in Funny Car.

Elsewhere: I thought a lot of the driving in Sunday's Baltimore IndyCar event was just terrible, amateur-hour stuff . . . The on-going talk of an international off-season series in IndyCar is astoundingly ridiculous given the political and security and economic realities of the world and shows no learning has been done of open-wheel racing's past such misadventures and the team economics of such. Honestly, Mark Miles, it is simple: Most team sponsors use U.S. marketing budgets. Non-American races thus produce a ZERO (or near-0) ROI. I shake my head that time and effort continues to be wasted on such follies when the needs and problems here at home are so damn obvious . . . Finally, there was the depressing (not amusing, as too many TV heads portrayed it) spectacle of another driver's girlfriend slapping Max Papis (yes, Max is a friend of mine) after the Truck race. If that does not show how standards have declined, well -- Attention, NASCAR: Pull the credential and ban her from race sites for the rest of the season, at a minimum. To call her stupid is too polite.

Yes, dissatisfying.

[ more next Monday . . . ]