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Sunday, January 26, 2014

SPORTS CARS OFF AND RUNNING

I've been saying for months that combining Grand-Am and ALMS into IMSA and the headline Tudor United SportsCar Series would be messy. Sure enough, right out of the box, we saw that last Friday at Daytona in the IMSA Continental Tire Challenge. The BMW M3 that took the checkered flag first was disqualified for technical violations. That embarrassment -- BMW was title sponsor of the race! Does IMSA have enough pre-race inspectors for the car counts it faces? -- did allow the NASCAR-directed series publicists to hype Reba McEntire's son Shelby Blackstock as the winner along with Ashley Freiberg, the tour's first female overall winner. 


The Rolex 24, as usual, had its various storylines. And several of them were indeed messy. The frightening Memo Gidley-Matteo Malucelli crash -- which left Gidley with multiple serious injuries -- will get as much (if not more) mainstream media attention as the winners (which included the familiar name of Fittipaldi.) While the IMSA and Daytona safety crews apparently did well in coming to Gidley's aid, the track fire marshall struggling with a hand-held extinguisher as Kyle Marcelli's car burned was inept and had best be addressed before the stock cars come to town. And, at least as this is written, the last-lap penalty that changed the outcome in GTD was bogus and ignorant of the historical precedent of hard racing to the checkered flag. Bad deal.

UPDATE: After review, the race director's decision was overturned. It better had been to preserve credibility. It was the dictionary definition of arrogant over-officiating. Good deal -- but the thrill of victory was ruined.

The most important story out of Daytona, however, with all due respect to the Chevrolet blowout in the premier Prototype class, was probably simply that the race happened. The new era of unified sports car racing in America is officially underway. The challenge for what is essentially NASCAR sports car racing is to take the traditional sports car promotional approach of spotlighting the cars and blending it with the NASCAR tradition of building driver names. I don't expect much this year, or next, or maybe even the year after that. But by Year 4 or certainly 5, I hope the driver name recognition factor will be stronger (meaning those names can sell tickets) and that a new generation of true Prototypes will emerge. That's what needs to happen to call this united series a success.

The Richard Sherman mouth-off was instructive on so many levels. Let's start with the continuing "me" and not "team" trend among athletes in all of sports. Sherman made a great play but didn't win the NFC championship game by himself. The days of class and dignity in sports -- and society -- continue to slip away. (I'm not buying Sherman's non-apology apology.) Next, let's consider the sports announcers who said it was "great TV" and a "great soundbite" and "what people want." That attitude tells us a lot about the superficial nature of the people involved. And then there were the TV and radio show hosts who kept the topic going as a top story for days afterwards. It's all very revealing. And troubling. And, no doubt, will continue with another truly embarrassing Super Bowl Media Day.

I can accurately report to you, from personal experience, that sometimes PR people and marketers are put into such a difficult (basically no-win) situation that it's an accomplishment just to tread water. I think that was the case with Amy Konrath, who has left IndyCar after nine years, for a job near her family in Kansas City. Going back to the start of the IRL-CART split in 1996, team and series PRers, and those who need to sell sponsorships, have had to deal with so much inconsistent (and so-called) "leadership" and overall negativity that those factors must be taken into account. Amy was always cooperative and polite with me. The series PR staff was too thin already and currently has about as much publicity and media relations support as a table tennis team. The responsible new management better be hard on the throttle on this issue. Their choice to lead the department will tell us a ton. 

And there was a big blow to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as media manager Paul Kelly left after 16 years for GRand Solutions where he'll do a lot in sports car racing. Lucky IMSA. Paul was the best thing to happen to IMS PR since Bill York. Congrats, Paul, and you leave a huge void.

I sent out a Tweet on this ( @SpinDoctor500 ) but it's worth repeating here: While Jimmie Johnson was voted Driver of the Year (no surprise), not one of the 19 members of the national media panel cast a ballot for Scott Dixon. I'm on record as Dixon was the DoY in 2013 because he did the most with what he had to work with. The DoY panel vote is the latest evidence of all that troubles the IndyCar sport on so many levels. I will also say, however, it represents a failing of the voting panel and the DoY system.

Last year I noted here how TV news operations try to mask reduced in-the-field presence due to budget cuts by having reporters "report" on a story from a distant studio. I noticed a glaring example of this last week on Fox News, where a story on the controversy about the mayor of Hoboken, N.J., was told by a guy in a studio in Los Angeles! Yeah, that's real old-time shoe-leather reporting! Viewer, beware.

A salute to my alma mater, Temple University, where the journalism department is one of just a few in the country to have a code of ethics for student journalists. "A student journalist is still a journalist and needs to have a clear ethics code to follow," said assistant professor Lori Tharps, who helped write the code.

Finally, congratulations to my friend Arie Luyendyk on being elected to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. The Michigan-based Hall will be relocating to Daytona International Speedway.

[ next blog February 10 . . . ]