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Sunday, March 01, 2015

BAD BUSINESS & BRIAN FRANCE (Plus Harvick, Logano, Buck atop new 'Power Players' Most Influential list)

News headlines last week provided cautionary tales for how business mixes with competition in motorsports. This is something I've been signaling for attention for many years.

Chartwell Investments, the minority owner of Richard Childress Racing, says it wants to sell. Chartwell is a private equity business, meaning it buys into companies to make money, then sells when it decides maximum value has been gained. The clear message, to me, is Chartwell has scanned the sponsorship landscape and believes it's not likely to return to the pre-2008 financial collapse levels. At least, not anytime soon. From a dollars-and-cents standpoint, the best of the deal has been attained, so it's time to cash out and move on. I can't say this is a surprise because, one look at the blank fenders especially in the Xfinity and Truck series, and even Big Time Cup organizations like Roush scratching to get fully-funded, should tell you the racing sponsorship economy remains tenuous.

I was covering NHRA here in Arizona during Daytona weekend. I wrote a long Arizona Republic story ( you can find the link on my Twitter: @SpinDoctor500 ) about John Force's struggles to keep his family business in business. Force says he never expects to get back to what he had, sponsorship-wise, due to the econony. Pro Stock class winner Rodger Brogdon admitted he didn't decide to bring out his self-owned, self-funded car until a few weeks before the season. He owns and operates a Texas company called RoofTec, and Brodgon admitted in his post-race winner's media availability that it takes 800,000 shingles, 400 18-wheel truckloads, to run a $1.5 million Pro Stock program. (!!!) Reigning Pro Stock champion Erica Enders-Stevens, who lost to Brogdon in the Arizona finals, only has funding for 15 of the season's 24 Mello Yello events. Even powerhouse Don Schumacher Racing lost Valvoline as a sponsor and has two of its Funny Car drivers, Jack Beckman and Tommy Johnson Jr., funded via Terry Chandler as a way to raise awareness for Infinite Hero Foundation and Make-A-Wish, respectively. (No donations are used to pay for racing.)

Finally, it took Kyle Busch's foot-and-leg injuries to get International Speedway Corp. to understand the PR bomb it dropped with all the hype of $400 million in grandiose spending on "injectors" and "neighborhoods" and such while big sections of the track were unprotected by SAFER barriers. That commitment to completely line the oval should have been made in the original "Re-Imagining" announcement.

I say Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood immediately realized the ramifications and went to the media center to own-up and promise fixes. That was a stand-up thing to do because it's difficult to think of any other major motorsports executive who wound admit to a mistake. There would be a dozen lawyers and "communications experts" warning Brian France not to, for example. Chitwood's stance was legitimate, but NASCAR's Steve O'Donnell's wasn't. The bottom-line is it's NASCAR's responsibility to make sure its tracks are as safe as possible -- or no sanction agreement. Period. O'Donnell came across as a day late, a few million $ short, and not pro-active enough. That was NASCAR in this situation.

Now, Busch is in pain, Joe Gibbs' team doesn't have its driver, his sponsors don't have the marketing benefit of Busch's on-track success, promoters don't have his name to help sell tickets, TV networks can't use him for pre-race "hype the show" spots, and fans don't get to see Kyle do his thing. Point that finger of responsibility straight and directly at NASCAR. No one else.

As Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO Marcus Smith said to the Charlotte Observer "We rely on NASCAR's guidance on that. We have installed SAFER barriers wherever they have asked us to put it." 

Of course, tracks could be much more pro-active, too. But take Indianapolis, Pocono and Dover out of the mix and all those Big Money decisions are made at a corporate level higher than track president. Speedways get plenty of TV money but, you know, NASCAR could help fund a complete and mandatory SAFER program out of its cut.

Jeff Gordon pounded an unprotected wall Sunday at Atlanta and said: "I don’t think we can say any more after Kyle’s (Busch) incident at Daytona.  Everybody knows we have to do something and it should have been done a long time ago.  All we can do now is hope they do it as fast as they possibly can.”

A star driver is sidelined. A true superstar could easily have been Sunday. That's bad business -- a concept Brian France should understand. 


POWER PLAYERS for the week of March 1: This week's 10 most influential people in the Business and Politics of Motorsports, as selected by long-time journalist/publicist and industry insider Michael Knight. 

  1. Kevin Harvick -- In a completely appropriate use of his platform as Cup champion, Harvick  describes Kyle Busch's injury at Daytona as a "wake-up call" regarding track safety. Talladega, Atlanta and Kentucky speedways quickly announce new SAFER or tire barriers. International Speedway Corp. issues a statement that all of its tracks will be evaluated.

  2. Joey Logano -- Daytona 500 winner does well on national media tour. NASCAR and the industry hope he will bring in more younger-demographic fans.

  3. Richard Buck -- Sprint Cup series director faces heat for the Atlanta qualifying inspection line fiasco. NASCAR talks non-stop about making events more entertaining for fans, and collects billions from TV partners, yet its system doesn't get Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and others on-track for even one lap. And from his previous experience in non-NASCAR series, including CART, Buck must know how essential it is to get more SAFER barriers up at all tracks. 

  4. Joe Gibbs -- Engineers deal with his sponsors, Toyota, plus Ford and Front Row team to put David Ragan into the No. 18 until Kyle Busch can return. 

  5. Dave Moody  -- Everyone in radio knows afternoon "drive time" is the most cherished slot, and "The Godfather" got it -- for four hours without a co-host -- on SiriusXM NASCAR's channel toward the end of last season. Moody's not afraid to call out uninformed national media NASCAR critics . . . or to challenge the statements of his callers. He's the closest there is to "appointment" listening in racing radio.

  6. David Letterman  -- Welcomes Joey Logano as a guest and that's a reminder motorsports will lose a big friend in the national mainstream media/entertainment arena when Letterman retires later this year. Late Show has been an important opportunity to gain the attention of non-core racing fans.

  7. Roger Penske -- Daytona 500 winning team owner begins his latest racing-as-business adventure with partner Dick Johnson and driver Marcos Ambrose with a 12th place in a Ford Falcon in Australia's V8 Supercar series.


  8C.J. O'Donnell -- Hulman Motorsports chief marketing officer announces multi-year official marketing partnership with USA Today Sports Media Group. Targeted advertising, special sections and increased digital coverage and collaborative editorial effort with the Indianapolis Star are planned.

  9. Michael Shein -- Managing partner of Chartwell Investments, minority owner of Richard Childress Racing, announces the private equity business is looking to sell its stake in the team. 

10. Robin Miller -- His "Mailbag" on Racer.com is one of the most entertaining reads every week and, sometimes, the source of good ideas. It's THE outlet for the remaining thin core of IndyCar fans. Even some -- but not all -- at 16th and Georgetown read it.


The World of Outlaws makes its only Arizona stop of the season Saturday night in Tucson. Look for my story on Donny Schatz in Friday's Arizona Republic (AzCentral.com).

new list and more next week . . . ]