That noise you heard a few weeks ago was the gnashing of teeth in Daytona Beach.
For the first time in a decade, the Indianapolis 500 outperformed the Coca-Cola 600 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in terms of TV ratings. (Charlotte drew a slightly larger audience.) After a good start, NASCAR's tube numbers have been mainly on a downslide in recent weeks, and you can bet Brian France & Co. are researching like crazy to understand why. (Hints: The on-track product and the administrative mechanism created to convey your message.) Especially with newsworthy storylines like Jeff Gordon's last season, a JUNIOR! win, Kyle Busch's injury and return, Kurt Busch's personal drama, Joey Logano pushing the younger demo button with a Daytona 500 win, Kevin Harvick stepping-up to the duties as reigning Sprint Cup champion, and so on. I have my own in-depth thoughts on the "why?" of this but that's for another time.
There should have been no back-slapping in the IMS administrative offices, however. For me, the countdown to next year's 100th running of the 500-mile classic (and the closing laps this year, and last year, were actual classics) started as soon as Juan Pablo Montoya took the checkered flag. One of the most significant questions in all of the Business and Politics of Motorsports history is: What will IMS do with this historic opportunity to grow and advance the overall IndyCar sport?
It will take work, thousands of manpower hours, but minimal financial investment. IMS has incredible historical assets in its video and photo archives, museum, and Donald Davidson. I bet a proper amount of research would show every one of America's 50 states has had some connection to the 500: Driver, owner, mechanic, designer, engine builder, official, sponsor or manufacturer representative, photographer or journalist. IMS should be gathering up these stories and pitching them to media decision-makers across the country. Quite simply, there is no reason -- no excuse -- for virtually every media outlet in the U.S. not to have Indy 500 coverage in the run-up to the 2016 green flag.
This will be the opportunity to get the media Big Foots -- national and major market columnists, feature writers, talk radio show hosts and plenty of other media biggies who influence public opinion -- to the Brickyard. Prior to the IRL-CART split and the low-rent 1996 race, the important columnists used to cover Indy on a regular basis. Working to get this coverage is more than just to get Indy ink and airtime. It's about making FRIENDS for the overall Verizon-sponsored series, with the goal of significantly increasing media attention for the other races.
This will take more than basic work, though. More importantly, it will take a change of attitude. I regret to write that one of my strongest impressions exiting IMS last month was that it has become a less friendly place. Not a hostile place, like it was in 1995 on the eve of the split (ask any CART-affiliated team member who was there that year -- it was hostile), but IMS this past May certainly was not especially welcoming. An unhappy decision was made that impacted the media and it was done without the common courtesy of any prior consultation with the NMPA or AARWBA media organizations. This to make room for display tents sold to sponsors, which reinforced the perception that the overall Hulman corporate enterprise is in much worse financial shape than we thought. I can guarantee IMS this: If that's the policy again for the 100th, you can forget about the establishment stick-and-ball media coming. IMS already has a poorly-designed media work facility. IMS, as far as I know, is the only major stadium where journalists don't have a direct view of the competition. Can you image covering a baseball game seated parallel to the playing field? That's the way it is at the Speedway.
There are many more examples of concern.
Aside from Honda and Chevrolet, I could count on one hand the number of PR people I saw making the media-center rounds, simply saying hello to those they knew, or introducing themselves to those they didn't. Just what I wrote above -- making friends. This is as basic as it gets -- and it wasn't happening. It's impossible to imagine a writer covering baseball who didn't know the teams' PR reps. But that's the "norm" at the Indy 500 and in the series.
I could easily write thousands of words on this subject. But the point has been made. I know, from personal experience, that Tony Hulman felt it was essential for those visiting Indiana for his 500 to feel welcome. "Welcome back to Indianapolis," was his annual personal greeting to reporters -- including me -- combined with a smile and a handshake. No one seems to believe that's important these days.
If the 100th Indy 500 is to be all it should -- must -- be, that attitude needs to change, towards the media, sponsors, prospective sponsors and all its constituency groups. IMS management best understand it needs to roll out a large, wide and very bright red carpet.
Maybe 100 of them.
I altered my usual pre-500 routine this time around. On Saturday afternoon, I went to Lucas Oil Raceway Park for the USAC Silver Crown race. (This used to be the "Night Before the 500" program, but business realities have moved it to daytime.) Honestly, it wasn't a very entertaining show, with Tanner Swanson dominating the 100 laps. Silver Crown cars perform best on the dirt but I was glad to see this class again.
That night, thanks to the courtesy and hospitality of USAC's Dick Jordan and promoter Rick Dawson, I attended my first Pay Less Little 500 at Anderson Speedway. It's only about an hour's drive from Indy. Ray Harroun is buried a few miles away. I remember Chris Economaki writing about this event years ago in his National Speed Sport News column. This is 33 sprint cars for 500 laps on a quarter-mile high-banked paved oval. If that sounds crazy to you, well, yes, it is! And I say that in the best sense.
Dawson is one of those increasingly rare short-track operators who believes in putting in the effort to make his event BIG. There were radio spots in Indy. He personally welcomed visitors. There was a good pre-race show and driver introductions. All the drivers were at a well-organized pre-race autograph session. I saw someone in the line wearing a Lotus Formula One team crew shirt. The Daytona 500 trophy was on display so fans could be photographed with it (and the line was long.) The parking lot was basically full two hours before the green flag.
This is a race with action everywhere you look. I am still mentally processing the whole experience. Chris Windom won, holding off a charging Dave Steele. It doesn't matter if you aren't a sprint car fan or a short-track fan. Go see the Little 500. It's quite amazing.
I attended the launch party for Second To One, Gordon Kirby and Joe Freeman's new book on drivers who finished second (but never won) in the Indy 500. I think that's a great idea for a book. It's very impressive to see publisher Freeman -- that's Racemaker Press -- invest in his product. I intend to read it during some upcoming down time and will comment more on it down the road.
POWER PLAYERS for the week of June 7: 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.
3. Antron Brown -- His third consecutive pole leads to a hometown victory for the NHRA Top Fuel points leader at historic Englishtown, N.J. track. Career win No. 50 for one of racing's most popular drivers.
4. Doug Fehan -- Program manager for the Chevy Corvette C7 teams faces his biggest and most important test of the year, the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
5. Jenna Fryer -- The Associated Press' writer calls Sprint Cup racing "uninspiring most of this season and nearly unwatchable the last few weeks" in her column about NASCAR's meeting with selected drivers at Dover. This is the kind of writing that shapes opinions.
6. Jim Utter -- Charlotte Observer's man on the NASCAR beat says there needs to be a longer Sprint Cup series off-season so the sanction and all of its teams have more time to work on improving the on-track product. A great point that probably makes too much sense to happen.
9. Scott Dixon -- Texas winner heads to Toronto as the clear best-bet to stop the Penske 4 in their tracks and make the Verizon series championship a true fight.
10. Bob Varsha -- Broadcast veteran will captain the Fox Sports' announce crew for Le Mans coverage. What Varsha says, and the way he says it, will shape viewers' opinions on drivers, teams, manufacturers, etc.
[ more next week . . . ]