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Sunday, July 26, 2015

BUSCH, STEVENS, GIBBS ATOP NEW 'MOST INFLUENTIAL' LIST

Personal priorities didn't allow me time to think or write this week. Fingers crossed for next week. My apologies. Thank you.


POWER PLAYERS for the week of July 26: 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. Kyle Busch -- Unless someone can prove that NASCAR has given him "The Call" to make up for leaving that Daytona pit wall unprotected, Busch's comeback story is so compelling that even the NBA-obsessed PTI co-hosts should talk about his accomplishments. 

  2. Adam Stevens -- Now a winner in four of the last five Sprint Cup races, Kyle Busch's crew chief and his driver are on a roll that even Jimmie and Chad would envy.

  3. Joe Gibbs -- Suddenly his Toyota team has become a Hendrick-like power house. It sure is a lot different from last year or the early 2015 Cup season.

 4. Mark Miles -- IndyCar CEO puts into place rules prohibiting competitors from making overly negative comments about the series, events, sponsors, rules, officials, the "brand," et al. Are media stories about to get a lot less interesting? 

 5. Sebastian Vettel -- A great start leads to Hungary Grand Prix victory for Ferrari and stops the Lewis Hamilton-Mercedes runaway. That's career win number 41, tying Vettel with Ayrton Senna.  Victory dedicated to Jules Bianchi, who died recently from head injuries sustained in last year's Japanese GP.

 6. Peter Clifford -- New NHRA president announces big changes to troubled Pro Stock class, including fuel injection in 2016 and shorter wheelie bars for more "wheels up" launches. Plus more fan friendly policies in the pit area.

 7. Fernando Alonso -- Sets an example for his fellow multi-million dollar Formula One drivers by pushing his disabled McLaren-Honda back to pit lane -- in full-face helmet and Nomex uniform -- during Hungary Grand Prix qualifying. Fans everywhere loved it. Then he finished fifth, the best yet in Honda's return to F1. 

  8. Jeff Burton -- Brickyard 400 was his strongest and most informative TV analysis yet. Proving that smart, intelligent talk has a place in NASCAR's "Boogity" media world.

  9. Martin Truex Jr. -- Can he double-up on Pocono wins this season and put the brakes on Kyle Busch's incredible run? 

10. Christopher Bell -- Wins Eldora in only his third career Camping World Truck Series start.

more next week . . . ]

Sunday, July 19, 2015

FINAL INDY RACE MAKES GORDON THIS WEEK'S 'MOST INFLUENTIAL'

Thank you to those who have Emailed me comments about The Summer of Our Discontent, my ninth anniversary blog. Given the conversation it has generated, I'm going to leave it up for another week for your further consideration. Here's this week's new "Power Players" list:

POWER PLAYERS for the week of July 19: 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. Jeff Gordon -- The last Brickyard 400 for the defending and five-time race winner, who grew up and made his USAC mark in Indiana. It's a reminder how important Gordon's 1994 victory in the inaugural Cup race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was not only to his career, but also in the history of NASCAR and American motorsports. Gordon gets a parade in his honor Thursday in Pittsboro.

  2. Tony Stewart -- Marks 10 years as owner at Eldora Speedway with Kings Royal and NASCAR's Truck series. And will be a media and fan focus at the Brickyard as the Indiana native tries to reverse a difficult Cup season. But Stewart didn't sound very optimistic on a media teleconference last week.

  3. Peter Clifford -- New NHRA president goes with Fox Sports 1 to replace ESPN next season, with majority of final eliminations presented "live" and four on Fox broadcast network. It's a big business undertaking for the sanction, which will assume production responsibilities and sell advertising and sponsorship packages.

  4. Kyle Busch -- Remarkable three wins in his last four Sprint Cup starts but still needs to be in top 30 in points to qualify for the Chase. There will be a national media outcry if he doesn't after comeback from leg and foot injuries.

 5. Shane Stewart -- He beats Donny Schatz twice at Eldora Speedway, taking Friday's Knight Before the Kings Royal and then Saturday's $50,000 Kings Royal World of Outlaws "major."

   6. Steve Letarte -- His NBC telecast analysis of Jeff Gordon's final Indianapolis race will be a big test of how candid the former crew chief is willing to be about his former driver and team.

  7. Jim Utter -- Long-time Charlotte Observer NASCAR beat writer begins his new adventure on Motorsport.com on Wednesday.

 8. Doug Boles -- How many grandstand seats will the Indianapolis Motor Speedway president be able to sell for the troubled Brickyard 400? 

  9. Graham Rahal -- Another strong finish at Iowa Speedway for the series' best comeback story moves him into second place in points as a suspension failure puts championship favorite Juan Pablo Montoya into the wall. 

10. Robert Ballou -- USAC's Indiana Sprint Car Week champion.

more next week . . . ]

Sunday, July 12, 2015

THE 9th ANNIVERSARY BLOG

On this, the ninth anniversary of the SpinDoctor500 blog, I can report to you that this is the Summer of Our Discontent.

That’s more than simply a play on the words of Steinbeck and Shakespeare.

It’s a fact.

It has me worried.

Everywhere I turn in the motorsports world -- NHRA, NASCAR, IndyCar, SportsCar, Formula One -- it’s there. I see it in the faces of too-tired mechanics. I hear it the voices of frustrated drivers. I feel it in the concern of overspent owners and unsettled sponsors. I sense it the tone of fans venting via social media.

The joy of the actual racing seems to have been nearly overcome by troubles surrounding the competition. Even when it's breath-taking -- the MAVTV 500 -- it stirs great controversy and divides people into sometimes angry "pro" and "con" groups. The future seems uncertain on the business, political, sponsorship and popularity fronts. The mood has turned dusk if not-yet dark. Confidence is declining. Smiles are fewer. Fun? Oh, that’s so 1990s.

No wonder John Force went off in a Boston newspaper before the New England Nationals. Drag racing’s biggest name, even though he’s nearing septuagenarian status, is almost two years into a fight to keep his family business in business. (And, hey, the man has a wedding to pay for!)

It was a sign of the times. We are, collectively, a disgruntled lot. I've been on the media or business side of this industry since the early 1970s and I've neven seen a time when such profound problems reach across essentially every series, everywhere. 

I’m not sure some sanctioning body executives could get a friendly handshake if they offered a free milkshake.

At the core of it all are money and leadership. Yes, you've heard that before, but don't stop me now.

NASCAR is in the midst of a historic and fundamental shift in leadership philosophy, one that at first glance is welcome, but must be analyzed in the context that it is in direct opposition to its past. It wasn't all that many months ago NASCAR said all of its communications with the owners' Race Team Alliance would be done by attorneys for both sides. Remember back when Todd Bodine and Jimmy Spencer were ignored when they called for a "drivers' safety committee" following Dale Earnhardt's death? And when safety issues themselves were dealt with reactively, such as the slow adopting of the HANS Device and installing SAFER barriers only where it was deemed truly necessary?

Now there's a formally-chosen drivers' group and it is meeting with NASCAR. In the aftermath of Kyle Busch's injuries in Daytona's February Xfinity series race, more SAFER barriers and (at least) tire walls have gone up and engineering plans are expected to result in even more. Catch fencing, and what technology might make possible to improve it, are under study.

But such an abrupt spinning on his heels (ABOUT FACE!) and going the opposite direction of the policies of his father and grandfather leads me to conclude Brian France has suddenly concluded his sport and his industry are in real trouble. His attitude has changed so dramatically in such a short time, in fact, that I can't help but feel the situation is worse than us non-stakeholders have believed.

Sure, the argument can be made it's better for NASCAR to realize its on-track product isn't very good and start adjusting car rules. But what does turning mid-season multi-million dollar championship points-paying races into testing experiments say about the process and the people charged with making it right when the new Cup car was unveiled a couple of years ago? What about all the meetings, the wind tunnel time, the testing, the computer simulations? Why has such a hyped car with so much promise produced such disappointing shows? The impression here sure is NASCAR invented Steve O'Donnell's job as chief racing development officer to be the out-front person making excuses to the media, but unless things get a lot better real soon, watch for major personnel goings and comings at the R&D center. (And Goodyear rightly deserves its share of the blame, too.)

And all of this is only further driving-up owners' costs.

NASCAR has also become NAPCSCAR -- "PC" for "Politically Correct" -- deciding to issue statements to interjet itself into public policy controversies. If the Integrated Marketing Communications deep-thinkers, whose policies have devalued and dehumanized 1-on-1 relationships with journalists, want to wade into those PC waters, let's remember those run wide and deep and can be oh-so trecherous.

And, oh, NASCAR needs a new title sponsor to replace Sprint after next season.

Over at IndyCar, Mark Miles' path of what this year resulted in a condensed schedule (he told me again the other week what he means to do is start and end the season earlier over seven months) has beaten mechanics into the ground. Sooner or later, I feel sure this will result in a safety failure. Maybe it already has but we don't know it. This isn't NASCAR with fleets of cars, road crews, and the resources to race week-after-week. The same guys who pit the cars Sunday have to fix them up and get to another track the following Friday. The team sponsorship landscape is not a healthy one and even Roger Penske is self-funding via his truck leasing business. Then there are the proposed and much-hyped Big Money international events that teams and sponsors don't want. Management stability of the competition was supposed to be one of the first things Miles' fixed when he came to power and yet we saw the Indy 500 Pole Day rules-change fiasco, the Graham Rahal no-call at Fontana, canceling qualifying sessions, starting single-file on wet tracks and a variety of other concerns that make me believe the garage area has been lost. There is no PR voice on the executive management level and that absolutely hurt IndyCar and IMS itself on Pole Day and it's a point I've raised with Miles twice. That's simply unacceptable in this age of instant communications and perception is reality.

Oh, and is Honda coming back next season?

NHRA has given us an executive-level textbook case of how not to do things that will live forever among those who study such things. The unexplained lengthy absense of Tom Compton from the Glendora headquarters ultimately resulted in his "retirement" and NHRA Chairman Dallas Gardner told those (including me) on a media teleconference everything -- including Peter Clifford's hiring as new prez -- had happened just that morning. What a disgrace. How those in charge can possibly think competitors, event promoters, sponsors, media or fans would have any confidence -- or trust -- speaks only to their outright arrogance. (Please read more on this in my new CompetitionPlus.com column http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/editorials/michael-knight-commentary-never-get-a-second-chance-to-make-a-first ).

One might have thought the huge vote of No Confidence in NHRA from Ford and Castrol last year would have served as a head-smack to get real and get-with-it. One would be wrong.

Formula One faces a very real cost crises and calls to make the racing more entertaining and exciting. This raises more questions about leadership with Bernie Ecclestone now in his 80s. The second season of the United SportsCar tour has settled into an unsettling state of public unawareness. ("Oh, there's a race this weekend? Whose driving in it? Who? Who? Who?") 

(Ford's major new 2016 entry with its GT is very positive, though, and IndyCar should get it that's where the Blue Oval believes its money is best spent.)

All of this plays out at a time when America's love affair with the automobile seemingly is on the decline. Talk of a future with driverless cars is no longer talk -- such vehicles exist and are in limited use. What threat does that present to the motorsports industry if, over the next decade, we become increasingly a nation (or nations) of car owners who don't drive? 

Yes, there is much for which to be stressed.

Certainly, I do say thanks for the great moments. The Indianapolis 500's run to the finish. The final chances to see Jeff Gordon, not only one of the greats, but also one of racing's truly historic figures. My first Little 500. Fans willing to hang around to early a.m. to see NASCAR at Daytona. The anticipation of that stadium's "Rising" project and improvements coming to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for next year's 100th running of the "Greatest Spectacle." Kyle Busch's return. Austin Dillon walking away alive. And a continued thank you very much to all who invest a few minutes of valuable time each week and over the years to read what appears here.

But motorsports' true leaders must now stand tall and do what must be done to right the ship, find more favorable winds, chart a better course. (And, yes, we'll continue to offer, as we are able, informed and experienced comments, opinions and suggestions in this spec of cyberspace.) 

Otherwise, come time for the 10th anniversary blog, the overall situation may well be -- to use the title of my most famous posting (10/26/11) -- Untenable. 


POWER PLAYERS for the week of July 12: 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. Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte -- Bingo! NBC has put together the two brightest minds ever to team up in a NASCAR TV broadcast booth. Anyone who pays attention will learn something just about everytime they speak.

  3. Joe Gibbs -- His drivers, crew chiefs and engineers best figure out new rules and finish 1,3,4,5 at Kentucky.

  4. Kyle Busch -- His feel-good recovery story continues with victory at Kentucky Speedway, his second since returning from injuries. He could still make the top 30 in points to qualify for the Chase. A championship would be one of racing's greatest accomplishments, ever.

  5. Tony Schumacher -- Eight-time NHRA Top Fuel champion wins at Route 66 for his 80th career victory and third of the season and takes the class championship lead.

  6. Kevin Miller -- USAC president continues 28th annual Indiana Sprint Week -- "the soul of our sprint car series" -- with seven races wrapping up Saturday night at Tri-State Speedway.

  7. Bob Zeller -- Veteran motorsports journalist and his wife organize wonderful way to help a wonderful person, NASCAR.com writer Holly Cain. http://www.gofundme.com/z2ec56x 

  8. Donny Schatz -- World of Outlaws' A-Main season win number 20. Pay attention, national news media. 

 9. Dustin Long -- With NBC portion of NASCAR season underway, veteran fact-based, common-sense and hard-working writer tells the stories on NBCSports.com .

10. Ryan Villopoto -- Six-time motocross champion, 26, forced to retire due to multiple crash injuries, including tailbone fractures.

 [ more next week . . . ]

Monday, July 06, 2015

AS I SAID LAST WEEK . . .

The MAVTV 500 at California's Auto Club Speedway has turned out to be a historical marker in the history of IndyCar racing. It yet again divided competitors and fans into opposing "Yes!" or "No!" camps and I can't say that's a good thing for a series already burdened with conflict and problems.

The fan reaction, in many ways, reminded me of the worst of the IRL-CART split days. Anonymous posters tossing personal attacks often based on zero or wrong information. That's pathetic and sad but certainly in keeping with what is going on in the overall American society these days. Apparently it's now impossible to simply disagree and factually explain why. Apparently disagreement must be served with personal attacks. 

In case you're not sure what I mean, that is not a compliment.

I wrote last week Fontana was the scariest race I've ever seen. It was. I did not write that it was the scariest race YOU'VE ever seen.

As for what sport I "follow," I've only been paying attention to motorsports since the early 1960s. For many of the following years I made the vast majority of my income via professional involvements in racing at the highest levels of the sport and with several of its most famous names. 

The first race I ever attended was at Langhorne Speedway, outside Philadelphia, when it was still dirt. A.J. Foyt won. Langhorne makes just about everyone's list of one of the most dangerous tracks ever raced. And, yes, scary. Even after it was paved. I saw this with my own eyes.

For those who think I must not have ever seen a sprint car race, I am a voting member for the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame.

For those who referenced the CART Michigan 500, I was CART'S communications director when the event was first created in 1981.

For those who think I must not have seen the 1984 Michigan 500, I just happened to be a member of the winning team that day.

Fontana was more scary than the 2011 Las Vegas race because it was 500 miles in distance.

Yes, racing has always been a dangerous activity. That will never change. It's essential to what attracts eyeballs to the tracks. But today's society will not tolerate the level of danger that existed in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s. 

IndyCar crewmembers are stressed and worried about not having a job during the long off-season. Team Penske has other things going on to keep paying their people full-time. Many other existing teams do not.

IndyCar CEO Mark Miles himself admitted, during a national media teleconference last week, that the series' rulemakers went too far on downforce.

The above is just for the record and for the information of the Internet "Experts."


I spent 20 minutes with Mark Miles before that Scary 500. I sent out, via Twitter ( SpinDoctor500 ), several of his most important and newsworthy comments. Here's three others: He flat-out denied he is cleaning-up the Hulman & Co. balance sheet in preparation for a sale. He likely will have a presenting sponsor for next year's Indy 500. He is taking into account the concerns of owners regarding this year's compressed schedule. That is what he said.


Miles' held a national media teleconference last week and I listened in. I have to give him credit: He actually made news (fines/penalties for being too-outspoken are coming) and answered most questions with at least a degree of substance. That was in stark contrast to another teleconference, later that day, with NHRA Chairman Dallas Gardner and new President Peter Clifford. Not a single question regarding the abrupt "retirement" of Tom Compton was answered in a meaningful or credible way. It was an insult to the participating media and sent Clifford off to a bad start with journalists. After that performance, why would he think anyone would want to waste time dialing-in when he wants to make what he says are upcoming "exciting" announcements?


Another troubling $ign of the Media Time$: Last week a SiriusXM host praised the Sonoma Cup race because, among other things, "A car caught fire and that was great for TV."


POWER PLAYERS for the week of July 5: 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. Brian France -- Allows a premier sporting event to begin at almost midmight. Didn't attach his name to a "statement" asking fans not to fly the Confederate battle flag at NASCAR races and passed on his usual mid-season Daytona news conference. But the NASCAR chairman seems to open the door for a long-discussed franchise system for Cup series team owners. And he continues to press his own people to come up with a more exciting rules package, one version of which will be tried this weekend at Kentucky Speedway.

  2. Marcus Lemonis -- NASCAR's reactive Politically Correct spinners surely will disagree, but the clear impression remains that the Camping World CEO's threat to boycott the Truck series awards banquet if it again happened at a Trump property forced Brian France's hand.

  3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- Doubtful even NASCAR's most popular driver can keep an audience for a race at begins at almost midnight. Admits to be scared by accident that happened behind him as he won Daytona.

  4. Peter Clifford -- NHRA's new president bombs with media in introductory teleconference but promises a series of "exciting announcements" are just "weeks away."

  5. Mark Miles -- IndyCar CEO admits the sanction went with too much downforce at Fontana and says fines/penalties are coming for competitors who go too far in criticisms.

  6. Lewis Hamilton -- Come-from-behind victory in British Grand Prix reaffirms it's not simply all about the car in Formula One. How will Mercedes-Benz USA help promote the U.S. Grand Prix with a talent and personality that should, on paper, click with the American public?

  7Donny Schatz -- Wins two of the week's three World of Outlaws events to bring his season total to 19. And also becomes the first Outlaws' driver to win consecutive features without participating in the dash (started 10th). He is worthy of major Sports Illustrated and USA Today feature stories.

  8. Dave Moody -- Want to talk about flying the Confederate battle flag at NASCAR races? New rules for Kentucky? Happy or not with the NASCAR on-track product? Waiting until almost midnight to start a race? SiriusXM Channel 90's solo afternoon drive-time host's show is the place to air it out. But don't expect him to automaticaly agree or disagree whatever the issue.

  9. Michael Andretti -Says fans must support IndyCar racing at Milwaukee by buying tickets. Will this weekend's IndyCar run at the famed Mile be his last as the promoter? And/or the last for IndyCar?

10. Bill Bader Jr. -- His family's Summit Motorsports Park (Norwalk, Ohio) once again sets the example for all other NHRA track operators on how to be fan-friendly and make people WANT to attend drag races. All others, including the facilities owned by NHRA itself, absolutely should adopt Norwalk as the standard that should be standard.

[ special ninth anniversay blog next week . . . ]