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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 . . . ]