Last Monday night I spent almost 40 minutes on Phoenix radio station KXAM, talking about the downtown Champ Car street event -- and other Business of Racing topics -- with Racing Roundup Arizona co-hosts Jamie Reynolds and Chris Hines. I began by explaining to the listeners that I am professionally neutral on this issue. My views are shaped by my own involvement in planning and executing such temporary course events. I attended the two Phoenix City Council public meetings on this matter. In my experience, the proposal has -- by far -- been the most controversial I've ever seen for any race in any city. The race was approved and is scheduled for Nov. 30, Dec. 1-2, 2007. (Please see my July 18, 20, 23 and Sept. 27 postings.)
Here is a partial transcript of this interview, edited for length and clarity, with the questions paraphrased. The clearly stated purpose of our conversation was to provide perspective, context and analysis. My thanks to Jamie and (producer) Betsy Reynolds, who have made a significant contribution to the growth and success of motorsports in Arizona. In fact, RRA will begin it's 10th consecutive on-air season next month, the longest continuous such show in the state.
[ JR = Jamie Reynolds (left). MK = Michael Knight. CH = Chris Hines (right). ]
JR: Are we on firm ground with this event?
MK: Probably, we’ll find that out on Dec. 2, 2007. I’m professionally neutral on the event. I’m not advocating one side or the other. My analysis, the context I am trying to provide, is based on my experience. I was CART’s, what we call Champ Car now, first director of communications so in 1981 when CART decided to emphasize temporary course racing, I was heavily involved in that. I was in the Mayor’s office and City Council chambers in Cleveland in 1981 advocating on behalf of, and planning, for that first temporary course race in 1982. I was also heavily involved in the events in 1983 in Las Vegas, at Caesars Palace, and then in 1984 at the Meadowlands and Long Beach, when it switched from Formula One to CART.
I think what we have to understand is Champ Car has set, as its business model, an emphasis on street and temporary course races. If you look at their 2007 schedule, right now they have 15 races, they could add a couple more in Europe, but they’re all road course races. No oval races at all. They are emphasizing what they call a three-day "Festival of Speed." One of the things that was emphasized to City Council in Phoenix was that it’s not just a race. They are going to have concerts and food festivals and Extreme sports and art festivals. Of course, we already have all of those things in the Valley, at various places and times. I guess the point here is they are going to bring them all together and that’s what this "Festival of Speed" is all about.
CH: I’d like to see this be successful. Do you think it will be a success?
JR: Do the people who are going to put this on have any expertise? No one has reached out to us.
MK: In my experience this is, by far, the most controversial in any city that either I’ve been involved in or know about. This will show you something: I watched all the media coverage of the City Council meeting last week and virtually every media outlet in town called it an "Indy Car" race. It’s not an Indy Car race . . . these are not the cars and drivers that will be in the Indianapolis 500 next year. They are similar, sure, in the sense that they are open-wheel type cars. Most of the media here does not even understand what this race is going to be. One of the few exceptions I’ve seen is Brahm Resnik at Channel 12 and he’s a news anchor/reporter, not a sports guy. That is symbolic of all the issues.
I’m not advocating one side or the other, but I have a lot of concerns about the way the entire process has unfolded, just on the basis of my own experience. The promoter here, Dale Jensen, is a very well-known and established businessman and one of the owners of the Diamondbacks. One of the selling points to City Council was the promoter is going to pay all the bills. In theory, there’s no city money here, which I think everyone would agree to. The company that they have hired to manage the event is Sutton Motorsports and they are principally known for organizing the Denver Grand Prix. One of the things that concerns me is, in the City Council staff’s recommendations, as far as I can tell, there was no historical review in terms of how these races work around the country. Long Beach is the gold standard. Long Beach is a flat-out success and it’s been tremendous in the revitalization of the downtown area. I’ve seen that. But just to give you an example: To City Council last week, the Denver race was cited as an example of how these races are successful. The reality is, this past August, the Champ Car organization had to give the Denver promoter a financial bailout because the sponsor, Centrix Financial, had financial issues. When that race is cited as a big success, but they had to get a financial bailout, what does that tell you? Here’s a quote from a local paper there, the Rocky Mountain News. The spokeswoman for the race, Jana Watt, I know her, did not announce any attendance figures for the race. She said the reason they didn’t do that was, “A lot of people are not familiar with the event or with racing.” This is a race that has been going on in Denver for five years and, of course, Champ Car lays claim to a heritage of a 97-year history.
One of the things that got my attention, in terms of the political dynamics, is Councilman Michael Johnson emphasized his support for the race by noting it will bring money into the downtown area. That is fine. But he said we have to be aware that the Coyotes moved from downtown to Glendale, that PIR used to have offices downtown and they’ve moved to Avondale, that the Insight Bowl moved from Chase Field to Tempe. So, since these other events moved out, we have to bring new events in. I would say, What does that have to do with the merits, pro-or-con, of a Champ Car race? What I really loved, one thing you can always count on from politicians, is they will always be politicians. On Tuesday, Mayor Gordon and Councilman Johnson voted in favor of the Champ Car race, which PIR had long opposed, then two days later they were at a PIR event to have their picture taken with Jeff Gordon. My position is, I would like the race to be a success not only for Arizona, but for motorsports. It has to be successful for both. Whether it’s going to be that I think is an open question.
CH: What does this town have to do, and you’d be a good guy to help them, to make this a success?
MK: That’s the key question. Now that Council has voted in favor of authorizing their staff and the City Manager to reach a final contract with the promoters, it’s going to happen. As a motorsports fan, I say great, but I want it to be successful for both the city and to make motorsports look good. I think the staff did a good job in their presentation about some of the logistical things, barriers, noise, repaving of streets. I thought that was all legitimate and handled well. I didn’t see any historical knowledge being provided. To answer your question, how will this be successful, let’s start by making sure people understand what it is they are going to be seeing.
JR: All the people who think they are going to be seeing Danica Patrick, because these are "Indy Cars," aren’t going to show.
MK: One of the things I’ve observed, from a business perspective, from both the promoter’s side and the people on the PIR side, those who opposed the event, is they’ve gotten a lot of bad advice. This is my professional opinion: I wrote on my blog back in July, it was entitled "Self-Inflicted Wounds," both sides have had a lot of self-inflicted wounds. Roger Penske told me over 20 years ago that the worst, the most painful wounds, are those that are self-inflicted. There’s a lot of validity in that. I’ve seen it in this case. From the promoter’s side, Jamie as we talked about, there has been no outreach from the promoter, the agency he hired, toward people like you and Racing Roundup Arizona. You have a natural ally, a natural constituency here, and so I don’t think you throw all your time and attention and resources toward lobbyists and the politicians and then all of a sudden just abruptly say, now we want to reach out to the people who should be our friends automatically. The same thing on the PIR side. In making their case as to why this event perhaps wasn’t the best idea, well, there are a lot of race teams that would like to have the money spent on the PR firm, which never got its arms around a lot of the issues. There were a lot of bad decisions made. There were some cheap shots at the Champ Car organization instead of pointing out some of the factual issues. Just to give you an example: I was at the Council meeting in May and Bryan Sperber, the president of PIR, said this is a second-rate event but didn’t really back it up. That very day, there was a cover story in USA Today about Paul Newman, which said the sponsorship situation is so bleak in Champ Car that, for their second car, he has to pay for it out of his own pocket. I think Bryan could have stood up and said, "Please read Page 1 of USA Today."
CH: Every kid has to do his homework. Apparently these people haven’t been doing their homework.
JR: They missed the principles of salesmanship. Don’t tell me about how bad they are. Tell me about how good you are.
MK: I love racing history. It’s frustrating, but it’s also sad, to me when you see people – and I mean this on both sides – making the same mistakes that were made 20 years ago. The only reason those mistakes were made is no one ever bothered to go out and do their homework or learn the history.
Getting back to your question about how to make this a success: I agree with the people who say it’s unfair to compare this Champ Car race to when Formula One was here. So many things have changed in the Valley since then, most importantly, the size of our population base. I’ve lived in Scottsdale for more than 12 years and I’d say something else has changed, too, since I’ve been here. I think it used to be we were just happy to have professional sports teams or major sports events here. We’ve progressed way beyond that. I think, in the Valley, we’ve come to love celebrity. I’d say it probably started with Charles Barkley. Then, over the years, we’ve had Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling and then Wayne Gretzky and Steve Nash and now it’s Matt Leinart. Phoenix fans are into celebrity athletes. When NASCAR comes to PIR, you don't have to be a race fan to know the star names like Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and now the new stars like Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne. I’d say that’s the root of the problem for Champ Car. How many tickets will Sebastien Bourdais, who is going to be a three-time champion, sell here?
JR: I think you’re on to something about the celebrities. That’s a very good point . . . The IRL and Champ Car merger. It doesn't seem like that's going to happen.
MK: A Council member asked what would happen to the Phoenix race if there was a merger. The answer was the race is protected by contract to be part of any combined schedule. That's good for Phoenix, but I wonder, how many other promoters have that same guarantee? That's just another roadblock in the path of a merger because maybe Tony George doesn't want to agree to a lot of road course and street races.
I noted last week how Larry Henry is using some of the new media technology on behalf of Ford. Last Saturday, Adrian Fernandez and Luis Diaz Jr. unveiled at Road Atlanta their new Lowe's-sponsored Acura Lola for the 2007 ALMS season, and my friend Drew Brown (GMR) made video of that ceremony available via Google video. Fernandez and Diaz were joined by Honda's Robert Clarke and Lowe's CEO Robert Niblock. See it here:
In a Sept. 21 PR PS, after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez lashed-out against America in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, I pointed out that Citgo is a subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil company. I added: "Any Citgo-backed racer who expects to enjoy the support of U.S. race fans should immediately disavow Chávez's remarks." So, I applaud last week's announcement by 7-Eleven that it is dropping Citgo as the gasoline supplier at more than 2,100 locations. The convenience store chain will switch to its own brand of fuel. While a 7-Eleven spokeswoman said its 20-year contract with Citgo was coming to an end, and the retailer had been considering a change since early last year, she acknowledged. ". . . we sympathize with many Americans' concern over derogatory comments about our country and its leadership . . ." said Margaret Chabris. I just finished reading Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq by Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor. It was published earlier this year by Pantheon Books. At over 500 pages, it likely will endure as the definitive account of the military campaign. It took a lot of concentration to follow all the action but it was worth every minute. One lesson I took away was, despite all the high-tech gizmos available to them, commanders still struggled at times to understand everything that was happening on the ground and in the air. In fact -- amazing to me -- the decisive attack into the heart of Baghdad on April 7, 2003, was the result of a miscommunication (Chapter 20: The Accidental Victory).
[ more Blogging the Chase next Tuesday . . . ]