Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Those who know me well well know I'm not an overtly emotional person. Yet, while I don't claim to be more than an occasional professional acquaintance to John Force, I feel for him in a way one might expect for a long-term intimate.

Has any motorsports figure, ever, had to make the kind of emotional-yet-calculated decisions NHRA's 14-time Funny Car champion has faced in the last few weeks? I think not.

In a long and gut-wrenching teleconference last week, John announced he'd field his Funny Car team in the SummitRacing.com Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway IF -- and only IF -- testing runs convinced him revised safety features in the cockpit would work. Consider the situation: Force had just lost Eric Medlen, proclaimed by John as the "leader of my next generation of drivers," in a crash while testing at Gainesville. Eric's father, John, was his crew chief. Force's daughter, Ashley, is in her rookie pro season. His son-in-law, and father of his granddaughter, Robert Hight, drives John's other Funny Car. John's daughters, Brittany and Courtney, compete in lower classes. John, in the role of father AND boss, had to make some of the most difficult decisions imaginable. It was clear that conference was stressful and exhausting for John and Ashley. (Tony Stewart should have listened-in before complaining racing is no longer "fun." See item below.)

I was in Vegas last weekend. The moments were special and even more emotional. When John came out to the start line before his first qualifying attempt Friday afternoon, everyone, including other drivers and crews, applauded. In Friday night qualifying, Ashley ran a terrific 4.793, 321.81 mph in her Castrol Ford Mustang, which at the time made her No. 1. Let me explain this moment in terms my media friends, who thought Texas or especially Long Beach were more important, will clearly understand: When Ashley got out of the Mustang after that pass, and came down the return road to a thrilling-chilling roar of the impressive-sized crowd, it was near Junior-esque. As in Dale Earnhardt Jr. Not as in the artificial (and increasingly waning) Danica Mania.

For Saturday afternoon qualifying, John Medlen came out to the line. Popular NHRA PA announcer Bob Frey noted John's presence. Those seated in the grandstands closest to Medlen stood and applauded. They began a sort of "wave," as each following grandstand section, on both sides of the track, got on their feet and slapped together their hands. I will say it again: It was thrilling AND chilling.

Ashley and Robert solidly made the field of 16. For the first time since the World Finals at Pomona on Oct. 31, 1987 (when Ashley was 4), however, John didn't qualify. That was an amazing streak of 395 consecutive events where he advanced to race-day competition. John came to the media center and fielded more tough questions. On Sunday, Ashley advanced to round two, while Robert capped an incredible weekend by taking the Funny Car victory in his Auto Club Mustang. It was the kind of story the glossy magazine writers and big-city newspaper columnists love. Sadly, they weren't there.

The most important -- and compelling -- story in American motorsports last weekend wasn't in Texas and it absolutely WAS NOT in Long Beach. THE STORY was at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Too bad too many journalists missed it.
One of my favorite things to do at any event is walk through the souvenir area and, at NHRA races, the Manufacturer's Midway. At Vegas, 1320tv.com's Susan Wade tipped me off to a true marketing winner. It's the "FRAM Top Fuel Dragster Experience." There, Ed Cote of Nitrosport Marketing Service has a real TF chassis, modified so fans (including the disabled) can easily sit in the cockpit and have their picture taken by a built-in digital camera. Here's the neat trick: Cote or a member of his staff then gives each person a card, directing him/her to the company's website, where the image will be available in a couple of days. (They also sign a waiver.) Softwear takes the image and puts it into a template, that includes the FRAM, Prestone, Autolite and Bendix logos. The customer prints out the image at home, saving the company labor and printing costs. A new wrinkle, coming soon, will be a flat-screen TV mounted on the side of the transporter where people walking by the display will be able to better see what the "experience" is all about and who's behind the wheel. Congratulations, Ed and FRAM, on a GREAT and well-executed concept. Make time to check it out the next time you're at an NHRA race. (!)
Well-done to Susan Wade on the continued growth of her 1320tv.com, which provides exclusive video coverage of drag racing. Programming elements include the pro class winners' news conferences from all NHRA national events, in-depth driver and crew chief interviews, and more. (I'm doing a new monthly Business of Racing commentary.) Use the link in the right-hand column to see what it's all about. The site, "up" just over a year, set records in March for total "page views," "visits" and "hits." NitroFish ultimate gear, ID'd on Kenny Koretsky's NHRA Pro Stock car, just committed to be a new advertiser on 1320tv.com.
Consider NASCAR a collateral damage victim of the Don Imus fiasco. Imus has been a legitimate NASCAR fan since way before stock car racing went "national." He's given that segment of the sport valuable word-of-mouth promotion on a weekly -- sometimes daily -- basis for more than a decade. Numerous drivers have been call-in guests, with Darrell Waltrip a semi-regular, and the show has gone on the road to a few speedways. The popular-but-flawed morning radio host -- declared by none-other than Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential people in America -- unquestionably created new fans for NASCAR among blue-collar listeners, and elites, who otherwise would never have known Jimmie Johnson from Jimmy Johnson. His downfall, at least for now, is a flat-out loss for the series already in an apparent lull. ********************************************************************
Regular readers know I believe Tony Stewart has been ill-served for years by his so-called "PR" people. As I've documented, several of Tony's public problems could and should have been anticipated. And, thus, avoided. In a post-Texas interview, which I saw on SPEED, Tony blamed the media for his issues with the fans and cited that as the reason why he isn't having any "fun." I consider Tony to be a GREAT racer -- maybe the best of this generation -- but . . . Of course, it's wrong that his team and sponsors allow Tony to hire his own PRer via his own "communications" company. In that structure, just who is going to speak truth to power?

[ more next Tuesday . . . ]