Sunday, June 17, 2012

JUNIOR WINS! (and other things)

Normally I hate it when the TV director stays with a single-car shot for any period of time. (Which we see way too much of in IndyCar.) But TNT did exactly the right thing by keeping with Dale Earnhardt Jr. almost constantly throughout the closing laps Sunday at Michigan. And, in this case, it also was right to cut away from the wide shot of the others taking the checkered flag to see the reaction of Junior's crew and Junior Nation as represented in the grandstands. IT WAS THE RIGHT THING TO DO BECAUSE THAT WAS THE NEWS -- AND THAT'S WHAT PEOPLE WANTED TO SEE. The end of Junior's four-year, 143-race winless streak is far more than good news for him, his No. 88 Diet Drew crew, and Hendrick Motorsports. It's good for the NASCAR industry. Ask any promoter today -- it's good for business. And don't think it's not a positive for the struggling media world, either, including the TV networks, USA Today, Sports Illustrated, Charlotte Observer, etc. Since we're all about the Business of Racing here, I'm comfortable in saying: Thanks, Junior.

The TV images from a blimp or helicopter tell the REAL story: There were A LOT of empty grandstand seats at Pocono and Dover. (I don't care what it said in the official NASCAR boxscore.) Should NASCAR be concerned? Absolutely! Should something be done. Yes! Both tracks are independently owned, meaning, not owned by International Speedway Corp. or Speedway Motorsports Inc. and the respective managements have regularly said they are not for sale. (I keep wondering about Dover, though, which was built with harness racing as the attraction -- "Dover Downs" was the original name -- and the company used to own other properties like Long Beach, Gateway and Memphis. No more. Dover itself way-overbuilt stands during the boom times.) Both have two Cup dates and it's time to rethink that. It's no secret SMI's Bruton Smith wants a second date for Las Vegas -- and I think that would be in the series' and the industry's best interests. Since no one I know of is interested in adding another date to the 36-race schedule, how about Pocono or Dover leasing one of its dates to Smith for Vegas? Why not try it for a year and see if that works for the bottom line for both companies?

Given all the supposed interest in the DeltaWing, I couldn't help but notice Speed didn't show or mention the car in its pre-Le Mans promos. STRANGE -- and makes me wonder who, if anyone, was paying attention to the details. Not surprisingly, the DW had annoying technical issues in the race and was retired just after six hours when unaware Toyota prototype driver Kazuki Nakajima knocked it off the road. I don't think DW ran long enough to draw any meaningful conclusions. The question, as I posed it last week, remains: What's next?

Speaking of Attention to Detail: How did Justin Wilson's Texas winning Dale Coyne Racing car get through pre-race tech inspection with a sidepod top deck banned from use at that track? Even if it somehow did, why didn't the pit road official assigned to that car notice? As I've written before, and did so from personal experience, the series needed to change people not just in race control. The Indy media cheerleaders should have insisted on a credible explanation from Beaux Barfield. It's a week later and I haven't seen one from Barfield, although Randy Bernard did admit to the mistake. Barfield had another embarrassment at Milwaukee with a wrong penalty to Scott Dixon, which Barfield attributed to a "technology error." That's three straight bad races for Bernard's new race boss.

Those hailing the on-track success of the reduced-downforce IndyCar configuration at Texas -- calling it a "game-changer" -- ignore the Business of Racing reality of the FINANCIAL viability of such events. It certainly wasn't a record crowd at Texas. Would the game-changers please show me even one bit of solid evidence that this rules package is going to sell enough tickets to make for a successful race -- at the box office? P.S. Owners are complaining about costs yet some cars no doubt will be junked in the desperation move of qualifying heat races at Iowa. We tried a qualifying race at Michigan when I worked for CART -- the bill for wrecked cars ended that concept. But, as I've said here for years, the IndyCar organization has never bothered itself to learn the lessons of history.

So, I'm watching Michael Andretti on Wind Tunnel talking-up his self-promoted IndyCar race at the Milwaukee Mile when Dave Despain and Andretti say the weather forecast -- for an event SIX DAYS LATER -- is good. Of course, the race was delayed by rain. I don't pay attention to a forecast for two days after today -- six days later, well, let's get serious. Hard to accept that valuable time on a national network TV show would be wasted on this when there were so many other substantive issues to discuss. They might as well have chatted about what they were going to have for dinner six days hence, too.

IndyCar team owners being upset about public announcement of penalties/fines isn't anything new. After the 1983 CART race in Milwaukee, Roger Penske was fined $1,000 for "improper conduct in the post-race technical inspection area." Tom Sneva's winning car had been DQ'd and Penske's Al Unser moved up to first place. I was CART's communications director at the time and issued a news release on the penalty -- it was clearly stated in the CART rulebook as series' policy. I well remember Penske telling me we shouldn't do this type of press release because sponsors didn't like it.

Whatever "it" is in terms of driving talent, two-time world champion Sebastian Vettel has it. He has an engaging smile, too. But his appearance last week on David Letterman's show was horribly unprofessional. If Red Bull (which Vettel never mentioned) wants to market to punks, Vettel's interview was a success. With his multi-colored checkered (and untucked) shirt and worn-out jeans (with those trendy holes in them), Vettel (whose obscenity was bleeped) looked like a bum, not a world-class athlete. I know the energy drink companies have a different philosophy on marketing and image, but . . . this was on the reverse side of professional. It also didn't speak well for the supposed "PR pros" working with him. No way I would have allowed it and you can ask Michael Andretti, Paul Tracy and Jimmy Vasser about the times I had them change to appropriate clothes before media appearances. (When Vasser did Letterman in 1996, I took him to Barney's that morning to buy a nice outfit, which was tailored while we had a media luncheon at Tavern on the Green, and then I went back and got it.) Letterman, meanwhile, came across as skeptical about the Austin and New Jersery F1 races and advocated for the Indy 500 to be part of the world championship schedule. Of course, it once was.

The latest example of why I find the NHRA Funny Car class endlessly fascinating: All four John Force Racing cars lost in the FIRST ROUND at Bristol! That was a first for JFR. Meanwhile, Tony Schumacher ended a baffling 0-for-32 winless streak in Top Fuel in his father's U.S. Army-sponsored car on Father's Day.

Having been a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association back in my Philadelphia Daily News days, I say the Los Angeles Kings' Stanley Cup championship is the biggest major sports title surprise since, well, Tony Stewart's Sprint Cup last year. The Kings barely made the playoffs as the eighth seed but went on an amazing 16-4 run to earn the franchise's first Cup. As you'll recall, Stewart didn't make the Chase by much last year, then won five of the 10 races.

Pathetic this even needs to be said: I receive post-race PR reports from several NHRA, NASCAR Nationwide and Truck teams on Monday or even Tuesday about events that occurred the previous Friday night or Saturday afternoon. NEWS IS IMMEDIATE! That delayed timing makes these E-mails completely useless and thus they are quickly deleted. Why aren't those paying the fee or salary aware of this?

I know crowd control and the plague of professional autograph seekers have contributed to the need to manage signing sessions, but . . . This is what the Arizona Cardinals NFL team advertised as the rules for a 25 minute (Big Deal!) session at its recent Fan Fest: "Autograph Session for Children 12 and Under Only. Restrictions apply. One item to be autographed per child. No posed photos. Availability and access to certain players may be limited." Sad. And I'm tempted to ask, "Why bother?"

[ more next Monday . . . ]