Saturday, August 30, 2014


I sure hope you Verizon IndyCar series fans -- especially those who stayed up late in the Eastern and Midwestern time zones Saturday night -- enjoyed the MavTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway because the long off-season is now underway. Congratulations to Will Power and Roger Penske on their series championship. (Finally!) That avoided the biggest late-season collapse since the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies. Thank you to those amazing true fans -- could there have been 10,000? -- who sweated it out (literally) in the triple-digit temps in the grandstands.

As I suggested to a few writers before the race, some enterprising reporter should have gone into the stands when the green flag waved to interview any available Boston Consulting Group brains who got paid Big Money to suggest ending the season by Labor Day. It pains me to say it, but I can honestly see a season two or three years from now when the Indianapolis 500 is the only oval. I put that notion to Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles during a conversation in the IndyCar business unit Saturday afternoon. He said he doesn't expect that to happen, but think about it, please. 

Fontana, Milwaukee, Iowa, Pocono all have challenges and are no long-term sure thing. Last week Miles announced a new race in Avondale, Louisiana -- a road course -- but there's still nothing in Avondale, Arizona, home city to Phoenix International Raceway. Miles admitted to me zip is happening with PIR and it seems obvious whatever window of opportunity there existed for a PIR return under Randy Bernard's leadership (he told me in 2012 a PIR race for the track's 50th anniversary season this year was "a must.")

"I don't think that's where we'll end up or where we want to be," Miles told me as to an Indy-only oval schedule. "We're just going to have to work really hard to make sure that's not the result. It's obvious that ovals got overbuilt. That creates challenges. It's certanly our intent for them to be part of the series.

"It's a hypothetical we don't ever expect to face. We will find ovals that will be vibrant events. We don't have a quota but it's a part of our racing and a big part of our brand is the diversity."

I Tweeted a bit about this ( @SpinDoctor500 ) and the other big part of my on-the-record portion of the conversation had to do with international events. Expect a couple of them in a narrow time window right after the Super Bowl. As I said to Miles, the world is a mess, and has terrorism caused him to rethink his plans? Of course, Miles was involved in many international tennis tournaments, so he got my drift. 

"We're not oblivious to the point," he said. "I won't name the person, but a well-known racing name came to me and said, 'You're not thinking of taking us to places where they kill Americans.' And I'm not."

Miles assured me security at overseas races can be independently verified. The big checks from those races will help bolster the Leader Circle plan money to teams. That might balance against companies not willing to sponsor cars in countries where they do not conduct business. 

One thing I'll really be watching in the coming months is if the IndyCar staff, especially in sales and absolutely especially in PR, will be greatly expanded. The series desperately needs a high-horsepower PR leader who knows relationship-building isn't done via E-mail. Miles needs someone aggressive enough to be knocking-down doors to get the national media attention that's so needed and necessary.

Especially during a long, cold, dark off-season.

[ more next week . . . ]

Sunday, August 24, 2014


Chris Economaki used to clean-out his notebook weekly for National Speed Sport News readers. Here are items written in recent weeks on the legal pad that's on my office desk:

The NASCAR weekend at Michigan International Speedway provided a useful insight into the mindset of the media these days. Despite layoffs and big budget cuts in the print industry, the MIS media center population was up over recent times as even out-of-state journalists traveled in case Tony Stewart was there. 

Here are five words that are as unlikely to appear on Internet forums as Terry Labonte is on Comedy Central: "I was wrong. I apologize."

The most troubled American racing series? No, not IndyCar. Big-time drag racing has very, Very, VERY serious problems. For the Powers-That-Be to deny this is ridiculous.

I don't know how it could be much better for NASCAR with both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon making headlines with major victories. If that continues into the Chase, lame-duck ESPN's ratings should be up. If they aren't, well . . . 

Did Joe Gibbs consult with Kyle Busch or Matt Kenseth before hiring Carl Edwards? You know, about personality clashes. Just asking . . .  

The Indianapolis and Bristol Motor Speedways are case study examples of how difficult it is to rebuild the fan base after doing things that turned-off the ticket buyers. Popularity is a very fragile thing, especially in the era of cell phone cameras and social media.

"Rebuilding" is a term usually associated with losing stick-and-ball sports teams. But that is exactly what Roush Fenway Racing will be doing next season.

I see no evidence that Toyota's on-track performance has improved since Lee White was replaced as TRD president.

Shame on the grassy-knoll Internet types and lazy media for not bothering to learn that sprint car drivers use the throttle to help steer on dirt tracks.

NASCAR's Cup schedule needs more than a little tweaking. From a ticket-selling standpoint, it's just dumb to have Phoenix-Las Vegas-Fontana and Dover-Pocono-Watkins Glen so close together. That might work in the south, but not elsewhere.

No disrespect to the ladies involved, but I've yet to meet or see any race queen that's in Linda Vaughn's league. And not just in appearance. And, as a group, Bill Brodrick's Union 76 RaceStoppers were a great part of the NASCAR scene. (I bet Chris would approve of this note.) I was a member of the old Union 76 Racing Panel of Experts, which set the favorite for major races, and those annual Panel dinners in Daytona before the 500 are fondly remembered. Those kind of gatherings simply do not happen today. Budget is just one reason. The philosophy of how to work with the media (relationship building) is anohter big one. I know the likes of Brodrick, Jim Chapman and Jack Duffy (who was Linda's boss at Hurst) would not approve.

Times change, but one thing that doesn't is my list of three favorite road courses includes Watkins Glen, Road America and Laguna Seca. Not just for the track, but also the beautiful surrounding area.

One disgraceful change that came with the welcomed ALMS and Grand-Am merger has been the demise of the ALMS' traveling medical and safety team. This is even more important in sports car racing. That's because of the high number of competitors and vehicles in different classes, which must be studied to know how to safely shut-off systems and extract drivers. Local "one-off" course workers cannot be expected to know how to deal with a crashed DP vs. a GT.

If, as we often are told, it's all about entertainment and keeping the fans happy, why prevent teams from working on their cars during a red flag? Having those cars on the track in competition surely is more interesting than being parked in the garage.

And, if safety is truly as important as we're all told it is, why ban tire-pressure sensors? It's insane for drivers to guess "I think a tire is going down" when there's passenger-car technology that can prevent or reduce accidents and crashed cars. NASCAR, please note, and get with it!

Sprint car racing, as a sport and industry, desperately needs to get the Knoxville Nationals back on live national TV. It would make business sense for World of Outlaws' series sponsor STP to get together with other involved companies and guarantee to buy the number of commercial spots necessary to make this happen. I know it's easy to tell other people how to spend their money, but I don't see how anyone involved could argue with this imperative.

I don't get it why more tracks don't offer "all you can eat" ticket packages. Seems to be a popular option at some other sports venues and perceived by fans (especially with families) as good value.

Every year public opinion polls show trust in, and respect for, the media goes down. Yet the gimmicks continue. In the last several weeks I've seen a guy sitting in a Fox News Channel studio in Los Angeles "report" on stories taking place in New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Just to give viewers the impression of real shoe-leather journalism. Please, don't be fooled.

Will Power gets another chance this Saturday night, at California's Auto Club Speedway, to prove he really is mentally tough-enough to win the Verizon IndyCar championship. His actions Sunday at Somona again call this into legitimate question.

Racing-developed technology really does transfer to passenger vehicles. I'm amazed at the electronic performance, fuel saving and safety features in today's cars (which I've recently test driven) such as paddle shifters, traction control, front-and-rear cameras, data displays, collision-prevention systems and so forth. Plus all sorts of electronic gizmos like navigation and voice command. Now, as long as the on-board computer doesn't crash . . . 

[ more next week . . . ]

Sunday, August 17, 2014


It's been called "The SportsCenter Effect." It's when an athlete does something to draw attention to himself and it gets played repeatedly on ESPN. It's proven over time when the pro sports "heroes" do this it translates down into college play and, sadly, even high and elementary schools. The more outrageous or self-promoting the action, it seems, the better for TV. I would say basketball players have been the biggest offenders.

I have no reason to believe this hasn't happened to motorsports, too. One thing, from a Business of Racing standpoint, I've mentioned here many times is the unprofessional appearance that seemed to begin in Formula One with drivers walking around and doing interviews with their uniforms pulled down. Tens of millions of dollars in TV and photo exposure for sponsors has been lost. I guess some people think the underwear look is cool. It has made its way down the racing ladder, certainly in IndyCar, where Graham Rahal, for one, has been a chronic offender.

Another behavior that has evolved into a "norm" in NASCAR and other pro series is drivers getting out of their wrecked cars, walking down onto the track, and gesturing at whoever they think did them wrong. Remember Kurt Busch's "signal" to Jimmy Spencer in a years-ago Brickyard 400? Robby Gordon causing other drivers to dodge him on the backstretch at New Hampshire so he could throw his helmet at Michael Waltrip? Danica storming down a "hot" pit lane at Indianapolis to get into Ryan Briscoe's face? (She was cut-off-at-the-pass before reaching Briscoe.) I'm not picking on any of these drivers because they are among many, Many, Too Many examples of this.

This has made for, what the microphone-holders and producer-types like to call, "great TV." I feel sure this, also, has translated its way down and young drivers see these moments replayed over-and-over again and come to think it's OK conduct, it's acceptable, it's the way to go.

It was just a matter of time. Unfortunately, it happened in a local sprint car race, but the type of car doesn't matter. A 20-year-old was killed in a horrific way. TV and the Internet people couldn't seem to hit the "replay" button often enough. I could not help but notice the standards of acceptability have now been lowered to the point where high-profile cable networks decided it was OK to show it all. I remember when network executives decided in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, to stop replaying the video of people jumping from the World Trade Center. 

But, I guess, anything goes these days. And that is disgusting.

I think this problem has been worse in NASCAR because that rich organization still refuses to field its own safety team. The sanction depends on local course workers. Just watch the video over the years. Some are more forceful than others in keeping angry drivers off the track. Back in CART, and today in IndyCar, the safety team members are paid by the sanction, are race officials, and have much more authority (and confidence) in restraining drivers.

Once again I see NASCAR as being behind-the-curve -- reactive instead of proactive -- in safety (remember it took months for it to mandate the HANS Device even after Dale Earnhardt's death.) Here's what should have been announced last Friday: Unless fuel is leaking or there is risk of a fire, or an actual fire or some other overriding concern, the driver must remain in the car. Penalty for first offense: $50,000 fine, loss of 50 driver and owner points, and a one-race suspension. 

Whatever NASCAR and other organizations do, the ultimate responsibility is on the driver. Shame on the next one to angrily walk onto a "hot" track to vent anger. One of the first things I was taught as a child was not to walk out onto a street into on-coming traffic. 

It's always dangerous to generalize. In this case, however, I believe it is completely fair to say the overall media coverage was atrocious. And a showcase for all that is wrong -- ugly -- disgusting -- about the so-called "new" media. I used Twitter ( @SpinDoctor500 ) a lot, so if you wish you can review my numerous call-outs on the media there. Terrible to say, but NASCAR "partners" ESPN and Fox (News Channel) were among the very worst. With all the NASCAR race telecast announcers under contract, the best Fox could do was Jim Gray? Jim Gray? Jim Gray! Absurd and, no surprise, he had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.  Lead news anchor Shep Smith was another who didn't have a clue, saying the tragic accident involving Tony Stewart happened at  "NASCAR track." On the ESPN front, while I'm not into boycotts because too often they are counterproductive, it is fair for anyone to decide not to do business with any company that pays the elitist and narrow-minded Colin Cowherd to be its spokesman.

When ESPN2 first came on, one of its signature shows was hosted by Jim Rome, who immediately caused a big controversy by disrespecting guest Jim Everett. Rome thought it was funny to be rude. It so happened a day or two after that 1993 episode, Rome's producer called me about having Nigel Mansell on the show. I rejected the idea out-of-hand, citing the Everett incident, and said I would not insult a driver I represented by placing him with rude Rome. I also told this to a very senior ESPN executive. This was a policy I kept in place until 2004, until I put Robby Gordon on Rome's radio show. I would suggest to all racing publicists, in any series, anywhere, to immediately reject any offer to place their driver on Cowherd's Cowbleep show. 

There were so many bogus references to the accident as being in NASCAR, well, I guess the modern media couldn't figure out the difference between "Sprint Cup" and "Sprint Cars." 

Which leads me to this: Just where was the vaunted NASCAR Integrated Marketing Communications group and its "engagement center" capability to monitor what is being said of the sanction? There were countless references to the accident as being at a NASCAR race or at a NASCAR track -- the Drudge Report's banner headline was "Horror at NASCAR". All wrong. This wasn't the time for some new age conjured-up PR theory. It was a time for old-fashioned shoe leather work -- like picking up the telephone and calling their high-level contacts at media organizations to get this corrected. It either wasn't done -- shame; or it wasn't effective -- Brian France please note. This was the worst crisis PR non-response since an agency advised Randy Bernard that IndyCar not say anything after Dan Wheldon's death. So, for more than a week, that void was filled with negative stories.

Finally, there was the statement issued by Jeremie Corcoran, promoter of Canandaigua Motorsports Park. It ended with this (bold emphasis mine):

"Lastly, I had to have our Facebook Page taken down early Sunday morning due to insensitive and hateful comments. I plead with you to be respectful so we can keep this page active for you to keep informed."

Every aspect of this terrible incident was truly troubling. And profoundly sad.

Those on Twitter ( @SpinDoctor500 ) saw this first last week: "Let's Race 2," my latest column --

[ more next week . . . ]

Sunday, August 10, 2014


(For my comments on the accident involving Tony Stewart, please go to Twitter and find me @SpinDoctor500 .)

It's an interesting experience to read a book by or about someone you've known for a long time.
Such is the case for me reading Jim McGee: Crew Chief of Champions, launched with a first-rate party Indianapolis 500 weekend at the Speedway Museum, which I attended.

I first met and interviewed Jim in the mid-1970s when I was with the Philadelphia Daily News. After a stint running Roger Penske's Indy Car team, which at that time was based in Reading, Pa. and thus covered by me as a "local" team, Jim returned to Indy to take charge of Pat Patrick's operation, succeeding George Bignotti. I had moved to Michigan to become CART's first communications director and McGee was a good resource for me. Whenever I had a journalist who needed help with a story on technical matters or pit stops or similar race team issues, I'd call Jim and ask him to speak with the reporter. Or get them connected at a track. He'd always do that and Jim has the talent to take such topics and explain them clearly. Then, in 1993 and '94, I worked directly with Jim when he was team manager at Newman/Haas Racing. 

Jim's tenure there included Nigel Mansell's historic PPG Cup championship in '93 and let me say, having seen all that happened behind closed garage and motorcoach doors, I don't think there's any way Nigel would have accomplished that without Jim. McGee's vast experience and calm manner helped Nigel understand what CART racing was about. No one could have done a better job. It was one of the best moves ever by Carl Haas. If Jim had not taken the job, it was going to go to someone with a lot of racing experience, but none in CART. Jim also was very smart about the rulebook and he exploited a loophole that allowed the crew to refuel and change tires when Nigel was blacked-flagged for supposedly passing in a yellow-flag zone in his debut race in Australia in 1993. Nigel went on to win, the first driver to take both the pole and race victory in his first start, with Jim on the radio with him all season. (CART subsequently ruled no more pit work during a penalty stop.) Jim, of course, is best known to many for his many years with Mario Andretti and together at Newman/Haas Mario won his last race, at Phoenix, in '93.

In more recent years, I was there at Manzanita Speedway when Jim was inducted into the Arizona Motorsports Hall of Fame, and in Indy when he became a member of the Speedway's Hall. He and Patrick tried to develop a racing program to showcase natural gas as a fuel. In fact, they wanted to try to break Arie Luyendyk's official IMS track speed record with a car fueled by natural gas, but the management then in place at the Speedway would not give the green light. Eventually, an ALMS class was to be powered by NG, but the merger with Grand-Am and a lack of corporate involvement stalled the project. Earlier this season, McGee emerged from his semi-retirement to call Ryan Briscoe's races.

Anyway, McGee's book, written by longtime journalist Gordon Kirby, is a good read for those wishing to understand what was happening with some of Indy Car's most famous teams and drivers. I like Kirby's technique of having many of the great names McGee worked with -- including Penske, Patrick, Andretti, Mansell, Danny Sullivan, Bobby Rahal, Emerson Fittipaldi, Adrian Fernandez, Scott Pruett, Rick Mears and Bobby Unser -- provide commentary specific to each chapter. 

Kirby takes McGee through his career journey that led him to becoming not only a four-time Indy 500 winner (Andretti, Mears, Gordon Johncock, Fittipaldi) but also Indy Car's most successful team manager/crew chief. I knew at least a few of the details of some of the fascinating stories McGee recalls, but most were new to me. (I'll bet to you, too.) Those sometimes crazy early years working and traveling with the legendary Clint Brawner and Andretti, well, I bet a lot of younger readers will think "no way" those kind of things actually happened. But I know they did. 

In books like this, I always look to see just how candid it will be. I've known for decades that part of Jim's great success has been his calm personality and, well, I'll call it diplomatic skills. But McGee does give you a good taste of things, such as the debacle of the car designed for Vel's Parnelli Jones Racing's so-called "Super Team." Most fans buy into the notion of Penske's "unfair advantage" but McGee says the cars he ran there were very stock, that the gains came from management and organizational skills, smart thinking in calling races, attention to detail and the budget to do lots of testing.

I can personally vouch for what McGee says Haas told him, which was to focus his time and attention on Mansell. Of course, this put a strain on Jim's long relationship with Andretti. McGee, via Kirby, writes that he doesn't think Mario really understood this is the way Carl said it had to be done. I agree with what Jim states in the book because Haas essentially told me the same thing. "This guy (Mansell) needs a lot of love," Carl told me right from the beginning. And the unprecedented international media attention made it a true necessity.

Jim remembers Brawner saying it's not all the fancy tools or equipment a team might have, what counts is what the team does with what it does have. A basic, but very insightful, philosophy. Jim has told me, and many others, that at Indy it's key to stay calm and follow your plan. Too many drivers, owners, crew chiefs, etc. get nervous when practice days are lost to rain and change what they do -- and that's what usually leads to trouble. My friend Bill Yeager, one of racing's all-time great characters, used to say such people were "jukey." Others, fully of the mind that nothing outside of Indianapolis is important, Yeager would say suffered from "Hoosierites."

I must congratulate Kirby, who has been a friend for three-plus decades, for the obvious great personal effort he put into this project. And I must also compliment publisher Joseph Freeman and the production staff for a strong presentation. The 286-page hardbound book just plain looks terrific. The photos brought back memories and often made me smile. The listings of Jim's drivers and wins is a great touch. Sure, I found a few errors, but none that take away the high value of the end product. It's certainly the best racing book I've read since Bones Bourcier's As a matter of fact, I am Parnelli Jones. It's important to racing history that this book exists.

You can't go wrong buying and reading Crew Chief of Champions. I'm proud to own a copy (yes, I paid the $75 price) and grateful for the very kind inscriptions from both Jim and Gordon.

Get it, IndyCar (and racing history) fans, because your premature and long off-season is only weeks away. 

For more information, go to or

[ more next week . . . ]

Sunday, August 03, 2014


Apologies. This is one of those weeks where other priorities have kept me from thinking and writing. I plan to post anew next week. Thank you.