Sunday, June 28, 2015

THE SCARIEST RACE I'VE EVER SEEN (and the new 10 'Most Influential' list)

I was at Auto Club Speedway Saturday for the MAVTV 500. I could easily write thousands of words about what I think was the scariest auto race I've ever seen. IndyCar fans got enough to debate out of this one race to fill all of the long off-season. I choose to focus on a few points:

* I talked with series CEO Mark Miles for 20 minutes before the race. You can go to my Twitter @SpinDoctor500 to read his quotes. I'll have some more of that conversation in this space in upcoming weeks.

* I think it's more likely than not that Derrick Walker has lost the confidence of the garage area. I don't know if he can regain it. The last time drivers were this concerned, only a couple of years ago, it led to major changes in the IndyCar management.

* Having been a part of the IndyCar scene since the 1970s, I can honestly say I have never experienced a more unhappy garage area than I did Saturday morning. People were a little more rested after an off-weekend. But that did nothing to brighten the mood about the scheduling, rules and every other issue under the IndyCar sun. Honestly, talking to long-time friends who still toil as crew members and in other roles made me sad.

* To those trotting out the old "any publicity is good publicity" lie, please stop embarrassing yourself. Anyone who has ever actually gotten paid to be a PR professional knows that is false. Do you really think IndyCar would benefit from the publicity of another driver fatality? Do you think that's the media exposure sponsors want?

* The multi-person race control system has been proven to be a failure and needs to be changed ASAP. The inconsistent nature of the officiating cannot be explained or tolerated. How did Graham Rahal not get a penalty following the pit incident that has been routinely penalized with at least a stop-and-go for decades? The Grassy Knoll types think it had something to do with keeping on-the-fence Honda from leaving the series.

* Scott Pruett likely is near retirement. Mr. Miles, please talk to him about becoming the new race director. But he'd only be interested if he's the sole decision-maker from the time the green flag waves until the checkered flag is displayed.

* The tiny crowd of just a couple of thousand was sad and embarrassing but not much of a story because it was so expected. That's what happens with a late June date on a Saturday afternoon in California. Trust me, the series won't be back in Fontana unless it gets a September date.

POWER PLAYERS for the week of June 28: 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. Sam Flood -- NBC Sports' executive producer debuts his NASCAR team this weekend at Daytona. The stories they tell, don't tell, and the way they present the sport will have a massive impact on NASCAR's standing with the American public.

  2. Jeff Burton -- The former "mayor" of the NASCAR garage area is known for saying smart and insightful things. He needs the freedom from NBC's producers to do just that. If so, viewers will be more than entertained. They will be informed. 

  3. Derrick Walker -- No one in motorsports is more under-the-gun right now than IndyCar's competition president. Drivers say he didn't act on their pre-MAVTV 500 concerns about pack racing and safety given the aero rules IndyCar dictated. And then there's the whole issue of inconsistent officiating.

   4Kyle Busch -- His win -- on a road course, no less -- is nothing less than inspirational and should earn the praise of the national media.

  5. Graham Rahal -- Media-friendly second-generation driver wins what was perhaps the scariest IndyCar race ever run. No other driver can explain it better to the national media.

  6. Brett Frood -- Stewart-Haas Racing executive VP says he's "confident" in signing a new sponsor for Danica Patrick and re-signing her to stay with the team.

  7Jim Utter -- Leaving the Charlotte Observer after 24 years to lead the NASCAR coverage on . 

  8. Donny Schatz -- Wins in World of Outlaws from the 10th starting position for his 17th victory of the season. NASCAR-obsessed journalists owe it to their readers to pay attention. 

  9. Tony Kanaan -The most vocal of the IndyCar drivers post-Fontana. His voice carries the weight of being an Indy 500 winner and series champion.

10. Joie Chitwood -- Daytona International Speedway president works through the facility hassles of the last big racing weekend before "re-imagining" construction is scheduled for completion.

more next week . . . ]

Sunday, June 21, 2015


POWER PLAYERS for the week of June 21: 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.  Erik Jones and Donny Schatz -- NASCAR's Next Big Thing sweeps the non-Cup weekend, taking Friday night's Truck race at Iowa Speedway and Sunday's rain-delayed Xfinity series event at Chicagoland Speedway. With Joe Gibbs' Cup roster full for 2016 (it is, isn't it?) what will Gibbs and Toyota do to keep Jones? Meanwhile, Schatz sweeps the World of Outlaws weekend, including inaugural series race at Dakota State Fair Speedway, to bring his season victory total to 16. If you're talking about the Outlaws -- or trying to sell tickets to those winged sprint car races -- you're talking about Schatz and his Bad Boy Buggies Chevy fielded by the Tony Stewart/Curb-Agajanian team.

  3Steve O'Donnell -- NASCAR's racing development boss announces a less-downforce rules package for Kentucky Speedway as the sanction tries to deal with fewer green-flag passes and a down trend in its TV numbers. O'Donnell says NASCAR is "confident" in this package but adds "all options are on the table."

  4Bernie Ecclestone -- The cash crunch that has imperiled all but the major Formula One teams has spread to the tracks, with the unthinkable now possible: No Italian Grand Prix at Monza. "In order to have a Grand Prix, you need money," says F1's commercial czar. "If the money is there, the race takes place." Which also provides an explanation for the disappearance act of the U.S. Grand Prix near New York City.

  5Dave Allen -- Can the new Auto Club Speedway president make any kind of attendance success out of a late June Saturday afternoon date for his IndyCar 500?

  6. Paul Tracy -- No surprise, he's telling it like it is on NBCSN's IndyCar cablecasts and has a 500-mile race to work with this Saturday. 

  7. Robin Miller -- His column becomes the voice of the beaten-down IndyCar series mechanics. And he breaks news of a possible IndyCar return to Road America.

  8Justin Wilson -- IndyCar veteran to drive Honda's HPD ARX-04b LMP2 in this Sunday's Pikes Peak Hill Climb. 

  9. Kevin Miller  -- USAC CEO cuts loose Davey Hamilton as executive director after only three months. Hamilton says it happened because of a "difference of opinion."

 10. Rico Abreu -- Champion of USAC Indiana Midget Week with one win and three top-five finishes. He was one point ahead of Bryan Clauson. Abreu  highlights what short-track drivers can do for those owners in other series who are paying attention. 

 more next week . . . ]

Sunday, June 14, 2015


POWER PLAYERS for the week of June 14: 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. Mark Kent -- Chevrolet's racing director leads a near-unprecedented winning weekend: Outright victories in NASCAR's Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck series plus IndyCar and class triumphs at Le Mans and in NHRA's Funny Car and Pro Stock categories. 

  2. Bill Ford -- Ford Motor Company's executive chairman makes it official. A two-car Ford GT team in the 2016 24  Hours of Le Mans and FIA World Endurance Championship plus another pair in the Tudor United SportsCar series fielded by Chip Ganassi with Felix Sabates. Ford bets big on U.S. and international sports car racing, not IndyCar.

  3. Steve O'Connell -- NASCAR's chief racing development officer considering major mid-season aerodynamic rules changes, and perhaps a track-specific aero formula, as TV ratings disappoint and fans complain about excitement of Sprint Cup races.

  4The Busch Brothers -- Kurt makes the big pass on a late restart, in a backup car, to win Cup race at Michigan International Speedway while Kyle gets his first victory in the Xfinity series since returning from leg injuries.

  6. Tony Gibson -- Kurt Busch's crew chief figures out how to sequence pit stops better than anyone else to get rain-shortened race victory at Michigan.

  7. Bryan Sperber -- Phoenix International Raceway president takes Jeff Gordon tributes "to the next level" (Gordon's words) by officially renaming PIR "Jeff Gordon Raceway" for Nov. 15 Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500k.  

  8. Josef Newgarden -- Will second victory of the season by the Tennessee (not a NASCAR) driver and 1-2 finish by smaller-budget Ed Carpenter/Sarah Fisher/Wink Hartman team help push the attention needle for IndyCar? Both are classic "feel good" media stories.

  9. Lee Spencer -- Veteran NASCAR beat writer breaks news of possible mid-season Cup rules changes on . 

10. Carlton Reimers -- The World of Outlaws series director reveals new two-flight qualifying format for events with 32 or more cars. The idea is to make track conditions more equal for competitors and increase the entertianment value for fans.

more next week . . . ]

Sunday, June 07, 2015


(I had more I wanted to say coming off my trip to my 37th Indianapolis 500. However, life's priorities did not allow me the time to think or write for last week's posting. So, I'll finish those thoughts now, with your kind understanding of the delay. Also, while there will be new top 10 lists of racing's "Most Influential" people the next two weeks, I don't expect to be able to write at length again until June 28. Follow me on Twitter: @SpinDoctor 500 for updates. Thanks for your continued interest in what is offered here.)

That noise you heard a few weeks ago was the gnashing of teeth in Daytona Beach.

For the first time in a decade, the Indianapolis 500 outperformed the Coca-Cola 600 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in terms of TV ratings. (Charlotte drew a slightly larger audience.) After a good start, NASCAR's tube numbers have been mainly on a downslide in recent weeks, and you can bet Brian France & Co. are researching like crazy to understand why. (Hints: The on-track product and the administrative mechanism created to convey your message.) Especially with newsworthy storylines like Jeff Gordon's last season, a JUNIOR! win, Kyle Busch's injury and return, Kurt Busch's personal drama, Joey Logano pushing the younger demo button with a Daytona 500 win, Kevin Harvick stepping-up to the duties as reigning Sprint Cup champion, and so on. I have my own in-depth thoughts on the "why?" of this but that's for another time.

There should have been no back-slapping in the IMS administrative offices, however. For me, the countdown to next year's 100th running of the 500-mile classic (and the closing laps this year, and last year, were actual classics) started as soon as Juan Pablo Montoya took the checkered flag. One of the most significant questions in all of the Business and Politics of Motorsports history is: What will IMS do with this historic opportunity to grow and advance the overall IndyCar sport?

It will take work, thousands of manpower hours, but minimal financial investment. IMS has incredible historical assets in its video and photo archives, museum, and Donald Davidson. I bet a proper amount of research would show every one of America's 50 states has had some connection to the 500: Driver, owner, mechanic, designer, engine builder, official, sponsor or manufacturer representative, photographer or journalist. IMS should be gathering up these stories and pitching them to media decision-makers across the country. Quite simply, there is no reason -- no excuse -- for virtually every media outlet in the U.S. not to have Indy 500 coverage in the run-up to the 2016 green flag.

This will be the opportunity to get the media Big Foots -- national and major market columnists, feature writers, talk radio show hosts and plenty of other media biggies who influence public opinion -- to the Brickyard. Prior to the IRL-CART split and the low-rent 1996 race, the important columnists used to cover Indy on a regular basis. Working to get this coverage is more than just to get Indy ink and airtime. It's about making FRIENDS for the overall Verizon-sponsored series, with the goal of significantly increasing media attention for the other races.

This will take more than basic work, though. More importantly, it will take a change of attitude. I regret to write that one of my strongest impressions exiting IMS last month was that it has become a less friendly place. Not a hostile place, like it was in 1995 on the eve of the split (ask any CART-affiliated team member who was there that year -- it was hostile), but IMS this past May certainly was not especially welcoming. An unhappy decision was made that impacted the media and it was done without the common courtesy of any prior consultation with the NMPA or AARWBA media organizations. This to make room for display tents sold to sponsors, which reinforced the perception that the overall Hulman corporate enterprise is in much worse financial shape than we thought. I can guarantee IMS this: If that's the policy again for the 100th, you can forget about the establishment stick-and-ball media coming. IMS already has a poorly-designed media work facility. IMS, as far as I know, is the only major stadium where journalists don't have a direct view of the competition. Can you image covering a baseball game seated parallel to the playing field? That's the way it is at the Speedway.

There are many more examples of concern.

Aside from Honda and Chevrolet, I could count on one hand the number of PR people I saw making the media-center rounds, simply saying hello to those they knew, or introducing themselves to those they didn't. Just what I wrote above -- making friends. This is as basic as it gets -- and it wasn't happening. It's impossible to imagine a writer covering baseball who didn't know the teams' PR reps. But that's the "norm" at the Indy 500 and in the series.

I could easily write thousands of words on this subject. But the point has been made. I know, from personal experience, that Tony Hulman felt it was essential for those visiting Indiana for his 500 to feel welcome. "Welcome back to Indianapolis," was his annual personal greeting to reporters -- including me -- combined with a smile and a handshake. No one seems to believe that's important these days.

If the 100th Indy 500 is to be all it should -- must -- be, that attitude needs to change, towards the media, sponsors, prospective sponsors and all its constituency groups. IMS management best understand it needs to roll out a large, wide and very bright red carpet.

Maybe 100 of them.

I altered my usual pre-500 routine this time around. On Saturday afternoon, I went to Lucas Oil Raceway Park for the USAC Silver Crown race. (This used to be the "Night Before the 500" program, but business realities have moved it to daytime.) Honestly, it wasn't a very entertaining show, with Tanner Swanson dominating the 100 laps. Silver Crown cars perform best on the dirt but I was glad to see this class again.

That night, thanks to the courtesy and hospitality of USAC's Dick Jordan and promoter Rick Dawson, I attended my first Pay Less Little 500 at Anderson Speedway. It's only about an hour's drive from Indy. Ray Harroun is buried a few miles away. I remember Chris Economaki writing about this event years ago in his National Speed Sport News column. This is 33 sprint cars for 500 laps on a quarter-mile high-banked paved oval. If that sounds crazy to you, well, yes, it is! And I say that in the best sense.

Dawson is one of those increasingly rare short-track operators who believes in putting in the effort to make his event BIG. There were radio spots in Indy. He personally welcomed visitors. There was a good pre-race show and driver introductions. All the drivers were at a well-organized pre-race autograph session. I saw someone in the line wearing a Lotus Formula One team crew shirt. The Daytona 500 trophy was on display so fans could be photographed with it (and the line was long.) The parking lot was basically full two hours before the green flag. 

This is a race with action everywhere you look. I am still mentally processing the whole experience. Chris Windom won, holding off a charging Dave Steele. It doesn't matter if you aren't a sprint car fan or a short-track fan. Go see the Little 500. It's quite amazing.

I attended the launch party for Second To One, Gordon Kirby and Joe Freeman's new book on drivers who finished second (but never won) in the Indy 500. I think that's a great idea for a book. It's very impressive to see publisher Freeman -- that's Racemaker Press -- invest in his product. I intend to read it during some upcoming down time and will comment more on it down the road. 

POWER PLAYERS for the week of June 7: 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. Brian France -- His acceptance of the new drivers' council and more formalized meetings with team owners and track operators represents a fundamental and very important historical change of policy for NASCAR. It's at least an unofficial recognition of the sport's Big Issues, including costs and TV ratings. 

  2. Martin Truex Jr. -- His Pocono victory validates the good performance of the Denver-based, single-car Furniture Row  team this season.

   3. Antron Brown -- His third consecutive pole leads to a hometown victory for the NHRA Top Fuel points leader at historic Englishtown, N.J. track. Career win No. 50 for one of racing's most popular drivers.

  4Doug Fehan -- Program manager for the Chevy Corvette C7 teams faces his biggest and most important test of the year, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. 

  5. Jenna Fryer -- The Associated Press' writer calls Sprint Cup racing "uninspiring most of this season and nearly unwatchable the last few weeks" in her column about NASCAR's meeting with selected drivers at Dover. This is the kind of writing that shapes opinions.

  6. Jim Utter -- Charlotte Observer's man on the NASCAR beat says there needs to be a longer Sprint Cup series off-season so the sanction and all of its teams have more time to work on improving the on-track product. A great point that probably makes too much sense to happen.

  7John Oreovicz -- His column about Honda's past and present trust issues with IndyCar management used true history as great context for what is happening now -- and might happen in the coming months. IndyCar fans have a much better understanding of the politics of rules making, especially the way it was done during Indy 500 qualifying weekend.

  8. Jimmie Johnson -- Six-time Cup champion speaks to issue of shorter races and the "attention span of today’s world. It just put it (Pocono, now 400 miles instead of 500) into a smaller window of time and that just seems to be the way the world works anymore."

   9. Scott Dixon -- Texas winner heads to Toronto as the clear best-bet to stop the Penske 4 in their tracks and make the Verizon series championship a true fight.

  10. Bob Varsha -- Broadcast veteran will captain the Fox Sports' announce crew for Le Mans coverage. What Varsha says, and the way he says it, will shape viewers' opinions on drivers, teams, manufacturers, etc.

more next week . . . ]