Flat Spot On – Racing Takes Front, Back Seat

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, June 3 2021

Helio Castroneves plants a kiss on the Borg Warner Trophy – for a fourth time. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

When Helio Castroneves won his second Indy Lights race in Savannah, Ga. in 1997, his surname was still sometimes spelled with a hyphen. Looking back, it’s easy to recall the enthusiasm and love of the sport that shone through that day in the post-race media conference. He’s been surprising and impressing me ever since. As one wag put it, Castroneves drove 200 laps to win his fourth Indy 500 and then ran two—after climbing the fence.

Later in the evening of last weekend’s memorable Memorial Day Sunday, Rick Hendrick’s team won its 269th race, moving him ahead of Petty Enterprises as the all-time leader in NASCAR Cup Series victories. I first met Rick at Road America in 1985 when he introduced his Corvette GTP. His humor and story-telling ability were only surpassed by a readily apparent passion for speed, which would explain the 950 horsepower V-6 turbo in the back of his GTP car. It was only later that I learned he once piloted a drag boat called “Preparation H” to a record speed of 222 mph.

That Castroneves, age 46, and Hendrick, age 71, would set such impressive landmarks on the same day says a lot about motor racing, the passion and commitment that participants bring to the sport. It also says something about the economic health of the sport that can sustain a driver and a team owner for so long (including Castroneves’ teammate for Steve Horne’s squad at Savannah that day – Tony Kanaan, who drove his 20th Indy 500 on Sunday).

Imagine my surprise when I tuned into the ESPN’s Sports Center on Sunday night. It took the first half hour to get to Castroneves’ fourth Indy win, a race that was apparently won by a guy named “Hell-io” with a runner-up named “Pillow.” Another hour ensued before Hendrick’s landmark victory “down in Charlotte” (you know, south of New York City) was squeezed in with the same desultory tone just before the sign-off. Oops – the coverage mentioned Kyle Larson’s win, but skipped Hendrick’s record 269th and his passing of, well, that guy Petty and his family’s team. Next thing, they’ll be referring to Richard Petty as Dick. 

Whether you pledge allegiance to motor racing in general, IndyCar, NASCAR or road racing series, the coverage of the sport by anything other than a media partner is relatively spare in so many ways these days. Newspapers, with few exceptions, consider racing non-local (even if local drivers are participating and winning). ESPN may cover racing with selected well-done features just to keep its hand in on future negotiations for TV contracts. But the original sports network currently reflects the stick-and-ball Sports Establishment when it comes to reporting on current racing results.

Driver Kyle Larson and team owner Rick Hendrick celebrate their historic win Sunday in Charlotte. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

This bespeaks a very different landscape from 20 years ago, when major TV networks professed adoration for motor racing and the Sunday paper was still a ritual as was racing coverage. 

But when the reigning president of NBC Sports, Dick Ebersol, met with journalists prior to the Daytona 500 in 2001, he said with unbelievably syrupy condescension that stock car racing “is your sport.” Not only did it betray a lack of journalistic integrity by uttering such a stupid statement to writers who covered the sport for hard-nosed editors – and certainly didn’t consider they owned it. It was a producer’s ego on a self-satisfied binge, which made the big lie all the easier to see. His network had paid the big bucks, so I guess Ebersol was entitled.

NBC proceeded to destabilize stock car racing by using it as a blocking dummy versus other sports programming, moving race times all over the map as if fans would follow the sport anywhere. About the same time, CART team owners were making similarly wrong assessments about promoters or TV producers following them anywhere. CART both over-priced its product to promoters and failed to deliver on TV, which proved to be a disastrous formula.

I’m not sure who had more hubris two decades ago—the owners of NASCAR, the NASCAR track owners who overbuilt, CART or the TV networks that seemed to consider major league racing a predictable filler in between stick-and-ball events. In any event, you don’t hear things like “70 million Americans have expressed interest in NASCAR” as Brian France, RIP (retired in peace), used to utter in the early 2000s.

I have faith in all of motor racing. But as one looks just down the road at NBC Sports abandoning IndyCar coverage to a subsidiary and NASCAR headed for the end of a 10-year contract, it’s a bit unsettling. This partitioning of racing into a sports property that somehow doesn’t measure up to the criteria of the Sports Establishment has been happening ever since the Great Recession, when the NASCAR crowds thinned out and IndyCar was still recovering from the internecine battle between CART and the IRL. Absent the huge crowds, particularly on Memorial Day weekend, sports producers and editors breathed a sigh of relief over an opportunity to invoke their bias against racing. You could almost hear them say, “It wasn’t a real sport anyway and drivers aren’t really athletes.”

These words come to you, by the way, from a journalist who has sold and written racing stories over the course of 40 years for many a major newspaper and mainstream sports magazine. The hint, sometimes not so subtle, about racing being a loud and stupid endeavor, or just plain boring, was never far away. I could quote editors at Sports Illustrated or Inside Sports or point out major newspaper editors who could have cared less about writers who used race weekends as a holiday, but that’s beside the point. For one thing, all of these organizations themselves are mere shadows of what they once were—if  they still exist. 

Again, I have faith. But this is where we are – down to the core appreciation of racing, which starts, of course, with the fans at Indy. On the other hand, given the full house back in 2016 it wasn’t so much that “Indy was back” – as those compensating for the pandemic’s interruption uttered mindlessly. It was society that had a temporary illness, not Indy. And, as I’ve always said, as long as the centerpiece events are healthy such as the Indy 500, the Daytona 500 and the Rolex 24, the vital signs are good.

But at present, I would suggest that it’s the better part of wisdom to recognize that motor racing had its big swing at the establishment—football, basketball, baseball and hockey—and now we’re in a different, some might say millennial, landscape due to the changes in all forms of media and a change in attitude about live sporting events.

One of the most obvious changes is hearing how great racing is from media partners—online and on TV—because of a vested interest. It’s a latter-day variation of the never-say-die attitude that one can’t say something negative about racing (on occasion known as honest reporting) or it will kill the sport. (Let’s not talk about the cancel culture online when it comes to the social media whiners.)

But I have faith, not the least of which is anchored in unbiased reporting. At least some wiser heads at IndyCar realize there continues to be a glass ceiling to the TV ratings everywhere but Indy, as reported by RacinToday.com’s John Sturbin. At NASCAR, there’s a realization that the legacy fan is all but gone (along with the Confederate flag) and that a new model of sponsorship and TV is at hand given that the Daytona 500 viewership continues to be about 25 percent of what it was the day Dale Earnhardt died.

Sports car racing, meanwhile, is so partnered up with manufacturers, media, and rich guys, including IMSA owner Jim France, I doubt anything could break it down – or build it beyond its current enthusiastic but highly specialized following that appreciates multiple drivers, some of them gentlemen.

The fans may well glom to and enjoy all the “atta-boys-and-girls” they hear from various media partners about their favorite type of racing and series. The ownership loves all those back pats, because they know the future is fraught with both opportunity and danger in this brave new media and racing world. Media partnerships, paid in full, give them a feeling of security—unless, maybe, they happened to be watching Sports Center on American racing’s greatest day.

Me? I have faith. But I also have ears and eyes.

(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram’s book “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt – How the HANS Helped Save Racing” is an eye-opening look at the safety revolution in racing. Published by RJP Books, signed copies of “CRASH!” are available at www.jingrambooks.com.)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, June 3 2021
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